Friday 21 September 2012 in Pakistan was officially designated ‘Youm-e Ishq-e Rasool’, a national ‘Day of Love for the Prophet’, marking the country’s formal participation in a wave of angry protests that swept the Muslim world in response to the uploading of an ‘anti-Islamic’ film clip on YouTube. Amidst the globally televised demonstrations that ensued, nine of Karachi and Peshawar’s most cherished cinema halls were vandalized by rioters. Despite the dramatic spectacle of these attacks, which drew global attention to the apparently abysmal plight of cinema in Pakistan, their impact was minor in comparison with an older and deeper structural assault on traditional film-viewing venues. These have virtually disappeared since the 1990s, largely due to their conversion into shopping malls on prime sites of urban real estate.1 Dwindling supply and demand for locally made films has reinforced this downward spiral, with production plummeting from well over a hundred films per year between the 1960s and 1980s to less than twenty at recent points in the new millennium.2

A year after the events of ‘Youm-e Ishq-e Rasool’, the release of a tranche of new digital films in 2013 prompted a radical shift in media discourse concerning the fortunes of the Pakistani film industry. In particular, Zinda Bhaag/Run For Your Life (Meenu Gaur/Farjad Nabi), the first Pakistani film longlisted for an Academy Award in over fifty years, and Waar/War (Bilal Lashari), the highest-grossing Pakistani release in history, received considerable international attention. As both these films and others, such as the political thriller Chambaili/Jasmine(Ismail Jilani), were exhibited in and beyond Pakistan, a wave of optimism about the supposedly brightening prospects of Pakistani cinema swept the same newspapers that just months previously had been driven to despair. Entertainment journalists reveled in the prospect of a digital turn, hailing a new age of cinematic ‘rebirth’.3 Indian publications referred to a ‘Pakistani New Wave’;4 a special event was organized at London’s BFI Southbank in May 2014 to explore the validity of this last term.5

The current moment, then, is one at which a good deal of expectancy surrounds the fortunes of Pakistani cinema. Pronounced ‘dead’ and ‘reborn’ within a single calendar year, it seems safe to say a period of flux is underway, owing to its belated transition from celluloid. This last technological shift is being greeted with much excitement from those eager for it to continue at a faster pace. A report published by academics at the Business School of the Lahore University of Management Sciences, for instance, claims that despite languishing on its deathbed, the Pakistani film industry appears to be on the ‘threshold of major changes’. Current Impediments and Prospects of the Film Industry Revival in Pakistan urges the government to seize the opportunity to ‘revive’ it to its ‘glory days’ by investing in multiplexes and digital technology.6 With dozens of digital films released between 2013 and 2015 and many more in production, their excitement would seem to be justified. In its own way, academic research is also responding: at least three PhDs on Pakistani cinema have recently been undertaken or completed at leading Euro-American universities.7

Against the backdrop of this departing bandwagon it is tempting to call for an expansion of scholarly research into the past and present of Pakistani cinema, a field many have argued is hopelessly underdeveloped in comparison with Indian film studies.8 And yet, as Lotte Hoek has recently pointed out in the context of emergent research on India’s regional cinemas, there is something amiss about attempts to dislodge the hegemony of Hindi cinema within film studies through mere horizontal expansion of study into increasingly nuanced consideration of different languages, regions and states.9 From disputed territories to cricket and nuclear weapons, Pakistanis like to think we can match Indian strength and have a tendency to complain about conspiracy when success proves illusory. For numerous reasons, a more humble and, frankly, more thoughtful approach is necessary for the development of knowledge about screen cultures in Pakistan, beginning with an understanding that, as Iftikhar Dadi argues in the following pages, India’s academic hegemony is a product of decades of indigenous scholarship about an industry of global scale and sophistication. Comparison with our own thus has an apples-and-oranges quality, while any attempt to proceed without reference to the insights of this massive body of work threatens, at best, to reinvent the wheel.

