Wednesday February 01, 2023

Cinema, theatre and TV in Pakistan

By Sidra Ali
August 14, 2022

In his 1968 Culture Report, arguably the only attempt to define Pakistani culture on a governmental level, Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote: "Cultural activity in a developing nation is in many ways a form of socio-political activity and it is only through this activity that a people’s full participation in nation-building can be ensured." Looking at the highs and lows cultural activities such as theatre, cinema and television experienced in these 75 years of Pakistan’s independence, a clear picture of the country’s political stances and the people’s opinion on them becomes visible.

The history of Pakistani theatre is one that precedes the nation itself. The first fully-Urdu stage play was Inder Sabha written by Agha Hasan Amanat. It was performed in 1853, during the reign of Wajid Ali Shah (under British colonial rule), a patron of the arts. As such, the play had a fantastical element to it, taken from Hindu mythology. In the following years, most plays released were crude imitations of Inder Sabha with simple, amateurish themes. There was a change in the 1900’s when many Urdu playwrights gained recognition for their more mature work.

After 1947, the topics of stage plays steered towards the partition and the persecution of Muslims that led to it. Plays made by Sikhs and Hindus at that time promulgated anti-Muslim sentiments, reflecting the feelings of different religious groups at that time. Unfortunately, Urdu theatre also began to face a decline in quality and quantity, mostly due to the fact that the dialogue in plays is meant to reflect a character’s background and with newly made East and West Pakistan being an amalgamation of different ethnic groups. Most of the plays in this era were characters speaking in a mixture of Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Farsi, Punjabi, Pushto and Gujarati. Theatre reverted back to its amateurish and simplistic themes of romance and cheap humour. This, along with Zia-ul-Haq coming into power, imposing strict censorship laws and removing state-support for the stage plays on the basis of them being religiously inappropriate, made the theater industry of Pakistan suffer a huge decline in the 1970’s-1980’s.

In 1980, Yasmeen Ismail started Gripps Theater in Karachi; sponsored by the Goethe Institute, it was an extension of the German GRIPS Theatre and became Pakistan’s first Children’s Theater. She directed over 25 plays in her lifetime, focusing on social issues faced by both children and adults.

In 1984, at the peak of Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, Madeeha Gauhar founded Ajoka Theatre and with that came a slight revival of Pakistani theater. The style of Ajoka’s performances is characterised as an elaboration on the oral tradition of Bhand and Nautanki, bringing back a musical aspect to Pakistani theater. The 1980’s-1990’s gave rise to many popular stage performers such as Uzma Butt, Ismail Tara and Moin Akhtar. One specifically notable actor is Umer Sharif, dubbed as the "King of Comedy", earning fame via one of Pakistan’s most beloved stage plays of all time, Bakra Qiston Pay (1989).

The 2000’s led to the formation of improvisional theater groups such as "The Acting Wheel" and "Black Fish". The creation of NAPA (National Academy of Performing Arts) in 2005 gave the new wave of Pakistani theater a further boost. With Dawar Mehmood setting up KopyKats Productions and bringing Pawnay 14 August and Sawa 14 August to stage and Nida Butt starring in East is East and the Pakistani version of Grease: The Musical, a new generation of theater had begun. However, it pales in comparison to the golden era of the mid 1900’s.

It was not just theatre, the cinema industry took a similar fall. Pakistan was in the top 10 film producing countries in the world until the 1970s and produced over 100 feature films in a year. Now, despite a small revival post-2013, it produces under 25.

After independence in 1947, Lahore became the hub of cinema in Pakistan. This was mainly due to Abdur Rashid Kardar who set up a studio and a production company under the name of United Players Corporation (later renamed Playart Phototone) in Lahore in 1929, which became the foundation stone for the Lahore film industry, deemed "Lollywood" in 1989 by Glamour Magazine gossip columnist Saleem Nasir. The first fully Pakistani feature film was titled Teri Yaad, released on 7th August, 1948. Films made in Pakistan saw mediocre success till the release of Do Ansoo on 7th April, 1950, the first Pakistani film to attain a 25-week viewing (silver jubilee status).

Pakistani movies began to diversify in genre in the 1960’s, with 1959-1977 being dubbed as the ‘Golden Era’ of Pakistani cinema. Shaheed, released in 1962, introduced Pakistanis to the Palestine conflict and Zarqa, released in 1969, told the story of a young Palestinian dancer girl and activist, who took her own life as an act of liberation of Palestine. Zinda Laash, released 1967, was Pakistan’s first horror movie and Javed Jabbar’s Beyond the Last Mountain, released on 2nd December, 1976, was Pakistan’s first venture into English film-making. This was also when Pakistan’s most skilled actors were born: Mohammad Ali (nicknamed Shahenshah-e-Jazbaat), Waheed Murad ("chocolate hero"), Mirza Nazeer Baig and Neelo Begum ("The Queen of Romance"). However, this era was short-lived as Pakistan’s growing political instability and the increasing influence of religious extremist parties led to an extinguishing of creativity and freedom within the film-making industry. In 1976, an angry mob set fire to cinema in Quetta just before the release of the first Balochi film, Hammal O Mahganj.

With Zia-ul-Haq’s "Islamisation" regime from 1978-1988, Pakistani cinema entered an era of decline. Films dropped from a total output of 98 in 1979 to 58 in 1980, and by the time the 1990’s rolled around, Pakistan was producing 40 films a year, all by the same studio. The reason for this decline was that new laws were introduced that required filmmakers to hold degrees (many of Pakistan’s most successful filmmakers did not hold a degree), imposed censorship, making films go through ridiculous scrutiny to verify if they could be released, and increased tax rates which decreased cinema attendees. Not even the release of Pakistan’s first science fiction film, Shaani (1989), directed by Saeed Rizvi, or Samina Peerzada’s directorial debut with Inteha (1999), a film that deals with the issue of marital rape in Pakistan, could save the industry. By the early 2000’s an industry that once produced an average of 80 films annually was now struggling to even churn out more than two films a year.

