The History of Pakistani Cinema & Its Hopeful Future

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In the words of legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman “Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”

This citation substantiates the belief that film is the most powerful form of all communication techniques and leaves a profound impact on the psyche of an individual and in turn affects the society. This influential tool is used for portraying the culture, problems and dreams of a society. As the world has turned into a global village, cinema and film-making plays an important role not only in promoting cultural values and bonding different nations but also in providing an alternate way of expression.

Film Poster “Teri Yaad”
Pakistan, has a rich history of filmmaking. The historic city of Lahore was the hub of filmmaking, prior to the partition of India. It is also said that the film industry in India was born in Lahore. After the partition, most of the industry migrated to the Mumbai. But still, Lahore was home to a significant number of actors, directors and film producers. The 50s and 60s were the peaks of Pakistani film Industry. They were in competition and at par with the Indian films of that time.
After the partition, reconstruction of the film industry in Pakistan was an uphill task, but luckily they had a good number of artists who played very crucial roles in laying a solid foundation of the film industry in the country. The first Pakistani film Teri Yaad was released in 1948, which was indeed the first joint effort of Pakistani artists, which was successful. The first blockbuster film in the early days of the Pakistani cinema was Do Ansoo, which released in 1950. Do Ansoo became the first film in Pakistan to enjoy a 25-week run at the box office, eventually achieving a silver jubilee status.
The early days of Pakistani cinema also witnessed the directorial debut of its first woman film director in the legendary singer and actress Noor Jahan. Released in 1951, the Punjabi film Chanwey, was directed by her.
As film viewership increased exponentially in the country during this time, Sassi,(1954) went on to become the first Pakistani film to reach golden jubilee status by playing 50-weeks on theaters.
Around the same time, the first ever Sindhi language film Umar Marvi was released in 1956.
Film Poster “Aaina”
The Pakistani film industry is also known for producing many remarkable and renowned actors, directors, producers, writers and playback singers. Era between 1956-66 is known to be the golden era of Pakistani film industry. During this period, many classical films were made and produced in Pakistan. As of today, Aaina is considered to be the most successful and popular Pakistani film that was ever made. Released on 18 March 1977, it remains a distinct symbol which stands on the threshold between the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto years and the increasingly conservative and revolutionary Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq regime. The film stayed in the cinemas for over 400 weeks.
Armaan, Bandish, Shaheed, Baji, Koel, Amrao Jaan Ada and Baharo Phool Barsao are considered to be the most successful films made during this golden age of the Pakistani cinema. It was during this time that legends like Mehdi Hasan, Salim Raza, Ahmad Rushdi , Noor Jahan, Santoosh Kumar, Darpan, Munawar Zareef, Aslam Pervez, Syed Kamal, Nayyar Sultana, Neelo, Waheed Murad, Mohammad Ali, Nadeem, Sabiha Khanum, Shamim Ara and many others became household names.
Not many in Pakistan know the fact that since the birth of cinema in Pakistan, only two Pakistani films had been submitted for the Oscar Awards, Foreign Language Film Awards category. Both submissions were musical-dramas in Urdu. Pakistan’s first Oscar submission was Jago Hua Swera (The Day Shall Dawn, 1959). The movie was filmed in Dhaka, East Pakistan (contemporary Bangladesh) by the East Pakistan Film Development Corporation. Based on a novel by Bengali novelist Manik Bandopadhaya, the film’s screenplay was written by Faiz Ahmad Faiz and it was directed by A.J.Kardar. Scripted in the Urdu language. the film’s storyline was about the daily lives of the fishermen of East Pakistan and won a major award at the Moscow International Film Festival.
Pakistan’s second and final Oscar submission, Ghoonghat (The Veil, 1963) was about the disappearance of a veiled young bride on the day she is scheduled to be married off to a rich young man. Since 1963, no Pakistani film has been submitted for Oscars.
The quality of films, scripts, music, lyrics, acting and direction were at its best during the golden era of the 50s and 60s. In the major cities of Pakistan, almost every film attracted a large audience to the movie theaters. Sadly, we couldn’t manage to continue with the legacy of the rich culture, and hence began the downfall.
There were several reasons behind the eroding away of the Pakistani film industry. One of the major reasons was the Fall of Dhaka. It came as a rude and destructive jolt to the Pakistani film industry. At the same time, the mid-70s saw the introduction of video cassette recorders in Pakistan and instantly films from all over the world were copied(pirated) onto tapes, and attendance at cinemas dwindled as people preferred to watch Indian films in the comfort of their homes. This ushered in video piracy in Pakistan. Films began to be copied on tapes on the day they hit the cinemas.
Pakistan’s first venture into English filmmaking was “Beyond the Last Mountain”(1976),  an initiative of Javed Jabbar . However, the film’s Urdu version Musafir did not do well at the box-office.
Under the Martial Law of Zia ul Haq, just like the other genres of arts, cinema also fell prey to its numerous dictats. During this period, classic love stories and Urdu films totally vanished from the scene. The new genre of films that were being made were commonly known as “Gandasa Culture”. “Mola Jutt,” which was a huge success fell into this category of films. Sultan Rahi became famous and hundreds of Punjabi films were produced, proudly showcasing violence, bloodshed and a low degree of sensuality. This trend continued well into the 90s , which resulted in disappearance of audiences from the theatres and the Pakistani film industry almost collapsed. Till 1999, the industry went through a lot of ups and downs.
The present and future of the Pakistani film industry appears to be rather gloomy. It seems to be almost non-existent these days with innumerable screenings of Bollywood films across cinema halls in urban Pakistan, especially where families like to go for a movie.
Here’s what Sara Faruqi writes about the Pakistani film Industry:
In the ‘golden days’ of Pakistani cinema, the film industry churned out more than 200 films annually, today it’s one-fifth of what it used to be. The Federal Bureau of Statistics shows that once the country boasted of having at least 700 cinemas operating in the country, this number has dwindled down to less than 170 by 2005.
Nowadays, be it in within the green walls of a dhabba, the garish pink paint of a beauty salon or a soft cream-coloured living room in suburbia, the film being played is most likely a Bollywood or Hollywood blockbuster.

