‘This camera is from the time of the British!’, assistant cameraman Ghulam Hussain told me proudly as he lifted a heavy camera onto a steel tripod. It was the very first day of shooting, and those words echoed in my mind throughout the four weeks I spent doing participant-observation research on the set of the Punjabi-language Pakistani film Sharabi/The Drunkard (Parvez Rana, 2013). For some time I doubted that this could be possible, although the 35mm Arriflex camera was certainly old. When I asked the film’s head cameraman, he told me it was from the 1970s, which seemed more plausible. It was only later that I realized Ghulam Hussain might not have been exaggerating. Looking at historical photographs of Arri cameras, I found that the camera used to film Sharabi bears a marked resemblance to photos of the Arri 35 II series, which was introduced in 1946,1 the year before British India won its independence and was partitioned into the separate states of India and Pakistan.
Perhaps more important than the exact vintage of the camera is what it reveals about the way filmmakers in Pakistan relate to the technology of their craft. The camera is old, but for Ghulam Hussain it is not outdated (figure 1). Contrary to the received discourse that newer technology is better, this camera, having borne witness to seven decades of filmmaking, is a symbolic repository for the collective filmmaking knowledge of what was once a booming industry. The continued pride in this heritage of craftsmanship creates a powerful challenge to the story commonly told in the Pakistani media about the film industry’s zawaal – its crashing ‘decline’ – and questions the associated assumption that these filmmakers are uneducated, uncouth and unsophisticated.
Drawing on the recent methodological and theoretical innovations by ethnographers working on cinemas of South Asia,2 I had come to Lahore to research the relationships between film production and language ideologies, specifically Punjabi language and cinema. Punjabi is an unusual case in the literature on language ideology: rather than a majority group denigrating the language of a minority group, a dominant group has marginalized its own language to the extent that although, broadly speaking, about half the population of Pakistan speaks some variety of Punjabi as a mother tongue, Punjabi is rarely used in official spheres such as education, government or news media,3 and has thus been relegated to the less official spheres of cultural production. Until the past decade or so, cinema was perhaps the largest and most important of these, representing arguably the primary site where not only the Punjabi language but Punjabiyat, or ‘Punjabi-ness’, was wholeheartedly and unashamedly on display. More than a performance of ethnic identity, Punjabiyat has traditionally opened up a space for a reappropriation and celebration of stereotypes of the roughness and crudeness of the Punjabi language and culture, establishing its alignment with a largely rural, proletarian ethos.
The year 2013 was a watershed for the Pakistani film industry; many were hailing a revival after more than a decade of dwindling production, lacklustre performance at the box office, and cinema auditoria across the country being turned into car parks or shopping malls. During the period of my fieldwork, a series of films were released that seemed to signal this change: films such as Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (Humayun Saeed, 2013), Waar (Bilal Lashari, 2013) and Zinda Bhaag (Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi, 2013). All were films that either performed well at the box office, attracted international attention, or could be held up as ‘saviours’ of the industry. Shot using digital technology and stereo sound, these films were consistently characterized in the media as evidence that the Pakistani film industry could aesthetically and technologically ‘compete’ with cinemas of other countries, in particular India and the USA.
One way to consider this shift, using Jacques Rancière’s terminology, is to see it as a massive ‘redistribution of the sensible’:4 a collection of radical changes in what is available to the audience’s sensory experience of film. As technological innovation increases the informational capabilities of film, it creates a redistribution of ‘the sensible’ for the cinemagoing public in ways that make Evernew’s mode of communicating with its public seem increasingly limited in comparison. Excluded from access to digital technologies, filmmakers in Evernew Studios continue to use cameras that are decades old, and are filming feature films for a national market on 35mm technology. Film sound is produced on a circa 1960s reel-to-reel tape player, editing is done with scissors and scotch tape, electrical plugs are chunky blocks of wood with iron strips nailed to them, and the entire script is handwritten rather than typed. Where technological innovations in filmmaking have created a broadened spectrum of aesthetic possibility, they have altered the information channel and literally increased the amount that there is for the film audience to perceive, whether in terms of pixels on the screen or multiple audiotracks. In Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, digital films have a greater degree of cultural capital5 than those shot on 35mm (to say nothing of the linguistic capital and class connotations of Urdu versus Punjabi), and as the technological gap widens, the 35mm Punjabi film’s legitimacy as an artistic and cultural product falls further into question.
