In 2014 and 2015, the Pakistani film festival Love, War & Other Longings signaled that a “new cinema,” centered on themes of love, family, friendship, nationhood, and justice, had been maturing among the country’s independent filmmakers since 2000. Scholars Vazira Zamindar and Asad Ali, who organized the festival at Harvard and Brown Universities, have now presented the outgrowth of these events in Love, War & Other Longings: Essays on Cinema in Pakistan, a collection of ten bold essays by accomplished authors and filmmakers alike.
While the festival screened commercially successful films from the last decade, the history of cinema in Pakistan is a rocky one; artistic production has often been hampered by state-imposed censorship and an unstable domestic economy. Cultural tropes portrayed in many films, such as familial relationships emphasizing personal sacrifice (especially by women), violent gangster clashes, and provocatively dressed women wooing “macho” love interests while dancing in lush landscapes, have given way to the discerning tastes of urban cinema-goers, who expect portrayals of modern, everyday people. In his essay “Pissing Men, Dancing Women & Censuring Oneself,” Ali writes about the two most common Pakistani and South Asian movie tropes, found in recent comedies such as Na-Maloom Afraad (2014) (screened at the festival), and Wrong No (2015). Ali regards the relieving men as socially challenged and often daft characters that are scripted to enhance the films’ relatability among male audiences; meanwhile the dancing women fulfill heteronormative male fantasies and increase commercial profitability. The persistence of such dated depictions of men and women in Pakistani films causes one to wonder if popular cinema has moved beyond typical representations at all.
But how about the dramas of this era? In 2015, Pakistani film director Sarmad Sultan Khoosat directed and acted as the eponymous character in the semi-fictionalized film Manto, to critical national acclaim; the film was marketed as a biopic based on the life of the great and controversial colonial Indian and Pakistani playwright Saadat Hasan Manto. In her critical interview with Khoosat entitled “Engaging Manto: Film, Fiction & History,” historian Ayesha Jalal argues that autobiographical films must not include any narratives fabricated by script writers. Jalal also addresses the Indian production of the same name (2018) with similar concerns. The interview soon turns into an essay and is a convincing read because the piece ultimately circles back to its immediate concern: a drama that is purely based on Manto’s personhood, sans fiction, has yet to be made.
Other texts in the collection approach recent films that bring experimental techniques to mainstream viewers. In “The Zinda Bhaag Assemblage: Notes on Reflexivity and Form,” art historian Iftikhar Dadi traces the crisis of Pakistani cinema since the 70s, when audiences ditched Urdu films for Pashto and Punjabi ones, laden with glamorous dancing women and crude action sequences. In the succeeding decade, the Pakistani film industry declined due to censorship and insufficient support from the state. Thus, a dearth of films portraying social concerns, the absence of experimental cinema, and the closing of many cinema houses widened the gap between makers and movie-goers. Throughout the essay, Dadi shifts between concise discussions of topics including television serials, sparking curiosity, though the brevity of the piece leaves some gratification to be desired. Additionally, essays by Fahad Naveed, Kamran Asdar Ali, Meenu Gaur and Adnan Madni, Vazira Zamindar, and Rachel Dwyer revisit the spirit of historical but now shunned Pakistani cinema houses including Nishat and Ratan, independently owned film archives, and the portrayal of women in Pakistani movies.
Relatedly, the award-winning Pakistani film Zindagi Tamasha (Circus of Life) (2019, also directed by Khoosat) might have just concluded its battle with the country’s censor boards. As writers and filmmakers opine over the past and aspirational present of the Pakistani film industry via this collection, the current reality suggests that a true revival where Pakistani cinema is unhindered, uncensored, and anything “it desires to be” may be a ways off, requiring more time and support from independent filmmakers and the state alike. Meanwhile, collections like Love, War & Other Longings offer thought-provoking, critical analyses of lesser-known Pakistani film history, yielding an enjoyable reading for individuals from all fields.
Love, War & Other Longings: Essays on Cinema in Pakistan (Oxford University Press, 2020), edited by Vazira Zamindar and Asad Ali, is now available on Bookshop.
Editor’s note (9/1/2020, 9:05am EDT): This review has been updated to remove a reference to Parallel cinema, which was misplaced.