ANALYSIS: Pakistani cinema and the glamour of realism —Sarah Tareen - Wednesday, March 09, 2011

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It is the culture of cinema, which will break the barriers and address the existential problems of the people of Pakistan

January 18, 2011 was the 56th death anniversary of Saadat Hasan Manto, one of the greatest writers of Urdu literature and arguably one of the best short story writers of the 20th century. He was remembered and lauded for his contribution to the arts and culture. Combining psychoanalysis with his uncanny observation of human behaviour, his stories were his way of dealing with the common human experience. It is often said that Manto focused on the spark of life in the human being and the individuality that urges all kinds of people to break free of their exterior constraints and respond to the unique inner voices of their souls.

As a writer he had developed a strong bond with the medium of film. According to his biography, at the time of partition his friends from the film industry in Mumbai tried to stop him from migrating to Pakistan as he was gaining credibility as a film writer with ‘Mirza Ghalib’. They warned him that the move would not be favourable, given that the film industry of Lahore had been disrupted with the departure of Hindu filmmakers and studio owners. However, a producer from Lahore had already approached him with a generous offer and the decision of the management of Bombay Talkies, where he worked, to fire all its Muslim employees had riled him. In 1948, he migrated to Pakistan and did not see the completion of ‘Mirza Ghalib’.

Lahore was in a state of turmoil, but what affected him the most was the death of the film industry, and the offer he had received earlier, turned out to be a hoax. Cinema houses and distribution offices that once stood proud were sealed and allotted to Muslim refugees. On the other hand, the independent India was opening up to vast opportunities in the film industry and ‘Mirza Ghalib’ (1952) became a commercial blockbuster and award winner. Here in Pakistan, Manto’s stories were barely recognised by the Pakistani film industry.

According to one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, Alfred Hitchcock, “In the old days villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don’t want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings.” But does this statement hold true for the Pakistani audience? In chronicling the lives and tribulations of the people, no writer of the 20th century came close to our very own Manto. Apart from Masud Pervez (Manto’s uncle, who directed the film ‘Beli’ based on his story about 1947), how many filmmakers in the country have taken inspiration from the likes of Manto? How many films produced in Pakistan really address issues of real human experience?

Film narrative is the most powerful cultural force, and Pakistan, according to the Pakistan New Cinema Movement, is in dire need of more recognition of its own cultural heritage and stories. It is the culture of cinema, which will finally break all the national barriers and address the existential problems of the people of Pakistan. According to the South Asian Journal’s issue ‘Cinema Culture in Transition’, the new world order demands a ‘soft image’ from states seeking external investment for development. A sharpening of the nationalist identity actually hardens the image of the state and repels global investment.

If we look at the South Asian film history, Bengali films have enjoyed a reputation for the level of their content. In the 1930s, after the advent of sound, directors made films on novels and stories well known in Bengal. In India, filmmakers turned their attention to popular Indian literary figures like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore and Munshi Premchand. Films made from their work gave a new insight into life and human frailty. Like Manto, these writers also faced their share of dilemmas with the film industry; Premchand worked for a brief period with a film company in Mumbai, but gave up due to the frustrating process. It was only after his death that some of his novels were filmed. Similarly, during his lifetime, not many of Tagore’s stories were adapted for screen, partly due to his personal reluctance and the difficulty of adaptation of his work’s subtlety. However, over the last decade many of his stories and novels have been adapted and filmed by filmmakers including Satyajit Ray with films such as ‘Teen Kanya’ and ‘Charulatta’ (based on Tagore’s novel The Broken Nest) have made a mark in the world cinema.

A filmmaker and film historian closely witnessing and participating in the growth of the Indian cinema from the early 1940s, B D Garga, in his book titled The Art of Cinema stated: “While it is true that no artist before has been given a medium of such astonishing flexibility, it is equally true that it is jinxed by high finance. The cost of creating this complex, technical and artistic entity has placed the artist in the hands of the promoters and public alike — a public fickle in taste and so wide that a film must reach millions before the promoter sees his profits.”

Despite particular kinds of market relations, ‘art cinema’ is usually produced with an appeal to a cultural rather than a commercial imperative. The cinema of the subcontinent is currently moving in this direction, as what was once called ‘art movie’ is in the process of merging with the commercial mainstream, because people increasingly want to see their lives described realistically on the screen. Today, such films have a chance of meeting cross boundary success. In a panel discussion organised by TV channel in 2007, eminent writer Munnoo Bhai aptly pointed out: “Realism is the biggest glamour if portrayed with skill.”

Commenting on the difficulty of getting backing for his films, American filmmaker Robert Flaherty (director of the first commercially successful feature length documentary ‘Nanook of the North’) remarked, “Film is the longest distance between two points.” Despite the tyranny of the system, filmmakers who remained conscious of their freedom of action left a life-long stamp of their personalities on their works. Filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Renoir, Rosselini, Lang and Godard developed ‘auteur theory’. Their work, although not immediately apparent, unravelled as film criticism became more serious, particularly in France, where the Cahiers du Cinema group of critics recognised the subtleties of style and meaning possible in film. In India, no such academic film movement exists today, but some filmmakers including Ram Gopal Verma, Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap acknowledge the realist aesthetics of filmmakers such as Benegal, Nihalani and Shahani.

To date, Pakistani cinema has failed to register itself on the world map with critics and audience alike, as the films are neither representative of the culture nor cinematic. With the death of the film industry and with no trust or fiscal plan in place for future investments, the formula is simple: produce 10 crore ‘worth’ of product (fiscal but also artistic and cultural value) from 10 lac. The only way to regain the trust of the investors is by filmmakers being dedicated to the art using their own voice as auteurs. According to the memorandum of the Pakistan New Cinema Movement, “The important thing is that the current slide in the film industry in Pakistan is reversed, and the stories of a generation are not lost forever.” This echoes what Manto once wrote about himself:

“Saadat Hasan will die one day, but ‘Manto’ will never die.”

The writer is the producer of the upcoming Pakistani feature film ‘Tamanna’ and a founder member of Pakistan New Cinema Movement. She can be reached at

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