The decade in review Reversal of fortunes for Pakistani cinema

The decade in review: Reversal of fortunes for Pakistani cinema

Over the last decade, the proverbial phoenix that has been Pakistan’s cinema industry has risen from the ashes, from a point where everything from the technical infrastructure needed to make a film right to the exhibition sector was breathing its last few gasps. It was leased a new life altogether when the right mix of talented filmmakers, some who had learned their craft abroad, savvy investors from the media sector, and exhibitors who finally embraced the multiplex culture pooled to form the revived film industry. Had the current global Covid-19 crisis not materialized, this decade would have concluded with at least 30 major film releases that had been scheduled to hit the cinema screens the previous year – a dramatic overhaul from the dire situation in 2010 when only a few non-descript productions from a dying Lahore industry made their way to ramshackle theaters.

While this upwards trajectory has been dotted with its fair share of glitches, gaffes, and false starts, the decade saw numerous memorable turning points that augured better times ahead for the industry. In short, committed young, passionate filmmakers and investors completely transformed the film setup proving the omnipresent naysayers wrong.


It started with Bol

Shoaib Mansoor is correctly labeled as an institution by present-day stars such as Shaan Shahid and Mahira Khan. The entertainment industry veteran, who spun local filmmaking conventions on their head with 2007’s “Khuda Kay Liye”, followed up with “Bol” in 2011, another engaging social drama, although this time around, the intensity bordered on the polemic.

Pitching a cast of senior performers like Manzar Sehbai with pop-sensation Atif Aslam and then-newbies Mahira Khan and Humaima Malick, the film entranced the audience with its haunting imagery shot by Suleman Razzaq and some memorable lines penned by Mansoor himself. The dark social drama also emerged as a surprise money-spinner, being the first Pakistani film to cross 10 crores. Its reception in the international market was quite spectacular too, and it would not be incorrect to say that Bol established the commercial viability of local cinema on a firmer footing after Khuda Kay Liye’s success.


The corporate sector steps in

Following “Bol”, Humayun Saeed’s Six Sigma Plus came up with 2013’s “Main Hoon Shahid Afridi” that managed to snag plum corporate sponsors HBL and Pepsi – although this came with the caveat that the companies and their logos were featured quite prominently – a bit too prominently, according to some — in the narrative. While corporate sponsorship remains controversial, there are no two ways about how it has contributed immeasurably towards supporting film investors who otherwise would struggle to recoup budgets from an exhibition sector that even now has not reached its optimal level of audience penetration.

Back to MHSA, while the film was well-received by critics and the audiences, it was the corporate backing in addition to theatrical revenues that finally put the Humayun Saeed-Mahnoor Baloch starrer in the green. The film paved way for numerous other corporate backers into the industry, a trend that continues to this day.

Box office bonanza ‘Waar’

2013 was also notable for giving the industry what till then was its biggest money-spinner “Waar”. Shaan Shahid teamed with music video director Bilal Lashari in this Hassan Rana produced cop-thriller that interweaved geopolitics, international terrorism, and domestic politics. The film went against the grain on so many levels – the primary language spoken by its characters was English, the mounting was digital, and quite importantly, “Waar” featured absolutely no conventional song and dance routine (that even Bol did) – that many industry observers had sealed its fate prior to release. However, it opened to a bumper response on Eid-ul-Azha, grossing what was till then the highest opening day collection of 1.1 crores, a haul which only progressively increased over the remaining Eid period. By the end of its run, “Waar” had outgrossed 1998’s “Choorian” with an estimated mammoth tally of 22 crores at the box office. The movie was also Hamza Ali Abbasi’s first major appearance on the big screen.


The first Oscar submission in decades

2013 also saw the release of Farjad Nabi and Meenu Kaur’s “Zinda Bhaag”, an offbeat, quirky drama that introduced Amna Ilyas to the silver screen. The film ended up being the first Pakistani film in over fifty years to be submitted for Oscar consideration when it was sent for the ‘Foreign Language Film Award’ category at the 86th Academy Awards. It also scored reasonably at the domestic box office.


2015’s box office bonanza

The positive reception of the trio of major films at the start of the decade set stage for the box office bonanza that turned out to be the summer of 2015. During this period, directors such as Nadeem Baig (Jawani Phir Nahi Ani), Wajahat Rauf (Karachi Se Lahore), Yasir Nawaz (Wrong No.), and Sarmad Khoosat (Manto) made their cinema debuts. Practically all these productions – along with M&D Productions’ “Bin Roye” – turned out to be spectacular successes. “JPNA” emerged the first commercial potboiler to hit the box office jackpot and established Eid-ul-Azha as the prime box office window for Pakistani films while “Bin Roye” managed a gigantic UK haul of over £ 425,000 mainly from the overseas diaspora. These back-to-back successes put end to the debate as to whether film revival was underway or not.


The Mehwish Hayat phenomenon

With “Actor in Law” in 2016, Mehwish Hayat quantum leaped from item number sensation into power-packed performer mode. The actress would go on to (somewhat controversially) win Tamgha-e-Imtiaz for her successive powerhouse roles. The commercial success of “Actor in Law” also cemented the credentials of Nabeel Qureshi as the filmmaker with the unique ability to combine the commercial with the unconventional in his street-savvy narratives.


Cake, and a whole lot more in 2018

With its newly found commercial success, some semblance of international recognition followed for Pakistani cinema with 2018’s “Cake”. The film, which opened with a grand red carpet premiere at London’s Leicester Square, won much praise from critics in papers like The Guardian, and was also lauded by local critics and audiences.

Ali Zafar made his debut in Pakistani cinema to “Teefa in Trouble” and his fanbase responded quite enthusiastically, turning the film into one of the biggest money spinners of that year. “Teefa in Trouble” scored the highest non-holiday weekend, which was no trivial feat.

2018 was also the year that put to rest the notion that multiple releases on a single day cannot succeed. “Jawani Phir Nahi Ani 2“, “Parwaz Hai Junoon, and “Load Wedding were all released on Eid-ul-Azha that year to a response that saw nearly houseful occupancy throughout the holiday period and beyond, the kind which had only been witnessed during the golden era of Pakistani cinema in the 60s or 70s. JPNA2 and PHJ churned out massive box office figures, and “Load Wedding” too did reasonably well in the long run. The trio, along with “Teefa in Trouble”, managed to stay in theaters for several months and proved that Pakistani films, without the support of foreign releases, could hold on their own, keeping the box office strong and steady for extended periods.

The Donkey King followed later in October 2018 and became the first animation film to score over 20 crores in business. Along with Waadi Animations’ Teen Bahadur franchise, the film was significant in being able to attract an adult audience and put the stamp of commercial viability on locally produced animated films.

News-making comeback

2019 saw the return of Lahore Industry’s gangster guriaMeera in the Saqib Malik directed tinsel town thriller “Baaji“. The actress, who had scored a string of blockbusters in the late 90s, some of them almost entirely on her own box office pull, for the first time in her career managed unanimously positive critical reviews for her performance. The fact that her on-screen persona mirrored her off-screen antics only went towards enhancing the movie’s commercial appeal.

The decade ended on a somewhat sour note with the Covid-19 crisis, however, that has been a global phenomenon which has affected film business the world over. With a backlog of several major box-office draws scheduled for the coming year, the fortunes of Pakistani cinema will again be tested. Given its past track record, it will hopefully prove its resilience once more. Here’s looking forward to an even more successful new decade the local filmmakers.

Written by Faisal Ali H

I work as an economist and maintain an active interest in Pakistani cinema.


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