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Pakistan's Lollywood Is Going Bust

Cinemas are foundering as movie production plummets. The dearth of material prompts a drive to lift the ban on films made in India.

May 29, 2005|Matthew Pennington | Associated Press Writer

LAHORE, Pakistan — Lahore's Odeon cinema has seen better days. The Punjabi song-and-dance feature on the screen plays to rows of empty seats, the scratchy image and crackling soundtrack as old as the memory of a packed house.

Pakistan's once-thriving film industry, which used to pump out 80 to 100 movies a year, seems in terminal decline. Cinemas are closing, and owners say the only thing that can save them is lifting a 40-year ban on showing movies made in India, Pakistan's enemy in three wars.

The Lahore-based movie business -- known as Lollywood, similar to its Bollywood cousin in Bombay, India -- has suffered from booming sales of pirated movies on video and DVD and from the recent spread of cable TV channels showing Bollywood blockbusters.

About 25 mainstream movies were made last year, and most bombed. As recently as 1989, there were 101 Pakistani movies produced.

"The situation is growing worse by the day. Urdu and Punjabi [language] cinema is almost doomed," said Shazad Gul, movie director and chief of Evernew Studio, the main production facility for Pakistani films.

Gul, whose late father, Agha, was regarded as the country's first movie mogul, is converting sound stages on the aging Evernew lot in Lahore for television, seeing a much brighter future in making drama serials for the growing number of private TV networks.

Dwindling cinema revenues mean that the films that do make it to the big screen are usually cheap productions with hackneyed plots and the same few actors that can only attract audiences with lots of blood-spilling and sexual innuendo -- the latter tame by Hollywood standards.

"People just want naked bodies and vulgar dances," said Mohammed Aslam, a popcorn vendor at the Odeon, where only two dozen customers, most of them ignoring the no-smoking signs, came for a recent night's main feature -- a 1971 comedy in black and white.

Lollywood moviemaking dates back to before the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan after independence from Britain in 1947.

Pakistani stars from the pre-TV era -- like "Melody Queen" Noorjahan and leading man Mohammed Ali -- were household names and drew big audiences throughout their long careers.

The business was helped for many years by the ban imposed on Indian films in the early 1960s, shortly before the two countries fought their second war.

But theater owners now say they need to show Indian movies because not enough films are being made at home.

Zoraiz Lashari, chairman of the Action Committee of Cinema Owners, said about 270 theaters remain in Pakistan -- down from more than 1,500 during the heyday of Pakistani films. In Punjab, one of four provinces in Pakistan, 130 cinemas have closed since 2001.

"We are in a desperate situation. Film production levels are so low that they can't feed the cinemas with the raw material they need 52 weeks a year," Lashari said.

Nadeem Mandviwalla, whose family had owned a Karachi cinema for 40 years, said it had been losing money for three years, and even shut for the last three months of 2004 to save on bills.

He said his business desperately needed the government to drop the ban on showing Indian movies, a prohibition that did not apply to cable TV.

"The whole of Pakistan is watching Indian films on television, so why not let them watch them in the cinema?" Mandviwalla said. "Right now, we have two choices: Sell the business or die."

Lashari said the government reviewed the Indian movie ban last year, but concluded that it wasn't the "appropriate time" to lift it.

He does not think that will change until the two countries settle their rival claims to the Himalayan region of Kashmir.

Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the chief government spokesman, agreed that "political issues" had to be resolved before the ban could end.

Regardless of the ban, Bollywood is already part of the fabric of Pakistan's movie industry. Top Pakistani productions often use Indian singers, music arrangers, choreographers, editors and dancers.

Gul said that in terms of technology and expertise, Lollywood lagged 50 years behind Bollywood. The Evernew Studio is little changed since it was built in the mid-1950s, and many of its skilled staff have been working there for 30 years or more.

On one sound stage, Pakistani star Reesham, wearing sequined hot pants and a skimpy silver top, was shooting the final scene of the drama "Wadda Chaudhry," or "Tribal Elder."

She saw no harm in showing Indian films.

"If there's no spirit of competition, we don't work hard," the one-time model said.

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