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The highs and lows of Pakistani cinema in 2017

From runaway hits like Punjab Nahi Jaungi to controversial releases like Chain Aye Na, we recap the year in film
Updated Dec 18, 2017 01:59pm

When we speak of Pakistani cinema, a lot of the drama takes place off of the silver screen.

Films get banned, panned and sometimes canned — and the resultant hue and cry provides enough fodder for a tear-jerker on its own.

But there were also some high points on the film calendar this year.

Let’s take a look.

Low: Verna gets banned... and then panned.

As one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year, Shoaib Mansoor’s Verna made a suitably dramatic entry into cinemas this November.

Based on the story of a rape survivor Sara (Mahira Khan) who manoeuvres through a series of political machinations in the Pakistani courts to avenge herself, Verna was initially not cleared for screening by the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) in Islamabad. This led provincial censor boards to also stall their approvals for the film’s screening.

Cinephiles were outraged at this clamp on freedom of expression — and rightfully so. After a tense week of appeals by the film producers, the ban was lifted and the film screened on schedule.

But there’s a catch. While cinephiles vehemently defended Shoaib Mansoor’s right to discuss thorny themes like rape and corruption, his treatment of the same in Verna was widely thought to be shallow and out-of-touch. The film was also thought to be irresponsible in its promotion of vigilante justice.

This makes Verna’s release perhaps one of the most anticlimactic moments for Pakistani cinema this year.

High: Punjab Nahi Jaungi was a progressive surprise

While its title would make one think that the film was too frivolous to be taken seriously, Punjab Nahi Jaungi turned out to be a surprise winner in the Pakistani cinema.

Not only did its solid script enthrall audiences with the right mix of romance and comedy, the film boasted a very progressive ethos, with Punjab's chaudharys renouncing their debauched ways and the promotion of women's independence.

By the end of it, Amal (Mehwish Hayat) made Fawad Khagga (Humayun Saeed) a changed man for the better, which is not the usual case in rom-coms.

Now, if only the slap didn't almost ruin it all... (see below).

Low: The ban on Raees underscored how little is known about the workings of Pakistan’s censor boards

Censor boards exist to ensure that films conform to certain standards for public exhibition. The problem in Pakistan is that we only have a hazy idea of what those standards are.

This was illustrated early in the year when the CBFC banned the Bollywood film Raees in late January.

The ban was particularly consequential because a) it starred Pakistani megastar Mahira Khan opposite Bollywood king Shah Rukh Khan; and b) Raees’ screening would mark an end to Pakistani exhibitors’ self-imposed ban on Bollywood films following a spike in political tensions with India in 2016. (It was Raees’ box office competitor, Hrithik Roshan-starrer Kaabil, that ended the ban.)

In his article on the ban, M. Salman writes, "CBFC said it banned the film for being ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘anti-Pakistan.’ How its members came to that conclusion has never been explained, especially since no other Muslim country where the film was released, such as the UAE, found anything ‘anti-Islam’ in the film. Moreover, this ban came after the film was cleared by the Sindh and Punjab censor boards which, it is reasonable to assume, would not actually want to promote anti-Pakistan propaganda."

By the end of this same year, we saw a similarly arbitrary ban on Verna, which goes to show the dire need for greater transparency in censorship in Pakistan.

High: Documentary filmmakers get noticed at fests and awards

Pakistan was repped fairly well at the news and documentary Emmys this year. Filmmakers Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Mo Naqvi were nominated for their works, A Girl In The River and Among The Believers respectively. (Among the Believers was also banned from screening in Pakistan,)

Sharmeen even took home the Emmy, as she came out on top of the Best Documentary category.

Meanwhile, Mo Naqvi premiered another documentary Inshallah Democracy at the DOC NYC film fest in New York in November. The film has since earned considerable critical acclaim.

One early review read, "It is a film that I can’t shake. Its inside look at Pakistan has haunted me. I cannot tell you how good and how important the film is. It is a film which that has changed how I see and think about the world, which is the highest praise I can give any film."

Low: Project Ghazi flopped at its private premiere

Nadir Shah’s Project Ghazi was an exciting project — not only was it touted as the first Pakistani superhero film, it also starred popular actors like Humayun Saeed, Sheharyar Munawar Siddiqui and Syra Shehroz.

When Project Ghazi premiered to a private audience consisting of celebrities and critics, it quickly became obvious that the film was below par. 20 minutes in, Humayun Saeed was seen walking out of the cinema and he was eventually followed by the remaining cast.

What happened next was even more shocking: that night, the producers announced that they’re delaying the film. "Films of this magnitude require extensive technical work,” read their message. “Hence to do justice to this film genre, we have decided to delay the release from July 14, 2017...”

Humayun Saeed revealed the next morning that he “made some calls” to stall the film’s release because he couldn’t “let this be the final product of Project Ghazi... If I [couldn’t] understand it, how [could] anyone else?"

Exhibitors admitted that it was unprecedented for a film to pull out after having been premiered, but welcomed the move as necessary.

Cinepax Cinemas’ Mohsin Yaseen said, “I am happy that a film which is incomplete and is technically not sound has been cancelled. It's a good and wise decision because the public would've rejected it."

The producers had said that they’d announce a new release date soon. That has yet to happen.

High: Nabeel and Fiza completed their hatrick

It isn't easy to figure out what makes audiences tick, but it appears that director-producer duo Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza have learned the secret and using it to their great advantage.

This summer saw the release of their third successful film Na Maloom Afraad 2 after their hits NMA and Actor In Law.

The duo is already set for their next summer blockbuster, having announced Load Wedding as their 2018 Eid release.

