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28 October 2012

Smokers’ Corner: Dead cow

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By Nadeem F. Paracha

I seriously have very little sympathy for those Pakistani film and TV artistes who are calling for a ban on the import of Indian films. Leading this pack are film director, Syed Noor, and TV actress, Atiqa Odho.

There is no doubt that Pakistani teleplays retain an edge over their Indian counterparts in content and acting. And in spite of the various local channels now sanctioning soaps that unabashedly mimic the creative inadequacies of popular Indian soaps, the traditional Pakistani teleplay can still be enjoyed on PTV and on a few local entertainment channels.

Ms. Odho and Noor are certainly not alone in perusing a ban on Indian content on local TV and in Pakistani cinemas. In fact, one can find a number of Pakistani film and TV directors and actors toeing a similar line.

The economic reason being given by these detractors is that the arrival of Indian films and TV programming is knocking out Pakistani talent, rendering it jobless.

This does make sense. But can it also be actually inspiring new talent?

Nevertheless, I believe before going haywire about the ‘Indian invasion,’ the detractors should also question the commercial and creative depth of talent available (especially within the Pakistani cinema). This talent has clearly failed in the face of stiffer competition.

And if banned, what are the Indian films and soaps to be replaced with?

Pakistani film industry is a creatively bankrupt entity. And it had become an empty shell long before Indian films were even allowed to be shown in local cinemas.

Those blaming the exhibition of Indian films in Pakistan for such a downturn are actually being passionate beacons of self-delusion. Much of their arguments are based on hollow excuses, conveniently ignoring the fact that both creatively and commercially Pakistani cinema never did recover from the slump its fortunes started to experience ever since the 1980s.

The reasons were many: The Ziaul Haq dictatorship’s reactionary censor policies; the invasion of the VCR; the rise of religious conservatism among the urban middle-classes (which, till the late 1970s, constituted Urdu cinema’s central audiences); and the consequential erosion of any worthwhile directorial and acting talent in the industry.

Of course, attempts were made to supposedly revive local cinema’s lost glory, but they ended up with nothing more than one-hit-wonders that made the proudly trumpeted claims of a revival fall flat on its face.

What Ms. Odho and the likes conveniently minus from their rhetorical equation is the importance of having good cinema halls and multiplexes.

Their survival is vital in both the cultural as well as the economic context. From the 1980s onwards, many cinemas started to be turned into gaudy shopping arcades and parking lots once Pakistani films began their creative and commercial decline.

Today their survival is squarely dependent on the influx of Indian films and Hollywood blockbusters simply because the local industry has absolutely nothing worth offering. There has been a clear lack of talent in the industry for a long time now.

On the other hand, the cultural reasons being given by the detractors of Indian content on local TV and cinemas are at best surreal. The most flimsy in this case has something do with Indian films and TV soaps supposedly ‘spoiling the moral fabric and minds of young Pakistanis.’

Ironically, wasn’t this at least one of the reasons concocted by the mad hoards who only recently burned down three of Karachi’s oldest and largest cinemas?

Such talk seems rather bizarre especially when it comes from ‘modern’ and glittery TV and film personalities.

It is quite a sight watching them mouth the sort of concerns that have otherwise been the rhetorical calling card of the clergy and rightwing religious parties.

How come one doesn’t hear all this from a man like Shoaib Mansoor who, despite the arrival of Indian films, has gone on to direct two well received Urdu films?

Thanks to the anarchic proliferation of all the goodies the ‘Information Age,’ old fashioned conservatism in this respect is certainly a lost cause as a way to try to control who is watching what.

Secondly, when the detractors bring into play expressions like ‘our culture’ and ‘our morals’ and how they are in danger from the Indian entertainment onslaught, this then becomes a fairly intransigent and defeatist argument.

What this is actually proving is that whatever it is that they call ‘our culture,’ is no more than an overtly suspicious and frail concoction that cannot withstand any competition. Or maybe it has more to do with the detractors’ own creative insecurities, or worse, their wholesale absorption of what the conservative and religious parties have been peddling in the name of culture and ideology.

For example, most Pakistani teleplays and shows, though now enthusiastically confronting the slippery idiosyncrasies of the politicians and material exhibitionism, are still struggling (or largely unwilling and maybe even intellectually unequipped) to address the growing specter of religious violence and intolerance in the society.

In fact director Syed Noor did quite the opposite. Last year he directed a film called Aik Aur Ghazi. A film inspired by the deeds of a Muslim in undivided India who, in the 1920s, shot dead a man for committing blasphemy.

How can a film-maker produce such a film in the kind of a charged environment that Pakistan has been quivering in? An environment generated by an intense debate between those who want Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws amended and those who want them expanded.

How could he make such a film when men and mobs are going around putting to death perceived blasphemers?

In spite of the fact that the film flopped, the whole project smacked of utter cynicism from a man who wanted to actually cash-in on the sentiments of those who hail vigilante acts against supposed blasphemers.

Any cultural industry that is unable to robustly compete in the ever-expanding global market-place needs to be reoriented and updated to make it competitive. Otherwise it’s a dead cow.

Lastly, I think the glitzy detractors in this respect should be more concerned about the obscenity on TV that has little to do with ‘Hindu culture’ or animated, seductive bodies.

This obscenity has to do with the scores of characters we see on our TV screens spouting utter hatred and demagogic misconceptions about faith, politics and morality.

I think I’d rather settle for a kitschy Karina Kapoor and Sharukh Khan dance number rather than for a combusting ‘item number’ involving a conspiracy theorist or a religious crackpot. Won’t you?

(Courtesy: Dawn)

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