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What happened at the movies in 2017

It isn’t easy to make a movie in Pakistan, let alone a hit .The deck is stacked against movie makers, technical facilities for editing and sound are few ,purpose built studios and most importantly the skilled personal that modern film making requires are often missing. After those hurdles are jumped, even a good film has to work hard to be declared a hit. It’s a complex calculation, taking into account the total original cost, promotional expenses, the amount of screens its shown on, the amount distributers have paid and then the all-important numbers game of how many people actually turn up to watch.

Let’s take for example the Bollywood film Shivay which was the 7th highest grossers at the Indian Box office ,but because it had sky high production costs and was sold to distributers at an inflated cost it end up being declared as an “average loss maker” or “possible breakeven”. Despite all the people that came to watch and the creative efforts of the makers. The recent Pakistani film Verna is another such conundrum, a lot of people would like to dismiss it as a loss maker but because of its relatively small production cost (about 5 crore) it may not just breakeven but may just make a small profit.

Now add on the extra layer of complications that haunt the subcontinent, like religious and cultural sensitivities; as in “that’s anti Sunni/Shia” or that’s targeting Sindhi /Punjabi /people who like cake rusks (because the villain ate cake rusks). That isn’t the end of the story, next come the political games and competitor maneuverings, for example preference might be given to a movie sponsored by the Armed forces. While juggling release dates with Bollywood and Hollywood juggernauts is an art but as they too are subject to sudden bans few calculations are safe bets. The final icing on the cake has to be the  inexplicable “X “ factor, where the Pakistani establishment joins hands with crazy Indian nationalists from across the border and diss our own artists.. For example the Indian film Raees starring Pakistan’s own Mahira Khan and India’s Shah Rukh Khan but was banned while the Indian film Kaabil played to packed houses.

Out of the twenty or so major releases this year there was one Bona fida blockbuster: Punjab Nahi Jaoongi, One super hit: Na Maloom Afrad 2 and one hit: Mehru Nissa V Lub U, while the rest just about broke even or flopped. To work out what went wrong let’s look at a few of the movies that ended up as misses:

BaluMahi was a well-made, family oriented movie, made by renowned director Haissem Hussain, it had a talented young cast, and good reviews but couldn’t quite fulfill its potential. Firstly, because it went over budget for a simple romcom, leaving little room for promotion and then an ill-timed release during IPL season was the final blow. The Sahir Lodhi vehicle Raasta was  a “so bad it was good “  movie with the kind of macho posturing and cheap thrills that might have worked with the masses if there were enough single screen theaters to cater to its audience. balumahi-8

Yalgaar was an ISPR movie which was symptomatic of a lot of what is wrong with today’s cinema, way, way over budget, a copy paste idea of a movie which wasted good actors in favour of parchi types and was basically an ego trip for the makers, subsidized by your taxes.  Then there was  Thora Jee ley , which was a fresh story with a fresh cast, that could have worked if the makers had actually worked on the script. Last but not least there was the Old Lollywood style of movies like Chain Aaye Na, which saw romance as a series of slaps and the audience stayed away in droves leaving investors with huge losses.Yalgaar

To figure out what went wrong and what worked I asked a few industry insiders:

Ali Zain of Box office detail , who has been studying the Pakistani film scene for the last 7 years says :“The issue is that every maker is making films according to their own vision, no one is interested in analyzing what type of films our audience actually wants to see

 Zain explains further, “For example Verna is slower in Punjab and Karachi but   doing well in Islamabad and Pindi, where for some reason dark thrillers seem to work. Thrillers are a tough sell generally, just look at Fan which barely scraped together 11 cr despite the craze that Shah Rukh Khan is in Pakistan. Whereas his Harry Met Sajal was the second highest grosser amongst Hindi movies released in Pakistan but cannot be declared a hit because of the record price charged to distributers”

Jerjees Seja the CEO of ARY Digital gave his take on why so many films flopped this year, “because we are not making films for the masses. We are making movies according to what we think people will watch and we are wrong.”

A common complaint about Pakistani movies is the quality of the script, Jerjees Seja agrees, saying “That’s what we lack at the moment, we don’t have enough good scripts and we are not spending enough time on scripts, though this is the backbone of a movie. “

Another angle is the way Pakistani film critics are often accused of being either incompetent or too demanding, and even of sinking a movie before it has a chance to float. Film makers have not been shy about voicing their suspicions:  Wajahat Rauf director of Lahore Se Agay, Yasir Nawaz director of Mehru Nissa V Lub U have been vocal in their complaints. The pitched battles fought on Facebook and twitter by the old Lollywood crowd; director Syed Noor and film star Shaan   Shahid, who both insist that there are dark conspiracies at work are an even deeper expression of  this lack of trust.


