In Pakistan, quality content is not king

October 4, 2020

The burgeoning youth population of Pakistan is craving for something different, something to appeal to their generation’s imagination.

Image courtesy: Nik Razdi, Unsplash

Understanding the difference between the Pakistani and Indian film industries is to understand the opposing political, economic and social structures of two countries that have shared cultural values, customs and norms for centuries as one land. Upon Partition in 1947, and up to 1965, Lollywood and Bollywood produced movies that had similar themes, exploring the relationship the two countries and their people shared as an undivided subcontinent, and the bloodshed and barbaric violence that ensued before and during Partition.

The two film industries explored issues that affected their own countries and the mistrust. However, during the 1950s and 1960s Pakistan enjoyed explosive economic growth, mainly under the military regime of Field Martial Ayub Khan. It brought untold economic and social success, and progressive thinking. It generated millions of dollars in tourism revenue, and created an environment of tolerance and inclusion, with the utmost respect and regard for Pakistanis not belonging to Islam.

Lollywood naturally exploited this. Before the fall of Dhaka in 1971, it had three major production centers; Karachi, Lahore and Dhaka. Regarded as the cultural capital of Pakistan, Lollywood’s studios in Lahore produced titans of the local cinema, classics such as Munshi Dil’s Azra in the early 1960s, Zahir Raihan‘s Sangam – the first full-length colored film – released on 23 April 1964, and Mala. Then there were films in the 1950s, like Noor Jehan’s directorial debut, Chanwey, in 1951 and Sassi in 1954. As standards of living increased, and with an array of leisure activities on offer, Pakistanis were able to enjoy quality films that explored the social structures of the country at the time. Even with rising political crises regarding Ayub Khan’s regime and opposition to his rule, and a war with India, the film industry was shielded from it. The 1960s were regarded as ‘The Golden Age’ of Lollywood, producing over 800 films in that period.

For myriad reasons, from the 1970s onward, Lollywood underwent an alarming decline, seeing a revival only as recently as 2012. But the revival doesn’t include a strong, finessed and powerful screenplay.

Streaming giant Netflix has not too long ago delivered the kind of slap-to-the-face of our entertainment industry that could prove to be a blessing. Calling Pakistani film and television industries’ storytelling weak is not a fallacy. It is entirely true and imbedded in our creative writers’ psyche.

A fundamental problem of Pakistani films and TV dramas is that their screenplays being adapted are seriously weak and technically lacking. While the focus and hype are invariably geared towards the lighting and sound design – which in themselves are mostly average – the lack of quality creative thinking and writing is alarming. The reason is simple; people in charge of writing these sorry screenplays are also the ones who direct, and it is impossible to manage both these critical components of a standout drama or feature film. Screenplays should be in the hands of content creators, not cinematographers.

Pakistani entertainment is also unwilling or unable to create larger than life stories, while simultaneously only scratching the surface of real-life issues, therefore unable to resonate deeply with audiences. If we look at the success of recent popular dramas with millions of views such as Ishqiya, Dil Ruba, Muqaddar and Bandhay aik dour se, there is nothing new apart from inter-family marriages, infidelity and problematic representations of men and women who are only confined to their homes and familial settings.

Like the young, upcoming content creators for the digital and web space, the conventional producers and writers need to adapt and shift to more intelligent and thought-provoking storytelling that doesn’t rely on crass tropes and cliches. Belittling certain groups of people, rancid slapstick humor and stereotyping different ethnic groups seems to be a staple of every big budget film. Women should be looked at more than just a housewife who has to keep the house in order and stand in a corner, or cry, or look pretty, or dancing away.

With a booming global digital space for web series, growing in leaps and bounds thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the local industry has started to cash in on the shifting preferences for entertainment consumption. Free from Pemra’s suffocating moral policing noose, the dynamic and imaginative writers, producers and directors of these series are free to explore their creative genius, allowing storytellers to experiment with the kind of new and innovative storytelling narratives and plots that may not appeal to the TV and cinema audience. But the burgeoning youth population of Pakistan is craving for something different, something to appeal to their generation, their imagination.

Wajahat Rauf’s Enaaya, Shameless Proposals by Sadia Jabbar, Badshah Begum and Jan e Jahan are just to name a few of the web series that have taken up the country’s digital space by storm. Thought-provoking and challenging societal expectations, they are the hallmarks of creators and writers who are trying to shape a conversation in-tune with tomorrow’s challenges.

Their efforts have to be relentless for in their way stand the juggernauts of the traditional showbiz world; titanic distributors and production houses who are the established monopolies of media, film and TV entertainment. Their comfort in sticking to the proven TRP metric and the riches of current storytelling style will be an obstacle that so far has yet to be half-scaled, let alone surmounting. They successfully deliver the content that the vast majority of Pakistanis delightfully consume; the kind of stories that reinforce their judgmental attitudes towards women, ethnic minorities and non-conforming genders.

The author is a   MarComms professional with a background in journalism

In Pakistan, quality content is not king