Pakistani entertainment industry, where's my entertainment?

Pakistani entertainment industry, where's my entertainment?

There's little innovation in the industry, both in cinema and online productions.
18 Mar, 2021

Necessity may be the mother of invention but not in Pakistan’s entertainment industry. Despite decades of crippling slumps, we seem to have few ideas about how to do things differently. We love to rehash and rebrand sparkless ideas, only to later complain about our inherent lack of potential.

Back in a 2017 issue of Icon (Cinema with Ideas, May 21), I had spoken to filmmakers Asim Raza, Jami and Hasan Waqas Rana on the need for high concept ideas in film, and why they seemed like an unattainable goal. I’ve asked the same question many times since.

Unfortunately Pakistani cinema today, like a decade ago or the decade before that, is deemed too expensive and unlucrative to entertain bright big ideas. Our brightest most vibrant moments — according to the industry — are still broad comedies with punchlines that burrow deep into the audiences’ gut. The term escapist entertainment has evolved into its worst possible interpretation.

The problem is not with the medium; even productions for web are not that different. But more on that later.

As predicted earlier in Icon, when cinemas eventually reopen the box-office could smash old records…provided the industry agrees to stagger the films that are ready to come out and give people reasons to return to cinemas every month, and not just for the Eid holidays.

With cinemas out of the reckoning in the immediate future, Pakistanis will be forced to rely on Netflix and other streaming services for their entertainment. But is any hope even there for Pakistani productions?

But for now, the government has already officially deferred the reopening of cinemas from the earlier set date of March 15, given the upsurge in Covid-19 cases after some earlier restrictions were eased. It’s just as well. Exhibitors were in no mood to even accept the restrictions under which the cinemas were to open.

According to a letter this writer read from the Film Exhibitors’ Association to the government, they had argued that cinemas could not function in the limited capacity that was being allowed by the government’s standard operating procedures (SOPs). Given the bad box-office numbers we saw before the pandemic hit, they had argued that cinemas could not survive on just 50 percent occupancy.

The letter went on to say that exhibitors would give out masks and sanitisers, and ensure that SOPs would be adhered to, if only cinemas are given the chance. In fact, it is often argued in filmdom that, since malls have been allowed to open, since restrictions on the number of people attending weddings have been relaxed, and people — mostly without masks, and definitely without sanitisers — are walking around parks, why can’t cinemas open?

It’s obvious that if the government doesn’t understand the nitty gritties of the business aspects of cinema, the industry too doesn’t quite get the mechanics of virus transmission.

In any case, even if cinemas had opened their doors for the public at this time, there would have been few incentives for public at large to come to them. Major international productions from Disney, Warner Bros. and other studios are pushing their release dates further back into the last quarter of the year. And less than one month into their opening, the cinemas would have been hit by the usual slump of Ramazan as well.

Then there’s the issue of piracy. In the old days, pirated copies of films had substandard prints and sound. Today, when film titles increasingly get simultaneous digital releases, people get immediate access to pirated master prints with 5.1 sound at the click of the download button. Why would anyone pay a substantial amount and expend energy to go to the movies then?

The harsh reality is also that Pakistani films don’t have the power to lure people back week after week. Even the bigger titles that are completed — the ones with drawing power such as The Legend of Maula Jatt, Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad, Tich Button, Chakkar, Ghabrana Nahin Hai, Money Back Guarantee and Zarrar — can only last a few weeks, provided they aren’t busy slitting each other’s throats on one Eid or another.

Interestingly, Bollywood is facing the same dilemma. In fact, there have been murmurs of secret conversations taking place that may bring Bollywood back to Pakistan before the end of the year (I don’t think our content will go to India though); after all, Bollywood too has been hit hard, and every crore counts, irrespective of diplomatic tensions.

The question this leaves is: what will Pakistani audiences do until then? Subscribe to Netflix? Up until now it is the only bona fide content portal of quality that shells out original content with the ferocity of a rapid-firing machine gun, three times a week. Watch YouTube? It’s advantage is that it’s free but, despite the sudden boom in viewership, there is an apparent lack of quality there.

Television, for those who are wondering, counts as a different realm entirely, with its own dedicated viewership, revenue and production sensibility. OTT and digital streaming services, being relatively new, stand somewhere in between film and TV.

Since Netflix and other international streaming services still largely ignore Pakistani productions, YouTube has become the happening new domain of short-form content.

Years ago, the mere mention of short-form content was scoffed at. Today, every other conversation is about making a short film. Apparently, it gives people an opportunity to make something different from the norm. Apparently, being the key word here. Different, the second key word according to the makers, often translates into laughable horror or woeful dramedies.

Most of the ideas being produced for digital are as appalling as substandard content on low-tiered satellite channels. Swearwords, amongst other aspects of sleaze, are flung at the viewers without care because there isn’t a strict set of rules to govern digital yet and because it is assumed they bestow a certain ‘edginess’ to things.

A few days ago, a friend, apparently wowed by the production, shared the trailer of Dulhan Aur 1 Raat, an original series at Urduflix — a platform touted as Pakistan’s first Urdu OTT. The show stars Alizeh Shah as a bride-to-be who runs away in the dead of the night, right before her marriage.

