How useful are film festivals and conferences for Pakistani cinema, really?
Pakistan has found a new potential feather for its well-worn cap: film.
Progressing beyond the gujjars and voluptuous gyrating femme fatales of yore, our movies have become glossier, finer-tuned, revived. They have become, consequently, our latest claim-to-fame, our reason to celebrate and – let’s not forget – harbingers of our ‘soft image’ to the world, testifying that we’re really not just a gun-wielding, raving mad, terrorist nation.
That’s a relief, at least – one was getting tired of the hackneyed fashion that got perpetually showcased on international grounds as an indication that we were, in fact, quite normal.
In an effort to foster cinema’s newly renewed status, the past weekend was dedicated to two film-centric events: Focus PK in Karachi, the country’s first production and entertainment conference, and the first Pakistan Film Festival New York.
The former was masterminded by actress Atiqa Odho with PR by Talking Point PR, featuring panel discussions on pertinent topics and an illustrious list of guest speakers from within Karachi as well as others flown in from different parts of the country.
The Beach Luxury Hotel was dotted with a milieu of stars: veterans like Imran Aslam, Sultana Siddiqui, Usman Peerzada, Samina Ahmed, Jerjees Seja, Haseena Moin, Anwar Maqsood and Bushra Ansari as well as younger sparks like Vasay Chaudhry, Shiraz Uppal, Sarmad Khoosat and Zain Ahmed.
Meanwhile, the rest of our nascent entertainment fraternity jetted off to New York for the first Pakistan Film Festival, facilitated by Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s representative at the UN, and orchestrated with the help of Frieha Altaf. A plethora of recently released Pakistani films were shown at the festival, making rampant waves on social media. Sabiha Khanum, who is now 85 years old, was conspicuous amongst the attendees as were some of Pakistan’s most promising: Mahira Khan, Mawra Hocane, Tooba Siddiqui, Sanam Saeed, Mehreen Jabbar, Yasir Hussain, Wajahat Rauf, Nabeel Qureshi and Asim Raza.
The inaugural red carpet was held at the UN headquarters and the stars posed, took selfies, ecstatically swirled their cellphone cameras through the UN, quipped about nude statues at the venue and got the chance to truss up in their designer-wear and furs.
Now where else would our stars have had gotten the chance to wear their furs? Their New York trip was all over social media through the weekend and one could tell precisely how ecstatic they were.
But how does it help?
Beyond the hype, though, is there any point to such events?
The local industry is still in its early stages of development, producing just a handful of movies every year and hardly all of them are box office successes. Film’s growth in Pakistan, in fact, is veritably precarious, getting halted frequently due to shortage in finances, limited screens in cinemas and a lack of public enthusiasm in cinemas ever since the screening of Indian movies got suspended. Has progress really been made to the point that conferences and festivals be dedicated to our film industry?
According to Atiqa Odho, this is precisely why a conference like Focus PK was imperative.
“We have a long way to go but we won’t improve unless we have some sort of infrastructure,” she pointed out. “At festivals abroad, I have seen how new aspirants get the chance to interact with veterans and it made me realize how we direly needed a similar platform in Pakistan.
"For our panel discussions, we selected topics that needed to be aired out and chose well-informed insiders as our guest speakers. Over the two days spanning Focus PK, I saw people from different fields liaising with each other, striking conversations, arranging future meetings, making plans. Financiers got the chance to meet with producers, directors with actors and so forth. Most importantly, this was a neutral ground that wasn't bound by sponsorship from any one channel or corporate entity. It allowed trade stakeholders, the government, actors and the business community to converge freely regardless of who they were associated with.
“This does not mean that cinema will suddenly accelerate towards growth just because of this one conference but at least we are taking steps towards working out solutions,” she concluded.
"Cinema will not suddenly accelerate towards growth just because of this one conference but at least we are taking steps towards working out solutions," says Atiqa Odho about Focus PK.