The objective of this dossier is not to stake out the parameters of ‘Pakistani cinema’ as an independent, specialized field of scholarly research, but rather to integrate Pakistan into existing frameworks of cinema studies in such a way that we deepen our collective insights about international film and media at large. Aside from the obvious political merits of an approach that takes issue with the postulates of theoretical nationalism, this also makes better analytical sense. Pakistani cinema bears important specificities, but these must be teased out from wider cultural formations and, as such, are barely grounds for some of the more bombastic notions of past and future cinematic greatness that underpin recent talk of a ‘New Wave’.

A host of problematic aggregations and pernicious erasures are embedded in the very terms of reference deployed by those longing for a ‘revival’ of ‘Pakistani cinema’.10 The term ‘national cinemas’ can be broadly criticized in two ways: first, through an objection to the ideological role of nationalism in justifying and perpetuating ethnocentrism, chauvinistic patriotism, capitalist patriarchy and other forms of domination;11 second, the term is inaccurate and arguably irrelevant in view of the increasingly transnational realities of production and consumption in the current age of globalization.12 Accordingly, there is a reluctance to use the term ‘Pakistani cinema’ (or indeed ‘Indian’ or ‘Bangladeshi cinema’) in this dossier. Each essay makes it a central task to probe and interrogate the taken-for-granted relationships between films, industries and languages that accompany the national-state frameworks dominating mainstreams across South Asia. Taking up Ravi Vasudevan’s invitation to explore a range of alternative geographies that envelop all the subcontinent’s territories and well beyond,13 discussions are conceptualized through diverse units of analysis: the global (relating to neoliberal cinemas); the regional and transnational (relating to processes and connections across and within South Asia); linguistic and vernacular factors (relating to film languages, above all Urdu and Hindi, but also – within Pakistan – Punjabi, Pashto and so on); and, finally, city-based classifications relating to sites of production such as Bombay, Lahore and Dhaka.

As will be seen, stretching the cinematic object of study sideways and vertically in these ways allows for exploration of melodrama, modernism and action in the Pakistani context through comparison and intersection with close and distant relatives. None of this renders the nation irrelevant. Far from diluting its ‘Pakistaniness’, consideration of Urdu and Punjabi cinema’s mimetic, parasitic and syncretic dynamics provides a fuller portrait of national specificities. These remain significant given that the nation state continues to define many of the most important parameters of cinematic possibility through policies, markets and infrastructures, not to mention social contexts. Whatever revulsion scholars might feel towards the absolutist claims, origin myths and exclusionary historiographies implicit in discourses of cinema framed by nationalism, the undeniable reality of national specificities remains an observable fact.14

The methodological approaches employed in this dossier range from oral history interviews with practitioners (Lotte Hoek) to ethnographies of contemporary media practice (Gwendolyn Kirk) and textual criticism (Iftikhar Dadi). Themes and issues include genre, cinematic form and adaptation (Dadi), language and the politics of memory (Hoek), and the question of changing technologies (Kirk). My own introductory remarks contextualize these various contents chronologically around two loosely ordered discussions about the past and present of Pakistani cinema. Both sections begin with probing dominant narratives as a pathway to the critique of extant assumptions; both gesture towards fresh perspectives. I conclude by noting several other possible avenues that might be fruitfully explored in future research.

Histories of the film industry in Pakistan tend to follow a rubric laid out by the late documentarian and author Mushtaq Gazdar, whose descriptive account of the emergence of Urdu film production centres in Lahore, Karachi and Dhaka during the 1960s has become a sort of master narrative of cinematic events at the national level.15 Although not nationalist in simple terms, Gazdar’s chronicle does not engage critically with the key problematic any serious scholarly analysis must surely begin with: what is Pakistani cinema? Predicated on the questionable assumption that national cinema is an exclusive product of industrial and creative processes that germinate within the territorial boundaries of the nation-state, its logic is straightforward: the ‘Pakistani film industry’ produces ‘Pakistani cinema’. In South Asia’s multilinguistic polities, where it is highly problematic to speak of language and nationality as interchangeable, such commonsense conflations of Urdu cinema with Pakistan and, by implication, Hindi film with India are quite unsound.