Evernew Studios in Lahore is one of the largest film studios in Pakistan. It is a sprawling complex of halls, recording suites and sound stages on Multan Road, towards what used to be the southern edge of the steadily expanding city. A few decades ago filmmakers had to reserve the brightly painted sound studios months in advance, but now many of them stand empty, dusty and in disrepair. Evernew served as the home base for the talents of artists such as Noor Jehan, Munawwar Zarif, Rangeela, Wahid Murad and many other legends of Pakistani cinema. Yet the much-touted revival of Pakistani cinema has barely touched the filmmaking community here. The filmmakers who work at Evernew have generally been excluded from the shift towards newer filmmaking technology that is seen as central to this revival.6 People I worked with at Evernew often stated that the new films were being made by baahir ke log (outsiders), and that this was not a revival of the film industry because it excluded the industry’s own people. Often these ‘outsider’ filmmakers were ridiculed for not knowing how to shoot a film properly, or what sorts of elements make a film great: ‘You can have crores of rupees and all of the modern technology and still you won’t know what it is to be a real film director’, claimed one of my informants, himself a director of nearly a hundred films. One veteran writer of almost fifty years, rather prone to hyperbole, stated that he was nearly prepared to murder the person who had taken him to see Waar because it was so badly made – this of the film that had become a critical darling in the media, and the highest grossing film in Pakistan’s history.7 Filmmakers at Evernew were often quick to dismiss the notion of a revival of Pakistani cinema: ‘We haven’t gone anywhere, we haven’t stopped making films’. How can you revive something that has never died?
The filmmakers of Evernew constitute what Etienne Wenger and others have called a ‘community of practice’,8 with a great deal invested in sustaining this community. For Jean Lave and Wenger, communities of practice are key mechanisms for the transfer of knowledge and the negotiation of meaning, both foundational features of situated learning. Rather than a neatly bounded formal entity, a community of practice is ‘an aggregate of people who come together around mutual engagement in some common endeavour’.9 One of the most important arguments for an ethnographic investigation of filmmaking is that it allows us to comprehend film as a product of communities of practice, rather than as the realized vision of a director or a floating, authorless text. It allows us to better understand the emergent meanings of cinema by grounding this understanding in the praxis of cultural production, by shedding light on such critically important yet often overlooked issues as the bodily techniques, infrastructures and material culture of film production – issues that fundamentally condition the onscreen sound and image as experienced by the cinemagoer.
The community at Evernew is composed of film veterans – directors, writers, cameramen, choreographers, music directors, electricians, actors, and so on – most with thirty or even forty years of experience.10 Their networks and bonds are based not only on decades of working together but on other powerful kinds of social ties. Many got their start in the film industry, be it through apprenticeship or more informally, because of family members who already did this kind of work. Even where there is no family connection, filmmakers regularly locate their identities in networks of teacher–student (ustad–shagird) or fictive kinship relations that can have an equally deep significance. Trained for decades, working with a certain set of technologies and inextricably tied to a very specific visual idiom with which these correlate, they are not the ones to benefit from the sudden surge in multiplexes being built in affluent suburbs. In fact the cinemas being built do not even have the capability to show older films. The 35mm projectors are falling into disuse in favour of digital projection systems, and so the circuit and earning potential for these ‘low-tech’ films shrinks even further. The filmmakers themselves are of course keenly aware of these issues; the production of Sharabi was itself delayed due to problems with cinema remodeling and distribution.
In the evenings, sitting in a circle of plastic chairs in the Evernew Studio courtyard, discussion of the state of the film industry and the changing aesthetic preferences of the cinemagoing public was constant. There is a deep ambivalence in the way this community relates to new technologies. Sharabi’s director, Parvez Rana, expressed both an intention to shoot his next film on a Red digital camera and the confidence that he would not need any additional training to do so. He was adamant that since the film was already ‘completed’ in his mind before shooting even began, there would be no issues in this transition. Rana, like others in his circle, invests a large amount of personal pride in his own craftsmanship and expertise. There are, however, pressing economic reasons for filmmakers to turn towards digital technologies. In an apparently contradictory discursive move, repeated on several occasions during my fieldwork, filmmakers would simultaneously denigrate the new technology while staking a claim to it: ‘I’m making this film in the old way, but the next one insha’Allah will be all digital!’ They were exhibiting solidarity with their community of practice while simultaneously opening themselves up to the possibility of increasing their social capital through the adoption of new technologies.
