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Identity or the most overused word about Pakistan

October 6, 2010

if there is one word which can make you a philosopher about pakistan, it is identity. everyone, from the global caliphate dreaming moulvi to the trotsky-channeling leftist, from the undergraduate to the professor, from the banker to the bhikari, from the militant to the military man, can talk ad nauseam about this issue.

pakistan has an identity crisis.

what most people forget, or rather fail to acknowledge, is that pakistanis (also) have an identity crisis.

and at the risk of sounding trivial, by refusing to acknowledge said crisis within themselves, they perpetuate the national crisis, by failing to come up with something to identify with.

instead of trying to understand ourselves, we seek to present a certain image. an image which even a casual glance of something as banal as facebook statuses would reveal inherent contradictions.

the problem is that confronting your insecurities is a particularly difficult challenge.

but like deepak chopra will tell you, its also healing.

so when i decided that my thesis film would be about pakistan, i had to face up to the fact that i knew next to nothing about pakistani cinema.

so i started reading, and i started watching.

the reading was limited.  the only book i found online on a history of pakistani cinema was not available in pakistan, and cost 300 pounds on amazon! so i turned to academic writings on bollywood cinema, where happily i found an abundance of passionate and work done largely by indian researchers. i am going to hope that the cliche of realising how similar certain things are for both cinemas is going to be self-evident here.

the watching however, was a different kettle of fish. for starters, it was very exhaustive, since i was very aware of the act of watching the film. i was looking for meanings and answers everywhere. watching them with safieh didn’t help either, because we were both getting caught in the same trap.

but once we got over that, we started realising something else.

this wasn’t foreign. this wasn’t something else. this was stuff that was all around us, in a thousand parodies, in sms jokes, in poster art, in religious and political sermons, trucks and rickshaws, an ice cream parlour and a fake village, in songs and  stories.

and this was where something else kicked in.

because as much as i was watching lollywood films – films made in studios – i was also trying to watch independent films. films which ran mostly in festivals or the odd tv channel. films which were often made by pakistanis like me – who were approaching cinema as students, who were well-off but largely disconnected from the film industry, who were attempting to be different.

what i kept seeing was one of two films. either you saw people showing poverty porn, or people doing genre films. inevitably, the trailers, or some aspect of the promotion, for either kind of film would involve some variation of “If you think you know Pakistan, think again…”

now i am not speaking of ALL independent pakistani films, only the ones i saw or even caught trailers of. (also i know there are many films you can think of here, but i don’t want to be picking fights or bitching people out here, so won’t be naming names)

around that time, i had to submit the idea for my thesis. and so, as i worked over it, i came up with a simplistic theory.

pakistani cinema had seen its last hurrah around the 80s. it had since then failed to grow physically, financially and even, some would argue, creatively. however, even if we are to write off the last 30 years, there is still a cinematic tradition of several decades still to content with. what had seemed to happen was that many of the cinema’s arts had wandered off elsewhere.

the birth of pakistani pop music can almost directly be traced to the time when studios began providing musicians with a variety of equipment to play with in the mid-70s. the music industry managed to grow enormously as the cinema withered. similarly, the golden age of television dramas occurred a few years after the infamous Motion Picture Ordinance, when a raft of the acting, directing and script-writing talent emigrated from the cinema to the smaller screen.

my theory therefore, was that in order for pakistani cinema to be revived it had to re-connect with its own tradition. at the same time, this resurrection had to be for modern audiences and society, which meant that it had to evolve from that re-connection, rather than mimic it.

ironically, for someone my age in pakistan, the wealth of cultural reference comes from television and music. and so, those forms which had evolved from cinema would now be used to bring the cinema back.

this was when i began to start writing my script.

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