The last few years have seen Pakistani cinema mature after its resurgence nearly half a decade back. The process of trial and error for relatively new filmmakers resulted in a healthy variety of experimental and mainstream cinema, being similarly met with a range of reactions, from enthusiastic acceptance to downright rejection. Following the weeding out stage, this new crop of filmmakers must now face another daunting challenge: That of being able to provide content that continues to engage an audience that in the past was willing to give them a free pass, but which now demands high-quality content at par with global norms.
Pakistani cinema in the spotlight
This new reality was abundantly clear this year, especially in the face of restriction of content from across the border. Late February saw an unofficial ban imposed from the Indian side to block Bollywood content from being screened in Pakistani theaters, which resulted in a tit for tat response from the Pakistan Film Producers’ Association. This amounted to a windfall opportunity for local cinema which now had less competition to contend with, other than from Hollywood and the Far East. So, to what extent was Pakistani cinema able to capitalize on this scenario? The year provides an interesting snapshot of the nascent film industry’s endeavors to evolve and develop, with mixed results.
Mixed offerings in spring
Starting the year on a dull note was Gumm, an experimental film starring Sami Khan and Shamoon Abbasi as the leads that released on January 11. The Ammar Lasani and Kanza Zia helmed project was actually a half-decent thriller with the requisite elements of romance and music, derivative as it might have been. However, it failed to strike a chord with the local audience and after an anemic opening didn’t survive past a two-week run. Per unofficial estimates, the film ended its run at under 10 lacs, a disappointment given the accolades it had supposedly been honored with at the international festival circuit.
February saw no local offering make it to the theater screens, with the situation being further complicated by regional tensions that unfolded in the latter part of the month. Finally in March, two long-awaited films, Laal Kabootar and Sherdil released on the Pakistan day weekend. ARY Films’ Sherdil benefitted greatly from a sharp upsurge in patriotism and interest for PAF following the aerial conflict with India. The Mikaal Zulfiqar and Armeena Khan starrer opened to a terrific response, especially in Islamabad-Rawalpindi, earning an unexpectedly strong 4.15 crores over its opening weekend. The film ended its box office run with a healthy figure of about 13 crores, emerging the first success for star Mikaal Zulfiqar.
The long-delayed Project Ghazi finally made its way to the theaters on March 29, however, much was not expected from the film, its cast of A-listers Humayun Saeed, Shehryar Munawar and Syra Shehroze notwithstanding. The film received harsh critical mauling, despite bringing forth sci-fi content that was unique and novel for local cinema. Project Ghazi earned a less than spectacular 75 lacs over its opening weekend and ended its run with a paltry 1.5 crores.
Activity picks up in summer
April saw no release barring the non-descript Junoon-e-Ishq which opened to predictably disastrous figures. Following the Ramadan lull, activity returned in a big way to the movie circuit over Eid-ul-Fitr, with Hum Films’ Chhalawa and IMGC’s Wrong No. 2 sending the cash registers buzzing across the country. Both the films were commercial crowd-pleasers that delivered mass-oriented entertainment with some success. In their first two weeks, Chhalawa and Wrong No. 2 earned 14.8 crores and 15.6 crores respectively, although the bulk of these numbers were hauled over the holiday period. The films were in the running till Eid-ul-Azha, with Chhalawa managing to earn 16.1 crores and Wrong No. 2 grossing 21.1 crores over its lifetime.
Next up was horror fare Kataksha on June 21 which expectedly didn’t find much audience favor. Saqib Malik’s long-awaited Baaji followed on June 28, opening to decent numbers of around 3 crores over the weekend. The Meera, Amna Ilyas, and Osman Khalid Butt thriller was re-released on December 6 and ended its run at an estimated 12.5 crores, a solid result given its niche genre and a non-mainstream cast.
July saw long in development projects Ready Steady No, Tevar and Sirf Tum Hi Tou Ho hit the screens to low numbers, although Hum films’ comedy Ready Steady No did see some audience interest and ended up being the highest-earning of the three, with a final tally of about 1.5 crores.
