The Pakistani film and television industry is producing great titles, thanks to a new generation of independent producers and talent. It’s not all never-ending thunderstorms and evil mothers-in-law.
By Ibraheem Ali
Growing up I don’t think I ever gave Pakistani media much of a chance. Like many other walaiti (diaspora) desis, my experience of my ancestral homeland’s media was filtered and diluted by Saturday morning cartoons and British or American sitcoms. Watching stuff from ‘back home’ was a chore. The sappy soap operas, the mock-Bollywood style films – it all just seemed way over the top and melodramatic. It was the stuff my mum watched and as far as I was concerned would never be something I’d enjoy or understand.
However, more recently I’ve learned just how unfair I’ve been to Pakistani cinema, limiting it to the one or two genres or niche productions I’d seen in my youth. I have discovered that Pakistani cinema, like all other cultural industries, isn’t a monolith. It has a long and bumpy history that started in Lahore in 1929 when Abdur Rashid Kardar set up the United Players Corporation, a studio and production company that put out its first silent feature film, Husn Ka Daku (Mysterious Eagle), in 1930.
The industry went into its proverbial ‘golden age’ in the sixties. This decade saw the rise of some of Pakistan’s most celebrated actors like Mohammed Ali and Waheed Murad, starring in such iconic films as Kaneez and Armaan. The 1977 military coup sent Pakistani cinema into an era of decline for the next two decades. However, a wave of low-budget, independent films from Karachi in the early 2000s set the industry’s revival in motion and by 2013 a new domestic box-office record was set by the biopic of famed cricketer Shahid Afridi.
There is now a growing independent scene in Pakistani entertainment inhabited by brilliant minds celebrating the best of their heritage from unique angles. It’s not all the Saas/Bahu (mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law) drama series with its never-ending thunderstorms and evil mothers-in-law. In the budding indie scene, we find contemporary stories that neither patronise nor exoticise, but only highlight the beauty of everyday life in Pakistan.
That said, and in all honesty, there is still much about many popular Pakistani films I’m not entirely taken with – perhaps it’s just not my thing. As noted above, however, this industry cannot be painted with a broad brush so here are just a few short films that have changed my mind about what Pakistani cinematic culture can be.
Bas Ek Pyali Chai follows Ahmedeen and Ghulam Raees, two former colleagues from an old Karachi tea house as they prepare to meet long after their retirement. As they reminisce over a warm cup of tea we are gently reminded of the passage of time, the melancholy of change and the comfort of familiar things.
This short film directed by Muhammad Belaal Imran is as aesthetically warming as it is thematically wholesome. The film’s soft lighting and long lingering shots are accompanied by an equally captivating score, all of which evoke a feeling of empathic nostalgia from the viewer. Although the cultural context of this film may be very specific, what it communicates is the universality of tea and the sweetness of sharing a cup with a cherished friend.
The longest of the films covered here is also the most tragic. Madinay Wala Jahaz is the story of a father and son who leave their humble, rural home for a life in the city. They hope to save enough money to take a flight directly to the city of Madina and visit the Grand Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad. They quickly learn, however, just how drastically different urban life is from the countryside and gradually feel the weight and the pressure of the unforgiving city bearing down on them. In many ways, the film reminds me of the works of the late Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu who also tackled the intersecting themes of family, modernity, urbanisation and the painful processes of adjustment.
Have you ever noticed those brightly painted, imposing, almost ethereally decorated trucks that dominate the Pakistani highways? Even if you’ve never been there, the image might come to mind. These magnificently vibrant expressions of mobile creativity have become a symbol inseparable from the land they traverse and Truckistan is a visual love letter to life on the open road. Speaking from my own walaiti upbringing, watching Truckistan feels to me like a mish-mash of Willy Wonka and Into the Wild. An exciting, colourful and possibly life-changing trip.
Two other films recently added to our library are Pankh and Fruit Chaat. Each of these films have dedicated reviews of their own so just click on the titles to find out more about them.