LAHORE, PAKISTAN — The Odeon Cinema's creaky, ripped red vinyl seats are mostly empty except for a couple of back rows where a dozen Pakistani men sit slouched, their eyes half-open, legs slung over the seats in front of them. Along the hall's bubble-gum pink walls, rows of fans barely move the hot, dank air. The Odeon's loudspeakers crackle like a ham radio.
The feature on this recent evening is a Pakistani film called "Majajan," a love story. The barely breathing, Lahore-based Pakistani film industry produces less than a dozen movies each year, which explains why every day, three times a day for the last three years, the only movie screened at the Odeon has been "Majajan."
Welcome to Lollywood, or what's left of it. It wasn't always this way. Back in the 1960s and '70s, Lahore buzzed with movie shoots, red-carpet premieres and box-office hits. The Pakistani film industry has always been based here, and though it didn't have the girth or dazzle of Bombay's Bollywood, "Lollywood" thrived in a country staking out an identity distinct from its Indian neighbor.
In their heyday, theaters such as the Odeon had queues of Pakistanis snaking far beyond the box-office window and down Lahore's bustling sidewalks. Moviegoers dressed in their snazziest salwar kameezes and arrived two hours before a showing to secure tickets.
Today, Pakistani cinema has all but vanished, a victim of the VCR, cable television, President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq's Islamization of Pakistani society, and finally DVD piracy. In 1985, 1,100 movie houses operated in Pakistan; today, only 120 are in business. The few directors, producers and cinema owners often rely on second jobs to make ends meet.
Reviving the industry necessitates junking what's left of Pakistani cinema and starting from scratch, says Jahanzaib Baig, a Lahore cinema owner pushing for a revival of Pakistani film. Baig has been lobbying the government to clamp down on DVD piracy, a scourge that keeps Pakistanis from leaving their living rooms to head to cinemas. "We have hit rock bottom," says Baig. "We can only go up. Whatever we had before is not only destroyed but is obsolete in terms of technology and skills. So we're setting the foundation for a new film industry in Pakistan."
Sangeeta, a Lollywood mega-star during the 1970s and one of the few survivors still directing homegrown films, says a revival of the industry can happen only if the Pakistani government lends a hand.
"We need government support," says Sangeeta, now 52. "We need new cameras, new studios. Right now, producers aren't investing because the equipment isn't good."
On the set of a television drama she's shooting, the hardships Sangeeta faces are evident. The cameras are dead ringers for clunky 1980s camcorders. There are no trailers, no craft service, no security to keep Pakistani passers-by from wandering onto the set.
It all seems light years away from her glory days, when all of Lahore fawned over the curvy, vivacious movie star with the dark-eyed appeal. She got her start in show business after coming home from school one afternoon and finding her parents chatting with a Lollywood director looking for a lead actress in his new film, "Bangle."
"When he saw me he said, 'That's my heroine!' " she recalls. She was just 13.
Sangeeta went on to star in more than 100 movies and direct 80. Nowadays, she focuses on directing for television, though last year she directed a film for a producer who wanted a movie about himself.
"Back in the 1970s, our movie industry was in full bloom," Sangeeta says, her eyes beaming behind black-framed Givenchy glasses as she remembers. "It was a great period for us. Everyone felt at home in the studio, and the work was deep in our hearts. Not like today."
The advent of cable television and VCRs drew Pakistanis away from cinemas, but it was President Zia ul-Haq's religious-based policies that sped the industry's demise. Many cinemas were shut down, the rest were heavily taxed. New laws that required producers to have college degrees thinned the ranks of movie makers.
The message Zia ul-Haq's government was sending to society was clear, Baig says: "We were being told that filmmaking was a vulgar and bad business to be in."
As Lollywood's top-shelf creative talent dropped out of the flagging industry, scripts got worse and Pakistanis stopped going to movies. Bollywood filled the void; Indian movies flooded video stores and clogged cable channels. Pakistani filmmakers who stayed in the industry found themselves hamstrung by dwindling budgets.
"In India, they spend $12 million on a movie, and we can spend maybe about $120,000," says Pakistani film producer Jamshed Zafar, who sidelines as an exporter of South Asian spices. "How can we compete?"
One of the only directors still making movies, Syed Noor, has established a film school in Lahore to help seed a new generation of filmmakers. But most directors and producers gave up long ago. Sangeeta says a few went into television; most of the rest live off the incomes of their adult children. Every once in a while, some of them meet at Sangeeta's modest two-story home in a woody Lahore neighborhood to reminisce over tea and screenings of their old movies.
The salve of nostalgia seems to work. Her eyes brighten as she leafs through a pile of movie posters and press photos from her halcyon days: Sangeeta in a Mary Astor-style pillbox hat, Sangeeta in a sari merrily dancing barefoot in the grass, Sangeeta coyly turning away from her mustached lover.
Smiling, she sighs. "I wish I could go back there."