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Why did Chain Aye Na and Salute flop at the box office? The directors explain

We speak to Lollywood's senior filmmakers about making movies in Pakistan's fast-changing cinema landscape
Updated Oct 17, 2017 12:11pm

From the looks of it, now is a good time to be a part of the Pakistan film industry.

There’s a lot happening: new filmmakers are taking chances, television drama-makers are turning to filmmaking, newer blood is trying to make it big on the silver screen, major media houses are associating themselves with films, filmmakers are experimenting with all sorts of genres and new multiplexes allow them to target niche audiences.

Meanwhile, films are being shot at newer, more exotic locales, production values are going up, film scores are reigniting the audience’s interest, there’s an atmosphere of healthy competition among filmmakers and actors, and films are breaking box office records. Where there is young gun Nabeel Qureshi making films, there’s also the veteran Sangeeta. So it all sounds good.

But in this scheme of things, not everything is working out for everyone.

The old Lahore-based Pakistani film industry — snarkily labelled Lollywood — seems to have been left behind and is struggling to catch up with a brave new world. The recent failure of films produced by old stalwarts such as Syed Noor and Shehzad Rafique attests to this. Veteran actor and director Sangeeta’s film, in post-production for almost two years, has yet to see the inside of a cinema. Aside from Shaan, the actors once considered the mainstay of Pakistani cinema — such as Meera, Moammar Rana, Babar Ali, Saima, Resham et al — are nowhere to be seen.

From the evidence available so far, Lollywood still boasts an aesthetic that is far removed from the new-wave Pakistani cinema and which audiences have come to expect from international-standard productions and the technical revolution seems to have passed it by. Can the old guard recover and once again stake its claim at the forefront of Pakistani cinema? Or is Lollywood’s demise a foregone conclusion?

Some say it's the ticket prices...

Producer and director Shehzad Rafique recently made Salute based on the life of the young Aitzaz Hasan who gave up his life while trying to protect his school from a suicide bomber in the Hangu District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He believes the old guard needs to up its game to cater to the audience of today which is more aware, educated and ready to watch different topics on screen.

Shehzad Rafique believes that Salute failed because the audience isn't ready to see biopics, that is, films where the ending is known to them
Shehzad Rafique believes that Salute failed because the audience isn't ready to see biopics, that is, films where the ending is known to them

“Earlier, people watched films simply as a habit but now they have to plan it because film tickets are expensive,” he says. “In such a scenario, you have to make films according to the kind of audience coming to cinemas. We have to deliver on production value. I had predicted such a revolution way back in 2004 when one of my films was being screened at the KaraFilm Festival. But the change has come at a huge financial cost for a lot of filmmakers, including myself, Javed Sheikh and Syed Noor.”

Rafique argues against writing off the old guard completely, however. “This generation has seen our dark underbelly,” he says. “But we have done some amazing work too. Back then we had only a few films coming out in two years or so and regional [Punjabi] cinema was on the rise. Given the scenario, many of the better producers drifted away. So the audience was never built.”

...and the audience's evolved

Shaan, who has retained his position as the main box office star of Pakistani cinema, believes the current situation of the industry allows a filmmaker to say whatever he wants to because the audience has a better understanding than it did before.

“[The industry] is what we always expected it to be,” he says. “We’d always hoped it’ll reach this sort of market one day, so we’re really happy. As a filmmaker, I’ve got so much to say now. The shift of audience and market happened at the same time. There are new great directors coming up. Also, as an actor I feel there’s so much more perfection required of us. It’s not like the old film industry where one kind of film does well and everybody starts making the same kind of films.”

"The cinemas were too ugly"

However, Syed Noor claims the industry’s situation deteriorated because of the ‘ugly’ cinemas back then and not because of a dearth of quality films.

“Films were being made but for a certain class so families stopped going to cinemas,” he says. “Some films retained the pull such as my 2006 film Majajan that ran for five years. The reason people are back to watching films is not because of Bollywood but because there are so many cinemas now.”

