Pakistani cinema is stuck in a rut. We push, we pull, we skid-forward a centimetre. We have cinema screens and motion pictures; and we also have a working model where films perceived to be ‘high-concept’ — that is, films that supposedly get you your money’s worth — vie for the most lucrative release dates: the two Eids. And yet, despite the formula, good motion pictures are as rare as a big-foot sighting.
Like wrongly spotting the mythical yeti (often just a bear or an unshaved hobo living in the forest), fake hurrahs at a film’s premiere soon get embarrassing. One sighs, and moves on.
Pakistani filmmakers share that same awkwardness. They humbly apologise for their blunders, admitting their amateurishness and lack of insight right after their film’s first show — their initial rush of enthusiasm instantly gunned-down by bad reviews and the audience’s indifference. Forget a five-star rating, on that day three-stars would do.
Or would it?
The only recurring theme in Pakistani cinema is a producer’s state of depression. Today, even blockbusters lose money and, with rare exceptions, barely break-even.
Talking to Icon, three filmmakers — Jampshed Mahmood (Jami), Asim Raza and Hassan Waqas Rana — discuss Pakistani cinema’s new shortcomings: the lack of good writers, source material and big ideas.
“I think we are still lying down. We’re awake, though,” Jami says in a long conversation at his home. “To put it correctly,” he continues, “We were in a state of coma for the last 30 years, and we’ve just opened our eyes. Our hands aren’t working yet.”
He’s humble about what’s been achieved so far. “What’s happening isn’t landmark work — there is no jhanda garh diya [big achievement]. Everyone is simply happy that they made a film — I get happy after I make a movie. But when you compare Moor to Shawshank Redemption, it’s nothing.”
According to Jami, we are “lost, blind, ignorant, naпve — it’s a complete package. Right now, we don’t have a map. We have a car. Maybe some gas. We’re off-roading right now. We don’t know the destination. And we’re saying that we’re not lost. We’re not asking for directions. And whoever we’re meeting along the way, also does not know where they’re going.”
But what exactly is the vision of Pakistani filmmakers for Pakistani cinema, if any? Are they consciously even thinking about the kind of films our industry should be producing?
For a country with an as-yet undeveloped domestic circuit and virtually no brand recognition internationally, would it not make sense to invest in ‘high-concept’ films — essentially films where the idea carries the film rather than the name-recognition of actors or a watered-down simulation of that which Western and Indian film industries can do much better because of better budgets?
“To be very honest, in Pakistan there are only two genres,” says Jami. “The second one I am not sure about, but the first one is Bollywood. We are so schizophrenic that we only see one thing — that we are going to make a Karan Johar film, or something close to that. It’s very interesting, because Bollywood has destroyed our intellectuals and journalists. We [filmmakers] have these two theories: [it’s either] Shawshank or Bollywood. But actually there is just one theory: it’s either a good film or it is not.”
"In Pakistan there are only two genres. The second one I am not sure about, but the first one is Bollywood. It’s very interesting, because Bollywood has destroyed our intellectuals and journalists." - Jami
There is a misconception in the industry about high-concept ideas. In easy-to-understand Hollywood terms, a high-concept could be anything from tent-pole blockbusters such as Fate of the Furious or a Bridge of Spies, Spielberg’s film about the efforts to get American pilot Francis Gary Powers released from Russian captivity after his U2 spy plane was shot down during the height of the Cold War. In Pakistan, we settle for action-oriented army propaganda, melodramatic women or boorish ‘romantic’ comedies.
Hassan Waqas Rana, the writer-producer of Waar and just-about-everything of the upcoming Yalghaar, believes that very few have a grip on the concept.
“High-concept stories require a lot of work and unfortunately, most of our directors and producers do not have that great an opinion of our audience, which is completely wrong,” Rana tells me over the phone.
“Even if the filmmakers do, they don’t actually believe in themselves enough [to pull the concept off].”
When I point out that most so-called high-concept actioners often bank on propagating the military, Rana is quick to point out that Yalghaar is not an “army” film. “Yes, it is set in that direction, but it has lots of other angles to it,” he claims. “It has zero agenda.”
Asim Raza, producer and director of Ho Mann Jahaan (HMJ) has a different take on the subject. He believes stories come from society.
“To me they are like a lullaby — where you go ‘oh-so-sweet, so-nice, so pretty’ — but then your audience should feel that this story is talking to them. In a subtle way, it should tell of my faults which I am making as an individual — to society, my children, my parents, my friends. You give them something to think about, something that is not just entertainment,” he says.
