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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Return to Cinema - The Pakistani Cinema


What is the New Wave? Apart from being an overused cliché, the phrase was originally used to describe a new movement in French cinema in the 1950s, when a group of filmmakers – many of them former film critics – ushered in revolutionary approaches to conceiving, producing and making films.
The movement itself was the coming of age of the cinematic form itself, and similar ‘New Waves’ were described in Iran, Mexico, Portugal, Brazil, Czechoslovakia and even Hollywood.

Unfortunately, much like Che Guevara going from an icon of revolution to a popular T-shirt, the term New Wave is now loosely used in any film industry whenever a clutch of films challenging the orthodoxy are released in quick succession. The problem with such usage is that it ignores the fact that a moment like the coming of a ‘New Wave’ occurs as part of a crescendo of changes not just in films, but also more generally in society, culture and the arts.

So, can we begin to speak of any new waves in Pakistan’s much-lamented film industry? There is a great desire for the answer to be yes, simply because even with a barely functioning film industry, Pakistanis are voracious fans of cinema. The fact that we now have a slow but steady drip of new, Pakistani films has stoked the appetite of cinephiles all over the land.

But perhaps it is too soon to be trumpeting any New Waves, mainly because there is little orthodox tradition left to be challenged, and also because the current surge in films is more a consequence of technical, commercial and infrastructural changes than any new ideology. That said, it would be callous to downplay this moment as well, because what we are witnessing is worthy of appreciation.

So instead of a New Wave, or the even more abused term Revival, let me christen this moment the Return of Cinema to Pakistan. To catalogue and understand this Return, I spoke to four directors about their films and their ambitions, to try and see what we can expect on our screens in the coming months.

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Bilal Lashari was one of the last entrants of what was probably a golden age of music videos in Pakistan. A range of directors, often armed with film degrees from abroad, took advantage of Pakistan’s evergreen music scene as well as the arrival of a multitude of new channels, equipment and technical staff to usher in a flurry of creativity.

However, as the stakes and the commercial potential of the electronic media continued to rise, many of these directors moved over to the cash cow of shooting advertisements and commercials. It is here that Lashari chose to buck the trend by throwing himself headfirst into making a film.

When I spoke to him, he had spent the past 18 months working without break. During this time, he had already spurned a host of lucrative opportunities to makes ads or return to music videos, and in a way had put his entire reputation at stake. It was little surprise then that the word he used to sum up his experiences was ‘sacrifice’.

Thankfully for him though, Bilal’s debut film ‘Waar’ is set to premiere, according to reports online, on the 6th of September. Starring Shaan in the lead role, it is a tale of counterterrorism and militancy.

When I first heard of this premise, I was cautious. For starters, Bilal’s music videos had always struck me as being technically and aesthetically superb, but guilty of wearing foreign influences too heavily. Jal’s award winning Sajni his narrative was very much from the Grimm Brothers, while Mekaal Hasan Band’s Chal Bulleya brought in the seven sins, a concept not readily accessible in the local context.
Moreover, there had been rumors of investments by American studios and funding by the ISPR, and I had feared that a bright, young director was unwittingly going to churn out a propaganda piece.

But Bilal’s response to these questions belied a director tired of batting away such suggestions.

“The film is shot in a realistic (translation: non-South Asian) style, and is at its heart an action movie. It’s not about the Army, and it has not been funded by any American studio or enterprise. The story is actually about a police officer, and is meant to entertain above all else.”

And what about the ISPR funding? “In order to go shoot at some of the locations we needed to, we had to enlist the Army’s help. There is no way of accessing those locations otherwise, and that’s true for anyone in the industry.”

In essence, Bilal’s background and the premise of this film doesn’t suggest some searing indictment of our counterterrorism policy, but it does suggest the arrival of a modern action flick, set in a suitably fantastical yet cinematically appropriate context – and not a moment too soon.

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Coming in around the same time as Bilal’s Waar will be Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi’s Zinda Bhaag. The two directors though are quite atypical in terms of their background when the Pakistani scene is considered, but that may well be their strongest advantage.

Farjad and Meenu have been part of Matteela Films, and have been making critically acclaimed documentaries on topics from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to the history of the food available in Karachi.

Their decision to make a film was both a result of their passion for cinema, but also an attempt to identify and revitalize the existing Pakistani film tradition. Their primary impulse was to make a film not only organic to the local scene, but also one that sought to move past the creative stifling that had marred the industry. Farjad spoke about how the story – about a group of young Pakistanis trying to immigrate abroad through dubious means – was begging to be made. “These tales – which all of us hear from relatives and acquaintances – were so remarkable that all you needed to do was put them on the screen and it became cinema.”

Fascinatingly, the two embarked on a process which was closest to the tradition of European auteur directors, although one they felt arose more out of production exigencies than artistic sensibilities. They hired non-professionals with lives very similar to the characters, threw them into intensive workshops, and filmed them with the liberty to improvise as they went along. As Meenu explained, the film became a text informed by the efforts of the entire crew.

The obstacles they faced did not come from the censors or distributors. Instead, the film’s producer Mazhar Zaidi spoke of a missing political economy, a lack of infrastructure. The few cameras in the country go to advertisements, the equipment for dubbing sound or processing film doesn’t exist, and technical crew has to be flown in from abroad. When Zinda Bhaag enlisted an Indian rather than a Far Eastern crew, it had to face the inevitable India-bashing that many of us revel in.

But by making this film, they have set up a template for not only what a Pakistani film can look like, but also how to make one.

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Lastly, I spoke to Jami, a name that looms large over the visual history of the past decade or so. One of the country’s most popular and acclaimed directors, his films have been rumors floating in the ether. Fans of his videos have long felt he had the vision and expertise needed to create THE Pakistani film. So why hasn’t that happened yet?

Speaking to Jamshed Mehmood, as he is also known, I felt a theme developing. If Bilal is the l’enfant terrible and Meenu and Farjad the wise, grounded aesthetes, then Jami is a gentle yet powerful patriarch, involved as much in making films as he is in setting up an industry.

 In his 15 or so years, he has been able to set up a creative economy, training new people and introducing new equipment and infrastructure. His team has been involved in Zinda Bhaag, Extortionist, Rafina and Josh the film, as well as his own two efforts Morqaye and Downward Dog.

He was laughing when he explained how setting up the infrastructure for sound recording and mastering was like building an Airbus plane, and insisted that it was far better that it took all this time to set up the industry’s basics, so that its creative potential could be realized.

“There is little doubt that the future of the industry will follow the Bollywood item-number fish market, and crazy sleaze will fly as the likes of construction companies start producing films. But we have enough directors and talent to keep alternative cinema alive through that, which is my basic hope.”
Jami’s two films are diverse and terribly exciting. Morqaye is an epic journey of a Pakistani railway station master and his family, while Downward Dog is a black and white film noir set in the Karachi of the future. Incredibly, the two films almost bankrupted the successful filmmaker before he managed to find producers for himself. After such a long wait though, it seems that the time for the harvest is nigh.

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Perhaps now it is clearer why we should be referring to a Return when we speak of these films, as well as the others coming to our screens. They don’t have a lot in common in style or ambition, and are not part of some conscious social thought either.

But what they are doing is repopulating the cinematic imagination. We need a new, larger-than-life action hero, we need a film that can amplify rather than reject our film tradition, we need a daring vision to be backed up by skilled creative personnel. We need all these things to create a cohesive sense of identity for Pakistani cinema, one that can create the bedrock upon which future, newer waves can crash upon. The journey is a long one, but Pakistani cinema is now beginning to walk down it.



Article By : Ahmer Naqvi (Dawn)

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