In a country like Pakistan, where a large part of the population follows Bollywood almost madly, the fate of Indian films remains uncertain. While inflicting a ban on any Indian release with objectionable content - like sexual vulgarity imposed on the recent Veere Di Wedding - or anything that puts Pakistan in a negative light isn’t a new phenomenon, restricted or delayed screening of Bollywood films due to one reason or the other, seems to have become a regular activity. Though such decisions are motivated by the need to promote local content and local artists, they have an extremely ambiguous impact on local cinema, if we look at it from a larger perspective.
In 2016, Pakistani cinemas stopped screening Bollywood films, following the ban on Pakistani artists in India (post Uri terror attack). This all-out ban, at a time when local films hardly had any potential to pull audiences to cinemas, resulted in huge losses for cinema houses due to a major decrease in the footfall. Hence, efforts to promote local films were in vain.
According to Nadeem Mandviwalla, cinema owner/film distributor, banning Bollywood films has never been in the interest of the local film industry and is "detrimental" to its growth.
"Bollywood films were banned for 40 years; did it help the industry?" he questioned when asked if the decision to not showcase Indian films during the Eid holidays would benefit local films. He had a strong opinion on the issue.
"We have to look at it from a larger perspective; it’s not that short-term," he established. "It’s a process of development. If the government stops the screening of these films even for one day, it means they are creating instability in the policy itself. That means the government can come up and stop your business any time. Now that’s a very detrimental message that you are giving to every investor who wants to make a cinema in Pakistan. And that is the larger perspective!"
Speaking of number of cinema screens in Pakistan and those that are soon to inaugurate, Nadeem Mandviwalla, who has been a key player in the business for years, added, "How will cinemas be made in Pakistan if the investor knows that tomorrow the best of the best of films will be stopped by the government? Why will they invest into something like this? When the government makes a policy, the policy can’t be for today, it has to be for the next 20 years. Therefore, the ban/restriction will have very adverse effects in times to come."
He also said that while the government is doing this to benefit producers whose films are coming out on Eid, what if another producer, who wants to release his film on 14th August, or 25th December, or any other day, asks for the same advantage? How will they differentiate?
"The government has to remain unbiased, it shouldn’t be controlling the freedom of business," he asserted. "Once the government gets themselves involved in the business itself, it is always a disaster."
Bollywood films were first banned in Pakistan post 1965 war with India and that continued till 2007, when it was lifted by the former President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf. This was followed by a massive increase in investments made into multiplexes, given the demand of Indian films in Pakistan, eventually paving the way for revival of Pakistani cinema. Hence, it was the influx of Bollywood films which majorly assisted the re-building of local film industry that was completely shattered at one point.
However, there is a long, long way to go before the industry is in a position to stand on its own two feet and until then, it needs a regular influx of popular Bollywood films to flourish and stabilize.
"Bollywood constitutes a major per cent of the cinema business in Pakistan," commented Ali Hammad Butt, Managing Director of AB Advertisers - a renowned cinema advertising company. "When an Indian film releases in Pakistan on Eid, it pulls twice the number of people to cinemas compared to when there is no Indian release."
This means that the presence of Indian films results in more business for local movies as well; therefore, not showing them during Eid "isn’t a smart move," according to Butt. "It’s like going against the demand," he observed. "Advertisers in Pakistan are also more interested in placing business in Bollywood movies rather than local movies."
He added, "The problem is, instead of improving the quality of our own product/content, we are attacking other aspects. It is important to develop our own industry first and for that, we need at least four films a month to keep the cinema business going all year round."
On the flip side, Satish Anand, Chairman, Eveready Group of Companies, is of the view that restricting Bollywood films around Eid is a temporary facilitation to support local films, given the limited number of screens. "It will be very frustrating for local films if an Indian film also releases alongside four of them, which will already be eating into each other’s profitability," he shared. "With very few entertainment options available for masses during Eid, they come out to watch films and this works well for Pakistani films."
Perhaps, this is why most producers in Pakistan choose to release their films during Eid holidays, even the big ones. However, instead of taking this route or restricting Indian films every now and then, we need to make better films to pull audiences to cinemas and give them a good experience. These strategies may work and result in temporary gain but they will not help sustain the industry in the longer run. If the cinema business remains unstable, we might witness cinema houses shutting down, resulting in a major decline for our film industry.