Cutting the nose to spite the face, again: How the Bollywood ban is a mistake Pakistan has made before
An attack takes place on an army camp in the Indian-held Kashmir city of Uri in which 18 Indian soldiers lose their lives. A few days later, the Indian military claims to have conducted ‘surgical strikes’ at five points in Pakistan-controlled Azad Jammu and Kashmir and to have inflicted heavy casualties on militants gathered there to launch attacks across the Line of Control (LOC). Pakistan strongly denies these claims but says that two Pakistani soldiers were killed in cross-LOC artillery shelling by the Indians.
It is in the intrinsic absurdity of Indo-Pak relations that somehow the toll for this military bloodshed and claims and counter-claims is exacted from films and film-makers. Everything in the end boils down to cinema.
First in India, as a result of rising emotions and in particular the provocative jingoism and war drum-beating of its television media, the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association (IMPPA) passes a resolution to ban Pakistani actors and technicians from working in India. In response, the Pakistan Exhibitors’ Association — basically cinema owners — announces with as much fervour that they are going to suspend showing Bollywood films in Pakistani cinemas ‘until the situation normalises.’
Pakistani cinema owners say that the ban on Indian films was put in place only as a response to the Indian film industry’s actions and because Pakistan’s honour was at stake after Pakistani actors such as Fawad Khan, Mahira Khan and Ali Zafar were forced to return from India. No doubt you’ve heard the saying ‘Cutting the nose to spite the face’ and can think of people who have done it (hopefully only) metaphorically. But I bet you’ve never heard the phrase ‘Cutting the nose to spite the face, again.’ Well, now you can hear and see it in action.
But first a clarification is necessary. There is no denying that Indian media is currently in the throes of war hysteria and Pakistan-baiting is, unfortunately, at its peak within it at the moment. There is also no argument that the resolution passed by the IMPPA — which has also been roundly criticised by well-known Indian film-makers and actors such as Salman Khan, Mahesh Bhatt, Karan Johar and Om Puri — was a pretty absurd piece of public posturing. After all, if throwing out three or four Pakistanis from India (or, conversely, Indian citizens from Pakistan) could bring peace and security, the subcontinent would already have been a shining example of peaceful coexistence over the last 60 or 70 years.
But if there are people in India who prefer mouthing off to bothering their brains, there is no shortage of people in Pakistan either who like to take flying leaps without looking at where they are jumping.
Consider a few facts about Pakistan’s cinema industry. It may be hard to believe now but until the late 1970s, Pakistan was counted as among the top 10 film producing countries in the world. Over 100 feature films were being produced annually and Pakistan boasted between 1,300 and 1,400 cinema houses. But the advent of home video, the satellite dish and the internet, coupled with the rise of television and the disastrously anti-film policies of General Zia, brought about such a precipitous decline that at one point only 20-odd feature films were being produced in Pakistan (most of which were in Pushto) and the number of functioning cinemas had gone down to less than 70.
In the last three years, revenue from Indian films has accounted for between 60 and 75 percent of the entire box office revenues of Pakistan. That is to say that of every 100 rupees earned by cinema owners, 60 to 75 rupees have been earned from Indian films. This is simply a function of the volume of Indian films being released.
During the tenure of General Musharraf, when Pakistan finally lifted the official ban on Indian films in 2007, the move had come about as a direct result of the pressure exerted on the government by cinema owners and organisations such as the KaraFilm Festival (in which, full disclosure, I had a role as well). The logic for repealing the ban was based entirely on economics: Pakistani cinemas needed films and audiences to function. Pakistan was just not producing the number of films required to keep cinemas functioning year-round, and audiences were watching the Bollywood films they wanted to watch anyway. They were simply watching them via cable, satellite dish and DVDs in their homes rather than in the cinemas.
In the beginning there was plenty of opposition from the moribund film industry in Lahore. But it soon became clear that this decision was the correct one with far-reaching positive consequences. Not only did cinema houses stop getting demolished, new cinema complexes began to come up, particularly state-of-the-art multiplexes. And as money began to flow into the box office and more screens went up, Pakistani film-makers too were encouraged to begin making films again. Films were becoming economically viable to invest in again. The so-called ‘revival’ of the Pakistani cinema, which the media does not tire of celebrating these days, has been built on the back of the decision to reopen Pakistani cinemas to Indian films.
