“What might it be like to live without cinema?” Pakistan has had a complex relationship with cinema and by beginning their introduction to Love, War, & Other Longings with this question, editors Vazira Zamindar and Asad Ali immediately highlight the importance of cinema and film, setting the stage for the important collection of essays they have commissioned and published.
This collection of essays, penned by different authors – film critics, artists, art historians and the editors themselves – came out of an independent film festival of Pakistani cinema, “Love, War and Other Longings,” organised by the editors, held at Brown University in 2014 and at Harvard University in 2015. The film festival looked to showcase the current state of cinema in Pakistan and generate discussions around it and included films like Waar, Zinda Bhaag and others that were important examples of what was being hailed a “new wave” in Pakistani cinema. The festival was aimed at analysing at the trajectory of Pakistani cinema, what a film revival actually implied and the forms it took in a nation like Pakistan.
This published book is the conclusion to the film festival and its subsequent events. Like the festival, the aim of the book is also to create conversations and new discussions around film. Its goal is to enhance published academic writing on film in Pakistan, while contributing to scholarship on the global south in political, historical and art historical discourse. The editors specify that their motivation was not to represent all Pakistani cinema, or all concepts behind it, but simply to add to the exchange.
Intended to reach an expansive audience of non-academic, young film lovers, the selection and the composition of the essays, written by authors approaching cinema and film from various points of view, creates a well-paced movement through a curated journey of cinema in Pakistan, which touches upon the past but is primarily grounded within the contemporary film output from 2012 to 2016.
The authors in this publication boldly take on various hidden nuances in film from Pakistan – they address the use of nationalistic propaganda via film for example in Waar, as well as the financial difficulties filmmakers and production houses face while producing films
The commissioned authors, some of whom took part in the conversations and dialogues following the film festivals, are not all academics, or even indeed film experts. They were also encouraged by the editors to approach the essays in creative ways, resulting in comprehensive, but comprehensible pieces. Several of the essays look at Pakistan’s relationship with cinema – Zamindar and Ali’s captivating and clear introduction is followed by After the Interval, by Fahad Naveed, a nostalgic series of vignettes glancing into old cinemas in Karachi and Lahore, their tragic fates and the current films being produced. Bani Abidi, a practicing artist and filmmaker, contributed a series of photographs of burnt film reels, taken after one of Pakistan’s most famous cinemas was burnt down, perhaps the most powerful comment upon Pakistan’s relationship with film. Vazira Zamindar explored the incredible archive of a film memorabilia collector, bitter-sweetly highlighting its importance but also a passion that is growing increasingly obsolete in a digital world dominated by a younger generation of film lovers.
The authors turn to current cinema as a means of exploring themes and concepts behind the craft. Iftikhar Dadi’s analysis of Zinda Bhaag, the first Pakistani film in 50 years to be submitted to the prestigious Academy Awards, analyses the strength of contemporary film’s plot lines. Similarly, a conversation between Sarmad Khoosat, the director of the biopic Manto and Ayesha Jalal, the renowned historian and Saadat Hasan Manto’s grand-niece, states the responsibility of a film director when facing an audience’s naïve belief that cinema is truth. Jalal’s essay (and the notes of the editors) provides a thought-provoking comparison between two films (Khoosat’s and Nandita Das’s) dealing with the same subject and produced around the same time.
Cinema and film have famously reflected society and its issues, the obvious and the undercurrents. The authors in this publication boldly take on various hidden nuances in film from Pakistan – they address the use of nationalistic propaganda via film for example in Waar, as well as the financial difficulties filmmakers and production houses face while producing films. Emphasising a shortage of resources, support and creative filmmaking, Iftikhar Dadi, in particular, discussed the unwillingness of filmmakers to stray from the tried and tested, and truly experiment in order to develop their craft further. Kamran Asdar Ali, amongst other topics, delves into the various layers of filmic text in order to excavate censorship and repressed desires that can be read against the grain of the dominant plot as filmmakers have contended with censorship through carefully crafted, complex scripts and productions.
Language and representation are other relevant topics that are interwoven and discussed through different essays in the publication, as Urdu cinema is treated differently from Punjabi and from Hindi/Bollywood. Asad Ali also examines contemporary censorship and addresses the pertinent topic of class and gender and barriers, and how even film and modern cinema houses are now increasingly catering to middle-class desires and families. This “gentrification” perpetuates the growing economic rift in Pakistan’s society.
The film festival “Love, War and Other Longings” was a significant collaboration between universities, disciplines and nations. And the publication of this book is likely to have a similar impact on film scholarship in Pakistan, raising the level of critique, analysis and conversation to where it should be, challenging filmmakers and production houses to experiment, educate themselves and up the ante.
Zahra Khan is a curator of contemporary South Asian art. She is the Creative Director of Foundation Art Divvy, an art and culture foundation that supports contemporary art and independent film from South Asia. Amongst other projects, it curated the first Pakistani pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019