The box office success of Pakistan’s Oscar entry “Moor (Mother),” which is playing at Busan’s A Window on Asian cinema strand, is just one example of the remarkable revival that the Pakistan film industry is going through. In 2015 alone, the industry has experienced a wave of hits including “Wrong No.,” “Bin Roye,” “Karachi se Lahore,” “Jalaibee” and “Manto,” amongst many others.
The picture wasn’t always this rosy. In 1965, following a war between India and Pakistan, Indian films, always popular with Pakistani audiences, were banned in Pakistan. The Pakistani film industry was in the middle of its golden age then and the industry continued to flourish. Then the 1980s arrived. “Mother” director Jamshed Mahmood Raza says, “I feel banning of Indian cinema was the first nail, and then low-end producers doing very shallow stories and dance number films. Then came VHS and killed them all properly.”
By 2006, the industry had almost completely collapsed with production dwindling to almost nothing and cinemas closing down.
The revival began thanks to two factors. The governments of various Pakistani states brought the prohibitive entertainment tax that were hitherto pushing up ticket rates by as much as 65% to much more manageable rates, and in 2007, the Pakistan government allowed the import of Indian films again, thus bringing back audiences to cinemas.
For local productions, the advent of the digital era proved a boon. “The cinema industry going digital meant that exhibition tools like projectors, servers and for production cameras the digital acquisition format meant cameras going digital. It’s perfect for low budget production,” says Raza.
In 2012, the world took notice of the Pakistan film industry when Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s “Saving Face” won the Oscar for best documentary short. Production continued to rise and multiplexes, including Mandviwalla’s Atrium in Karachi and the Cinepax group’s screens across the major Pakistani cities began to be built. In 2013, Mandviwalla and his colleague Jarjees Seja began an initiative called The Platform to distribute films by emerging filmmakers.
“The Platform was supposed to incentivize the small filmmakers to get their films released in the cinemas even if they did not have a commercial potential till the time the market develops. By year 2013 we released a Pakistani film called “Waar” which remains the biggest blockbuster in Pakistan and achieved box office of $2.3 million. “Waar” filled up that gap and became the biggest incentive for the new investors and filmmakers in the country,” says Mandviwalla.
The first beneficiary of The Platform was debutant Iram Parveen Bilal’s “Josh.” Bilal is part of a script development initiative titled Qalambaaz that ensures that new Pakistani cinema retains its quality. Bilal says. “To me, the sustained revival of our film industry is in producing stories that are original and almost unique to the Pakistani environment, not in making Bollywood rip-offs, or odes to Hollywood. Qalambaaz is a free, open initiative to support the voice of those who care to cultivate such stories. We also are proud to mentor a lot of the underdogs, the grass roots filmmakers who otherwise, don’t have support in the current infrastructure.”
Meanwhile boutique distributors like U.K.-based Mara Pictures are growing Pakistani films’ international profile by distributing selected titles theatrically and in digital formats. Mara’s Sanam Hasan says, “Seeing how quickly the exhibition and distribution sectors grew, one can presume that the production of feature length film will continue to escalate as rapidly. That Pakistan has been able to achieve this in spite of a myriad of relentless political and social issues is a testament to the resilience of the business and creative sectors and to the people of the country.”