“GET out. Find people who are like you.” This was a parting whisper from Farjad Nabi to his colleagues on the day of his escape.
He was one who did get out of it — journalism or newspaper journalism — with his dream still alive and compelling. Zinda Bhaag, the film he has co-directed with Meenu Gaur — presumably someone like him given her express admiration for things Lahori — is one realisation of that dream.
Back in the 1990s, Farjad wrote, when he felt like writing, on kites and Basant and on certain fusions he did not quite approve of.
Mazhar Zaidi, now the ‘necktied’ producer spotted proudly showing off Zinda Bhaag in faraway Canada, also had his writer’s blocks but he had to often acquiesce in reporting on mundane topics to fill the pages of the magazines both he and Farjad then worked with.
Mazhar also had to work longer as a full-time journalist after he and Farjad made a statement of intent by setting up a modest but ambitious music studio in Anarkali.
It is not difficult to locate the germs of Zinda Bhaag in those days. One of Mazhar’s news features back then was titled Greek Tragedy. It was about a group of young men who had set out of Gujrat in search of employment in Europe.
They died while trying to cross the sea off Greece and their posthumous return to their villages made a very moving story that was to be repeated many times over but never with the impact of the first one. The irony was all there to be captured but journalism had its restrictions.
Farjad and Mazhar were not the first ones to have felt contained by the rules of everyday journalism and not the first ones to have gotten away. Short of having a newspaper of their own, journalists and writers have frequently been provoked to use cinema as a medium of expression.
Some, B.R. Chopra, Shabab Kiranvi, Attaullah Shah Hashmi and Ali Sufyan Afaqi to name but a few from among those who have been associated with film or journalism or both in Lahore, have had success in commercial cinema.
Others like Ahmed Bashir, Hameed Akhtar and of course Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ashfaq Ahmed have experimented with a film or two, won a bit of critical acclaim and provided dreamers with a cause in the years to come.
Quite often the struggles these journalists-turned-filmmakers have had to face have run as engaging parallel narratives to that of the films they have made.
Zinda Bhaag’s release in Pakistani theaters also precedes discussions with its makers, but thankfully, for now at least, the problems its producers must have encountered have remained out of the discourse.
This will enable audiences, among them some eager journalists, to view the film for its cinematographic qualities and not as a token offering in the name of what has in the past been dubbed as parallel cinema.
Journalism’s runaway boys would be compromising their escape journey if they were to settle for anything less than competition with the mainstream.
It appears to be mainstream alright. Some of the film’s songs have been heard and a low-intensity publicity campaign, with Naseeruddin Shah wearing a typically Lahori red head in the lead, has been run on social media that has not detracted from the mystery of the film.
And while the rest can be debated in time, the venture’s billing as an out and out Lahori project is a significant cause in itself and worthy of celebration.
The cameras in Lahore have for far too long been focused on gloomy, realistic enactments — suicide bombers ramming vehicles against walls, thrashing of bakery employees by the powerful, and the kind you have been subjected to over the last few days through the CCTV camera at Ganga Ram hospital.
The so-called cultural capital has been beset with inaction and cynicism.
The government has been too busy pursuing concrete development and can easily be accused of deliberate neglect in wooing the conservative elements, and the citizens are guilty of not taking up cultural causes strongly enough.
It’s been a slide into the culture of hypocrisy and if yesterday dance classes had the prudes frowning upon them, today the teaching of comparative religions at a school raises not just eyebrows but controversy.
The art exhibitions do take place in Lahore frequently, and every now and then there is an effort to convince the people that watching theatre is a family activity.
Thus everyone who has a family as also a desire to partake of theatre is duty-bound to promote what occasionally takes place in the name of saaf suthra or clean drama at the Alhamra.
Few have heeded these appeals to duty. Like film, popular theatre cannot be run on donations. It has to speak for itself and create its own appeal.
Their showing on less popular television channels is proof that some television plays are still made in Lahore, but, except for some occasional waning hurrahs by someone like Syed Noor, the Lollywood of the past is in a shambles.
It makes news around Eid time when Resham goes to distribute zakat and eidi among the surviving workers at the studios. And it makes news when a few of these studio workers threaten to end their lives after failing to find employment for a long period.
Not everything, not much of what these studios produced over time, might have made the grade of ‘quality’ cinema. Much of what they produced could be ranked as bad cinema, but even if all that was undesirable, it needed to be replaced instead of the business being shut down.
The other purposes of film apart, those who have not lost hope in Lahore’s capacity to entertain would get some satisfaction out of Zinda Bhaag. It would be nice if the film has a few at the old Lahore studios up and running again.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.