Following the ban on Indian films, Pakistani cinema industry struggles for survival, desperately looks for saleable content
In a recent move to counter Indian film industry’s decision to stop casting Pakistani actors and to condemn use of violence on and across the mutual borders, the Pakistani film exhibitors have put a ban on displaying Bollywood films in their cinemas. Though apparently this decision seemed justified, the cinema industry that had struggled over the years to establish itself has started to feel the pinch.
In the absence of sufficient quality content in the absence of Bollywood films, the cinema owners are finding it hard to pull crowds to their shows and bear the expenses of running their businesses and retaining their human resource. Though Pakistani films are being screened, they are not capable of filling the cinema halls as it were the Indian films that created the tempo and the former benefited from the spill-over effect.
So, the question as to where lies the solution and how the local cinema industry will survive if the situation prevails for long. One may recall that it took about 43 years for the ban on exhibition of these films in Pakistan to be lifted in 2008 once it was enforced in 1965 after the Pakistan-India war.
Dwelling on the situation, Zoraiz Lashari, Chairman All Pakistan Exhibitors’ Association, says they are in a fix as they do not have control on content generation in Pakistan. He questions as to who knows when will Shoaib Mansoor make his next movie and when will Syed Noor come up with a prospective blockbuster
He thinks the decision to ban these movies should not have come from the industry and it should have been left to the government to decide. "The situation at the moment is that cinema owners have gone for downsizing of their staff and either shut down some of their screens or reduced the number of shows." He says the situation will remain the same at least till March-April 2007 when the Indian elections and major developments following these will take place. "Till then the Modi government will maintain the anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan posture to woo its like-minded supporters."
Lashari says it is unrealistic to think about sustaining the industry without Bollywood films because the sector’s projections were based on their regular inflow. He says, "On average, over 50 Bollywood movies are exhibited in Pakistan over the year whereas around 15 Pakistani films are produced of which hardly 2 to 3 films are able to perform well and recover their cost."
Apart from the cinemas facing losses already, around 200 cinemas that were in the pipeline for construction have either been shelved or put on hold for now. Under the new rules, plazas and shopping malls etc are supposed to house cinema screens but one wonders why will they go for these if there will be no returns on these projects.
Khurram Gultesab, General Manager (GM) Super Cinema, adds to what Lashari says and explains the testing times they have been passing through. "Setting up multiplexes, cinema screens etc is a highly technical and labour-intensive affair and the footfall of English films is too small to sustain it unless there is something like "Fast and Furious" on display." Regarding Pakistani films, Gultesab says, "Of the 15 films released during the year, only Ho Man Jahan, Actor in Law and Janan have done some business while all others have even failed to break even. Many a time people opt for Pakistani films only when they reach a cinema and do not find ticket for the Bollywood movies they want to see."
Gultesab says that of the 104 active screens in the country, many have been shut down and staff is also being laid off. The situation would be even worse in summers as electricity charges on running air-conditioners would be unbearable. He also shares that they gave 10 shows to Shahzad Rafiq’s film but the highest number of people coming to the show could not surpass 12 at one time. "How can we run our businesses in this scenario?"
He says though the ban was not indefinite and only put in place for two weeks, the current scenario at political, diplomatic and military front between the two countries is such that nobody will talk about it. "All we can do is to pray and hope for is noramlisation of relations without compromising on our dignity and respect."
Film producer Sohail Khan thinks the decision to ban screening of Bollywood movies is justified as India had pushed the Pakistani film and cinema industry to these limits. But what looks strange, he says, is that hundreds of trucks of potatoes, tomatoes and onion are crossing every day and the brunt has to be faced only by the cinema industry. "The suspension of mutual trade and business should have been in all the sectors."
Khan agrees that the quality of production in Pakistan is not up to the mark and adds that this is for the reason that people from television and ad industry are moving to the film industry. Due to this trend, he says, these films look like commercial ads or TV plays. "In the short run, the cinema owners will have to focus on Hollywood movies and hope for the local content to get better in the long run." He says the quality will not improve till the time people start learning about film production, direction, acting etc from film academies and start pursuing career in this sector from the very start.
Khan has completed shooting of his upcoming film Shor Sharaba which is now in its post-production phase. He plans to release it around Valentine’s Day around mid-February and one reason for this is that the thick winter fog that limits people’s movement will be over by then.
He feels all the exhibitors were not on one page while announcing the ban on Indian movies and says the government has also not issued any notification in this regard. Had it been so, he says, some cinema owners would have challenged it in the court. But it is very unlikely that the government will give the mandatory No Objection Certificate (NOC) for import of Indian films in this hostile scenario, he asserts.
Famous film director Syed Noor rejects the practice of film exhibitors bashing the producers and directors and vice versa and says it is the time when they shall all be strengthening each other. He says the exhibitors must realise that they have no other option but to find good and regular content for their screens in the absence of Bollywood movies. "And till the time the screening of Indian movies is not resumed and that too in a respectable way, search for local and non-Indian foreign content shall be on."
Noor shares it with TNS that Pakistani film producers, directors and actors have recently visited China to explore prospects of cooperation in this sector. "Iranian and Turkish films can also be imported but the level of cooperation we have experienced in China is unmatched. The two countries have announced to hold film festivals in each other’s countries from next year during which the possibilities of having joint productions with mixed cast and exhibition after dubbing will be weighed."
Noor hopes the government will make things easier for the industry and give it incentives to prepare itself for the testing times ahead. For example, he says, instead of multiple censor boards, films should be cleared from one platform.
Gultesab does not buy the argument of Noor, saying dubbing is not an easy task and there are not many fans of Chinese films here. "How many Chinese actors do you know by name? It is not only about importing a film from anywhere. You need films that though imported have the same culture and proximity to viewers’ hearts," he believes.
Mujtaba Safdar Leghari, CEO Phantom Media, says that his company has got the marketing rights of an animation film Magic Ring which has been produced locally and has the capability to compete with those made abroad. He says it was after the imposition of the said ban that they tried to capitalise on local products and benefit from the window of opportunity that exists now. "There are very strict anti-dumping laws in India, but it dumps its feature films in Pakistan that directly harm the interest of the local talent and film making industry." In his opinion, Indian films recover their production costs very easily from the domestic market and that is why they sell a film to Pakistani distributors for even less than Rs10 million.
On the prospects of local content’s popularity, he says there will be a challenging situation for at least six months and after that things will improve. "We are quite hopeful about the success of Magic Ring whose whole animation has been done in Lahore. This time we have bought marketing rights but later on we will go for co-production with that company as well."