It’s important to note from the start that Pakistan’s sovereignty is younger than its cinematic history. The nation existed as a British controlled territory until gaining independence in 1947 as the Indian territories were sectioned off after gaining political independence and emerging from the purview of the British East India Company. The All-India Muslim League, a political party which existed in the then-British colony, pushed for Pakistani independence driven by religious differences with the Hindu-dominated territory which has since become India. Since gaining sovereignty, Pakistan has been ruled by religious law and has been wrought with violent conflict as the nation has been struggling to establish free democracy since the 70s.
Lollywood, the early name for the Pakistani film industry, was born out of Lahore (the capital of Pakistan) in 1929 with the founding of the United Players Corporation. Given Pakistan’s shared border with India for the first two decades of Lollywood’s existence, film in Pakistan is closely tied to Bollywood, the still thriving Indian film industry which remains at the center of film output in Southeast Asia. Lahore was a hub for growth in the budding film industry, though tight budgets limited the capabilities of Pakistani filmmakers. Despite an active output in the first decades of Lollywood, Pakistan did not produce a feature-length film until 1948’s Teri Yaad.
After gaining independence in 1947, the film industry continued to grow, though economic struggles in the early years of the country’s existence kept funding for the arts at a minimum. Filmmaking equipment in early Pakistan was hard to come by, leading to an outpouring of low budget cinema, but a fast-growing industry nonetheless. Film in Pakistan exploded in the 50s and 60s as color was ushered into theaters. This coincided with a ban on the import of Indian film in the 1965 which essentially forced audiences toward home-grown films. The 60s are often considered the golden age of Pakistani cinema, and though films from this era are not widely available for viewing outside of Pakistan, the era produced a plethora of commercially successful movies. It also ushered in an increase in celebrity culture in Pakistan as many of the nation’s first true movie stars emerged from Lollywood’s golden age.
Unfortunately, political strife in the 70s began to dry out activity in Lollywood. The introduction of Pakistan’s first democratic elections did not have the desired effect, and sparked decades of violent conflict in the region. The left-wing Pakistan Peoples Party’s victory in the first elections radicalized the religious conservatives who had previously held power and led to a civil war that devastated the nation. Religious reactionaries’ fight against the results of the election led to even further radicalization of Pakistani theocracy and even brought upon a period of martial law and religious dictatorship in the 80s. In the wake of this tumult, the Pakistani film industry suffered at the hands of the nation’s economic collapse and the strict censorship of the religious and political leadership.
Pakistani film nearly died in the following decades and remained virtually entirely dormant until the mid-1990s. A youth movement in the early 2000s brought about a rise of energetic filmmakers who were interested in reviving Pakistani cinema and injecting vocal opposition to the political environment into their films. Shoaib Mansoor is largely credited as the first major figure of the Pakistani New Wave. His film Khuda Kay Liye (In the Name of God) was a major success which questions the merits of religious fundamentalism – a theme which has been a trend in Mansoor’s young career.
One interesting aspect of the pattern of Pakistan’s cinematic revival has been the influx of young filmmakers. Though some of the icons from the 70s are still around and contributing the industry, most of the voices that make up Pakistani cinema today are unfamiliar names with short resumes. Filmmakers like Mansoor and Asim Abbasi are the giants of modern Pakistani film and are at the center of the Pakistani New Wave, but lack the name value or resumes to carry a lot of weight on the international stage. If Pakistani cinema continues down its current path, it’s likely that we’ll start to see rapid growth of international recognition when the film world at large begins to take note of the interesting and perhaps even rebellious cinema coming out of Pakistan’s new cinematic movement.
Mansoor’s 2011 film Bol was a major turning point in Pakistani cinema. The epic family drama addressed many of the outdated value systems that still exist in Pakistan and it provided a progressive social voice as well as a gripping and stylish work of art. The film chronicles the lives of a poor family, burdened with an abusive and religious ultra-conservative patriarch and the financial constraints of having too many mouths to feed. The film opens with a dramatic bang as it quickly reveals the central plot driver: Zainab (Humaima Malick), the family’s eldest daughter, is about to be put to death, but has been granted permission to first tell her story to a gathering group of journalists.
Bol is fundamentally a film about gender roles. There are virtually no sympathetic male characters in the film (other than the boyfriend of one of the sisters whose presence creates constant controversy). Zainab’s father Hakeem (Manzar Sehbai) is ashamed of his inability to produce a male heir, his ultimate frustration coming early in the movie at the birth of Saifi (Amr Kashmiri), his intersex child who he tries to hide from the world. Hakeem’s shame leads him to, in essence, keep the entire family imprisoned in their home while he tries to earn enough to support them. The nation’s strict conservatism means that the women of the family are unable to help earn a living as there are no prospects for women to earn money in their community outside of prostitution. The anchor of Bol’s story, Zainab telling her story to the journalists, is frequently referenced as Mansoor shows us a female journalist desperately negotiating with belligerent male government officials in an attempt to save Zainab’s life. The film’s gender dynamics are a strong statement about the social implications of a society tied to religious fundamentalism.
Bol’s lofty two and a half hour run time is earned by the ensemble nature of the story. Though Zainab and Hakeem’s relationship is the central conflict, Saifi’s struggles with his sexuality (and largely with society’s reactions to it) are a major feature of the plot and their sister Ayesha’s (Mahira Khan) relationship with their neighbor Mustafa (Atif Aslam) provides at least a little bit of lightheartedness. The film also takes a sharp turn in the middle after an atrocity committed by Hakeem leads to a massive amplification of the family’s financial struggles and his behavior becomes progressively more barbaric as he enforces his religion in his home while abandoning personal observations of his faith to maintain his power dynamic with the family. This plotline is a not-so-subtle critique of the religious government in Pakistan and it’s somewhat surprising that the censors allowed it to play out in full. The film goes so far as to directly question Muslim doctrines through its protagonist, who at the film’s outset urges her mother and sisters to abandon their burqas in favor of liberation.
Bol’s cinematography is inventive and dynamic, even if it is at times a bit corny. Ayesha and Mustafa’s relationship is driven by their mutual interest in music. Extended song sequences are shot like full music videos inserted into the film. The playfulness of these sequences break up the otherwise bleak tone, but the jarring shift does sometimes break the film’s immersion. It is clear even beyond these scenes that Mansoor prioritized the music in Bol. The often surprisingly upbeat pop songs used throughout are a pronounced stylistic choice. Bol is one of the only Pakistani films to have made its way to international availability, but I am confident that on its current path, the revitalized Pakistani film industry will find a voice on the world stage. Young filmmakers like Shoaib Mansoor are projecting a message of opposition against the alienating voice of fundamentalist censorship, and the energy surrounding the Pakistani New Wave is a catalyst for change which could turn a spotlight toward Pakistani cinema in the coming years.