The proportion of Pakistanis who thought of themselves as Urdu-speakers in 1951, four years after Partition, was a minuscule 7.2 per cent. Up until at least the 1965 war, the bulk of Urdu writers constituted a single intellectual community, regardless of religion or region.16 Their division into separate nation-states, one of which was virtually overnight designated ‘Islamic’ and therefore Urdu-speaking, the other deemed Hindu and therefore Hindi-speaking, involved the systematic reification of largely artificial distinctions. It took many years to solidify these as legal and political realities, and despite the best efforts of each country’s media and educational systems, the nationalist project of engineering culturally distinct populations remains (mercifully) incomplete; many Pakistanis still prefer to watch ‘Indian’ films over those supposedly in their own national language. They might refer to them as foreign, but Hindi screen dialogue and song is more familiar to ordinary citizens than the increasingly Islamicized official idiom of news bulletins, replete with Farsi and Arabic words rarely used in everyday life. This proximity to everyday language is all the more significant when one considers that for millions in Southern India, the cultural imprint of Urdu-Hindi is limited.

Similar arguments have been be made about Hindi cinema, a designation increasingly avoided by Indian film scholars because of its exaggeration of the difference between Indian and Pakistani linguistic systems, as Dadi notes. Some have argued that the language of Indian cinema is in fact Urdu, pointing out that leading stars of the ‘Hindi’ film industry are coached in classical Urdu diction.17 Whatever the truth of this last claim, the Muslim ethos of Bombay cinema and deep entwinement with Urdu literary culture has been extensively researched in recent years.18 Any serious attempt to define Pakistani cinema or even sketch the outlines of its history, it follows, cannot treat Urdu film as a self-contained ‘Pakistani’ cinematic universe.

Although Gazdar locates Pakistan’s cinematic cultural heritage in the subcontinent’s shared prehistory of Indo-Muslim cultural synthesis,19 he writes as if Bombay and Lahore simply went their separate ways after Independence, thus occluding the Urdu-Hindi sphere of art, visual media and North Indian literary culture that continued to exert considerable influence upon its contents and formal conventions during the postcolonial period. As Dadi observes, the particularity of Lahore’s and Karachi’s Urdu popular cinema of this period emerges not as some mystical essence of national uniqueness, but rather as a local variant of broader, regional configurations.

In what sense, then, is it Pakistani? Dadi’s analysis of Masood Pervez’s cinematic rendering of Mirza Shauq’s nineteenth-century masnavi,20Zehr-e Ishq/Poison of Love (1958), holds important clues. Careful to ground his treatment of form in temporal logic, Dadi points out that Zehr-e-Ishq represents an early, hybridized instance of the dominant social film. As in India, cinemas of spectacle continued to exist alongside and within its framework of concern for the inner psychological turmoil of characters, pointing to the staggered and uneven transfer of precinematic literary forms to the screen. If this much aligns with Asia’s wider experience of modernity as a continual, crisis-ridden process of incorporating and redefining tradition rather than triumphant transition, analysis of the film’s imagery and narrative reveal a particularly troubled take on myths of ‘progress’ and ‘civilization’. Ending with the suicide of its wild and destructive female protagonist Sanwali, the daughter of a tribal chief, Zehr-e Ishq can be seen an allegory for the psychic costs of a nationalism impelled to continually exorcize the Indic ghosts of its primitivist past.

For a genre whose ideal form reflects and reinforces the values of South Asia’s middle class through cathartic reassurance, Pakistan’s equivalent of the social film – in this case at least – represents a curious subversion of its substantive elements, despite apparent obedience to the forms delineated in Vasudevan’s analysis of the social film’s Bombay incarnation.21 Its specificity lies in a surprisingly dark, brooding sense of loss and desolation at socially conservative outcomes in the narrative. What could it signify, this refusal to play affective ball, despite ostensibly accepting the rules of a game that were fairly well established?