Among the filmmakers I worked with, there was also a general recognition that different kinds of narratives and themes would have to be identified for these new films; that the material properties of a film can, at least in part, determine its content. As one of my informants matter-of-factly explained: ‘If you try to make a film like this one [Sharabi] on a digital camera, it will look really strange!’ Over the past three decades the Punjabi film in Pakistan has crystallized into a fairly rigid genre, with a set of stock characters and plot scenarios that are variously recombined in film after film. The evil landowner, the poor hero on the wrong side of the law, the tawa’if (courtesan/prostitute) with a heart of gold and the pious mother all make regular appearances. Similarly standard are themes of violence, honour and revenge, as well as cinematic techniques such as the triple take during moments of heightened tension, or extreme closeups of the heroine’s eyes or lips during romantic or sexual scenes.
The aesthetic conventions of Punjabi cinema have grown out of the infrastructural and technological conditions of filmmaking as much as any ‘purely’ stylistic motivation. Participant-observation on the set of Sharabi provided a window into how these issues of technology and infrastructure conditioned not only the daily rhythms of filmmaking for this community but also many of the artistic choices that were made. For example, because of the limited availability and expense of film stock (I was told that negative alone accounted for about a third of the film’s approximately $60,000 budget), Rana tended to prefer shorter takes that could be edited together rather than longer takes that would use up more negative if they had to be shot several times. Outdoor locations were generally favoured over indoor ones, even when it was not required by the script, for the simple reason that sunlight is free, while electricity is unreliable and expensive. In Pakistan this is a major issue: even if one can offset the costs of the extra lights required for indoor shooting, not to mention the fans or air conditioning, electricity might suddenly be unavailable. Generators tend to be expensive and break down, so the shooting day is extended as long as light permits, and a series of wooden reflector boards is used to extend the light at sunset. Gaining familiarity with infrastructure is part of the process of socialization into a community of practice;11 camera equipment, an editing table or film distribution systems are meaningless to outsiders who are not familiarized with them, or when divorced from the filmmaking process. More than a mere tool waiting to be taken up by practitioners, infrastructure holds immense symbolic weight within communities of practice such as Evernew’s, partly because it simultaneously enables and structures their very aesthetic choices.
For Rancière, the distribution of the sensible has to do with both the question of what can be sensed as forms of art, and also the way in which works of art are ‘involved in politics […] or the guiding intentions, artists’ social modes of integration, or the manner in which artistic forms reflect social structures or movements’.12 As noted earlier, cinematic performances of Punjabiyat have historically invoked discourses of class difference, valorizing the marginalized and providing an outlet for their feelings of political alienation. Among others, Ali Nobil Ahmad and Ali Khan have argued that the archetypical Punjabi film, a rural-set action/revenge drama, arose in tandem with the extreme brutality of Zia ul-Haq’s military dictatorship. Speaking of the career of Punjabi film hero Sultan Rahi, which spanned over 800 films, they write:
The string of box office hits in which he stars can be seen as gory fantasies of the common man enacting revolutionary violence against an oppressive state. Time and time again, the protagonist confronts issues that the cinema-going public immediately recognized: exploitation, brutality, and indifference from a corrupt police force, politicians and the courts.13
Such moments of onscreen proletarian resistance, not only to state violence but also to the linguistic and cultural hegemony of the Urdu-speaking establishment, lose their forcefulness as the perceived technological backwardness of Punjabi cinema leads to its further marginalization.
If, as Rancière goes on to say, politics ‘revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak’,14 then the ability of these filmmakers to say something with their art, to be relevant to the publics that are its object, has been severely limited by these technological changes, both directly – the fact that there are fewer cinemas where these films can be released – and indirectly – the fact that they are largely out of fashion, shunned by the cultural elite as crude and vulgar. Popular Punjabi cinema has thus seen a tremendous decrease in its mass appeal but also in its political force. As the technologies of which these craftsmen are masters lose their potency, the craftsmen themselves are excluded from spaces grounded in the new aesthetics. The very real power they once had both within this industry and, in a broader sense, as producers of culture has dwindled, even as they continue to make films in the way they have done for the past thirty or forty years. Sweaty and tired after a grueling day of shooting in the September heat, Ghulam Hussain told me resolutely, ‘This is my last film. I get paid five hundred rupees a day,15 and no one gives any appreciation, any respect. Bas [enough]. No more.’ Other crew members expressed similar sentiments, sometimes asking whether I could help them get work in the USA. Those who are excluded from the power and prestige inherent in the spaces of possibility opened up by new technologies are ultimately at risk of losing not only their investment in their communities of practice, but also their very livelihoods.