More than a week back a boat carrying refugees capsized in the Mediterranean sinking hundreds of people and even more dreams that turned into nightmares. Not only for those who survived somehow only to face detention and jail but also for the families whose only hope was someone who felt the harsh sea was safer than their homeland.
Amongst those that didn’t survive were hundreds of Pakistanis, with some reports suggesting up to 400, including women and children. They were running from all the misery, hopelessness and chaos that accompanies our rather mercurial survival as Pakistanis, especially for a particularly deprived segment of the society. Imagine living a life so bad you’d rather get on a boat knowing there’s a chance you won’t make it and even that is better than staying back. Tragedies like this have become a permanent aspect of Pakistani reality, and those imagining a better future from the shore can’t escape seeing themselves drowning, like spectators who become part of the scene.
The people are bruised and battered, their thoughts inflamed, they are looking for answers and someone to blame for their perpetual erosion from existence. May 9 saw some of that mass anger channeled in the form of vandalism but a lot more is waiting to be contained. With so much pain and anguish engulfing us and no permanent solution in sight, can art and entertainment step in to provide an escape from our state of collective fatigue? Can mass art and films provide the much-needed balm on our bruises?
Eid is right around the corner and Pakistani filmmakers are faced with both a dilemma and an opportunity. While the economic downturn and hyperinflation point to skyrocketing ticket prices that may halt families from flooding cinemas like they usually do, a highly entertaining film right now could turn the tables and unite the people in joy and celebration of a fictional world that was or could have been.
The formula has worked historically
Historically, drama and related spectacles have always offered the very escape that the populace of any country needed. In ancient Greece, the dramas of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides brought people together with themes of war, heroism, and associated societal challenges. Plautus and Terence in the Roman Empire used satire and humour to provide a temporary escape to people before they went back to their sad lives. The long period of Black Death saw plays about communal solidarity and other moral lessons being performed in public spaces throughout Europe. Even something as massive and less brain-consuming as football has also seen a rise in times of crises.
The famous golden age of Argentinian football, came in the aftermath of the Second World War when the country was going through a turbulent political and economic situation. In the period that followed, Argentinian football experienced a surge in success, both domestically and internationally. They ended up with their first FIFA World Cup victory in 1978 and several copa Americas.
While cinema, theatre, football, or any form of mass entertainment for that matter can’t provide a long-term solution to deep-rooted issues such as inflation and political uncertainty, they can still allow the audience to channel their emotions through adrenaline and drama. They can serve to be that bandage on the bleeding wound. But are we even giving something worthwhile to our audiences? Something that can allow them to escape for a few hours?
Well, the answer lies in the kind of films that we are making and our assumption that this collective fatigue is but a phase and the audiences are still going to respond to rom-coms, social dramas and the occasional action comedy with songs.
The big screen reality
Springsteen wrote, “Is the dream a lie if it ain’t come true or is it something worse?” this couldn’t have been truer for Pakistani cinema which has struggled to give the audience something truly aspirational and out-of-this-world. We have delivered on the promise of quality drama but haven’t really turned cinema into an Imaginarium for people to get lost in. It almost seems like Pakistani film audiences were lied to and cheated about what cinema is actually capable of till the arrival of The Legend of Maula Jatt.
Save for TLOMJ, Pakistani cinema has not given a single, truly spectacular and extraordinary film in the past two decades, as far as an escapist experience is concerned. Yes, you can appreciate the brilliant comedy and satire of Jawani Phir Nahi Aani 2, the sheer scale and beauty of Moor, the depth and relevance of Zinda Bhaag, the gut-wrenching reflections in Joyland, the beautiful intricacies of Cake, the exceptional action choreography of Teefa in Trouble, the folklorish pulse of London Nahi Jaunga, and from what I have heard (Not watched), the exceptional writing of Laal Kabootar, and yet you can’t call any of them truly escapist.
All these films, in their own peculiar way either document or reflect upon our own complexities, the very conditions we want to run away from. A taste of TLOMJ’s over-the-top drama and utopian story world coupled with the audience’s collective fatigue, however, will make it harder for filmmakers to honey-trap audiences through conventional tropes and formulas.
TLOMJ changed the game, not only in terms of filmmaking in Pakistan but also in terms of reimagining the existing business models. TLOMJ became the first film to cross Rs100 crore at the Pakistani box office this New Year’s and three months after its release TLOMJ had crossed a whopping $10 Million worldwide, the biggest yet for any Pakistani film ever. What needs to be repeated here however is the fact that TLOMJ achieved all these laurels by not being a holiday release and by hiking up the prices for the first 15 days. The inflation rate back then was 23.84% and it has only gotten worse to 38% today. Will the audiences still flock to cinemas? Mandviwalla believes there’s no escape like a good cinema outing in the worst of crises but there aren’t many good films.
