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There Is a Pakistani Cinema Beyond the Tropes of Death and Revival

Through eleven iridescent essays, 'Love, War and Other Longings' focuses on the functions of cinema in the national context while avoiding the tired debate on 'death' and 'revival' of Pakistani film.

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Any discourse on cinema in Pakistan comes through as either a lamentation of its perceived death in the 1990s or a celebration of its revival over the last decade or more. At this critical juncture, there is a pressing need for tough, cogent writing on the country’s cinema that moves beyond the myopic notions of ‘death’ and ‘revival’, and acknowledges its socio-cultural relevance.

Steered by the spirit of course-correction, Vazira Zamindar and Asad Ali’s Love, War and Other Longings: Essays on Cinema in Pakistan refrains from using these stale debates about cinema’s survival as an ideological crutch.

For many years, film enthusiasts and critics have turned to Mushtaq Gazdar’s Pakistan Cinema 1947-1997 as the primer of sorts on the subject of films in Pakistan. Gazdar’s seminal text, which was published to commemorate 50 years of Pakistan’s independence, provides a historical overview of cinema in the country.

While Pakistan Cinema 1947-1997 is an impressive and ambitious project, it merely provides a descriptive account of the country’s film output and relies heavily on chronology. As a result, Gazdar’s work isn’t of a strictly academic nature.

Over the years, academics have attempted to fill the vacuum by producing copious journal articles and treatises on cinema in Pakistan. Shielded by academic paywalls, the rich array of writing on the subject hasn’t always been accessible to a wider audience and has, therefore, been disconnected from mainstream discourse on film.

Some of these pieces were published in a notable collection of essays edited by Ali Nobil Ahmad and Ali Khan titled Film and Cinephilia in Pakistan: Beyond Life and Death. This compilation drew attention to contemporary and neglected writings to situate Pakistani cinema within the context of international film studies.

Building on a similar motif, Zamindar and Ali’s compilation broadens our understanding of the country’s film world through a diverse spectrum of essays that reverberate with captivating insights. 

Also read: How Pakistani Cinema Transformed With Changing Times

Love, War and Other Longings benefits from a refreshing clarity of perspective. The compilation doesn’t view cinema in Pakistan as a homogenous entity that serves a nationalist agenda. In their introductory note, the editors have cautioned against blindly accepting assumptions of a “national cinema” and have instead embraced the distinct plurality of cinematic output in Pakistan.

Love, War, and Other Longings: Essays on Cinema in Pakistan, Edited by Vazira Zamindar and Asad Ali,
Oxford University Press, Pakistan, 2020.

At the same time, the essays included in the compilation deviate from the stereotypical perceptions of the so-called death and revival of Pakistan’s films. Through eleven iridescent pieces, Love, War and Other Longings focuses on the functions of cinema in the national context.

Fahad Naveed’s ‘After the Interval’ opens a vista onto how cinema owners have been influenced by the radical shifts within Pakistan’s film world. Among other things, it reveals the extent to which cinema-going has dwindled in recent years. 

In their introductory note, the editors have billed Naveed’s piece as a “materially situated and descriptively vivid” preamble to the themes explored in the compilation. Readers couldn’t have asked for a more concrete take-off point to Love, War and Other Longings. Naveed’s journalistic account places cinema in Pakistan within a specific context and lays the foundation for the more detailed and esoteric discussions that emerge in subsequent pieces. 

While the writers have categorically rejected the themes of ‘revival’ and ‘death’ that dominate conversations surrounding Pakistan’s cinema, many of them have used them as inspiration to arrive at unique conclusions. These pieces use the metaphor of death that is attributed to cinema from Pakistan with a view to reconfigure and even enrich the conversation on the subject.

