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2023: Critical Success and Commercial Failure for Pakistani Cinema

Last year during an interview, Nadeem Mandviwalla said that 2023 would be a troubled year for Pakistani cinema. The film industry had grinded to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic and so very few films were ready to release in 2023.

And as expected, 2023 was a slow year for Pakistani cinema industry. Very few commercial projects hit theaters this year. However, lots of critical darlings emerged that won awards at international film festivals.

Pakistan’s Box Office Falls Off a Cliff

In 2023, the box office remained slumbering throughout the year. After the firecracker that was ‘The Legend of Maula Jatt’ in 2022, no new film could upstage it. The film kept roaring throughout the year, and even got an international re-release (it’s also still running at local theaters).

Of the handful of commercial projects released in 2023, hardly 1 or 2 even reported their box office collection. Even the ever-dependable Ali Zain from Box Office Detail didn’t report a lot of box office numbers.

Only two local films emerged as decent grossers. Fawad Khan’s satire “Money Back Guarantee” was estimated to have earned approximately 12.4 Cr at the box office. The anthology film “Teri Meri Kahaniyaan” earned approximately 5 Cr throughout its run.

No other box office reports or estimates made the rounds for local films. Films like “Huey Tum Ajnabi”, “Babylicous”, “Super Punjabi”, “Daadal”, “Dorr”, “VIP”, “Dhai Chaal” and “Allahyar and the 100 Flowers of God”, all failed to generate interest for the mass audience.

In fact, a lot of international projects failed as well. Superhero movies, which notably took a huge fall this year, fared similarly in Pakistan. ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’, which were huge hits internationally, also didn’t drum up much business in Pakistan.

I remember sitting in quite a few mostly empty theaters for most of my movie going experiences this year as well.

Awards and Acclaim Galore

Where the box office failed, Pakistani films managed to win a lot of acclaim on the international stage in 2023.

Zarrar Kahn’s psychological horror flick ‘In Flames’ premiered at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes and received a standing ovation. ‘In Flames’ toured Pakistan through a self-financed distribution campaign that took it to Karachi and Lahore. It had also been submitted as Pakistan’s official entry to the Oscars, though it didn’t make the shortlist. In Flames has also won the International Newcomer Prize at the 72nd International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg, Germany along with 30,000 Euros.

Gunjal, a film about the murder of child activist Iqbal Masih, was also lauded. It was screened at the Ganges Sur Seine Festival in Paris and the Asian Film Festival Barcelona. The film will also be screened at the 16th Jaipur International Film Festival in 2024.

Most recently, several Pakistani features and shorts have received acclaim at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival in KSA. ‘In Flames’ won the Golden Yusr (Best Film) Award along with a $100,000 cash prize. “Wakhri”, the Faryal Mehmood starrer inspired by the life of Qandeel Baloch was also screened at Red Sea along with two shorts: Solatia and Eid Mubarak.

P.S. Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha was also released online this year.

Dark Subjects and Indie Films Take Center Stage

In the absence of commercial entertainers, a lot of indie films centered on dark subjects got time to shine. These included:

  • Gunjal: A film about the slain anti-child labour activist Iqbal Masih and the investigation about his murder
  • Madaari: A film about the political violence that has gripped Karachi for decades.
  • In Flames: A horror film about patriarchal violence, and the day-to-day problems women have to deal with in Pakistan.
  • John: A film about the Christian minorities that live in Karachi.
  • Chikkar: A film about the rampant incidents of mob violence and lynchings that have become too common in Pakistan over the last decade.

Each one of these films was by a debut director, which is admirable and a sign that Pakistani cinema has unique voices. More money and resources need to be allocated to these filmmakers, so their talent is nurtured and fostered to greater effect.

Screenwriting and Direction Improve

While it’s been a very disappointing year for the box office in Pakistan, there is reason to celebrate. Debut filmmakers have come up with indie films with great direction and screenplays. Films like In ‘Flames’, ‘Gunjal’, and ‘Chikkar’ have set a benchmark for serious filmmaking to tackle social subjects in Pakistan.

What is most commendable is the evolution of screenplay writing in Pakistan. Believable, natural dialogue as well as refined storytelling has been a rarity in Pakistani cinema, and not the norm for a long time. New talent needs to be pushed forward and encouraged to deliver more films if our industry is to prosper.

There is a lot to look forward to in 2024 for Pakistani cinema. Hopefully, some films which were put on the backburner in 2023 will be delivered next year. Here’s to success for Pakistani cinema industry next year and all the years after.

Written by Yousuf Mehmood


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