The fall lull
October brought three local ventures Daal Chawal, Durj and Kaaf Kangana to the screens, however, none of these films was able to make a mark critically or commercially, to put things politely. The Shamoon Abbasi helmed Durj was an indie-flavored niche film that grossed about 60 lacs, whereas much was expected from Kaaf Kangana, especially given its theme of cross border romance, however, the Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar helmed project could not deliver. Starring Sami Khan-Eshal Fayyaz as leads, Kaaf Kangana bombed with estimated lifetime numbers of less than 1.5 crores.
Indie fare Talash followed on November 15 with little trade expectations or any kind of buzz, however, it surprised at the ticket counters, generating numbers similar to Kaaf Kangana over its lifetime. The year ended on a tepid note with Hum Films’ Sacch, released on December 20. The Scotland shot film has not delivered any respite to the box office, unsurprising given lack of any pre-release hype or a positive word of mouth.
Trends: Eid successes continue
Overall, the year saw two notable non-Eid successes in Sherdil and Baaji, while Laal Kabootar didn’t fare too badly either. The remaining five major earners opened over the two Eid periods, which presents a worrying picture. The stakeholders from the exhibition, production, and distribution sectors need to urgently work in tandem to devise a strategy for sustaining audience interest beyond the major festive periods. Given the current scenario, every major filmmaker is vying for an Eid release in the coming year, and with about 40 or so productions in the pipeline, this presents a troubling scenario.
Women at the forefront
2019 also saw women return with vengeance to the center stage of Pakistani cinema. Chhalawa mainly worked on Tamgha-e-Imtiaz winner Mehwish Hayat’s star power, and the star was also prominently featured in a performance number from Baaji that was extensively promoted before the film’s release. The Gangster Guria proved that she had the mojo to deliver at the box office, irrespective of the male lead. Meanwhile, Mahira Khan too built much positive buzz for Superstar and shined as bright as her male co-star Bilal Ashraf in the film. Parey Hut Love and Laal Kabootar too featured strong female leads in Maya Ali and Mansha Pasha, respectively, whereas Baaji almost entirely relied on the performances of Meera and Amna Ilyas to deliver a box office success.
Strong debuts and comebacks
Among the debutantes, directors Kamal Khan (Laal Kabootar) and Saqib Malik (Baaji) made a strong impact with their first cinematic offerings. Laal Kabootar was possibly the strongest indie-flavored film from the new wave of Pakistani cinema and was also selected as Pakistan’s nomination for the Best Foreign Picture category for the Academy Awards. On the other hand, with Baaji, Saqib Malik managed to set the theater screens on fire with a crowd-pleasing mixture of glamor, drama and innumerable references to Pakistan’s golden film era of yore. When it comes to performances, first-timer Zara Noor Abbas lit up the screens in both Chhalawa and Parey Hut Love and ended up being the discovery of the year. Meera too impressed with her turn as an aging screen siren in Baaji, a strong comeback performance for the star after a gap of nearly two decades.
On the music front, the year was dominated by three films: Superstar, Parey Hut Love and Baaji. Azan Sami Khan scored the compositions for the first two, whereas an assortment of composers handled Baaji. Two songs, Haye Dil from Parey Hut Love and Bekaraan Ishq Mein from Superstar became hot audience favorites and earned the highest number of views online, while Baaji’s Yeh Aaj Mujh Ko and Khilti Kali resurrected vintage era hits with a modern twist, gelling well with the film’s narrative. Indeed, the year saw popular film music back in the spotlight after a long time.
All in all, 2019 will be seen as another successful step forward in the evolution of mainstream Pakistani cinema. The need of the hour is for the major players from the film industry, the government and the electronic media to work out a coordinated strategy for effective, across-the-platform film promotions to cultivate audience interest in all local offerings, including the indie-flavored ones. 2020 will see a bevy of big-budget productions such as Zarrar, The Legend of Maula Jatt, Money Back Guarantee and London Nahi Jaunga, however, it is important for the long term survival of the industry that such big-ticket ventures not crowd out the smaller independent fares. Here’s hoping the coming year will bring in good tidings for the film industry!
Note: All box office figures are estimates, courtesy EntertainmentPk