Cinemascope: Pulling the plug on Punjabi films



Of the many quotes attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, one is this: “Never deprive your people of cinema and cycle as these are the poor man’s sole entertainment.” Beyond hearsay, one can’t find any proof he actually said this, but whether the quote is real or not, the Indian people’s love for cinema very much is.

Some time back, while roaming around in Hyderabad Deccan, I came upon a group of teenage girls and boys in school uniform rushing to watch the matinee show of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum. I approached one of the accompanying teachers who informed me that since it was their last day of school before summer vacations, the administration had allowed students to watch the show instead!

It was once like this in Pakistan, and I witnessed that time as well. That was the golden era of Pakistani cinema when ticket counters and seating aisles used to be jam-packed.

Film critic M. Saeed Awan remembers the efforts of individuals who built the edifice of Punjabi cinema brick by brick, and those who pulled it down thanks to their self-centred actions

The ticketing trinity

There were three kinds of movies our cinemas would screen: Urdu, Punjabi and English. Urdu films were mostly watched by the educated class, including a large number of women, thanks to the star power of chocolate heroes such as Waheed Murad, Nadeem and Shahid, and leading ladies like Babra Sharif, Zeba, Rani and Shabnam. Cinemas that screened Urdu language films were usually in a better condition, facilitated by air conditioning, a neat and clean environment, wall-to-wall carpeting, spotless washrooms, posters of coming attractions etc.

On the other hand, those that screened Punjabi fare were in a relatively shabbier condition and mostly attracted the blue-collar chai, paan and tonga wallas.

Some Punjabi films, however, like Heer Ranjha, Sharif Badmash, Ziddi, Naukar Vohti Da were so sound in content that they surpassed Urdu movies in ticket sales and earned huge revenues. Naukar Vohti Da, Dhee Rani and Sala Sahib enabled producers to establish film production empires from the profits they yielded for them. The phenomenon also attracted a large number of women in the audience due to their romantic themes.

The Gujjar, Jutt and Badmash-type movies shook the very core of Pakistani cinema. Vulgarity and bloodshed was the prime factor used to entertain the all-male audience. Films like Humayun Gujjar, Bhola Sunyara, Kaloo Shahpuria and Wehshi Jatt drew large blue-collar audiences that portrayed the title characters as the ultimate role models for Pakistani society.

English films were generally watched by both classes, as they were largely action fare, and James Bond and Bruce Lee movies were the top sellers.

Did the videocassette kill the cinema star?

There were almost 750 cinemas in the ’60s of which only Punjab had around 400 with 82 in Lahore, the epicenter of Pakistani cinema. Now, a mere 21 cinemas remain in the city that gave Lollywood its name. What happened?

“The mid-70s saw the flooding of VCRs in Pakistani homes,” says Qaisar Sanaullah, President of Cinema Owners Association of Pakistan. “Suddenly films from all over the world were available on video tapes.

Cinemas audiences began to slowly and steadily decline as people preferred to watch films in the comfort of their living rooms.”

There was worse to come, he says: “The trend also ushered the birth of the piracy industry: video tape copies of new releases became available on the day of their premieres at cinemas. Later, cable, DVD and mobiles dealt more severe blows to the business of cinema houses,” says Sanaullah. “While we remained stuck in the ’70s and ’80s technologically speaking, our Indian counterparts had the good sense to keep updating and building up on their cinema entertainment infrastructure. We kept on living in the past, regrettably.”

Infrastructure was only a part of the problem; senior directors, musicians and actors failed to pass on the torch to juniors. Furthermore, filmmaking largely remained confined to only four stations: Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan and Gujranwala while the remaining urban centres were largely neglected.

Gunda raj

During the ’70s, film production veered towards Wehshi Jatts and Jagga Gujjars. Then, under the strict censorship policy of Gen Ziaul Haq, Punjabi films began to lose popularity and the black market economy stormed the industry. The mood within the studios switched from socio-revenge stories to biradari-ism and Gujjars again took the driving seat. An internal clash within the Gujjar clan led to a house divided within itself and it gave rise to the production of films focusing on godfathers within the Gujjar biradari. In the late ’80s and the ’90s, Punjabi films featuring the hit screen couple of Sultan Rahi and Anjuman gained prominence. During 1995-98, Urdu movies resurfaced momentarily with blockbusters such as Jeeva, Love ’95, Khuda Kay Chor, Nikah, Dil Aap Ka Hua etc.

