Actor Salman Shahid talks about the new wave of Pakistani films, influence of India's movie industry, and teaching film making in institutes
The News on Sunday: As somebody who is trained in film-making and who has acted in local films and those across the border, what is your assessment of this ‘new’ Pakistani cinema that we have been witnessing especially during the last two-three years?
Salman Shahid: This is something very fortunate, good. It is related to a worldwide phenomenon of the introduction of digital equipment into film-making. That has given independent film-makers a free hold throughout the world; and this is not just the case with Pakistan. The films being made here, especially those like Shah, are totally independent films.
The film which I liked very much though it did not get a commercial release in Pakistan was Seedlings (Lamha). Shah is a film made by Adnan Sarwar, who has played the main role, directed and scripted it. He says it was all about five people and a laptop.
What has happened in film technology throughout the world is the introduction of video, and digital video at that. Earlier, film-making had an exclusive technology; you had to learn it. Now, the technology is inclusive.
TNS: Has it become just accessible or cheaper too?
SS: It has also become cheaper in a certain way -- from the point of view of shooting -- and at least you have a product in hand. But then you go into post-production and it can turn out to be as expensive as if you were making it on what you used to call celluloid. Generally, both of them are films but in the film on celluloid, there was neither tape nor a card, nor anything digital, nor a computer memory which recorded what you had. You had a strip of celluloid which you called film on which everything used to be recorded.
In Pakistan, our typical Multan Road studios were an impediment to quality rather than produce quality. But at the same time, with a Rs500-1000 ticket, these films are not really being produced for the masses. The film-makers at the Multan Road studios can still say that "okay, you make these films, but are these for the masses? You are catering to the middle class and upper class, people who can afford the ticket. And because of this you’re getting relatively more high culture movies."
May be I or any other middle class person can appreciate them because it suits our own background and culture. But people who are our traditional film-goers, who live in small towns, I don’t know how much would they like any of these films. There are some films which are popular right across the classes, like the film I was in -- Na Maloom Afraad. It worked in small movie houses also, in small cities and towns also and not just in Lahore or Islamabad and Karachi.
TNS: Now, with this new technology, is there a possibility of producing a film that caters to all classes?
SS: I think Na Maloom Afraad and, surprisingly, a film like Waar which was fifty to sixty per cent in English did very well everywhere. That was because it was visually much more satisfying than the usual Pakistani acting. With digital equipment, you do not have to go to a traditional laboratory which developed celluloid for colour correction. You can do colour correction on your laptops.
But one should also look at the fact that a host of Indian films are coming in and they are not making films for the discerning elite or for high culture. So, how are their movies doing out here? It is another debatable issue.
I think we are short of screens in the big cities in the new emerging plazas, which obviously cater to a certain class. Small towns don’t have this sort of digital screening facilities. So, maybe, a movie like Shah which is an interesting story but which does not have a song or a dance number could have done well there. May be, it is a bit of a loss for a movie like Shah because it can only work in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore and let’s say in one cineplex in Gujranwala, Multan and Hyderabad.
There was a time when we had over a thousand screens; the total number of screens we have is fifty to sixty. That is a world of difference. Why they are making more money is that when one film gets popular it does very well, like Na Maloom Afraad which ran for six months or more or Waar. Now Bin Roye has done better than Waar. It is for the first time that we have had a Pakistani movie with some kind of a release in India, a proper release and not a couple of shows like Ram Chand Pakistani or Khamosh Pani, Khuda Key Liye, and Bol in some cinema house in Mumbai.
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TNS: Don’t we owe a lot to the Indian films in terms of reviving our cinema-going culture?
SS: We don’t owe anything to anybody. India owes us a lot that we opened the doors to them as opposed to which the doors are not open for us to India. I am sure a lot of our films would have done very well in India. This is simple business. Our industry had already flopped due to Indian videos. So, I think it was very intelligent [on the part of Pakistani distributors] to let them come in when they had already invaded our market and finished our industry. It made business sense.
Nobody on the Indian side was trying to encourage Pakistani cinema; nor did the Pakistani exhibiters and government think that a new kind of Pakistani cinema would emerge. But this happened and it now seems like a natural consequence. But it was not foreseen by any party.
TNS: People see a clear mark of television on these films which are drawing a lot from tv in terms of talent and technique. Do you see it in a positive way or a negative way? How is film different from tv? Like watching Manto, one wondered whether to call it a tele-film, a film or a long play.
SS: I see it in an extremely positive way. This will happen obviously. In the case of Manto, it is very specific because Manto is a tv serial which you will soon see I believe. May be they have done a few things here and there to try to adapt it for a bigger screen. So, obviously there is going to be more of that feeling in Manto than in other films. I think it has been a great thing.
More than anything else, it is our private tv channels which have helped the present day new age Pakistani cinema the most during the last 15 to 18 years. They have laid the foundation of the modern Pakistani cinema. That is a great help.
TNS: It is said that there are only two film industries in the world -- Hollywood and Bollywood. With Bollywood next door, what should be our expectation of the Pakistani cinema and what is our comparative advantage in films?
SS: Our only advantage is that we don’t have Bollywood. And thank goodness for that, because if there is anything formula, it is Bollywood.
TNS: Isn’t that changing in Bollywood too?
SS: Very slowly. In the fourteen films made in Pakistan, there is more change than in the 3000 films made in Bollywood. Bollywood has a great grip on the masses; it is very difficult to break away from it. In Pakistan, the industry had totally died and there was not that grip. Secondly, you can make very cheap films and of good quality with digital technology which we could not do on celluloid in Pakistan. You are free of the studios, you can think independently, and you don’t need sets. This frees the film-maker; it releases him of all strangleholds. Bollywood is a big stranglehold on the Indian film-maker. He finds it so difficult to break out of it.
The scale is very different in India. A film releases to some 2,500 screens in India whereas in Pakistan, a film is released to 50 or sixty screens. I don’t know why they are not able to make a deal with India. When they are importing Indian films, why can’t some of our films be shown there? They should have at least some kind of reciprocity in this.
TNS: So, what do we need to make a good film? And what are the constraints that we have? What about institutions now teaching film-making? What about good scripts?
SS: Yes, to a certain extent. But the constraint is everywhere. The threshold is different everywhere. Look at the Iranians. Their directors tell us that the authorities give them a list of thirty don’ts and then tell them to make a film. They have produced some of the greatest films during the last 10-15 years. If they can do I, why can’t we?
TNS: And what about the teaching of film making?
SS: It helps to a point. Most of the institutions are still not serious and nor is the faculty. And the least serious are the students themselves. They use these institutions more as a club activity rather than for serious learning. When you are a student of film-making, or anything else for that matter, a lot has to do with reading. Students do not read. Understandably, when one is young and energetic one wants to do things and so they do learn. And now the technology is available and they also watch movies day and night. Adnan Sarwar never went to a school. He is a musician and he’s made quite a good film.