A cinematic journey

May 28, 2023

Exploring the distinctive Pakistani Urdu cinema of the ’60s

A cinematic journey


outh Asian cinema has had deep and complex regional interconnections since its beginning, also known as The Silent Era. A significant number of migrant artists from the parts of British colonial India that later became part of West Pakistan shaped Bombay cinema; even though it is called Bombay Hindi cinema, it has received decisive influence from the Punjab. This shared aesthetic is intellectualised as The Lahore Effect. Bombay and Calcutta were the main avenues for artists from West Punjab who had the linguistic advantage of Urdu/ Hindi/ Hindustani fluency, along with their mother tongues, during the 1930s and 1940s.

Lahore Cinema: Between Realism and Fable by Professor Iftikhar Dadi, who is the John H Burris Professor in the Department of the History of Art at Cornell University, is the result of a formal as well as contextual analysis of social and experimental Urdu films from Lahore made during the ‘long sixties’, from 1956 to 1969. This monograph is a significant addition to scholarship on Pakistani cinema and, by extension, South Asian cinema. There is a lack of scholarship on Pakistani cinema, with only two texts published on the subject. One is Mushtaq Gazdar’s Pakistan Cinema, 1947–1997, which provides an informative survey of the first fifty years. The other is Alamgir Kabir’s The Cinema in Pakistan, published in 1969, which offers a significant contemporary critical account of cinema. Apart from these, there is not a single monograph covering Pakistani cinema. Professor Dadi has worked on South Asian cinema for many years in different capacities as an artist and a scholar. He has also been a member of the editorial advisory board of the journal, BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies since its foundation in 2010.

Professor Dadi argues that commercial cinema has been among the most powerful factors in social and aesthetic modernisation in South Asia. This elevation of cinema to the top of the hierarchy of vectors for social and aesthetic modernisation is an important finding by the author. Although radio and later TV had listenership, the reason they were not yet household items may be attributed to cinema’s presence in urban centres, which attracted a larger segment of the population, including the migrant working class. Dadi’s focus is primarily on Urdu cinema of Lahore from 1956 to 1969, which he terms the ‘long sixties.’ Covering the reign of the first military dictator, Gen Ayub, it was a period of economic, social and infrastructural growth in what was then West Pakistan.

The monograph is divided into four chapters: Between Neo-realism and Humanism: Jago Hua Savera, Lyric Romanticism: Khurshid Anwar’s Music and Films, Cinema and Politics: Khalil Qaiser and Riaz Shahid, and The Zinda Bhaag Assemblage: Reflexivity and Form. These films differ in many ways and are influenced by Bengali performance traditions, Hindu mythology, Parsi theatre, sufi conceptions of the self, Urdu lyric poetry or Hollywood musicals. The trend of neo-realism and melodrama in these films provides insights into the era of rapid modernisation in Pakistan.

Mushtaq Gazdar’s important survey of cinema in Pakistan is based on periods he identifies by decades since the independence of Pakistan. According to Gazdar, the years 1957-1966 constitute the Decade of Reformation, during which the production and circulation of commercial cinema began to gain density and coherence. Jago Hua Savera (1959) by AJ Kardar stands out as the sole prominent example of a neo-realist Pakistani film from the ’long sixties.’ Its aesthetics can be compared to the art of parallel cinema in India.

In 1947, Lahore’s cinema industry bore the brunt of Partition as many cinema houses were owned by Hindus who left the city. By 1948, when the weekly Nigar began publishing from Karachi, they struggled to fill their pages due to the impact. However, following unexpected growth in the early 1950s, Pakistani cinema emerged as a competitor to Indian cinema. Writers and poets had made influential contributions to the leftist cultural movement in Lahore since the 1930s. This broadly leftist orientation continued to define much of Lahore’s cultural landscape during the ’long sixties.’ Progressive intellectuals and directors dominated the scene, although the cinema of the ’long sixties’ remained largely apolitical, with the exception of a song in the movie Zarqa, which was seen as a demonstration of power dynamics during that era.

Lahore Cinema explores the role of language, rhetoric, lyricism and form in the creation of cinematic meaning, as well as the relevance of the Urdu cultural universe. This work delves into how films allowed their audience to navigate the complexities of growing modernity and tense politics by anchoring social change through insightful cultural imaginaries. Although Dadi’s work primarily focuses on the cinema of the ’long sixties,’ there is a whole chapter dedicated to the details of Zinda Bhag. While this may seem irrelevant to the main theme of the monograph, it provides valuable reading material for graduate students of cinema studies, communication studies, and South Asian history.

Dadi also touches upon Pakistani cinema of the late 2000s and early 2010s, which he calls New Pakistani Cinema. During this time, the New Cinema received support from the powerful and well-resourced Inter Service Public Relations and the influence of Bollywood productions, which were released in new multiplexes in Pakistan, served as a highly influential template for Pakistani filmmakers. Additionally, there have been numerous joint ventures between India and Pakistan in film production, bringing new ideas to the screen. These movies often exhibit a structural dependency on Bollywood, with major Bollywood actors featuring in lead roles in several Pakistani New Cinema films, such as Khamosh Pani, Khuda Kay Liye (2007), Ramchand Pakistani and Zinda Bhaag (2013).

In South Asia, the visual landscape was dominated by movie promotion through publicity posters. Today, the reproduction of these posters evokes nostalgia and captures the popular imagination of cinema’s golden period. The book includes rare coloured images of publicity posters from Pakistani movies of the ’long sixties’ era, sourced from Professor Dadi’s personal collection. These posters provide a clear picture of another creative industry involved in the making of publicity posters, particularly highlighting the similarities between Karachi’s advertising industry and the production of movie publicity posters in the city.

By focusing on film production, themes and the cultural milieu of the ’long sixties,’ the book also delves into the history of 1960s Pakistan. Dadi’s analysis of technique, form and narrative is a pioneering contribution to the emerging field of cinema studies in Pakistan. Going beyond the spatial borders of nation-states in South Asia and the limitations of decades, Dadi explores the cinematic movement of aesthetic forms and political consciousness. Professor Dadi’s work will appeal to a wide readership, including South Asian cinephiles and scholars working on South Asian history and media studies. It serves as a key reference and a classic in the field of South Asian film and media studies.

Lahore Cinema: Between Realism and Fable

Author: Iftikhar Dadi

Publisher: University of Washington Press, Seattle (USA), 2022

Pages: 264

The book is available to be downloaded for free at


The reviewer tweets at @Ammad_Alee

A cinematic journey