Meenu Gaur and Adnan Madani’s ‘The Ghost in the Projector’ outlines how the notion of death manifests itself in the form of “violent erasures” in Pakistan’s cinema. The writers have drawn attention to the ghostly image of Pakistani actor Sultan Rahi as the gandasa-wielding Maula Jatt, which continues to influence public culture. “He survives as a totemic figure in popular consciousness, but one whose films are rarely seen now,” Gaur and Madani write. The essay stands out as refreshing as most readers have grown accustomed to the glut of cynical theses on Sultan Rahi’s role in dismantling the glories of Urdu cinema.

The motif of hauntology resonates deeply in Rachel Dwyer’s essay titled ‘The Uncanny, the Repressed and the Abject: the Haunting of Pakistani Cinema’. Dwyer’s gripping analysis explores the numerous ways in which cinema in Pakistan and India has harboured “ghosts of the other” over the decades. The essay reveals the subtle yet significant means through which cities such as Bombay and Karachi have served as “uncanny doubles” of each other.

Dwyer also highlights, through a string of solid examples, how Urdu remains ingrained in Hindi cinema in the form of song lyrics. This piece accounts for the shared historical and cultural ties between present-day India and Pakistan, and enables readers to recognise the striking similarities that are often disguised by long-standing hostilities.

The dichotomies between Indian and Pakistani cinema resurfaces in a thought-provoking essay titled ‘Engaging Manto: Film, Fiction and History’. Two films have been made on the life of Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto, one by Pakistani director Sarmad Khoosat and the other by Indian actor and director Nandita Das. Both films have fallen under the rubric of historical films, which stands the risk of coming across as a problematic assertion.

Pakistani actor and filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat as Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto in a still from the biopic, Manto.

Through this essay, readers are provided a transcript of Jalal’s interview with Khoosat that examines how his so-called biopic blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction. The transcript is richly interspersed with comments from Zamindar, Ali and Jalal on the credibility of these films as faithful historical accounts of Manto’s life.

Kamran Asdar Ali’s ‘On Female Friendship and Anger’ provides radical reassessments of old classics from Pakistan. The essay uses the popular Urdu film Saheli to “open up the question of domestic life and sexuality in Pakistan”. Over the decades, Saheli has been heavily criticised for endorsing polygyny at a time when the country’s family law ordinance sought to impose curbs on the practice. Rejecting these notions, Asdar Ali asserts that the film uses polygamy as a “cultural metaphor” to cement the bond between two women who are married to the same man. While this interpretation of the film may not be readily endorsed by both the liberal and conservative factions, Asdar Ali uses strong academic references to substantiate his viewpoint.

Also read: The Dilemmas of Pakistani Cinema

The most intriguing essays in the collection spotlight the themes and ideas put forward in contemporary cinema from Pakistan. Zamindar’s scintillating essay on Waar and Asad Ali’s piece titled ‘Pissing Men, Dancing Women and Censuring Oneself’ ought to be declared mandatory reading for students, critics and budding filmmakers.

Love, War and Other Longings doesn’t just rely on academic essays to depict the nature and importance of cinema in Pakistan. A haunting yet visually appealing photo essay by Bani Abidi features burnt reels from Karachi’s Nishat Cinema, which was destroyed during protests in 2012. The cinema was a symbol of the city’s pre-Partition era and its unfortunate destruction marks the loss of a glorious past.

Even so, the burnt reels presented in Abidi’s essay not only tell a story of destruction, but also allow us to appreciate the scattered remnants of the past. The images compel readers to look beyond the morbid narrative of death, which is so readily ascribed to cinema from Pakistan, and accept the value in understanding what has been broken.

At no point should the compilation be viewed as a paean to Pakistan’s rich cinematic tradition. The critical essays included in the compilation on the country’s cinematic output reveal that this project isn’t just a labour of love, but an attempt to appraise the significance of films in a contemporary sense.

Unique in its ambit and refreshing in its execution, Love, War and Other Longings stands as a much-needed reminder that there is a voracious appetite for academic treatises on Pakistan’s film industry. 

Taha Kehar is the author of Typically Tanya and the co-editor of The Stained-Glass Window: Stories of the Pandemic from Pakistan.