The cinema centenary
By: I.A Rehman
ALL praise for Karachi’s cine enthusiasts for organising public events to mark the centenary of the subcontinent’s cinema while our filmmakers are once again begging to be put on oxygen.
It should be interesting to find out why the Pakistani film industry has shown little interest in celebrating 100 years of filmmaking — 2013 marks the centenary of film production in the subcontinent and not of film exhibition that had started earlier. And this despite being invited by Indian filmmakers to partake of shared glory.
One reason could be the muddled thinking about the Pakistani people’s cultural heritage. If they reject the arts and literature produced in the subcontinent before it was partitioned they repudiate not only the legacy of the great Indo-Islamic culture, that grew over centuries, but also the poetry of Mir, Ghalib and Iqbal (who spent all his life as a citizen of India). If the cultural history of our people is supposed to have begun in 1947 then we have no cultural heritage worth the name.
If everything that was ever done in the territories now constituting Pakistan is part of our tradition, then there should be no problem in owning Harappa and Moenjodaro as our forefathers’ magnificent contribution to humankind’s quest for civilised existence, and celebrating the lives of Porus and Nanak.
But if only work that can be labelled Islamic is considered worth including in the Pakistani people’s cultural history, a celebration of cinema will depend on a finding whether Islam permits making films.
The only rational attitude is to accept the fact that the Pakistani people formed part of the large Indian community that was thrilled at the advent of cinema in their land a century ago.
Besides, Lahore’s contribution to the Indian (or subcontinental, if one cannot get over the hangover of communal exclusivism) cinema is by no means insignificant. The first Lahore-made silent film came only a decade after the path-breaking Raja Harishchandra and Lahore presented its first talkie barely a year after Bombay’s Alam Ara.
Thus, instead of waiting for a decade or so before celebrating the centenary of Pakistani cinema by claiming as part of it all the work of the Lahore group (from A.R. Kardar to Nazir) and Mehra, Pancholi and Shorey done before partition, it will be more appropriate to look back at the 100 years of Indian cinema as a composite narrative.
Space constraints prevent a detailed discussion on the achievements and deficiencies of the Indian cinema beyond acknowledging some of its major contributions to the life of the people.
Apart from mitigating the public hunger for entertainment the Indian film has contributed to the promotion of pluralist values and popularised a common language. It has also been possible to help the rise of cinema in regional languages and find space for it in mainstream art. Above all, the Indian film industry has gained a lot in prestige from its success in throwing up, alas for a short period though, a parallel cinema.
If the Pakistani film industry, whatever is left of it, had cared to look back at its journey from the start of filmmaking 100 years ago to the present, it would have been possible to do a useful critique of post-partition (Pakistan) cinema.
The story of the Pakistani component of subcontinental cinema is characterised by missed opportunities and society’s failure to sustain progressive utilisation of the medium. Filmmakers began by aping the Bombay formula of love stories. They had little idea of the social consequences of partition, or the event had too little impact on the filmmakers’ mind to inspire them to genuinely artistic activity.
When they lost out in the contest with Indian imports they called for protection which they failed to exploit for the growth of cinema relevant to the people’s life, except for occasional individual efforts in Urdu films and to a greater extent in Punjabi cinema.
The East Bengal filmmakers also started by following the commercial formula but were able to derive fresh ideas and thematic strength from their movement for national rights. Still, in the popular genre quite a few filmmakers offered highly satisfying films and a few of them are struggling to do so even now.
The government has often been blamed, rightly to a large extent, for not taking cinema seriously, for not doing its duty to promote it. But the government’s shortcomings are a reflection of the state’s bigger failure to generate social change and improve the capacity of the masses to sustain cinema as an instrument of cultural advancement.
Over the past few years, the Pakistani film industry has been in a state of perpetual crisis. Commercial successes have been few and far between. It has had little success in encouraging alternative cinema despite the lead given by filmmakers from outside, such as Shoaib Mansoor, Mehreen Jabbar and Hasan Zaidi.
In fact, there is much impressive activity in the short-film domain and the way opened by the socially aware documentary producer Mushtaq Gazdar (and the author of the only readable book on Pakistani film) has been successfully explored by quite a few gifted artists, from Sabiha Sumar to Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
There is no gainsaying the fact that film remains a powerful medium of expression and its potential as a means of public education and enlightenment cannot be denied.
It so happens that today the film quarters are again agitating for protection. The distributors/exhibitors are protesting against a new levy on imported films while the filmmakers want an end to such imports. While the latter’s demand for protection of the kind they enjoyed during 1954-2002 cannot be conceded, their plea for support does merit sympathetic consideration.
The distributors’ protest against the flat-rate levy on imported fare also has considerable weight. Duties are imposed on the value of imports and not on their places of origin. A graduated tax on the price/rental value of imported films should be in order.
And if something good for the indigenous film industry is intended a small surcharge may be levied on cinema tickets and the proceeds distributed amongst the universities/institutions that are imparting education and training in the art of cinema. That will be a prudent investment.