The new overseas player

International release never meant serious -- and organised -- business for Pakistani filmmakers, until recently

The new overseas player

Pakistan’s fledgling cinema is faced with an unusual challenge. Ever since partition, which left very little of movie industry in terms of infrastructure, investment, and human resource on the western side of the subcontinent’s border, while (the then) Bombay continued to flourish as the film capital of the independent India, simultaneously expanding its market across the world -- our cinema has not only fought fierce competition from its neighbouring counterpart, and barely escaped complete annihilation a number of times, but also struggled with a perennial crisis of identity where it’s always viewed as a much paler version of Bollywood. Today, even though its struggles might still not be over, for the first time in 70 years Pakistani filmmakers are showing care for export sales.

There are some telling statistics to buck them up. Last year, Six Sigma Plus and ARY’s Punjab Nahi Jaungi grossed USD1.8 million* (Rs20 crores) internationally. In the UK alone, the film finished with a lifetime business of $940,000, which is extraordinary, given that most Bollywood biggies end up making $650,000 or less in the territory.

In its very opening weekend, PNJ sprang a surprise by securing a place among the top 10 films on UK box office lists, outperforming Ajay Devgan’s mega-budgeted Bollywood movie, Badshaho. The results were almost the same in Ireland, Norway, US, Canada, and South Africa -- countries with huge Indian diaspora.

PNJ also happens to be Pakistan’s widest international release, with a screen count of 150 in as many as 18 countries.

More recently, Asim Abbasi’s critically acclaimed Cake grossed $600,000 worldwide. If you look at the breakup, you find that it has already collected $150,000 each from the UK and USA, where it’s still showing in select theatres. On Thursday last, it completed its run in Dubai’s Mall of Emirates, at $100,000.

Interestingly, Cake’s earnings have been higher abroad than home. This phenomenon is becoming quite common -- Rangreza (’17) got a better opening than Verna in the UK, while it was the other way round in Pakistan.

Cake had a star-studded world premiere at Leicester Square, London -- another first for Pakistani cinema. The film opened to great reviews from all over. Buoyed by the performance of Cake on foreign turf, the makers are now taking its digital cinema print (DCP) to Singapore.

Bin Roye proved to be the game-changer. It was the first Pakistani feature to gross $1.4 million internationally, with most revenue coming in from the UK. It was followed by Janaan’s $0.5 million earnings from the UK, the next year. The UK had emerged as the second biggest market for Pakistani cinema.

This is nothing short of a milestone for Pakistani cinema. Gone are the days when a passionate, young filmmaker like Shehzad Rafiq would need to dish out VHS prints of his movies Ghoonghat (1996) and Nikaah (‘98) to odd video stores in London and Dubai -- for free, or a Shabab Keranvi would be content to ‘gift’ his career’s biggest hit, Mera Naam Hai Mohabbat (’75), to the Chinese government before the latter could set it up for a theatrical release. (That the love saga, starring Babra Sharif and Ghulam Mohiyuddin, found great success in China is another story.)

There are rare instances in the not-so-distant past where the Pakistani features were picked up for overseas exhibition. Pashto films, for instance, were often screened in the Pathan-populated basti (downtown) in Dubai. Muhammad Sarwar Bhatti of Bahoo Films talks about receiving a phone call from the owner of Liberty cinema in Bradford, UK, offering to release his magnum opus, Maula Jutt (’79), weeks after the Punjabi film had proved to be a blockbuster hit in Pakistan. Its cult success back home, according to Bhatti, was repeated in London where it "ran for four weeks." Later, it was released in USA, Canada, and Dubai also.

For his next, Chan Waryam (’81), however, things went quiet again on the international front. Bhatti ended up distributing the VHS copies of his film to London’s famous Tooting Video Centre. His following few films could only make it to festivals, chiefly Moscow, Fajr, and Tashkent. There was a brief period of joint productions with smaller film industries like those of Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh (formerly, East Pakistan), which meant that the features could find a smooth release in the co-financier’s country, but it wouldn’t translate into regular business. Add to it the lack of support from government -- the Export Promotion Bureau notwithstanding.

This was the story of most “Lollywood” (as the Lahore-based film industry was loosely referred to) producers, in the ’80s and ‘90s. Either because of the quality of their product or lack of expertise in distribution, or both, the makers had been confined to local box office. They also "lacked the drive," as Rafiq puts it.

The 2000s ushered in the digital era and, correspondingly, a fresh pool of talent. As new technology crept in, so did people who were qualified to handle it. Those who weren’t, were filtered out. The good old Lollywood, with its obsolete methods and style of filmmaking, had literally finished; the single-screen cinemas were whittling away, and multiplexes coming up in their stead, around the time Shoaib Mansoor released Khuda Ke Liye (’07). A celebrated TV director, Mansoor had the business savvy to think beyond borders; hence, he partnered with Percept Pictures, a leading Indian film company, to distribute his multiple award-winning debut film in the UK, US, and also India.

