Matteela Films is led by Mazhar Zaidi who has worked with BBC World Service in London and headed the department of documentaries and current affairs at Pakistan’s leading English language channel Dawn News. He has produced several documentaries and programmes for the BBC and German TV channel ARD. His film Nar Narman has been screened internationally and at the National Film Theatre in London in 2007. He is currently working on a documentary film based on the memories and images of 102-year-old photojournalist FE Chaudhry. He is the producer of Jeewan Hathi, and has line produced several films in Pakistan and for international producers working in Pakistan. ///////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////// Meenu Gaur is co-writer and director of Zinda Bhaag. She completed her PhD in Film and Media Studies from the University of London in 2010 and is the co-editor of the book Indian Mass Media and the Politics of Change, published by Routledge 2011 and distributed by OUP Pakistan. She is also the co-director of the award winning documentary film, Paradise On a River of Hell. She is presently working on her third feature film and a documentary film on Karachi titled Tasting the Secret: Karachi supported by the Jan Vrijman Fund, I am Karachi campaign and Göteborg Film Fund. Her films have been released theatrically in various countries such as the USA, UAE and Pakistan and screened extensively in major International film festivals, international universities, and on Indian and Pakistani television. Her films have been included in academic courses and discussed in academic books and journals. /////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////// Farjad Nabi is co-writer and director of Zinda Bhaag. He has directed award-winning documentaries including Nusrat has Left the Building… But When?, No One Believes the Professor, and The Final Touch. His Punjabi stage plays Annhi Chunni di Tikki (Bread of Chaff & Husk) and Jeebho Jani di Kahani (The Story of Jeebho Jani) have been recently staged and published. Folk and fringe music remain close to his heart. He has produced and presented a musical documentary on interior Sindh called Aaj ka Beejal for BBC Urdu. He is the co-director of Jeewan Hathi and a third feature film with Meenu Gaur, another Matteela Films venture, which is currently in pre-production.
The Ghost Will Leave if You Ask Nicely: Lollywood and Other Things that Linger
What began as “an enquiry into the so-called ‘death’ of Pakistani cinema” led curators and creators Farjad, Mazhar, and Meenu down a rabbit hole, in thrall of the magic of cinema and what defines larger than life (also known as Madhuri Dixit!). Charting their paths through a “politics of nostalgia”, they seem to have arrived, perhaps not surprisingly, at a place of celebration for “the era of digital”.
Earliest Memories of Pakistani Cinema
Farjad: I caught the tail-end of Pakistani cinema. By the late ‘70s, the film industry had gone into decline, losing the family audience entirely by the early ‘80s. It seems like a distant dream now, but I do remember being herded into the family car by my aunts as we went en masse to catch films like ‘Nahin Abhi Nahin’ and ‘Miss Hong Kong’. These were great entertainers and I was totally awed by the world of cinema, but it is one of the great tragedies of my generation that cinema as a medium of family entertainment petered out for the next three decades or so. Having the premiere of our feature film ‘Zinda Bhaag’ in an old cinema like Shabistan in Lahore meant a lot to me as a result.
Mazhar: Growing up in the 1980s, I hardly watched any Pakistani cinema. I think the first film I remember was ‘Miss Bangkok’ (1986) starring Barbara Sharif, which I saw in Lyrics Cinema in Multan and though I enjoyed it, I never really watched many more, because the culture of cinema-going was already dying out. I started making a deliberate effort to watch and analyse Pakistani cinema in the 1990s as a journalist. I quite enjoyed some of the films produced in the mid and late 1990s in Pakistan even though many think of that era of Pakistani cinema as low brow. But in my opinion, those films were making important political commentary, albeit very cautiously and trying to avoid the censor.
Indian Cinema as Part of Pakistan’s Memory-Scape
Mazhar: My introduction to Hindi cinema was through what used to be called the ‘parallel cinema’ of India. I remember seeing ‘Kamla’ by Jagmohan Mundhra sometime in 1986 or so. I really found that cinema movement in India fascinating and saw all of them on bootlegged VHS tapes. I started watching mainstream Bollywood quite late in the 1990s and I think that was primarily because of Madhuri Dixit!
Farjad: At the time I was growing up, Indian films were only available on VHS, whereas Pakistani cinema was on a steep decline. I remember seeing a VCR at somebody’s house for the first time and it was made out to be a big deal. They played ‘Trishul’ to show off and by the end of it, I had a headache! But over the years, we saw all the Hindi blockbusters; it was a private affair, consumed in one’s living room, braving the power breakdowns, cleaning the VCR heads, waiting for the master prints to arrive on VHS. Even before that it was tuning into ‘Chitrahaar’ on our black n’ white TVs. So Hindi mainstream cinema was part of our growing up, but I never watched one in a cinema up until a decade ago when Indian films began to be released officially again in cinemas.
Meenu: I don’t think people in Pakistan necessarily see Bollywood as ‘Indian’, as in most of the time it is geographically located in people’s imagination in some kind of a no man’s land.