“High-concept stories require a lot of work and unfortunately, most of our directors and producers do not have that great an opinion of our audience." - Hassan Waqas Rana
Both HMJ and Waar were successful at the box-office. HMJ spoke to the youth about maturity and following one’s dream. Waar communicated to anyone who loves Michael Bay’s penchant for destruction.
Jami’s Moor, on the other hand, was about a lone, conflicted man’s struggle against politics, about fatherhood and the motherland. It tanked at the box-office. His previous directorial endeavour O21 — a spy-thriller — was dubbed a sophisticatedly-convoluted version of Waar, with a misperceived pay-off (Shaan Shahid, the lead in Waar, was an anti-hero in O21; the real protagonist, in thematic terms, was Ayub Khoso).
During our conversation, Jami gives me the idea of a ‘no-concept’. The films we usually see, he says, are so simple that one can map them out from their trailers. “For me,” he says “a high-concept is Downward Dog [his yet unfinished film] — you have to see the film two or three times to get it. You couldn’t tell what it is from the trailer.”
Downward Dog, roughly 70 percent in the can is a black-and-white noir about writers and plagiarism that lies comatose at Jami’s edit bay.
“A high-concept is Downward Dog [Jami's yet unfinished film] — you have to see the film two or three times to get it. You couldn’t tell what it is from the trailer.” - Jami
Perhaps the problem is that Pakistan’s film industry does not have visionaries who can come up with out-of-the-box ideas or the script-writers who can translate them for the screen?
Speaking of writers, Jami says he is optimistic — and that there may be some, somewhere. Only, he hasn’t seen them yet.
If there is a lack of original material, then why not adapt novels? “Azaan [Sami Khan, the producer of O21] and I tried for [Omar Shahid Hamid’s] The Prisoner but after O21, I stepped back. Pakistan is not ready, because I would have taken The Prisoner in the direction of O21,” Jami replies.
Rana, however, thinks that the “industry lacks the imagination” for such an endeavour. “We have this innate belief system of actually thinking of ourselves as demigods, and that maybe somebody else’s concepts wouldn’t be enough for our attention. The other thing is that we tend to forget that our reading habits are gone. I unfortunately have met very, few people in this industry who like to read books,” he says.
Raza concurs that there are very few who could do justice to a proper film adaptation. “I’ve considered three books, which I felt were very exciting to me. But the moment you try to think of how you would convert it to film, you come face-to-face with a technicality called ‘cost’.” The predicament, he says, is that books that have cinematic value are “too adventurous” to be faithfully adapted for cinema.
“Readers’ imagination is very powerful. With the added responsibility of not disappointing the audience, now you are about to challenge that imagination — that film that they’ve seen in their minds — with the promise that you’re going to top what they’ve imagined. If you don’t do that then the audience would go, ‘kitaab ka bhi berra-gharq kar diya’ [they have destroyed the book].
"The few good writers we have are either writing about Kashmir or the lives people lead in America and London. I am sure there are some writing about people in Pakistan — it could be my own fault that I haven’t seen books about Karachi, Lahore, Sialkot, Bahawalpur or Hyderabad written in a way that I could go ‘now this could be filmed right away’,” says Raza.
“Readers’ imagination is very powerful. With the added responsibility of not disappointing the audience, now you are about to challenge that imagination — that film that they’ve seen in their minds — with the promise that you’re going to top what they’ve imagined. If you don’t do that then the audience would go, ‘kitaab ka bhi berra-gharq kar diya’." - Asim Raza
Raza says he is wiser now after HMJ, taking his time before starting another movie. “My film ran for two-and-a-half months in cinemas. When your film barely breaks even, even after that time then you have to find other ways to cover that amount.”
In Pakistan, even success stories struggle for appreciation. But perhaps this dilemma is indicative that some basic conceptions about ‘the formula’ need to change. At least high-concept films might allow Pakistani filmmakers to access an international market beyond the expat desi market, where audiences are more interested in new ideas and cinematic interpretations than in choreographed dance spectacles and the superstar Khans of Bollywood. It might be instructive to look at how the film industries of Iran, Argentina and Spain — all non-English speaking countries — made their mark on the international scene.
But one thing is certain: we cannot expect to keep going down the same route in the same way and hope that something new might come out of it.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, May 21st, 2017