Reportedly, the number of movie theaters in the country has declined from 1,100 in 1985 to just 120 today, and the number of films produced locally has shrunk to fewer than a dozen movies per year. The big studios, which defined the history of the Pakistani film industry, have been closing down, one after the other. Property dealers grabbed the vast acres of land where stood once these iconic studios and turned them into housing properties and shopping malls
Film Poster “Mola Jutt”
The cine goers and enthusiasts of Pakistan puts the blame on a variety of reasons for the steady decline of the film industry in the country. They are namely the VCR, cable television, the Islamization of the Pakistani society by ex-President Zia ul-Haq, and finally DVD piracy. While film industries have weathered changes in viewing habits, it appears that government edicts played a big role in the collapse of the industry. The theater owner wants the government to clamp down on DVD piracy while filmmakers insist that government support is needed to provide sophisticated and up-to-date equipments for film-making. Movies from the neighboring India also get the share of its blame as most Bollywood films have much larger budgets for films and its marketing campaigns.
However, in the last decade, Gen.Pervez Musharaf not only opened the market for independent media houses but also helped in revitalization of the Pakistani film industry by nurturing new talent and encouraging film making. The efforts for the revival of Urdu film industry in Pakistan was also brought into limelight.
In recent years, Shoaib Mansoor played a key role in the reincarnation of Pakistani cinema. His two major hits “Khuda ke Liye” (In the name of God, 2007) and “Bol” (Speak up, 2011) were not only acclaimed in Pakistan but also welcomed across the border. Mehreen Jabbar’s first venture in the form of feature film “Ramchand Pakistani” was also a positive and encouraging step.
Similarly, we have also witnessed a substantial progress in the field of independent filmmaking in the country. A new generation of film-makers from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad is taking a keen interest in film direction. Film and Television as a subject is being taught in several universities these days, which, needless to say, is playing a vital role in producing high quality movies and documentaries. The alumni of these educational institutions have produced films, which have been screened in various International film festivals, including India and Europe.
Sharmeen Ubaidullah Chinoy and Samar Minallah are two brilliant film-directors who have made their mark in the field of Documentary film-making.
A young film-maker Nisar Gojali’s film “Burning Paradise” was awarded special mention jury award at South Asia Film festival in held in Ahmadabad, India in January 2011. The film shows the current situation of the Swat valley and people’s opinion on extremism. Gojali’s opinion on the decline of commercial cinema is that most of the investors are not interested in films because they do not see it as a profitable venture. However, the Pakistani civil society and foreign NGOs are funding different organizations and filmmakers for documenatries and short films, especially the ones that are filmed on various contemporary issues. This is why most of the young filmmakers are focusing on independent films and private productions. Full blown feature films require a huge budget, which they cannot invest on their own. Gojali added that he is optimistic about the revival of Pakistani cinema and despite the financial and economic crises, there are bright chances of a flourishing film industry in Pakistan.
But the recent statistics of films released in Pakistan does not make for a very heartening graph. We witnessed the year 2010 as being the worst year ever in the history of Pakistan film industry where only seven films managed to get released, out of which only one Punjabi movie Wohti Le Key Jani Aay by veteran director Syed Noor was declared successful. It grossed almost Rs 8 million in just two days.
Film Poster “Bol”
After a disastrous 2010, fans of Pakistani cinema got its first Urdu language film Khamosh Raho, starring Juggan Kazim and Shaan, directed by Altaf Hussain, in 2011. Unfortunately it was a disaster on big screen and bombed at the box-office. Later in June of this year, Shoaib Mansoor released his second film, Bol, as a director. The film, starring Atif Aslam, Humaima Abbasi, Mahira Khan and Iman Ali in lead roles, broke all previous records and became the highest grossing movie of Pakistan. While Bol was receiving an outstanding appreciation and tasting success, two more Urdu language movies Love Mein Ghum and Bhai Log released. Both films were Eid gifts to the whole nation and were welcomed warmly by the Pakistani audience.
This year we also witnessed the release of the controversial film Slackistan. However, the film didn’t hit the theaters in Pakistan as the director refused to make any cuts to the film as requested by the country’s Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC). According to The Guardian, the CBFC objected to the movie because it had swear words in English and Urdu, and “contains the words ‘Taliban’ and ‘lesbian.’”
Pakistan film industry is passing through a period of transition, where a whole new generation is replacing the previous one. New faces are emerging in the movie industry, which is a healthy sign. Unique and tabooed issues are being brought into the limelight via the storytelling on silver screen. No doubt it is a positive change and we can hope that within a few years, young Pakistani filmmakers will totally change the old concepts of film-making. It is too early to claim any success but at least it is safe to predict that our film industry is moving in the right direction. Upcoming films like “Gidh,”“Waar,” “The Dusk,” “Freedom Sound,” and “Kolachi” can bring in remarkable changes to the film industry of Pakistan.
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