Nostalgia as Expression and an Art Form
Meenu: The central theme (of the exhibition ‘Pakistani Cinema Reflected’) was an enquiry into the so called ‘death’ of Pakistani cinema or Lollywood. In our reckoning, the industry didn’t die, but rather there has been a consistent disavowal and de-legitimization of it. Cinema’s survival in Pakistan has at all times been a doggedly difficult battle with the state, but the middle classes and elites have also turned their backs and noses up at it, viewing it as essentially B grade and tasteless. In a sense the exhibition opened questions about class, taste, low and high art.
The exhibition also had a sense of nostalgia running through it. Beyond these two art pieces our feature and documentary film work is also overtly concerned about cinematic pasts. But nostalgia can be very political. And in this exhibition nostalgia is a response to attempted (and violent) erasures.
Mazhar: In the course of our visits to the Evergreen and Bari studios, we met scores of stuntmen, technicians, actors and ‘extras’, and became aware of the ways in which this once buzzing industry had been relegated to the margins. Few know or understand the exact circumstances that led to the collapse of the erstwhile Pakistani film industry- partition(s), military dictatorships, rise of religious fundamentalism, the political-economy of the entertainment industry- all of this and more contributed to the fall of an industry which at one time produced 150 films a year. Yet however marginal this film industry has now become, its imprint cannot disappear from the popular imagination of the Pakistani public. Thus was born the idea of a Pakistani Cinema based art exhibition which was both an acknowledgement and an enquiry of the far-reaching influence of this film industry. While the new industry may or may not acknowledge the old, we are in no doubt that we have no heritage if we choose not to claim this one.
The Lingering of Lollywood
Meenu: Cinema in particular has been struggling to survive in the face of its own demise. Globally, regular announcements about its death are made every now and then. In terms of medium, there is an overlapping cycle of birth and death in film – death of silent and birth of talkies, black and white to colour and now celluloid to digital.
Lots of theoretical insights have been made about cinema and death and the ways in which cinema and its predecessor that is photography are an attempt at preservation against death (after all the photographic and cinematic image will survive long after we die). So in a sense life, death and after-life is over-lapping in film and cinema. Nothing really dies.
Farjad: Lollywood is dead, yet it lives on. It is either the province of a large silent majority still listening to the songs on radio, or watching the films. However it is not acknowledged by the new breed of filmmakers. Hence in the so-called mainstream, it exists as an exotic freak show and as kitsch on mugs and t-shirts. Lollywood is perceived as some sort of a joke and therefore emphasizes the irony of Charlie dressing as a clown and holding a manifesto for the destitute film personnel in our video Manifesto for the Dead.
Meenu: I think in every art form there is an attempt to surpass the limits and boundaries placed on it by the medium and its distribution. I think what is interesting in our times is the ways in which distribution is changing. Films are leaving the cinemas, art is leaving the galleries, TV is leaving the homes and so on and so forth. I know a lot of people blame the proliferation of these other forms for the death of cinema but I think these forms are actually allowing cinema to survive. I am nostalgic about the death of celluloid, but glad to be working in the era of digital.
(This article is an edited version of the interview with Farjad, Mazhar and Meenu).
Highlights from the Exhibition “The Ghost will Leave if You Ask Nicely”
“When we were putting together the show there were several discussions we had with the curator Adnan Madani on how the displayed artworks whether that of Ahmed Ali Manganhar, Iftikhar Dadi or Rashid Rana, displayed the changed nature of film spectatorship. Because these works relied on the ‘freeze’ frame which was only made possible when new media technologies like the DVD changed how we watched films. Now it was possible to rewind, fast forward, freeze and develop an altogether different relationship with the cinematic image. Adnan felt that the two dominant ways in which the artists engaged with Pakistani cinema was either critical or cinephilic and of course these can be mutually inclusive. Rashid Rana, Iftikhar Dadi and Mohammad Ali Talpur are engaging with cinema in their works to make a political statement but the same is the case for the way in which nostalgia for lost art forms is being used for instance in the work of Bani Abidi or videos Farjad and I planned.” – Meenu Gaur
Ahmed Ali Manganhar
Ahmed Ali Manganhar, a cinephile himself, has had a long association with the creators of the exhibition. The only artist who was part of the project from its very conception in 2011, Manganhar had made these paintings then that eventually became part of the exhibition.
Meenu & Farjad
To address the new-fangled disavowal of Pakistan’s cinema, Farjad and Meenu used the theme of ghosts and shadow lives in their art pieces titled The Ghost of Maula Jutt and Manifesto for the Dead. These were staged as hauntings in the spaces once occupied by Lollywood film industry.
Mohammad Ali Talpur
Mohammad Ali Talpur’s interest in cinema is informed by a gender lens, as he works on altering film posters, questioning the place of women as symbols of izzat. Talpur’s work was created especially for the exhibit.
Some of the works, such as the Rashid Rana piece, had already been on the mind of the curators. It touches upon the multi-faceted ways in which Bollywood influences and shapes an identities, be they Indian or Pakistani.
Investigating spaces as sites of memory and change, Bani Abidi revisits the remains of the iconic Karachi cinema hall Nishat, which burnt down.
In the Urdu Film Series, Iftikhar Dadi plays with form and notions of temporality, placing his questions within the frame of the screen.