The harsh reality is also that Pakistani films don’t have the power to lure people back week after week. Even the bigger titles that are completed — the ones with drawing power such as The Legend of Maula Jatt, Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad, Tich Button, Chakkar, Ghabrana Nahin Hai, Money Back Guarantee and Zarrar — can only last a few weeks, provided they aren’t busy slitting each other’s throats on one Eid or another.

Escaping in joggers (which seems to be a norm for brides in films here; case in point Chhalawa, Heer Maan Jaa), and flashing a gun, the heroine of the story is given rough dialogues to show how serious the production is: “Dallay ho? [Are you a pimp?]” she exclaims, apparently to someone other than the hero; a little earlier in the trailer she refers to someone as a haraami [sleazebag].

The makers of another Urduflix original series, Lifafa Daayan starring Mashal Khan and Rashid Farooqi, may well be celebrating their series’ sleazy edginess. In the series, Mashal Khan plays an anchor who drinks, smokes, apparently does drugs, sits on the lap of her boyfriend, and throws English expletives at her supporting cast; they seem to deserve it too. Urduflix has another series in a similar vein titled The Raaz (who puts ‘The’ before an Urdu word, I wonder), starring TikTok celebrity Hareem Shah.

While I don’t blame the actors, these harrowing, unappetising trailers show the mindset audiences may be contending with soon (that is, if they choose to subscribe and pay for the service). The problem is that Urduflix is not the only one pushing this practice in the digital world. I’ve seen rough-cuts of expensive series shot on RED and Arri Alexa film cameras that could give Urduflix a run for their money in this aspect.

That’s not to say that everyone producing digital content is tapping into the lowest tier of the audiences. Tapmad, a platform you may not have heard of before but which has been active for the past few years, is coming out with its first original production Baarhwan Khilaarri, produced by actress Mahira Khan, directed by Adnan Sarwar, and starring Ali Zafar’s younger brother Danyal Zafar.

The teaser, at this time, doesn’t give you a lot to go on, but considering the talent at hand, it can’t be all bad (fingers crossed). Tapmad, though, took its sweet time jumping on to the original production bandwagon, and there aren’t any other production announcements from the platform. This begs the question: can a platform survive with one — or even a handful of — productions?

On YouTube, See Prime seems to know about the value of creating a library for audiences. Despite an evident drop in aesthetics and quality, they’re still producing better short-form content on a weekly basis.

Another recently released short film, Yorker, directed by Ahsan Rahim (Teefa in Trouble) and Syed Nini, and written and produced by Sultan Ghani Afzal, is also better by a considerable margin. Starring Wahaj Ali, Mohammad Ehtshamuddin (an excellent actor who also directed Superstar), Faizan Sheikh, Mani and Jawad Bashir amongst others, the short film is a comedy of errors about an up-and-coming cricketer who has a problem conversing in English.

Produced by Tall Man films, the Yorker is one of five short films sponsored by a biscuit manufacturer. I’m told that, in comparison to beverages, cooking oil-makers, and nicotine-replacement brands producing sponsored music shows, there is very little product placement within these shorts.

I assume sponsored productions are the new trend on YouTube. About four months ago, a web-series sponsored by another biscuit brand, titled Meray Dost Meray Yaar (Season 2), starring Asim Azhar, Syra Shehroz, Haroon Shahid, and directed by Mehreen Jabbar, came out on YouTube.

As it had been a few years ago, most producers are suddenly targeting brands as a quick way to make money. In fact, a popular actress’s manager once demanded a cut from the sponsors if the show went to YouTube.

What no one is asking about though, is the concept and the execution. Very few productions are breaking the norm, and even fewer still give you screenplays worthy of spending 20-odd minutes with. If we can’t ace half-hour long productions, how can we hope to sell our wares to established international outlets such as Netflix?

Back in 2017, when Icon addressed the necessity of producing high-concept productions, this was exactly the problem it foresaw. Four years later, be it film or digital, we’re still selling a substandard rehash of the ideas we’ve had before.

Despite seeing the massive potential of different genres in film — the most difficult of markets where the consumer consciously chooses to spend a substantial amount to go to the movies — filmmakers are still blind to the potential of producing ideas in different genres.

Action, adventure and thrillers, with very rare exceptions, are largely ignored because their budgets are, supposedly, too big. No one considers the fact that WAAR grossed over 20 crore rupees domestically, and the Fast and the Furious franchise, the last two Avengers titles and Black Panther, all have hit paydays of 30-odd crores at the box-office domestically.

While one, realistically, cannot match the level of these international productions, one can try emulating the storytelling of these tent-poles to reach out to an established audience that crave these, or similar content.

High concept films aren’t just about lavish productions either, and they’re not just limited to films. Netflix, and even YouTube, is full of small stories that grab your attention. Sadly, most of what we see there doesn’t come from Pakistan.

Forget innovation or necessity, we are — and perhaps for the foreseeable future, may very well be — happy doing things the old-fashioned way.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 14th, 2021