Pakistan’s once-withering film industry is on the verge of a renaissance.
Lollywood—an unofficial name of the industry, centered around Lahore—has released about 10 Urdu films this year, the highest ever in more than three decades. These films have explored genres ranging from romance and comedy to drama and tragedy, receiving both critical acclaim and commercial success.
And today (Sept. 11), one of the most awaited films has arrived in theatres across Pakistan.
Manto is based on the life and times of controversial author Saadat Hasan Manto. The feature film—which some are calling Pakistan’s first biopic—chronicles the last seven years of the author in the newly created Pakistan of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The character of Manto has been essayed by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, who is also the film’s director. Khoosat is better known in Pakistan (and India alike) as the director of one of the country’s most popular television series, Humsafar.
Khoosat is also among the clutch of Pakistani television veterans who have infused Lollywood with new life—and driven a string of ambitious productions this year.
“There wasn’t such a trend in the past of releasing x number of ‘international standard’ films, but with many prominent names from our television working on films now, there’s a bright future ahead,” a spokesperson at Geo TV, one of Pakistan’s biggest TV networks and the production company behind Manto, told Quartz.
“There’s already a huge buzz in the media about Manto, so we are expecting it to do well at the box office,” the spokesperson optimistically added.
It’s been an unusually plentiful year for Pakistani cinema-goers.
For the first time in decades, three films released on Pakistan’s Independence Day—Dekh Magar Pyaar Say, Moor and Shah. Earlier on Eid, two films—Bin Roye and Wrong No.—hit the theatres.
Bin Roye was one of Pakistan’s most expensive films, and featured two television actors, Humayun Saeed and Mahira Khan (who will now be seen in Manto) in the lead roles. Wrong No. was also backed by Pakistani television veterans, including Javed Sheikh and Danish Taimoor.
But Pakistani audiences were treated to more than just extravagant potboilers. In May, 3 Bahadur—the first Urdu 3D computer-animated film—hit the screens.
“Can we make films that can stand in competition to Hollywood and Bollywood? Yes, that has started,” Nadeem Mandviwalla, owner of Mandviwalla Entertainment, one of Pakistan’s leading production houses, told Quartz.
Yet, unlike Bollywood’s million-dollar budgets, Pakistani films are being crafted with much smaller sums. And despite a limited number of screens—a little more than 70—across the country, they more or less are managing to break even.
“The cinema here is slowly beginning to stand on its own two feet again,” Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, director of 3 Bahadur, told Quartz. “And at a rapid rate, because the release of over 10 films is actually twice as many from the previous year.”
A decade ago, in 2003, not a single Urdu film was made in Pakistan.
It was in the 1980s that Pakistan’s thriving cinema abruptly collapsed after a populist regime was replaced by General Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship. Under his rule, the Pakistani mainstream film industry died a slow death. Even cinema halls started closing down, one after another.
A new censorship policy was put in place. The laws were more stringent towards the content in Urdu films, as opposed to Punjabi and Pashto films, which continued to flourish. In the few cinema houses that remained, these films—with mostly violent content—were shown for a predominantly working class audience.
“By the early 2000s, an industry that once produced an average of 80 films annually was now struggling to even churn out more than two films a year,” journalist Nadeem F. Paracha wrote in the Dawn newspaper.
In contrast, Bollywood flourished as it “managed to find a whole new audience: the Indian diaspora in the US, Europe and the Middle East,” Paracha wrote in another report.
Finally, under General Pervez Musharraf in the 2000s, the import of Indian films—which hadn’t been allowed for more than three decades—changed the course for the Pakistani film industry.
“Indian films revived the cinema-going culture in Pakistan,” Rafay Mahmood, film critic at the Express Tribune, told Quartz. Soon, the number of screens started rising steadily to showcase Indian imports—and young and independent Pakistani filmmakers were encouraged to try again.
In 2007, Pakistan’s Khuda Kay Liye—produced and directed by Shoaib Mansoor—was successfully released across 27 screens. It was the biggest domestic film in Urdu in a long time, and it also became the first Pakistani film to be released in India in 40 years.
Mansoor’s target audience was the new generation of cinema-goers who were more familiar with Bollywood than the Pakistani films of the past, the television veteran explained in a 2013 interview.
“The whole nineties generation in Pakistan grew up without cinema. We only had childhood stories from our parents, as we accessed Bollywood and select Hollywood films on pirated CDs and DVDs,” Mahmood recalled.
The success of a Pakistani film gave courage to producers, exhibitors and distributors, who saw a glimmer of profitability in the industry. Still, it took another four years for Mansoor’s second film, Bol, to release in 2011.
By then, however, 11 new screens had come up, taking the total to 38 screens nationwide. Two years on, Bollywood film Race 2 became the first to cross the 10 crore Pakistani rupees mark—roughly the country’s equivalent of Bollywood’s Rs100 crore club. ”With Race 2’s success, many became film trade analysts overnight,” observed Mahmood.
Later in 2013, Waar—a film about a retired army officer returning to foil a terrorist plot—turned out to be a blockbuster, raking in more than 20 crore Pakistani rupees. The same year, Pakistan sent its first entry to the Oscars in decades.
This year alone, three films—Bin Roye, Karachi Se Lahore and Wrong No.—have entered the elite 10 crore Pakistani rupee club, Mandviwalla told Quartz.
The Pakistani audience and its loyalty towards local Urdu films were also key in the industry’s revival.
“Our public pitched in. The verdict has actually come from them, because they came out and watched the films,” Mandviwalla said. “Bajrangi Bhaijaan and the new Mission Impossible were released on Eid. But there was still room for our local films.”
Interestingly, instead of borrowing from quintessential Bollywood films with songs and dance, Pakistani filmmakers are inspired by Iranian filmmakers, according to filmmaker Jamshed Mahmood Raza. Raza’s film, Moor, based on the railway business in Balochistan, is Pakistan’s entry for the Oscars this year.
“Pakistani filmmakers are desperate storytellers. And they are consistently trying to look for a narrative close to home,” said film critic Mahmood. ”They are trying to discover the Pakistani dream—just like the American dream.”
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