In the absence of a wider sample, it would probably be unwise to extrapolate much further. Tentative speculation, however, is hard to resist given the comparable sobriety of the endings of several other widely viewed social films during the era of Urdu dominance. Eik Gunnah Aur Sahi/One More Sin (Hassan Tariq, 1975), for instance, concerns a Christian woman who runs a brothel in an urban setting during the period of postwar modernization. Based loosely on Sadat Hasan Manto’s short story, Mummy, the film lays bare the hypocrisy of bourgeois patriarchy, its bitterly tragic ending leaving the viewer with a similar sense of emptiness to Zehr-e Ishq. This apparently tormented tendency in the national bourgeoisie’s cinematic imagination has a broader context that Dadi has outlined in his pioneering study of modernism and the art of Muslim South Asia, which points out that Pakistani visual art is marked by a qualitative difference to that of its neighbour to the East.22 Unlike the Indian nation-state, which claims deep continuities with an ancient heritage, culture and civilization that have informed modernist concerns about tradition, the limited presence of nationalism as a framework or point of reference in Pakistani modernism is striking. Extending this insight to the realm of cinema, it is noticeable that filmmakers from D. G. Phalke to Satyajit Ray in India have confidently addressed themselves to the nation and its mythology in ways that suggest a conscious concern with mobilizing the cinematic apparatus as a vehicle for cultural nationalism.23 Moreover, for most of its postcolonial history, Indian popular cinema has been regarded as a key ideological plank in the edifice of bourgeois nation-building.24 In Pakistan, contrastingly, the embrace of cinema by officialdom and the middle classes has been uneven and, at times, altogether absent.

Perhaps, then, middle- and upper-class identity in Pakistan has been more haunted by its inadequacies and lack of legitimacy than it has in India? Despite the structural commonalities shared by India and Pakistan, rightly stressed by comparative scholarship across the disciplines, objective reasons for Pakistan’s elites to feel particularly insecure have hardly been in short supply. Founded on the flimsy basis of political expediency and the Muslim League’s original sin of collaborating with the British for the right to speak on behalf of an Indian Muslim population that gave it less than eight per cent of the vote in 1937, the country’s inauspicious origins were predictably translated into a less than dazzling record of nation-building, culminating in the secession of Pakistan’s Eastern Wing amidst genocide in 1971.

Which brings us to another elision in commonsense understandings of Pakistani cinema invoked by Gazdar and the many journalistic accounts he has inspired: their amnesia concerning the contribution of Dhaka in the period between Partition and the establishment of Bangladesh. If 1947 to 1971 was the formative period of Urdu cinema, it was also one in which East Pakistani technicians, writers, cameramen and actors moved relatively freely between Pakistan’s three principal sites of production, with profound implications for cinema in both wings. Here, Gazdar seems even less willing to acknowledge the diversity within Pakistani cinema, for the most part ignoring the East Pakistani experience, except where it buttresses his narrative of an Urdu golden age. Vasudevan notes the contrast of this oversight with Gazdar’s relatively generous acknowledgment of North West Indian Hindu and Buddhist cultural heritage in his prehistorical sketch of the film industry’s past – that is, before Pakistan existed.25 Viewed against the political context of the infamous One Unit scheme, whereby West Pakistan was ruled as a political and legal entity distinct from the East Wing as a means of justifying the former’s neocolonial dictatorship over the latter, Dhaka’s exclusion from narratives of cinematic authenticity is no innocent mistake. At best insensitive, it smacks of the well-documented bias of West Wing elites too hung up on their own ‘Indo-Aryan’ origins to appreciate that many of Pakistan’s richest cultural and intellectual resources lay to the East. Turning their backs on this inheritance – even as they plundered Bengal for jute and foreign exchange – severely compromised the fate of Urdu film production, which had drawn heavily on Dhaka for talent, expertise and markets in the 1960s, a fact only rarely acknowledged in contemporary laments about the industry’s decline.

