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A Short History of Pakistani Films
By Aijaz Gul

In August 1947, when Pakistan won its Independence from the British Raaj, film production, distribution, exhibition and studios were new to us. The area comprising of what is now Pakistan was a pretty well established centre in film production. There were studios, cinemas, producers, and distributors. Lahore happened to be the Head Quarters of India's Northern Circuit. Punjabi film production was particularly well established here and there were three major studios in Lahore in the mid-forties.

On the eve of Independence, some film talent in Lahore left for Mumbai and some talent from Mumbai left for Lahore and Karachi. Some of the major names migrating from Mumabi to Lahore included singer-actress Noorjehan and her director-editor husband Shaukat Rizvi, actor-director Nazir and her actress wife Swaranlata, director Subtain Rizvi, composers Master Ghulam Haider and Khursheed Anwar, and producer-director W.Z.Ahmad. This talent, along with the film people already based in Lahore, started rebuilding, renovating and refurbishing film studios and cinemas. Shaukat Rizvi and Noorjehan came up with the country's first film studios, Shahnoor, in the early fifties. This was followed by G.A. Gul in setting up his own compact but well equipped Evernew Studios, Bari Malik with Bari Studios and Shabab with Shabab Studios. The first Pakistani film Memories (Teri Yaada, 1948) was a pre-Independence venture that came out in September 1948 and became the first ever Pakistani film. Directed by Dawood Chand with Nasir Khan, Pran and Asha Posley, the film was so bad that filmgoers rejected it on the first day. Hichkolay (1949), Shahida (1949), Sachai (1949), Ghaltfehmi (1949), Pherey (1949) and Mundri (1949) followed Memories soon after.

Anonymous (Gumnam, 1954).
Anonymous (Gumnam, 1954)

The major trends seen in the early years in films included pretty much what the film makers had inherited from Mumbai: love and romance, tragedy, and melodrama. These films could not be distinguished from their commercial counterparts in Mumabi. Betrayal, death, loyalty, faithfully dedicated heroines versus a home wrecking vicious vamp. The Punjabi films had bits of soft action where villain and hero would stage fights with sticks (hard to believe today, what with assault rifles and elaborate blood baths with gory and explicit graphic details).

Anwar Kemal Pasha rose as the country's first total film maker who scripted, produced and directed his own films. He also had his own distribution office at Lahore. The son of dramatist Hakim Ahmad Shujah, Anwar Kemal was not only an M.A., but was cultured and cultivated. He also happened to be a filmmaker who promoted young talent. Dozens of assistant directors, actors and composers graduated under his guidance. He introduced top superstars like Aslam Pervaiz, Musarrat Nazir, Nayyer Slutana and Bahar. Anwar Kemal's films dealt with issues of poverty, love, social strata, suicide, moral decay and death. His notable films included Anonymous (Gumnam, 1954), Killer (Qatil, 1955), Brave (Sarfarosh, 1956) and Courtesian (Anarkali, 1958). Kemal's decline came with his pride and indulgence and by the sixties he was a forgotten name in the film trade.

The sixties saw a new breed of directors: Khalil Qaiser, Masood Pervaiz (who began in the fifties), Riaz Shahid, S.Suleman, Hassan Tariq and Pervaiz Malik (who earned his MA in Cinema from the University of Southern California ). In the seventies, Nazrul Islam joined them for giving some of the best films like Conscious (Ehsas, 1972), Truth (Haqeeqat), Mirror (Aina, 1974), Life (Zindigi) and later The Bar (Bandish, 1980) and Sweet Sixteen (Nahi Abhi Nahi, 1981) in the eighties. In the last twenty years, Shamim Ara, Javed Fazil Sangeeta, Javed Shaikh and Syed Noor have been the prominent directors. Khalil Qaiser and his screenwriter Riaz Shahid were rebellious filmmakers who made films against the evils of the society - be it poverty, corruption, the atrocities of the British Raaj or oil in the Middle East. Their canvas ranged from Martyr (Shaheed, 1962) and Foreigner (Farangi, 1964) to Patriot (Zerqa, 1969). Sangeeta also made a meaningful film Handful of Rice (Muthi Bhar Chaval) in 1978 based on Rajinder Singh Bedi's short novel.

Two successful colour films Union (Sangam, 1964), Woman (Naila, 1965) came in the sixties but colour became a regular trend by the early-seventies. Love Legend (Heer Rajah, 1970) by director Masood Pervaiz and producer-actor Ijaz shall always remain a milestone in Pakistani colour films. Hassan Tariq's Last Sin (Eik Gunah Aur Sahi, 1975), based on Sadat Hussain Minto's short story, was also a meaningful film.

Last Sin (Eik Gunah Aur Sahi, 1975).
Last Sin (Eik Gunah Aur Sahi, 1975)

With Martial Law in 1977, Punjabi filmmakers turned to hard violence, vengeance and retribution and there was then no end to killings on the silver screen. Macho hero Sultan Rahi became the most bankable name in the film trade in 1978, lensing five to six films every day until his tragic untimely death on the highway in the nineties.