In the last three years, revenue from Indian films has accounted for between 60 and 75 percent of the entire box office revenues of Pakistan. That is to say that, of every 100 rupees earned by cinema owners, 60 to 75 rupees have been earned from Indian films. This is simply a function of the volume of Indian films being released. Since 2011 — when the first multiplexes were established in the country — the revenue from Indian films has grown annually between 24 and 31 percent. This year, which has been comparatively weak in terms of financials, the highest earning film in Pakistan has been the Salman Khan-starrer Sultan, which raked in 34 crore rupees. No Pakistani film has come even close to it in terms of earnings so far this year.
But this rebirth of the Pakistan cinema industry has only just begun. There are still only about 80 cinema screens in all of Pakistan. (Compare this with the United Kingdom, which has over 4,000 screens; India which has over 13,000; China which has over 31,000; and the US which has over 40,000 cinema screens. Even tiny UAE has over 250 screens.) The number of Pakistani films released nationwide this year is still not likely to cross 20 — add in Pushto and Punjabi films which have limited circuits and the number is still not much above 30. Only a few films have done well at the box office. The ban on Indian films has the potential to stop all growth in the Pakistan cinema industry in its tracks.
Already there is news coming in that work on 16 new screens coming up in Karachi, Lahore, Abbottabad, Bahawalpur and Sialkot has been stopped because those building them are scared they will lose their investments. Feasibilities have obviously been thrown out of whack. If this is not cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, it’s hard to tell what is.
At the beginning I had used the phrase ‘Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, again.’ There was a reason for that. Most people are not aware that long before Pakistan officially banned Indian films after the 1965 war, an informal ban had already been imposed on Indian films in 1960. This was a ban that had been imposed by cinema owners with the encouragement of the Pakistan film industry itself. Then, as now, emotions had got the better of them. The repercussions of that ban took some time to manifest themselves — remember there was no TV then, no VCRs, no satellite dishes, no cable, no internet — but it is my considered view that the decline of Pakistani cinema can be traced back to this time.
This short-sighted protectionism eventually sank the Pakistani film industry. Since there was no immediate competition — either from Indian films or alternative sources of entertainment — and because it takes time for momentum to fade, Pakistani films did roaring business initially. But quality continued to dwindle and trends such as making poor copies of Indian films (which Pakistanis could not see to compare) gathered force. Then, with the separation of East Pakistan, Pakistan lost an important and vibrant part of its film industry. When the real challenges came — in the shape of television and home video and piracy and censorship — the Pakistan film industry simply did not have the strength to combat them.
The question of course arises, that knowing this history, why did cinema owners take the course of action they have taken. My assessment is that they thought they were being smart. The fact of the matter is that the three Pakistani films released over Eid had done well and were still running in the cinemas. The month of Muharram was coming up, in which cinema footfalls decline anyway. Cinemas are shut for at least two days during Ashura. In addition, there was no big ticket film being released until at least the end of October.
Cinema owners probably thought this would be a perfect time to demonstrate their patriotism — a patriotism that would be showcased without requiring much financial sacrifice on their part. The Pakistan Exhibitors’ Association doubtless thought matters would cool down in a few weeks, after which they would call off their suspension of Bollywood films to great acclaim of their nationalism.
The problem, of course, is that the consequences of such opportunism are not always as expected. History is full of acts of brinkmanship whose results have been entirely different to what had been hoped for. The political situation between India and Pakistan can still take a turn for the worse. And if it does, all the plans of the Pakistan cinema industry will be left high and dry.
As it is, it took 45 years to overturn a bad decision that the Pakistani cinema owners had in effect imposed on themselves by showing the government the way. If, once again, something were to go wrong, Pakistan’s exhibitors will have no one to blame but themselves.
The writer is a journalist and film-maker and was one of founders of the KaraFilm Festival — the Karachi International Film Festival. He is also Editor Magazines at Dawn.
Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 16th, 2016