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Opinion

Culture pop

July 16, 2017

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Screen soldiers

Culture Pop

Popular historical cinema has the potential to rewrite our memories of political events or at least cast them in a persuasive light, mitigating strategic propaganda insidiously into emotive patriotism. Much has been made of the Pakistan Army’s financial and logistical support of local cinema.

A robust example of how ISPR sponsorship takes shape is the war film Yalghaar, which recently made it to our screens brimming with hurrahs and buff bodies. Directed by Hasan Waqas Rana, Yalghaar is the natural child of the rather more intelligently crafted Waar (2013) also produced by Rana; it is a pulsating, sweaty fight to the finish between our khaki-clad screen soldiers who speak impeccable military English and the burly, bearded thugs who live in caves and largely grunt and twist their faces into unattractive grimaces.

In a choice between Bilal Ashraf’s impeccably sculpted Captain and Humayun Saeed’s caricatured Taliban villain, even bleeding-heart liberals would have to make the obvious choice – three cheers for the army!  Honi Fern Haber asserts: “When power is strong it is strong because it also operates on an aesthetic level, on the level of pleasure and desire.” It is this sort of guilty visual pleasure that elevates propaganda films into popular cinema.

In most post-colonial societies, including Pakistan in the glory days of its cinema, the nation has ritually been re-imagined into an ideological narrative. Cinema can be perfect for nation-building even while it entertains. This is not always about literal propaganda; rather these are also the ways in which nations collectively re-affirm national identity and citizenship. Within the Pakistani context, films like Aag Ka Darya (1966) and a spate of pan-Islamic movies directed by Riaz Shahid such as Zerqa (1969) set in Palestine and Gharnata (1971) set
in Muslim Andalucía, expanded ideological boundaries to a global Muslim
imperative.

But these films and even Maula Jutt (1979) which redefined the quintessential 80s Pakistani hero as a gandasa-wielding crusader were essentially anti-establishment and rebellious at heart. In Zerqa for example, the young revolutionary (Neelo) is made to dance for her colonial jailors to a song written by Habib Jalib. ‘Raqs zanjeer’ made a cinematic event out of an actual incident when its heroine was reportedly forced to perform at a dinner for the Shah of Iran by president Ayub Khan. Equally, Sultan Rahi’s Jutt was a Punjabi vigilante not only fighting feudal overloads but various establishment figures of the Zia regime such as the police, factory owners and the Chaudhrys who were seen as oppressors by the rural and working-class audiences who had replaced the middle-class fans favouring Urdu social weepies.

The films currently blessed by the army tend to lack this progressive subversion, except when crafted by cleverer directors like Shoaib Mansoor. In more black and white films like Waar and Yalghaar, civilians or politicians are ignored as agents of change and politically ambitious generals remain well hidden. It is ordinary soldiers who save our hides from the fearsome terrorists (invariably painted as Indian subordinates). It is probably no accident that Yalghaar started filming around the same time Imran Khan was making the waters murkier with the good/bad Taliban divide. The film obviates this ideology, making it clear that the Taliban are latter day Mir Jafars. Of course, dancing Indian agents like Ranbir and Deepika are welcome to lure the Pakistani audience back into fancy urban cineplexes.

David Morley speaks of the nation’s need for “purification of social space”, and films like Waar and Yalghaar are national hoovers. There is nothing particularly new about this; both Hollywood and Bollywood have created cinema that rewrites history but in a small industry such as ours, ISPR can loom large. Those who believe that the army only sponsors war films would be surprised to hear that it has reportedly stepped up for films as diverse as the urban comedy Na Maloom Afraad and Shoaib Mansoor’s magnum opus Khuda Ke Liye which had a decidedly liberal back-story. Actor Adnan Siddiqui, starring in Yalghaar, tells me that “ISPR has a huge hand in reviving Pakistani cinema. If we say that Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye was the watershed then the fact is that it was the army who made it happen.” Director Jami (Moor, 2015) is less sanguine: “ISPR trying to behave like a Hollywood film studio is going to
hurt the film industry deeply. Their content will always be one-sided and not progressive.”

While the army has been producing ideological content for a decade, the civilian side has been caught napping. In June this year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finally announced a sketchy ‘Film Package’ after a short two-day consultation between industry representatives and Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb in Karachi. The press release from the PM House revealed the motivation: The professed rationale was that cinema steers young people away from radicalisation but has no inherent significance. Special benefits were announced for films “which help in introducing our dignified past, exemplary heritage, worth emulating culture, distinguished literature and infallible beauty of tourism to the youth who are architects of our future.” So it’s less about the integrity of a film or storytelling and more about a film which can double as a tourist promotion. But would “distinguished literature” include a film like Sarmad Khoosat’s controversial Manto for instance?

The idea of a National Film Institute and Academy and entertainment tax exemptions is one to be encouraged. But a one-line promise is very different from a concrete and well thought-out proposal. Shouldn’t the potential of a viable industry that contributes to the economy and can potentially both entertain and address social issues be a priority for a democratically elected government? Why is the horse tethered to an anti-terror vehicle? Shouldn’t this be about films which tell interesting stories, rather than films which fit a blanket agenda?

Filmmaking should be about making good films – and not primarily in the service of the nation. The day the Pakistan government understands that will be the day it will actually become a genuine contributor to viable, memorable and entertaining cinema in Pakistan.

Otherwise, they might as well let ISPR get on with it. 

The writer is a senior broadcast journalist/producer at BBC Global News & World Service. Twitter: @fifharoon

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