Our cinema mistake
PAKISTANIS have many strengths but taking the long view, it seems, isn’t one of them. This is evident in decisions made with regard to politics, sports, urban planning and now, the arts.
Last week local cinema owners and distributors announced they would consider bringing Iranian and Turkish movies to the big screen after mulling over the effects of a self-imposed ban on Indian films in Pakistan.
This ban was an answer to India’s moratorium on screening films featuring Pakistani artists, announced by the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association (IMPPA) in September, which itself was a retaliatory measure meant to snub Pakistan after the Uri incident.
At the time, patriotic Pakistanis fell in line behind this decision to bar Indian films from being screened in Pakistan. Thin crowds are a norm in Muharram, anti-Pakistan rhetoric dominating Indian media stoked a love for country in even the most ambivalent hearts, global scrutiny of Pakistan’s efforts to combat terrorism provoked embarrassment — and against this backdrop it seemed fair, correct, even, to signal displeasure at the IMPPA’s move by instating a ban to call our own. Saner voices — actors, critics and filmmakers — who tentatively expressed concern for what this might mean for Pakistani cinema were silenced by the intensity of our indignation, and this situation persisted until now.
So what’s changed? Why the sudden scramble to fill our cinema screens with foreign fare of Iranian and Turkish provenance?
The facts are as follows: the month of Muharram has passed, but ticket sales in cinemas haven’t picked up. Hollywood films don’t draw crowds the way a Karan Johar production can; consequently, footfall in multiplexes has dwindled. And now, the two major Pakistani films that are due to be released in November will suffer the effects of a dispirited public’s disinterest in the cinema experience.
Our ban on Indian films has made painfully clear that Bollywood provided the scaffolding on which Pakistani cinema could stage its comeback, ensuring a steady supply of cash where none was to be had before.
Banning Indian films was a strategic error on the part of Pakistani cinema owners – not just because it had the paradoxical effect of hindering the growth of local cinema, but also because it is nearly impossible to reverse. Though cinema owners said the ban would be in effect until Pakistan-India tensions ease, there is no objective standard by which this expected softening of relations can be gauged. However it is justified, any move to begin screening Indian films again can be criticised as being anti-national.
The Pakistani film industry is not yet in a position to produce more than a dozen mainstream films a year — if that — so cinema owners have little recourse other than to look westward for something that’ll pull in the crowds. Enter Iranian and Turkish films.
Now, introducing Iranian films to a Pakistani audience is, in theory, not a terrible idea: Iran produces provocative, award-winning features that ought to be seen by more Pakistanis. However, the decision is ill-conceived in that it aims to solve one problem — that is, poor attendance in cinemas — with a solution best applied to an entirely different problem — a lack of cultural awareness in Pakistan’s movie-going population.
It stands to reason that a rigorous examination of identity vis-à-vis an Iranian film will never serve as substitute for the rollicking entertainment a Bollywood blockbuster provides. The gains made in screening Iranian films will not be monetary; they will be moral and intellectual. This is noble, yes, but it does little to boost Pakistan’s nascent film industry in real terms.
And what of Turkish films? Interestingly, there’s a precedent here. Turkish dramas dubbed in Urdu have been airing on Pakistani TV for many months now, and with great success, or so ratings tell us. However, assuming Turkish films will fare as well as Turkish TV dramas is a leap that ignores the key difference between cinema and television: TV viewers are a captive audience, and so, are easy to convert into casual or even regular consumers.
In contrast, going to the cinema is a deliberate economic decision, an event with a not inconsiderable price tag. The exhausted mother-of-three who likes to zone out in front of a Turkish drama at 3pm while her children nap — will she rush to the cinema to get her fix of Turkish entertainment? No.
This is the state of Pakistani cinema at the moment: having dug ourselves into a hole we’re desperately casting about for a ladder. We’ve latched onto Iranian and Turkish films as a mode of elevation, but it’s a poor one which won’t be our salvation.
Had we taken the long view, we wouldn’t have banned Indian films at all — we’d have continued to use them to prop up Pakistani films until, one day, we could fully detach without consequence. Unfortunately for Pakistani cinema, pragmatism plays only a bit-part in our decisions.