Scrutinised by Focus PK were topics that ranged from the very technical to the general. Director Syed Noor declared that he had given Pakistani cinema all its stars, Samina Peerzada questioned why PEMRA had allowed foreign content to be aired on our radios at all and director Misbah Khalid professed that she would never have women slapped around in her dramas just in order to hike viewer ratings (unlike her many peers). Also discussed, among other topics, were censorship policies, the need for sponsorship in theatre, the decline in regional language productions, the lack of quality in audio productions, music piracy and the credibility of social media.
“It’s all very important,” observed Jang Group and GEO TV Network President Imran Aslam at an inaugural dinner at the end of Focus PK’s first day. “For instance, there is no coherent censorship policy. How will filmmakers know what will and will not be censored? In television, when we enlist a production company to create a TV drama for us, we first listen to the basic plot and see if it has potential. After some time, we are presented with a pilot episode and then, if we give it the go-ahead, the drama goes under production. In the case of cinema, the poor filmmaker makes the entire movie without knowing whether it will be accepted.”
Interesting though it was, it was apparent that the general populace wasn’t quite as enamored by Focus PK, with plenty of empty seats in the halls during discussions. Apparently, colleges had especially been extended invitations and the event was publicised quite a bit via the Internet. One understands that security concerns must have restricted the organisers from advertising more extensively. Also, Focus PK clearly asserted itself as a trade-related serious conference. Then again, film and TV are mediums popularised by the general public and the discussions were riveting. The conference could have become utterly crowded with fans and enthusiasts, should the organizers have chosen to go more public.
Visible, though, were plenty of people that mattered – Minister for Information Maryam Aurangzeb, for one, who sat through sessions on both days and indicated a willingness to readdress censorship policies.
“It’s important that the government takes an interest in supporting the arts,” enthused Atiqa. "We hope to pinpoint the issues highlighted during the panel discussions and present them to the government in an official format."
New York, New York
And while Focus PK sought to iron out the many bumps strewn across film’s path to success, the Pakistan Film Festival New York was more of a celebration.
“Mainstream media may like to highlight terrorism but there is a whole world out there that is interested in knowing how things really are. They are the people we address with [this festival],” says Mahira
Actress Mahira Khan commented all the way from New York, “A lot of Pakistanis living here are under the misconception that the arts are not supported in our country and when we went for dinner to Maleeha Lodhi’s, Sanam (Saeed) and I spent the whole evening trying to convince this one woman about how things were actually in Pakistan,” the actress explained.
“It’s important to break these notions that people have. We visited the UN and it was incredibly encouraging. We met the who’s who amongst the Pakistanis living there and it was definitely a step in improving our country’s image.”
But does the world at large really care about Pakistan’s positive aspects or are they more fixated with hearing about the negativity?
“Mainstream media may like to highlight terrorism but there is a whole world out there that is interested in knowing how things really are. They are the people we address with such events,” explained Mahira.
"As a filmmaker, [festivals like these] give me confidence that our hard work is being recognised and places greater responsibility upon me to come out with better and more substantial films,” says Asim Raza
Director Asim Raza, whose Ho Mann Jahaan was shown at the festival, observed, “The reason why I think this festival is a great initiative is that finally our official representatives, both locally and internationally, are feeling the need to place focus on Pakistani cinema which had been ignored for the longest time. As a filmmaker, this gives me confidence that our hard work is being recognised and places greater responsibility upon me to come out with better and more substantial films.”
Actor Yasir Hussain, whose Lahore Se Aagey incited more enthusiasm in the U.S. than it has on local grounds, was similarly positive. “It’s so encouraging to meet Pakistanis living abroad and realise that they appreciate your work. It makes you want to do more in the future.”
What matters most
But will our filmmakers continue to receive such encouragement should film-based fetes be organised internationally on a regular basis?
One doesn’t think so – considering the few releases we have every year and how our scripts and production standards fluctuate in comparison to that of the rest of the world.
To truly make waves – rather than short-lived ones on social media – film is in dire need of improvement. Private financing, government support and more vigilant quality control are some of the factors that could improve our trips to the cinema. Focus PK endeavored to address these issues.
And then, should improvements ultimately be made, we may perhaps be able to attract in a more diverse audience to our film-centric events rather than a mostly Pakistani one. Then, we can celebrate all we like; wearing designer-wear, taking selfies, posing with our fur boas.