Though its overseas business wasn’t satisfactory, KKL paved the path for Pakistani films to release in India after a gap of almost four decades. It got a 100-print release there. Earlier, Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani (‘03), an indie collaboration with France and Germany that boasted a mix of Indian and local actors, was also released in the region. Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani (‘07), Rafiq’s Salakhain (’05) and Mohabbatan Sachiyyan (’08), and Mansoor’s next, Bol (’11), were the other few films that managed a commercial release internationally, India included.

But it wasn’t until 2015’s Bin Roye that Pakistani cinema had the true taste of success at international box office. The Mahira-Khan-starrer family drama, produced by Momina Duraid and Six Sigma Plus, proved to be the game-changer. It was the first Pakistani feature to gross $1.4 million internationally, with most revenue coming in from the UK. It was followed by Janaan’s $670,000 earnings from the UK, the next year. The UK had emerged as the second biggest market for Pakistani cinema.

Bin Roye, Janaan, PNJ, and Cake were all distributed by London-based B4U Movies which deals primarily in Hindi, Indian Punjabi and Tamil releases. Sunil Shah, Head of Film Division, B4U, defends his company’s choices: "A lot of people in countries with Asian diaspora want to see Pakistani films. Your dramas are so popular already.

"Eid factor seems to work best for these [Pakistani] films," Shah adds. "When we released Bin Roye, it was up against Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijan, still it did very well. The audiences lapped up the film’s chaand raat sequence and shaadi numbers in particular, that reminded them of home."

No wonder he is sanguine about the fate of his next Pakistani Eid release, Saat Din Mohabbat In, which shall face off Race 3, starring Salman Khan, again.

There’s another reason why Pakistani films are a good deal for Shah: "Bollywood prices have become so high that recovery is quite difficult."

For an average Pakistani film producer, on the other hand, international distribution is an expensive proposition. "It means coughing up Rs2-2.5 crores," says Nabeel Qureshi, one of the most successful filmmakers from the newer lot. "Not everyone can afford it. Your entire film’s budget is sometimes only this much."

The abovementioned amount includes, apart from the publicity and advertising (P&A) cost, a virtual print fee (VPF) -- or cinema rent, in layman terms -- which is somewhere between $670-800. The higher the print/screen count, the bigger the expense.

Interestingly, if the film doesn’t work, it’s the producer’s loss only, unless the distributor made some investment in the project or brokered a deal whereby the producer would have to pitch him his next couple of films (for distribution). The idea is to recover your money anyway.

The size of your audience matters too. Noted journalist and human rights activist I. A. Rehman says, "India’s NRI (nonresident Indian) has a huge number. Ours doesn’t. So, only those films shall do well [internationally] that are watched by the Indian community also."

Another important factor that comes into play is the consumers’ spending habits and their increasingly digital lifestyle. In England, for instance, there are three major cinema chains -- namely, Odeon, Cine World, and Vue -- that offer unlimited movie viewings for a month, if you purchase a membership card for ₤15-18. This is money-saving bait. A single movie ticket would otherwise cost you ₤10 or more.

"Many times, when people are in a mall, they’ll see any movie that’s showing in the cinemas over there. For them it’s almost free," says Aamir Tariq, a 25 years old Pakistani expat in London.

Tariq says he has "often spotted people of different nationalities -- Nepalese, Chinese, goras -- in a theatre where a Pakistani film was showing. The reason is that all movies are subtitled here. So, the people are fine watching films from any country and of any language."


So, is the market for Pakistani cinema growing overseas? According to Sunil Shah, "100 per cent; provided the content is good.

"All the five territories -- UK, UAE, USA, Australia, and South Africa -- are getting bigger and bigger," he says. "If you release your movies in these countries regularly, then the people will take interest, and your talent will begin to register. If you leave gaps of, say, six months, you are not creating excitement for the audience. It ought to be a regular, constant flow of good cinema."

He also speaks of Pakistani charities abroad that have contacted him personally, wanting to support their home country’s cinema. "Pakistani stars are becoming popular, chiefly Mahira [Khan], Fawad [Khan], Ali Zafar, and also Humayun Saeed."

His next target is "to take the collections to a million and half US dollars. If I can touch that figure, consider the whole game changed!"

He claims that the "People in India are desperate to watch Cake. I’ve got so many requests and emails, but because of the political pressures we can’t screen it [there]."

It may be mentioned here that B4U had to face the wrath of the Raj Thakeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) when they were trying to release Bin Roye in Mumbai. Eventually, the film had to settle for a limited, minus-Mumbai release.

China and Saudi Arabia are other uncharted territories with market potential for Pakistani cinema. Imran Raza Kazmi’s Parchi recently became the first commercial release in Saudi Arabia, while Humayun Saeed is looking forward to sending Jawani Phir Nahi Ani (’15) and PNJ to a festival in China. This, he believes, is the way to make inroads into the virgin territory.

This is an edited version of the original piece

*Figures provided by B4U

The new overseas player