Films Make Narratives

Films Make Narratives
Back in 2012, when I was doing my doctoral research in Film at Glasgow, I came across this quote: ‘he who controls people’s films exerts a greater impudence for good or ill, than he who makes the country’s laws.’

When VCRs came to Pakistan in the 1980s, they brought pirated Indian films – on VHS tapes – that were banned in Pakistani cinemas. Voices arose against the invasion of culture through this medium. But it was unstoppable. The crumbling Pakistan film industry immediately blamed the VCR for all its problems. Notwithstanding the fact, the loss of the East Pakistan market in 1971 had halved box office revenue, and had left Pakistani film producers struggling and too timid to try new actors, new stories, new technologies and any novel ways of doing things at all. So, they found a scapegoat – the VCR – where it was most convenient to shift the blame. When you refuse to admit the real problem, it lingers on. So, the problem could not be fixed. The country stopped producing film actors, musicians, cinematographers and other technicians for making films.

During the three decades from 1980 to 2010, cinema in Pakistan got stuck in a world that was fast turning irrelevant – those stories had lost their appeal. When it came back with a new (digital) look after 2010, it only rendered poor copies of Bollywood.

Nobody has asked as to why no significant piece of literature has been produced in Pakistan in the last four decades – let alone making a significant film that involves money. No significant poetry has emerged in all these decades – that needs no budget to produce! This leaves the nation starving for foreign films, novels, stories – when you leave the ground open, the vacuum sucks things from the outside. It started with the Indian films on VHS, and hangs on with Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other online streaming film channels.

A modest estimate of producing a film in Pakistan today maybe somewhere between $300,000-500,000 US dollars at the present conversion rate. That means, if a US film company decides to invest $400 or 500 million, it could produce nearly 100 movies in Pakistan. What would that mean? It would mean that they decide to take charge of deciding what a Pakistani story is like – how it looks, what morals it draws upon and what kind of national aesthetics and imagination it represents. That means foreign filmmaker will decide what Pakistani heroes and heroines are like – how they dress, what social, moral values they stand and fight for. In other words, they will enjoy great control – if not an absolute control – on defining Pakistani culture through those films. And definitely, those who have the ability to tell the story, they have a considerable control over the national narrative.

Think, for example, a Hollywood producer decides to make a film on the making of Pakistan, and portrays respectable figures from Pakistan Movement in a negative light. What can you do? Ban the film across Pakistani screens – both in theatres and TV channels? Fine. They put it on Netflix and YouTube – you shut them down too – they float in the country by making digital copies. Meaning that it cannot be stopped.

Why would they want to make movies in Pakistan, and not abroad? They can, and they do. Since film distribution is now not restricted to your local cinemas, they can be premiered on Amazon Prime and Netflix, and later on made available on YouTube.

Back in 2015, when I was in Glasgow, a friend from London called me. A US-UK company wanted to invest over a billion US dollars in installing technical facilities for film production – studios, sound production, post production, VFX, etc. – in Pakistan, while the Indian government had refused to allow them operate, for their own reasons. The idea was to create an infrastructure of technical outsourcing for Hollywood films. This gentleman was a close relative of an important cabinet member in the federal government at that time. Why this project never materialised, I don’t know. I had lost touch with them when I came to Pakistan in 2017.

Following the idea, I thought that Pakistan should try to build its own film producing infrastructure, where producers from the US and other parts of the world can outsource their work on comparatively far less cost which they pay in other places. I drew a roadmap and drafted the plan on the paper.

A friend of mine advised me to never share the document with the government. What he said, made sense and convinced me – that the bureaucracy would snub the idea and the government advisors would like to take the credit for everything. That’s how it works and that how everything ends in this country.

So, now in 2023 – films are dead. Inflation has made it practically impossible even for the so-called established producers to make movies in this country. This Eid-ul-Adha’s release of Teri Meri Kahaniyaan is one example, where three different filmmakers from Karachi have collaborated in the production. One of the directors, Nadeem Baig, frankly remarked in one of his interviews that owing to current inflation, we decided to split the burden – the cost of production ­­– and put three short duration films together.

That is the state of affairs. When we don’t have the means and ability to tell our stories, somebody else will.

The author holds a PhD from the University of Glasgow, UK. He hosts a political talk show on TV and appears as a political commentator in TV shows.