Syed Noor says it took exceptional films like his 2006 film Majajan to pull in audiences back in the day because our cinemas weren't nice enough
Syed Noor says it took exceptional films like his 2006 film Majajan to pull in audiences back in the day because our cinemas weren't nice enough

Noor obviously does not make the connection between the rise in the number of cinemas and the revenue that Bollywood brought in. “In the past, big, dirty cinemas brought an end to the culture of film-watching,” he says. “Had such a revolution occurred 10 years ago, the credit wouldn’t have gone to Indian films which unfortunately it has now. If modern cineplexes had been made back then, Pakistan’s film industry would have remained strong.”

"A lack of protection"

Shaan has a slightly different theory about the decline of Lahore’s industry. He believes back then the audience were ‘the masses’, but now it’s the middle, upper-middle and upper classes watching films because they can afford to.

“When Syed Noor and Sangeeta begum were making films, the cinema ticket was for 12-25 rupees,” he says. “Cinema now is not catering to the masses. They can’t afford to go watch films and even if they do, 60 percent of the films are not made for them. The language and aesthetics are different.”

Babar Ali and Reema in Iqbal Kashmiri’s 1996 fi lm Maamla Garrbarr Hai
Babar Ali and Reema in Iqbal Kashmiri’s 1996 fi lm Maamla Garrbarr Hai

Shaan feels that the old industry saw a slump because it was not ‘protected.’ “I’ve always said that the day a media house backs films the way they back TV plays, it will be a new dawn for films. At that time our films were not protected and most importantly, Indian films were hitting us left, right and centre. We couldn’t sustain because we didn’t have any technology, there was no financial support from the government, no marketing, no infrastructure and no corporate sponsors. For me that was the toughest time for us.”

The case of dubious distributors

Whatever the reasons behind the decline of Lollywood, the question that remains is whether it has the juice to resurrect itself. The evidence from recent times is not encouraging. Rafique’s Salute vanished without a trace, Noor’s Chain Aye Na fared worse and as for Sangeeta’s long-awaited Tum Hi Ho, from what one hears from sources, is facing trouble with its distributor.

“[The distributor] who was supposed to release the film backed out at the last moment and asked me to finance the distribution myself,” explains Sangeeta. “I refused. I said I have an agreement saying they were supposed to pay me over five million rupees and release the film. They have the film with them. We are going to discuss the issue on October 20 and decide about the release of the film.”

"[My distributor] backed out at the last moment and asked me to finance the distribution myself. I refused. They were supposed to pay me over five million rupees. They have the film with them. We are going to discuss the issue on October 20 and decide about the release of the film." — Sangeeta of Tum Hi Ho's delay

Meanwhile, Noor is adamant that Chain Aye Na was a good film and it didn’t work because the distributor let him down. “I was completely satisfied with it. All three censor boards gave it a standing ovation, but I failed to promote the film,” he says.

Read more: The awaam considers me a real film man, says Syed Noor

“The distributor betrayed me. I was abroad and had returned a week before its release to find out that the distributor had not promoted the film. He gave the rough cut of the trailer to TV channels but there were no posters, banners or ads in newspapers. The final cut of the trailer never made it to cinemas. It affected the film’s reputation and people didn’t know it even released.

A still from Chain Aye Na
A still from Chain Aye Na

"For my part, I also acted like a mujahid and released the film on a normal day and not a festival which proved to be awful. Chain Aye Na would have been dubbed good or bad if people had seen it. But nobody did because they didn’t know when it was released. I was really hurt. I’m not blaming anyone, but I trusted my distributor who said this is all the publicity they do. I thought ‘okay, I guess that’s how it’s done now.’ I would have managed it all myself had I known this would happen to me."

Also read: Chain Aye Na promotes violence against women and domestic abuse. It sets Pakistani cinema back a decade

“I cast legends and their legacies as leads. I wanted to honour the bloodline of our superstars Waheed Murad, Sabiha Khanum and Santosh. This kind of respect and regard for legends is lacking in the industry today. There’s leg-pulling and calling others out. Not a single person from the industry wished me luck on social media before the film’s release,” laments Noor.

Is it just too soon for biopics?

Meanwhile, Rafique claims his film Salute didn’t work because the audience is not ready for biopics. “Earlier, my film Ishq Khuda released simultaneously with Chennai Express so we suffered because of that,” he says.

