Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Through the Lens

An art form and a popular source of entertainment, film is generally a reflection of its native culture and society.

Films, according to Wikipedia, ‘are cultural artifacts created by specific cultures, which reflect those cultures, and in turn affect them.’ As an art form with universal appeal – through its various popular genres that encompass a wide range of linguistic and visual presentations – and as technology, the cinema has been in existence for a little over a hundred years. It started in the early 1890s and spread all over the world within a period of 20 years. As the medium developed and evolved, it was also came to be used for educational and research purposes – and even propaganda – but its main aim remained providing lighthearted entertainment to the general public.

Over the years, the South Asian film industry has evolved and adapted to various climes in a bid to make itself recognized as a major source of entertainment. It succeeded in making a place for itself in some South Asian nations and has remained a struggling genre in others. The film industries existing in South Asian countries like Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have flourished or regressed according to the political upheavals or social approval extended to them by their native lands. It would not be wrong to say that the South Asian cinema is dominated by the Indian film industry, popularly known as Bollywood, while Pakistan film industry (aka Lollywood) has been struggling to follow suit. Before delving into the Bollywood and Lollywood phenomena, however, let’s take a brief overview of the South Asian Cinema in general.

The South Asian cinema holds within itself a wide range of styles and genres. Particular favourites have turned out to be musicals, action films, romantic comedies or crime/revenge films. Although escapism is a recurrent underlying theme in most of these mainstream cinema features , art films featuring more complex issues teasing the intellect and pointing out serious flaws in the social setup, have also started to hold popular appeal.

Nepal for its natural beauty has been the object of fascination for film makers from abroad for many years, yet its own industry truly breathed anew finally after the Maoists joined mainstream politics in 2006 and the hostile atmosphere of raw conflict gave in to relative peace. Nepalese films generally tend to be simplistic and heavily influenced by Indian films with song and dance sequences interspersed with the narrative.

Sri Lankan films, in the recent years, have explored themes arising from years of conflict between the military and the Tamil Tigers. They depict ordinary people’s dilemmas and dreams revolving around struggle for survival during the period of longstanding unrest.

The Bangladeshi film industry is known for producing as many as a hundred movies a year on a budget of 6,500,000 taka per film. Still, quantity does not necessarily signify quality as Bangladeshi movies have been criticized for selling violence as their main ingredient, besides the usual theme of love and romance.

Cinema entered Afghanistan in the early part of 20th century. The Afghan Film Organization was built in 1968. Afghanistan has been through much turmoil over the last couple of decades, and so has Afghani cinema, coping with war and internal conflict. In the late 90s, religious sentiment clashed with this popular entertainment activity and resulted in burning down of cinemas. As a result, film production took a nosedive for some years. However, some documentary films of notable mention bringing to light the plight of a war-ravaged land have been produced in the country.

Bollywood, the Indian film industry, is one of the world’s largest producers of films in the world. It has moved way ahead of its Pakistani counterpart over the years. Till the 60s both the industries were considered at par, providing a healthy competition to each other. Gradually, though, it became apparent that Bollywood was the natural leader in this field. Through consistent policy and active promotion, it has earned popular acclaim throughout the world for good production, diverse themes and good acting. Although formulaic productions continue to find a huge market, more and more films carry serious issues to the forefront and induce social debate. Not only has it turned out to be the best way for cultural promotion, but also generates revenues for the country.

Lollywood, on the other hand, has generally catered only to a local audience. The 70s saw a period of film and theatre flourishing unhindered, and the industry boasted of around 1300 Cinema houses in the country. By 2005, however, the Pakistan COA (Cinema Owners Association) estimated the number to have come down to less than 400, most having been converted to more profitable sources of income such as shopping malls, car showrooms etc. Less than 60 films a year are now being produced, where up to 300 a year was the norm.

The reasons are numerous. Pakistan has not had a consistent policy for its film industry that could satisfy the evolving values of its society and cater to the priorities of the policy-makers at the same time. Repeatedly, the Film Producers Association (FPA) has urged the government to support them in the promotion of this visual art form, since it holds universal appeal – language barriers being overcome with dubbing and subtitles.

Secondly, the technical side of film production also needs attention – theme/script, musical score, recording facilities, standard of choreography and even direction requires improvement. The themes are generally formulaic – escapism remains the favourite – and revolve around love, revenge and/or happy endings; hardly a reflection of the society infested with serious issues like poverty, illiteracy, lawlessness and the like. The element of quality entertainment seems elusive at best. Recently, though, one Pakistani director, Shoaib Mansoor produced a film titled’ ‘Khuda key liye’ (‘In the name of God’) which is a thought-provoking and serious film, though it has its moments of humour and lighthearted fun. It explores issues of multicultural dimensions. The film focuses on a changed – sometimes even confusing, and hostile – post 9/11 world as viewed through the eyes of its various characters. It offers perceptions worth pondering. Screened in Pakistan and abroad, this film has earned international acclaim for its realistic projection of a serious present day concern. Considering the good business this film has done on box office, it might herald the start of a new era in film-making in Pakistan.

Cinema owners in Pakistan have for many years stressed the need for screening Bollywood productions in the country to feed the empty cinema houses as local production is falling way short of requirement – the ban on import of Indian films was imposed after the 1965 war. Contrarily, the film-makers are apprehensive and fear being wiped out completely, conscious that their own films provide no competition whatsoever. Despite the hostility between the neighbours, Bollywood films have always been popular in Pakistan. That resulted in a mushroom growth of video shops selling pirated copies of latest Bollywood flicks over the years. Recent decision of the government to allow screening of the latest Bollywood film, ‘Welcome’ is a major shift in policy after 43 long years. This limited lifting of the ban implies that only a fixed number of select films would be imported, with an equal number of Pakistani flicks to be exported in exchange.

Pakistan also has to settle the issue of rising religious sentiment against perceived vulgarity from Indian or western cinema. This fear of a strong reaction from the conservatives is something that has to be taken seriously into account before such decisions can be effectively implemented. It is no secret how in the recent past many CD shops in the more conservative NWFP have been burned down and shop keepers harassed for selling DVDs of Hollywood and Bollywood films. Any recreational activity that suffers social censure and does not have popular support is unlikely to draw in much audience. Visiting the cinema or theatre is among the preferred recreational activities of most people looking for some quality family-time together. Therefore, such issues need to be resolved before active cinema-going can be looked upon with enthusiasm by the general public.

Cinema is a reflection of social values and norms. Quality productions resulting in good attendance signify the maturity of aesthetic sensibilities in a society. Cinema-going should be nurtured as an industry that would not only bring in revenue but also counter aggression and provide a healthy outlet to the recreation starved populace.

Mar, 2008 SouthAsia Magazine

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