There is no doubt that a lot of the coverage Pakistani films get from our own press is negative , who are often accused of  lying the burden of nuance and refinement  we have from Hollywood on the shoulders of small budget Urdu language movies .Many Film makers bitterly protest that the glaring inconsistencies in Bollywood movies get a pass while Pakistani films are examined under a microscope.

Respected film critic Omair Alvi counters “They (filmmakers) started criticizing critics for their own failures and it makes them look even more miserable

When asked about the current crop of film releases Alvi says, “Filmmakers tried to take the audience for a ride in their smart way without realizing that the audience might also have gotten smart. Those who tried new things came out victorious, showing that the public like to spend money on good content not stupid content.”

He has a point; reviews cannot really make or break a movie, there are plenty of movies that make money despite bad reviews and vice versa.  For every person who bothers to read a review there are twenty who don’t.

Samra Muslim of Walnut media adds her voice ,saying “ To be honest film makers are not making movies for the audience , the ones that go and buys tickets- who want their money’s worth of escapism and entertainment “. She explains the role of good promotion, by saying “ Yes, publicity plays an important part in making a film get noticed in the clutter, but even the greatest of marketers cannot do anything about a poor script or poor acting “

The general consensus seems to be that film makers are just not catering to their audiences and it maybe because they don’t know who their audience is. Watching a movie in one of Pakistan’s beautiful new Cineplex’s is not cheap and this has culled the audience down to a certain strata of society which already has a lot of choices. Comparatively wealthy, a little more educated and mostly middleclass and above, these audiences see the world on their smart screens and they are not in the mood to spend money on just anything because it has a ‘support Pakistani cinema label” attached to it.

So let’s examine what has worked, the blockbuster Punjab Nahi Jaoungi, which was quite simply a great movie. It had a well written script from a master of the game like Khalil ur Rehman Qamar, which not only had some fabulous dialogues but was deeply rooted in Pakistani culture, with little to no vulgarity. Audiences found it easy to connect with the characters and the clash of modern versus traditional thinking, which Director Nadeem Baig presented in an intelligent, nuanced context.

The lack of that all-important connection may be one of the reasons Pakistani movies are not flourishing. Cinema is not just an exercise in spectacle; colour, dance, music and cinematography are all nothing if the audience feels nothing for the characters on the screen. Dialogues, sets, and style are great but in the end it’s the storytelling skills of a maker that are the most important. Film making is essentially the art of telling a good story. Watch any successful Bollywood film and despite some of the crazy leaps of imagination and strange situations the story is always strong and compelling. Just take Salman Khan’s latest blockbuster, Tiger Zinda Hai, there are so many ridiculous situations that we would never tolerate in a Hollywood movie, but because the viewers are so caught up in the story unfolding before them, that they hardly register the fact that Salman Bhai just got through a chemical weapons attack with just a scarf wrapped over his mouth. We can probably expect him to survive a nuclear attack with a wet towel in the inevitable Tiger Abb Bhi Zinda Hai 3 and if the storytelling is as compelling people will let it pass. Tiger

Jerjees Seja’s advice to the film fraternity is “Let’s make good commercial movies –Paisa Vasool – for the masses, be it any genre, not just those that we only want to watch ourselves. Also we must understand the business side of films before we jump on the film wagon.”

Sound advice, but where does that leave the kind of innovation and passion that the creative people who make movies thrive on? Perhaps the answer is already on our screens, the smaller ones. Pakistani dramas are often charged with presenting repetitious stories, regressive values and all number of cultural crimes, yet it’s these same dramas that have launched international film stars and united audiences not just from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, but also the subcontinental diaspora in ways politicians can only dream of. Despite the restrictive structures and race for ratings serials have managed to be both creative and challenging, a lesson their cousins in the film industry will also learn soon. So, a plea to Pakistani film makers, do take risks, do challenge your audience but don’t leave your audience behind , respect them , take them by the hand and lead them through the story you want to tell them.

Sadaf Haider

this article appears on  the Samaa Tv website


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