“With Salute we thought that since there’s a ban on Indian films we’ll succeed. But we didn’t because after Bollywood films stopped screening, people stopped going to cinemas. A lot of films suffered due to this such as Dobara Phir Se, Lahore Se Aagay and Salute. My film would have only worked if the average cinemagoer had had the courage to spend 1,000 rupees on a film whose end they already knew. Our audience lacks such sentiment. Biopics are not accepted yet.”

But Rafique also blames marketing factors for the failure. “After making a film, how to take it to social media, the timing, how much to exhibit etc, a lot has changed,” he says. “Social media plays the first role in taking a film to the audience and creating a perception. I fully utilised it at the time of Salute. But I regret the fact that the film didn’t get a particular TV channel’s support until the very end.”

But can Lollywood really shine against its young competition?

There is a distinct feeling one gets that Lollywood’s old guard is looking for excuses and refusing to face up to new realities.

Shaan, who has worked with Noor, Rafique as well as Sangeeta feels these people need time to change their game and that they can’t be rejected on the basis of a single failure.

Yalghaar had the aesthetics but no script, story, structure or the knowledge of filmmaking. For an expert filmmaker, it is very easy [to make a film] but it’s downright difficult for amateurs." — Shaan

“As filmmakers, they’re authentic, all they need is to learn the ropes of the new trends in filmmaking,” he says. “Content, ideology, structure and the way to make films is all there with them. They also know the constitution of a film. The only thing they need is input where they can bring their film up to aesthetics, and they will do it.”

Shaan points out that style in itself is not enough for a film’s success. “Yalghaar had the aesthetics but no script, story, structure or the knowledge of filmmaking. For an expert filmmaker, it is very easy [to make a film] but it’s downright difficult for amateurs. One film can’t be used to judge how bad they are or how good. Right now, the industry is emerging and you need all kinds of people — greats, legends, old, young, TV and theatre people.”

A still from Yalghaar
A still from Yalghaar

Shaan is confident that the senior lot will eventually adapt. Right now, they only understand the market they came from he says. “They just found out that’s not how things work. They have learnt the hard way. Now they will go back to the drawing board and start all over again, enlist help, attend workshops, work with people to collaborate and it’s going to work wonders. We have to give them due credit for who they are.”

What keeps Lollywood's old guard going?

But after such failures, which can break the best of filmmakers, do these veterans have the drive to carry on?

Rafique says he’s learnt you can’t make a patriotic film and expect it to work with the audience, but that his is a certain kind of meaningful cinema and he’ll keep following that path.

“Do I have the power to get 1,000 rupees out of a person’s pocket? Whoever makes a film should think about this,” says Rafique. “If the film is good, it will work. The old guard will have to change their mentality, work according to current sensibilities. The seniors are stuck to their values. They will have to accept the current generation’s values or else fail irrespective of their seniority in the business.”

But Noor has a different take. He insists it’s the younger lot that needs to learn from them and not the other way round. He believes a filmmaker makes films according to his understanding and not the audience’s. “Only a filmmaker can think about what to make, then have the audience follow him and not vice versa. You can’t make everyone happy anyway.”

“Do I have the power to get 1,000 rupees out of a person’s pocket? Whoever makes a film should think about this." — Shehzad Rafique

Sangeeta takes the question whether senior filmmakers, including herself and Noor, can survive today and compete with the new generation of filmmakers, almost as an affront. “Of course!,” she retorts. “We are doing the same that today’s generation is doing. We are making films with digital cameras. We have completely adapted to the changing dimensions of the industry. In fact, we have an edge because we have experience to back ourselves. What’s being made today in the name of films is dramas. These aren’t films, but just clips of Indian movies joined together.”

While acknowledging Noor’s film flopped, she says it doesn’t mean they can’t make films any more. “No one else made any film, including myself. Shahzad’s film, even though it was great, didn’t work because people don’t want to watch such films. They just want to see nudity, hulla gulla.”

While it’s not clear what this means for the direction Sangeeta wants to go in, Noor stresses that it is the old guard that will survive, as the younger lot of filmmakers can’t take failure and will eventually disappear. “We’ll stay around. We have created academies, studios, launched new filmmakers. This is all that we have.”

Lollywood may have faded but at least Lollywood’s old guard will not go down without a fight.


Originally published in Dawn, ICON, October 15th, 2017