The eighties and nineties saw the decline in filmgoers due to wild, uncensored and smuggled video and satellite TV. Now the film trade in 2006 is facing monstrous Cable TV, VCD and DVD. The CD Channels of Cable TV are showing latest Indian and Hollywood flicks illegally. Members of the film trade met Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in June 2005 for their grievances. The Prime Minister promised to look into the cable piracy.

Alternate Cinema

Screenwriters, producers and directors have attempted to produce alternate films but their efforts have largely failed both commercially and critically. Director A.R.Kardar's Day Shall Dawn (Jago Huwa Savera) in 1959 and Patriot (Qasam Aus Waqt Ki, 1970) were total disasters due to harsh realism and a poor screenplay respectively. Ashfaq Malik's Shades of Life (Dhoop Aur Saey,), Hamid Akhtar's Distant Dream (Sukh Ka Sapna, 1962) and Riaz Shahid's Inlaws (Susral, 1962) did not pay back either.

Film societies have not been a tradition here because of the firm roots by commercial cinema. Film societies have existed, the oldest being of the Government College Lahore with a large film library. The Asian Study Group and Pakistan-Indian Peace and Friendship Forum in Islamabad also show film regularly in their film club. The French Centre and Goethe Centre also screen films for their film club members. The Embassies of Iran, China and Japan are also active in holding regular film festivals. NAFDEC (National Film Development Corporation) also ran PESFA (Pakistan Institute for the Study of Film Art), which arranged film festivals and ran an art film magazine: Cinema - The World Over. Now the Kara Film Festival is being held regularly for the last five years at Karachi , Lahore and Islamabad . Last year, the Fifth Kara Film Festival became the most prestigious event of the year with the final ceremony attended by President Pervaiz Musharraf. The festival showed many prestigious Indian films with prominent Indian celebrities Mahesh Bhatt, Pooja Bhatt, Subhash Ghai and Anupan Kher who made it in person to the festival.

Teri Yaad.
Teri Yaad

Role of the Government

The film industry in Pakistan must be credited and blamed for its rise and fall. The Government has had practically no role except to censor films and issue censor certification. The first President Film Award was given in sixties and later the National Film Development Corporation began giving the National Film Award for excellence in films since 1983, which lasted for sixteen years.

The State Film Authority was set up in 1973 by the Government to regulate the affairs of the film trade and bring improvement by registering film producers, participating in film festivals and holding Pakistani film weeks abroad. It was a futile exercise. Similarly the Authority's plan to set up a film academy did not flourish and the Authority was disbanded in 1978.

The Federal Government desperately wanted improvement in the affairs of the film trade. NAFDEC (National Film Development Corporation) was established in 1973 as a Public Limited Corporation with the following Charter of Activities: Import of quality films, import of unexposed films, sSet up new cinemas and studios, establish film academy, set up film sub-titling unit, promote film export, hold film festivals, participate in film festivals abroad, promote National film Awards for excellence in film craft.

NAFDEC took a number of steps and imported selected quality films but film importers largely resented this import. NAFDEC made a service charge on import of films and raw stock. Importers and producers opposed this. The film trade never ever accepted NAFDEC's existence. Import of raw stock and films was taken away from NAFDEC by Prime Minister Mrs. Benazir's government in the early-nineties. NAFDEC had no source of earning and lived hand to mouth for the next ten years. Finally the end came in 2002 and NAFDEC was liquidated and that was the end of film promotional and development activities by the Government through its autonomous body.

The Future

The annual film production has come down from 142 films in 1970 to barely 50 in 2005. The number of studios has come down from 11 in 1977 to 3 in 2006. Similarly, the cinemas have been reduced from over 700 in 1977 to 250 in 2006. And yet a generation of young filmmakers trained in TV and video production is turning to films. Their work is being shown on Independent TV channels and Kara Film Festival. Films like Silence (Khamoshi) and The Death of Shahrukh Khan (Shahrukh Khan Ki Maut) are new gems in filmmaking. Hopefully, work of these and other filmmakers would continue on TV, Cinemas and at the Kara Film Festival.

Aijaz Gul






Adventures and    Misadventures
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   Tendencies, Perspectives

Western Africa
   Perpetual Renewal

Ousmane Sembene
   The Elder of Elders

Souleymane Cissé
   The Right of Expression

   South America

Brazilian cinema
   Writing the speech

Diegues on Rocha
   A Dream That Came True

Nelson Pereira dos Santos
   Making Films with People

The Re-birth
   of Brazilian Cinema

Fernando Solanas
   A Profile

The Aesthetics of the    New Argentinean Cinema
Pablo Trapero
   Family Pictures

   Southern Asia

A Short History
   of Pakistani Films
A Brief History
   of Cinema in Thailand

New Thai Cinema
Lester James Peries
   A Pioneer of a Tradition