In 2020, Hollywood’s historical box office dominance was challenged and surpassed by around $1 billion. For the first time, a non-Hollywood film, The Eight Hundred, became a global blockbuster. Professor Stanley Rosen predicted this rise, and eventual dominance, of the Chinese film market. Although he didn’t say when it will happen, but it was inevitable. Asian cinema is rising against the Hollywood behemoth.
China is winning by increasing the screen count: 2,188 screens in January and February this year. In contrast, physical spaces are holding Hollywood back owing to the pandemic management and a traditional hesitation of Hollywood, with regards to not letting go of vertically integrated cinema production and distribution models, in one form or the other.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is still nursing a bad hangover from the onslaught of producers from the mid-80s. This trend diverted industry infrastructure into producing specific genres that dealt with romanticising rural Punjab and its infatuation with violence. This triggered infrastructure and workforce decay and the eventual collapse of the Pakistani cinema industry for more than a decade.
Despite the rise of multiplex cinemas in the late 2000s, we are still years away from our former selves as a cinema nation. The film fraternity and its romanticism with physical space are on par with Hollywood, but they do not share Hollywood`s love for original works. Terms like ‘blockbuster’, ‘super-duper hit’, or ‘box office success’ are thrown left and right by Pakistani filmmakers without showing it on the box office numbers. These terms have an association with revenue scales but are used for branding purposes.
Adding to the problem are the predatory practices by distributors, due to a lack of state-sponsored cinema policy, further jeopardising the hopes for building national cinema. In the Pakistani context, a film is a hit if the producer breaks even the production costs. This is a trickledown effect, where reports of labour abuse and delayed or denied payments are the norm.
In a disorganised environment like our industry, Prime Minister Imran Khan`s interest in developing a national cinema is a good sign, but this has its own set of problems. It has too many cooks. The prime minister is invested in revivalism, but the media professionals working with him have little to no understanding of the nuances in cultural representation. They have spent the last two decades shooting television dramas inside the bungalows of the DHA neighbourhood. It is in stark contrast with the rugged Central Asian highlands they are poised to work in on the Emperor Babur biopic.
The prime minister is invested in revivalism, but the media professionals working with him have little to no understanding of the nuances in cultural representation. They have spent the last two decades shooting television dramas inside the bungalows of the DHA neighbourhood
Next on the list are those filmmakers who have the understanding, and the training, to help start the process of reviving national cinema, but are only interested in social realism that does not go well with state ideologies due to its inherent pessimism. Then there are industry gatekeepers who are suffering from crab mentality.
Final in this list come the Turks who will contribute towards developing or destroying this experiment, depending on what they are offered to work with. Turkish portfolio is impressive but they can only help to a certain extent, beyond that it’s we who have to walk the final yard on our own. Although, Turks are inspiring our policymakers in developing our unique revival success, yet we have to be cautious because blindly following them is a recipe for disaster. And here’s why.
The cinema of Turkey started in another country with a different social structure. Some Ottoman practices successfully translated from imperial cosmopolitanism to republicanism. In cinema, however, it was not an easy transition since social realism and modernity proved to be a point of conflict between the state ideology and filmmakers who were more interested in painting a detailed miniature. They were disregarding the national policy in favour of specific political narratives.
As the above-mentioned problem of too many cooks, Turkish cinema had multi-pivoted camps that were competing against the opposing ideologies, while the state was trying to achieve homogeneity in its cinema language. For example, the critical Yeni Sinema advocated the adaptation of European and third wave cinema movement models into Turkish context, although they failed to gather support from Turkish filmmakers who favoured originality in the form of local values.
The Ulusal Sinema movement by Halit Refig emphasised the local style of storytelling, folklores, and visual motifs from the Anatolian culture such as miniature painting and historical elements from the Ottoman period. Ulusal Sinema was a mid-point between the western-influenced Yeni Sinema and another movement called Milli Sinema, which had an inflection of religion. They maintained the stance that Anatolian reality comes with the religious identity of Muslim Turkish people. They emphasised on a national identity through the pivot of Islam. However, Turkish film producers were uninterested in this intellectual inquiry about national cinema and the specific language it is going to eventually acquire, because their perspective of economic base structure proved to get the results, especially during the Yesilcim era.
Nonetheless, the Turkish state was interested in helping filmmakers develop a cinema language unique to the republic, but they did not favour multiple political tilts inherent with art forms. Regardless, the Turkish state’s tax reforms made filmmaking a profitable venture and a 70% tax reduction to cities that provided electricity grid to the provinces attracted investment.
Cinema is a paradox; it’s both an art form and a complex economic activity. Apart from a few endorsements from military camps, no comprehensive policy instrument for national cinema is developing in civil bureaucracy. In fact, ISPR is the only national institute involved in big-budget productions, showing a consistency driven by a policy. But ISPR is not responsible for making a cinema policy, it’s the civilian camps that should be dispensing some well-thought initiatives. Like the Military Department of Cinema during the Ottoman times (Merkez Ordu Sinema Dairesi), ISPR can only offer its support and expertise.
The Turks’ access to international distributors, such as Netflix, is more beneficial to us than producing a biopic about Emperor Babur in Uzbekistan, played by Turkish actors that is financed by Pakistani money
Hence, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement of a joint production to make a biopic on Emperor Babur is a welcoming sign, but the focus should be on developing a support system to seed an independent cinema industry made up of underground filmmakers, who are trained in the universities of Pakistan, and are well-versed with local tastes and sensibilities. They are the ones who strive for original cinema scripts and despise Bollywood-inspired formulas. But also, they are more interested in the streaming of their films on platforms like Netflix. Such streaming services are going to be the future of cinema dissemination methods. These young filmmakers have an affinity for mid-budget filmmaking. Hence, it will be significantly more cost-effective than the staging of medieval battles.
The reachability of Pakistani culture through cinema has visible advantages over sticking to the romanticism with space. Industry veterans are clinging to the last fringes, and the young are looking elsewhere to exhibit their content. Storylines presented in Pakistani dramas are now hearing feedback for the first time in a decade. The writers, celebrities, and directors are becoming the butt of jokes whenever the veterans try to experiment in a failed attempt to retain the ever losing numbers of audiences.
This is akin to what Hollywood has faced at the fall of their studio system, which triggered the New Hollywood movement that produced names like Martin Scorsese and Al Pacino. Just like the structures of old cinema, we should be dismantling the lobbies to give way to the new. Turks in this regard can be of better help instead of co-producing big productions. Their access to international distributors, such as Netflix who are on a constant lookout for titles in the world cinema category is more beneficial to us than producing a biopic about Emperor Babur in Uzbekistan, played by Turkish actors that is financed by Pakistani money.
The problem is obvious: apart from a few industry professionals who already enjoy hegemony on what goes out, the majority of the Pakistani filmmakers will not be able to benefit from anything their government is bankrolling. Many will perceive it as an expensive Turkish drama that was made for international diplomacy purposes with no connection to contemporary Pakistan that is a different society.