Low: Years in the making and much-anticipated, Yalghaar flopped

We first heard of Yalghaar some four years ago when it was learned that Waar producer Dr Hassan Waqas Rana is getting ready to make his directorial debut and soon a bunch of exciting names began cropping up in its cast — Shaan, Humayun, Adnan Siddiqui, Ayesha Omar, Sana Bucha, the list went on.

The film, shot mostly all over the north of the country, was touted to be making use of some very advanced visual effects, so one expected the film to be stunning watch.

What wasn’t expected was that the script would be so shoddy and production so poor, that the film’s slick scenes would be unable to salvage its overall mediocrity.

While it fared better than its local competitors in the box office, Yalghaar was poorly received by critics. To illustrate, a few lines from our review:

“Writer and producer Hassan Waqas Rana’s razor-sharp focus on the underlying message of the film means that there is no concern on constructing a comprehensible plot for his movie. A film that is clear in its objective to pay homage to the valour and sacrifice of a Pakistani soldier, pays no regard to matters like sensible camera angles, coherent audio, action choreograph, semi-decent character arcs, or even a basic plot.”

High: When Urwa’s Durdana became a social media sensation

Urwa had signed on to a whopping four films this year, which was a feat in itself. Surprisingly, her most standout role turned out to be her PNJ supporting character Durdana.

Her character spawned the viral catchphrase ‘Help Me Durdana’, complete with hashtag and memes, making it a social media sensation.

Even people who haven't watched PNJ know of Durdana’s helpfulness. This is evidence of both effective writing and performance, so both Urwa and writer Khalil ur Rehman Qamar need to be congratulated for this.

Low: A disturbing trend in plot points emerged: men slapping women and getting away with it

In two of the most-talked-about films this year, we saw heroes slap their heroines with little consequence. In Chain Aye Na, Rayan (Shehroz Sabzwari) stalks his beloved Ruba (Sarish Khan) and answers her two slaps with three slaps of his own. He later slashes his hand open as penance, but still has the audacity to show up at Ruba's home the next day and blame her for the slap and the cut on his hand.

In Punjab Nahi Jaungi, when Mehwish Hayat’s Amal taunts her husband Fawad Khagga (Humayun Saeed) about his moustache, he slaps her hard enough to split her lip open. Thankfully, Amal walks out on him and he is condemned for his actions wherever he goes. But the film ends with Khagga forgiven for his violence, with Amal having said very little about it.

This perpetuates dangerous ideas like physical intimidation as an expression of passion or love. It isn’t and it would be good if that’s the last we see of romanticised violence.

High: Pakistani filmmaker Shahnawaz Zali makes it to Forbes '30 Under 30 Asia' list

Zali's documentary 100 Steps - Sou Qadam (2015), which chronicles the life of a young suicide bomber, has bagged several awards at international film festivals including the Miami International Film Festival and the Accolade Global Film Festival.

The Northwestern University Qatar Campus graduate was also nominated for a Student Academy Award in 2016.

So we were not totally surprised to see him named in Forbes '30 Under 30 Asia: Entertainment & Sports' list, which also included Bollywood star Alia Bhatt, New Zealand's singing sensation Lorde and Wolf of Wall Street actor Margot Robbie.

Low: When Raasta was eclipsed by Sahir Lodhi’s fiery defense of the film

Popular TV host Sahir Lodhi made his cinema debut with Raasta, a film he directed, produced, wrote and appeared in as the hero. The film must have been a treat for Sahir Lodhi followers, but non-fans were harder to convince about its merits.

When negative reviews turned snide and personal, Sahir spoke out, bashing critics who went as far as calling his film “cheap” and “low-class”. He stood up for his audience in a video that asked: “"Who gives you that right to differentiate? Who are you to decide that the people who go to Nueplex or the people who go to Bambino are any different?"

He also uttered the now-catchphrase “Are you all demi-gods?” that trended enough to make it to the LSAs.

Could it have been that Raasta would have vanished without a trace like so many B-grade productions had it not been for Sahir’s defense of the film? We think that’s possible.

High: Saawan was Pakistani cinema's underdog

The little marketed film had a quiet run in Pakistani cinemas, but Farhan Alam's Saawan made some pretty big waves internationally.

While it was unsuccessful in making the Oscar longlist for Best Film In A Foreign Language after being submitted as Pakistan's entry in the category, the drama film picked up accolades at film fests such as Best Foreign Language Feature Film at the Madrid International Film Festival 2017, Best Film and Best Director at the Social World Film Festival 2017 in Italy and Best Foreign Film award at the Alexandria Film Festival in Virginia, USA.

Low: Upcoming film Maula Jatt's cast and crew accused of copyright violations...again

If there has ever been a contentious (not a) remake in Pakistani cinema, it’s Maula Jutt.

Filmmaker Bilal Lashari has long had his horns locked with the original Maula Jutt director and producer Muhammad Sarwer Bhatti, who holds that he owns the film’s copyrights that he never sold to Lashari. Lashari, on his part, has maintained that his film is not a remake, while also saying that he’s bought the film’s rights from its writer Nasir Adeeb. The tussle over copyright rages on, with the latest clash occuring as recently as late October this year.

Bhatti fired off letters to the new film’s star cast, including Mahira Khan, Fawad Khan, Hamza Ali Abbasi and Humaima Malik, warning them to "stay away from this project and announce [their] dissociation with illegal film [in the] making as soon as possible." Speaking to Images, Bhatti accused Lashari and Nasir Adeeb of "misleading" him, saying the rights to recreate Maula Jatt were never sold.

"This is blatant violation of the copyright law," Bhatti claimed, adding "It is my legacy, my pride. I will do everything to punish [Lashari]."

Last we heard, Maula Jutt’s principal shooting is near complete.


This article is part of Images' series '2017 In Review'. Stay tuned for more.