In 2003, young filmmakers in Karachi began experimenting with methods to produce films with limited resources, causing the Cinema Capital of Pakistan to move from Lahore to Karachi by 2005. In 2007, GeoFilms was established and it released the film Khuda Ke Liye, directed by Shoaib Mansoor, in August. The movie became a surprise instant success at the box office and brought the middle class back to the cinemas due to its controversial theme of addressing Pakistan’s social problems. The film was also released internationally, including India, where it became the first Pakistani film released there after four decades. This, along with the "Pakistan New Cinema Movement" launched in 2009 with around 1400 members, to facilitate networking to stimulate newer film productions, led to a revival of Pakistani cinema.

However, this revival could not combat with the censorship laws and the conservative Islamic thoughts. In 2012, an anti-Muslim short video grew viral on YouTube, fueling the religious masses of Pakistan. Although the video was not filmed for the big screen, nor was it ever aired in any Pakistani cinema, an angry mob set fire to six cinema houses in Karachi and Peshawar.

Any film that hinted at criticising the state or the religious extremism within the country is immediately cancelled. The film Zindagi Tamasha (2019) which, despite receiving a clearance multiple times from the censor boards and even from an especially constituted Senate committee, found itself blocked from release because of threats of an extremist religious outfit. The film was nominated as Pakistan’s entry for the Oscars, without being officially screened until 2022.

Currently, there are 161 screens in Pakistan (as opposed to the over 1200 in 1980) and the highest-grossing films are Jawani Phir Nahi Ani 2 (2018), followed by Teefa in Trouble (2018) and Punjab Nahi Jaungi (2017). However, compared to films released in Pakistan’s "Golden Era", the mainstream movies nowadays all rely on catchy pop songs, dance numbers, cheap humour and taboo romance, similar to the films released in the early days of the industry.

It is when one looks away from the flashy blockbusters dominating the big screens in the country that the true potential of this new era of Pakistani filmmaking becomes visible. Director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is an icon of the new-era of the Pakistani film industry. She has a diverse portfolio ranging from Pakistan’s first ever computer animated film, 3 Bahadur, released in 2015 to become the country’s highest grossing animated film of all time; to documentaries on issues considered taboo by Pakistani society. She has been awarded with two Oscars (becoming the first - and only - Pakistani to have won an Oscar) for Saving Face, a 2012 documentary about acid attacks on women in Pakistan and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, a 2016 short-subject documentary on honour killings in Pakistan. The government of Pakistan even awarded her with the second highest civilian award, the Hilal-e-Imtiaz, for bringing honour to the country.

A shining example of the innovation of Pakistan’s upcoming generation of filmmakers is visible in the 2020 animated short film, Shehr-e-Tabassum, directed by Arafat Mazhar. This 9-minute long cyberpunk marvel is a perfect amalgamation of showing off Pakistani culture via being fully in Urdu, while creating new boundaries in the realms of Pakistani film. Another young visionary is Usman Riaz, creator of Pakistan’s first hand-drawn animation studio. His upcoming 2023 movie, The Glassworker, is attracting attention from both the local and international film community, showing Pakistan in a new light. The future prospects for independent films in Pakistan look better and better. Although the overall film industry in Pakistan is showing signs of improvement, the cinema industry specifically is in dire need of state-support if it wishes to retain its previous success.

The television industry of Pakistan, although also past its glory days, didn’t suffer as much as cinema and theatre. In 1961, Pakistani industrialist Syed Wajjid Ali signed a joint venture agreement with Nipon Electric Company (NEC), appointing Pakistani engineer Ubaidur Rahman as the head of the television project, originally a private-sector project. In 1963, the Ayub Khan Government took over this project for the "greater national interest of Pakistan" and launched Pakistan Television (PTV). On November 26, 1964, the first official television station commenced transmission broadcasts from Lahore, followed by Dhaka in 1965, Rawalpindi-Islamabad in 1965 and Karachi in 1966. In 1990, the government launched the first semi-government TV network of the country by the name of "Peoples Television Network" (PTN) under the Peoples TV Network, a subsidiary of Shalimar Recording Company. In 1991, the TV Channel PTN was renamed as Shalimar Television Network (STN) and became the first semi-governmental television channel of Pakistan, eventually leading to the development of fully privately-owned channels. Up till now, PTV was the only channel that aired TV dramas, feature films (both local and English), foreign TV series and half-hour long news bulletins in its nearly nine-hour transmission.

In 2000, the government allowed private TV channels to operate openly to telecast their own news and current affairs content. Indus Vision (the first ever private satellite channel of Pakistan) was launched in 2000. ARY Digital was launched in 2001, Geo TV in 2002, Aaj TV in 2004 and Hum TV was launched in 2005, and the phenomenon went on. The first TV dramas by private-owned companies were Doorian and then Chand Grihan. With the increasing number of options for viewers, there came competition for government-owned programs. Eventually, PTV went from producing 100 percent of its dramas at one time to producing less than 20 percent. It was obvious that viewers preferred the wider variety of entertainment privately-owned channels gave them.

In the late 2010’s, the television industry - both private and government sectors - took another blow. Now online streaming was the viewer’s choice, with services such as YouTube and Netflix gaining immense popularity. To combat this, most Pakistani channels began to offer their content on their personal websites and on mobile apps. The age of watching physical TV was over, but the television industry as a whole could maintain their influence by adapting to new media forms in a way that the theatre and cinema industry could not.