But immediately afterwards, the Gujjar, Jutt and Badmash-type movies shook the very core of Pakistani cinema. Vulgarity and bloodshed was the prime factor used to entertain the all-male audience. Films like Humayun Gujjar, Bhola Sunyara, Kaloo Shahpuria and Wehshi Jatt drew large blue-collar audiences that portrayed the title characters as the ultimate role models for Pakistani society.

I asked Chaudhry Shahzad Ali, the producer of Buddha Gujjar (directed by Syed Noor), as to what led to him produce such a film when he has a romantic film like Choorian to his credit. “They (other producers from the biradari) were trying to show off their brothers, cousins or fathers. I wanted to prove once and for all that the title character based on my grandfather was wiser, braver and possessed greater leadership qualities,” he said.

These Gujjar producers were so powerful that when I drew their attention towards the film censor board’s warning letter that it won’t issue a censor certificate to films based on biradari-ism, the producer frowned and said, “We (producers) hail from eight clans of the Gujjar biradari and if any such action is taken against us we will all pull out from the film industry.”

The threat worked and they continued to keep producing films, dealing blow after blow to Pakistan’s film industry until it was no more.

Witnessing this free-for-all, the Arain/Mehr clan too jumped into the field with Arain da Kharak, Mehr Badshah, etc. The film censor board objected once again and warned the producer association by flatly refusing to allow such film titles to be screened. This time round, a minister from President Pervez Musharraf’s era came to their support.

According to Shehzad Rafiq, Punjabi films are widely watched by the blue-collar class. But high inflation and the rising cost of living have led to the labour class now buying fewer cinema tickets, preferring instead the cheap makeshift roadside hotels where they watch television. Secondly, with no new interesting plots, there was nothing left to attract the weekend crowds. Finally, the Punjabi film circuit once encompassed all of Pakistan has shrunk to a few cities and towns in Punjab.

“The budget of my film, Ishq Khuda, was almost Rs4 crores but I lost a huge amount in ticket sales as the law and order situation in other cities and provinces worsened and it was limited it to Punjab only.

“Under these circumstances only worthy films can survive. Those who ravaged our film industry have now disappeared simply because they had no stakes in it. These non-filmi individuals even beat up film star Shaan once due to his absence on the set for shooting,” he said.

In a nutshell, gone are the days of directors like Haidar Chaudhary, musicians like Kamal Ahmad, lyricists like Hazeen Qadree and choreographers like Hameed Chaudhary who gave their sweat and blood to the bygone golden era of Punjabi cinema.

Lollywood entered yet another chapter in its tumultuous history as Bollywood films claimed the territory left vacant due to the decline of Punjabi cinema, during which the number of local films were limited to only five per year.

A new hope

Yet there’s still hope on the horizon; our young film-makers have proven that quality content can be produced by limited resources. And now, there are well-furnished cineplexes in which that content can be screened. “Third-class Punjabi fare has no scope in Lollywood now. Instead films like Main Hoon Shahid Afridi, Koi Tujh Sa Kahan, Khuda Kay Liye and Bol have a future in Pakistan,” says Sanaullah. He added that in the past even dead flops drew large crowds and ran up to 22 shows or more for several months. Now, only films with a sound plot, story development and intense drama, realistic action, and a good soundtrack can hope to survive.

Even then there is fear of cost recovery as our films can only be screened in five big cities. Small cities like Rahim Yar Khan, Larkana, Hafizabad, Mardan, Nowshera, Okara, Bannu — once considered the backbone of our cinema culture — no longer have any cinema houses of note left.

How can the Pakistan film industry be put back on track? “Well first of all directors like Syed Noor, Bilal Lashari, Reema, Shehzad Rafiq, etc, who are capable of producing sellable films should be facilitated. Secondly, those who are into Punjabi films’ production should bid farewell to the profession,” says Sanaullah.

The Government of Punjab may have relaxed taxes for the film industry but it still needs to do a lot more for the uplift of the film industry including the renewal of cinemas’ lease for five years and granting licenses to new cinemas through a one-window operation, along with the establishment of an academy to train producers, directors, film editors, etc. Only then can the survival and salvation of Pakistan’s film industry be ensured.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 6th, 2014

Leave a Reply