Lollywood: An Obituary
Farooq Sulehria is a London-based researcher in media studies. An MA in Mass Communication, he has written for many publications and periodicals in Pakistan, Sweden and elsewhere.
Lollywood and Talibanisation could not exist together. The former slowly embraced an inglorious death. Tragically, nobody is even mourning
In terms of production, the late Lollywood was once rated as one of the world’s top ten film industries. Until the 1980s it was not called Lollywood. It was on the pattern of India’s Bollywood that it appropriated Hollywood’s name to become Lollywood.
Paradoxically, all its life – marked by glory and shame – our dear, departed Lollywood lived in awe and envy of Bollywood. While Bollywood is busy celebrating its birth centenary (Raja Harishchandra – the first Indian movie by Dada Saheb Phalke – was released in 1913), the late Lollywood breathed its last almost a decade ahead of its would-be centenary in 2024 (In 1924, Daughter of Today was released from Lahore by G K Mehta).
However, given the average age of institutions in Pakistan, it lived a long life. For instance, an entire province, fondly called East Pakistan, died at the age of 24. Democracy was strangulated at the tender age of nine, in 1958. But then Lollywood was lucky to have spent a third of its life before 1947.
In fact, Lollywood was an unwanted infidel imposition on its puritan motherland. Minister of Industries Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar announced soon after the creation of Pakistan: “In principle Muslims should not get involved in filmmaking. Being the work of lust and lure, it should be left to the infidels”.
But in the bad old days, patronised by people like Faiz, the Reds were very active on cultural fronts. They infiltrated Lollywood and began to misuse it to propagate their subversive socialist ideals. But vigilant authorities were quick to identify the Red threat. As early as 1954, W Z Ahmed’s Roohi, a socialist kitsch, was banned. For decades, films on poverty-related themes were censored.
When Gen Ayub came to power, while exercising further caution (or ‘censorship’ in liberal-fascist parlance) he employed two shrewd bureaucrats, Qudratullah Shahab and Altaf Gauhar, to use the film medium for projecting the ideology of Pakistan.
Shahab, and later Gauhar, vitalised the Department of Film and Publications (DFP) at the Ministry of Information. The first major attempt was Nai Kiran, a feature length documentary. Nai Kiran exposed greedy politics. Shahab penned the story and was paid Rs20,000 in 1959 (Manto was paid Rs200 for a story).
Normally, prominent artistes would avoid being a part of such an undertaking. To counter such an eventuality the producers of Nai Kiran were empowered to book any artiste for their film. Anybody not complying was coerced by the police. Noor Jehan, for instance, refused to act in the film. When harassed, she had to submit.
For extras to act as dancers, girls from Karachi’s red-light area were commissioned. They too were reluctant, initially. A DSP, however, lined them up for the producer to take his pick for the film. Through a martial law order it was further made mandatory for every cinema house to run the film, free of charge, for at least one week.
Fifty such documentaries were produced under the Ayub dictatorship. Miraculously, Lollywood survived the Ayub regime. In fact, it even thrived. In 1968, 128 films were produced (including Bengali-language productions), a feat Lollywood never performed again.
When Bhutto arrived, his government was infiltrated by the Reds. Most dangerously, Faiz became the country’s culture czar.
To promote Lollywood, the Bhutto government established the National Film Development Corporation (Nafdec) in 1973. This was Lollywood’s golden age. In the next year, 115 films were produced. However, when Bhutto’s government was replaced by the Zia caliphate, religiosity struck a crushing blow to Lollywood.
In 1979, General Zia banned all Pakistani films produced in the preceding three years. A new film policy was formulated. The Motion Picture Ordinance 1979 was promulgated, restricting artistic freedoms. While Bhutto’s government had not allowed the demolition of cinema houses, Zia facilitated it by relaxing the rules. This was in line with the Saudi moral codes.
Ironically, besides Riyadh, Islamabad is perhaps the only capital city without a single cinema house. By the way, Gen Zia did not believe in total destruction of individuals, institutions and practices he suspected. He destroyed them piecemeal. For instance, in 1977, 81 films were released. In 1988 when he departed, 86 films hit the box office. Instead of shutting Lollywood down, he reoriented it.
To set the direction, a film based on Nasim Hijazi’s Khak Aur Khoon, was released by Nafdec. The next move was to commission a movie on the life of Jinnah (most likely in response to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi). Even though the project was shelved half-way, it still deserves some mention. The title of the abandoned film was Stand Up From The Dust.
It was understood that this film would (1) portray Jinnah as a greater leader than Gandhi and (2) emphasise that Jinnah founded Pakistan to form an Islamic state. A British firm was hired to execute the project.
The film opens with a shot of horse-riding Arab warriors. Carrying swords, they appear from the Arabian Sea. A young man, Muhammad bin Qasim, is leading them. The epilogue shows glimpses of the Pakhtun, Turk, and Mughal dynasties, which the film terms the Muslim rulers of India. The scene culminates in an anecdote from Jinnah’s early life, immaculately dressed in a three piece-suit .He advises the children in Urdu ‘Golion se mat khelo, tumhary kapry kharab ho jaingey! Cricket khelo’. The English voiceover says ‘Stand up from the dust and play cricket’!
Zia thought it was a ‘very good effort’ … ‘Magar is main wo baat nahi aayee’. Everybody agreed. Hence the project was abandoned. Forgotten. Mercifully. Taking cue from the GHQ, Lollywood began to Islamise the themes. While song and dance sequels were part and parcel even in films such as Ghazi Ilam Din Shaheed (1978), the solution to the conflicts in most of the films was a return to pure Islam.
Paradoxically, in the longer run Lollywood became the victim of the jihadi mindset and Islamisation it projected. The performing arts, considered an obscenity by jihadists, have been increasingly under attack since the 1980s. Already in the 1990s, militants had begun to plant bombs at Lahore’s cinema houses and theatres. Thus censorship, coupled with growing Islamisation in society contributed to Lollywood’s decline. An industry that used to produce over 100 films was able to release hardly five films (excluding Pashto films) in 2012.
One may argue that blaming Islamisation for the death of Lollywood is a flawed argument. After all, in neighbouring Iran filmistan has flourished despite the ayatollahs. True. However, let us not forget two factors. First, cinema houses and films were targeted initially in Iran after the consolidation of the ayatollahs’ regime. However, during the Iran-Iraq war, films came to be needed as a propaganda tool. Women were encouraged to play the role of mothers and sisters of martyrs in propaganda productions. Hence, films began to receive state patronage. Under Zia, they were a target.
Second, Iran as a state and society has gone through reformist phases whereby cultural workers were able to win space for their activities. In Pakistan, the Talibanisation of both state and society has become stronger after Zia. Lollywood and Talibanisation could not exist together. The former slowly embraced an inglorious death. Tragically, nobody is even mourning.
(Facts and figures cited in the article are from Mushtaq Gazdar’s Pakistan Cinema: 1947-1997, and The Film magazine.)