“Cinema is the escape from crises as it takes you for a few hours in a fantasy world,” says Mandviwalla. “TLOMJ was released in the worst of times for inflation and dollar rise and still did the business what we have not done in 75 years. However, this doesn’t apply to general and all films. They will remain the same. As always. Bad film means bad business and 90% of films are bad films.”
Speaking about inflation and its possible effects, he felt the biggest challenge for cinema right now is that of the demand and supply gap created after the ban on Indian films in February 2019.
“In the absence of software (Films). It’s a bit difficult to evaluate the real effect of inflation. I am sure that the very high inflation must have created an effect on our business. But in my opinion, the lack of popular films to show to the public is a bigger concern for us before we can actually evaluate the effect of inflation.”
Not another Maula but more magic
Of course, no one is expecting another Maula, especially because it took Bilal seven to eight years to make the movie and not every filmmaker can afford that much budget or liberty for that matter. But what we could, in fact, we should expect from filmmakers is to start thinking out of their comfort zones and test the audiences with new formulas.
People didn’t go to watch TLOMJ because there was romance in it, people paid to watch the film again and again because the experience was nowhere to be found apart from the cinemas. That is what you call an escape and mind you, an escape is not just about people fighting in a fantastical world with swords and axes, escapist entertainment could be anything.
The charm of escapist cinema lies in the potential to evoke emotions and instill a sense of wonder in the audience while making it a deeply satisfying and pleasurable experience. It has nothing to do with huge sets and big stars, but it has everything to do with creating an idealised world, where the entire range of human emotions exists but not as we experience them in our daily lives.
Contrary to TLOMJ where everything was driven by the hyper-masculine urge to own the world through violence, an escapist film could be just about the better days, or nostalgia. For example, the entire 80s nostalgic throwback genre has made a huge comeback not only in Televisual offerings such as Stranger Things and Wednesday but also through genres like synth wave.
Bollywood is coming up with a production of Archies and period shows such as Jubilee is a testimony to how shows set in supposedly if not better times then times indifferent to today’s problems are charming the audiences.
Escapist experience is not an isolated experience
This doesn’t really mean that escapist cinema is conceived in isolation from all that is happening around us. In fact, the best of escapist cinema is conceived knowing the problems, politics and struggles of the current times, and is offered as an antidote to what is happening all around us. Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge is DDLJ today because while being a direct reflection and response to trade liberlisation in India, the film was at the same time an epic struggle between embracing modernity and what it takes to be a ‘sanskari’ larkla.
It isn’t the plot or the songs that make it timeless, it is essentially the film’s essence that makes it truly magical. That an essentially sanskari-yet-pardesi Hindustani larka can exist in the Swiss Alps with no accompanying baggage of being an ex-pat; he is neither a drunkard nor a womaniser, he is a man who respects an attractive girl stuck with him in a train compartment.
In order to make a convincing film, one has to first understand what is happening around the audience and then take them on an escapist trip, instead of seeing what’s working in one format or medium and replicating it in another. That thinking and more importantly, that thought process seems to be missing amongst Pakistani filmmakers, either on purpose, because the social drama formula has so far paid dividends in terms of box office returns, or the assumption that in a Marxist sense, audiences are like empty vessels and the only progress we need is in new technology and not a re-evaluation of the presumed mass taste.
Some readers may fairly ask if this case for escapism actually sets a precedent for propaganda films and entertainment, and the answer would be, yes and why not? If we were so good at making quality propaganda films then something more than Waar would have happened when the military was overtly backing entertainment instead of grouping with real estate investors to back a channel producing edgy content.
It all comes down to the point that our collective neurosis is about to hit a threshold and our big-screen thinkers aren’t feeling the pulse, and if this doesn’t motivate us to come up with new formulas I am not sure what will.
Babylicious, Teri Meri Kahaniyaan, Allahyar and the 100 Flowers and VIP are four of the most visible of the seven films releasing in cinemas this Eid. The aspiring crime drama with a new cast, debutante director and negligible shows, Madaari, seems to be the dark horse in this race.
Let’s hope the filmmakers don’t end up blaming inflation and too many films clashing in a single slot if the audience decides to not show up in strong numbers.
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