Just how constitutive a role the East Wing played in the making of Pakistani cinema is a question that can only be addressed through further research in Pakistan and Bangladesh covering the period from Partition up to the war of 1971. Elsewhere, Hoek has laid important methodological foundations for such endeavours.26 Building on these in this dossier, she considers the extent to which artists, technicians and actors coming from or working in East Pakistan continued to influence and indeed define Urdu cinema even after East Pakistan no longer existed. Following films and careers – ‘things’ rather than conventionally assumed nationalist starting-points – Hoek identifies the hitherto unacknowledged labour of East Bengali individuals whose little-known devotion to the screen in Pakistan has fallen through the cracks of national and nationalist historiography. As a case study, the life of cameraman Afzal Chowdhury compels us to rethink ‘Pakistani’ (and ‘Bangladeshi’) cinema in terms not just of Dhaka as a marginal location but of how we view the very composition of the Urdu filmic canon itself. For if Karachi’s and Lahore’s respective outputs continued to bear the imprint of Bengal even after its secession, it follows that the internal complexity of their technical, artistic and intellectual lineages over the longue durée are obscured by the idea of a ‘Pakistani cinema’ distinct from that of Bangladesh.

Spellbound by big-budget spectacle and blinded by leftwing ideological snobbery respectively, film journalism and scholarly research on South Asian cinema tend to privilege ‘ideal’ forms and high production values.27 Within the media and the middle-class drawing room this sense of hierarchy is even more acute, with the result that particular notions of value and taste parade as universal and self-evident truths with consequences that are exclusionary and distortive. Pakistan’s Gibbonian narrative of Urdu (read middle-class) cinema’s decline and fall from a golden era has equivalents in India, where Assam hosted a ‘Forum for Promoting Better Cinema’ as early as 1982, and Bangladesh, where parallel versions of the same story lament the eclipse of bourgeois celluloid’s ‘glory days’ by degenerated forms of commercial and sexual vulgarity during the 1980s.28

By the same token, recent excitement over the restoration of middle-class leadership via cinematic modernization is a logical corollary of the downfall narrative. In the Indian situation, digital Bollywood’s ‘gentrification’29 and new accompanying forms of socio-spatial segregation associated with multiplex exhibition are part of a neoliberal transformation in media and urban planning. In Pakistan this tendency – though frustrated by the relative absence of filmmaking that could be either described and packaged as ‘big-budget’ or as ‘art cinema’ – is quite clearly evident in the disproportionate level of attention received by Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda kay Liye/In God’s Name (2007) and Bol/Speak (2011) and Bilal Lashari’s Waar/War (2013). Whatever their debatable quality, it does not take a film critic to spot the complete lack of formal and thematic unity among these films, or indeed the difference between them and other more genuinely innovative recent independent features such as Zinda Bhaag and Omar Khan’s pioneering comedy-horror, Zibakhana/Hell’s Ground (2007). One could perhaps claim that the general tenor of realism in all these films is distinct from the melodramatic action formats of Pashto and Punjabi low-budget celluloid. But beyond having been made with digital technology and stereo sound, packaged and marketed through social media and exhibited in multiplexes, it is hard to identify a single strand of commonality that could possibly justify serious usage of the term ‘wave’. With all its implications of shared forms and preoccupations, invocation of this last term would appear to be a textbook case of media hyperbole.

Indeed, paired with the call for more multiplexes, the celebratory tone of recent interest in Pakistani cinema can be viewed as an ideological bid by elites to reclaim and recast cinema as a new media commodity on a par with computer games and mobile telephony. Its market-driven foundations are hinted at in the earlier cited USAID report, written by academics at a prestigious Lahore business school, which calls for infrastructure to be ‘modernized’, and envisions a scenario in which ‘highly educated young people’ enter the industry so that cinema may receive a boost from ‘computer animation’ and ‘gaming’.30 Heavily imbued with the jargon of neoliberal consultancy, the report’s support for a national film industry is rooted less in any appreciation of the intrinsic value of art or culture than in a concern to ‘bring in foreign exchange and improve the brand image of the country’.31 Though a vision of future progress, it basks in real and imagined glories of Urdu cinema’s past: a time when ‘Pakistani high society’ was infused with the ‘values, mores and attitudes of [its] former British masters’; a time before the 1980s, when ‘going to cinema was a joyful family occasion’.32 At this point, ‘talent from less salubrious backgrounds’ ruined the party. These upstarts – ‘new, uncouth, gujjar [low caste] financiers’33 – are represented as usurpers by the report’s authors, who describe the last three decades (when the number of films produced in regional vernaculars, Pushto and Punjabi, consistently exceeded those produced in Urdu) as a kind of cinematic dark age. Warming to the prospect of middle-class restoration in a new era of multiplexes, the authors conclude approvingly that recent transformations have ‘brought affluent and educated families back to the cinema. Multiplex theaters provide a very nice ambience.’34

Attempts to order cinemagoing along hierarchical socioeconomic lines hark back to British anxieties over cinemas as spaces in which crowds might morph into unruly publics.35 Fears of ‘the crowd’ at traditional film venues in contemporary India and Pakistan are powerfully reminiscent of these colonial antecedents, suggesting cinema represents a particular site of postcolonial South Asia’s wider struggle between ‘civil’ and ‘political society’.36 By securing cinema’s incorporation within the social and spatial logic of retail and gated living, the spread of the privatized multiplex might finally decide the outcome of the now century-old class struggle over what it means to see a film. Cheered on by economists and urban planners who have absorbed wholesale the technocratic values of neoliberal governance, it is little wonder that the new discourse on Pakistani cinema reads like a World Bank treatise on privatization. Ehsan ul Haque et al. call explicitly for the strengthening of intellectual property rights, the enforcement of piracy regulations and the need for ‘Pakistan’s informal economy to move towards formalisation leading to increased corporatisation, documentation and professionalism’.37

Like any exercise in neoliberal privatization, the consequences of digitalization in Pakistan are ambiguous for those with no place in its preferred frameworks of value. Above all, as Gwendolyn Kirk argues, Lahore’s long-suffering professional cadre of middle-aged artists, technicians and artisanal media workers have had their ingenuity at improvization in the absence of well-resourced infrastructure perversely held against them by a discourse that bemoans the technical poverty of domestic productions. For an emergent middle class eager to see Pakistan emulate the ‘globalised freakshow’38 that is contemporary Bollywood, this last ‘community of practice’, formed in organic relationship with film studios like Lahore’s Evernew, has outlived its purpose. Having worked on the set of what might well be one of Lahore’s very last celluloid productions, Kirk provides the first detailed ethnography of filmmaking in Pakistan as a technical and creative process with its own aesthetic expectations and norms. Far from being static or archaic, she shows it has evolved in conjunction with a host of financial and infrastructural limitations that would be unimaginable to a film crew working under international conditions. Resourceful and dynamic, its inherent dignity as work stands out in stark contrast to the morbid language of death with which ‘Lollywood’ is constantly derided in English-language newspapers.39 Celluloid film as ‘product’ may be in decline, but the question of who or what is to blame and what ought to be done to address the state of the film industry as a whole is a complex one. ‘Fixing’ it through ‘modernization’ that entails dismissal of an entire filmmaking community, without regard for individual livelihoods or the potential contribution of previous generations to the ‘future’, is not only shortsighted but constitutes a disregard for local knowledge and a waste of human resources that could result in the permanent loss of Lahore’s living cinematic heritage.

This introductory essay has sought to explore the past, present and future complexities of filmmaking in Pakistan with reference to the other articles in this dossier. Its conceptualization of ‘Pakistani cinema’ has grappled with the problem of categorizing and studying ‘national’ industries too strictly with the official languages of South Asian nation-states; in particular, as Hoek points out, commonsense pairings that tie Indian cinema exclusively to Hindi films, Pakistani to Urdu and Bangladeshi to Bengali. At the same time, with reference to Dadi’s intervention, I have tentatively suggested ways to explore national specificities through regional comparisons of form and content. With respect to recent excitement within the media about a ‘New Wave’ and multiplex exhibition, I have identified an elitist South Asian value system which privileges middle-class cinematic ideals and fetishizes certain technologies as pathways to ‘progress’ within the media and urban planning. Kirk’s essay poses a direct challenge to this arrogance, detailing the creativity in low-tech strategies of production that, far from being primitive, have continued to adapt in a context of dwindling production, not unlike those in Bangladesh.40

A number of important questions remain unaddressed in the dossier for lack of space; several offer potentially fruitful avenues for future research. The most obvious is the question of Islamic art and its significance as a category for making sense of modern aesthetic forms. As noted earlier, Dadi’s work on modernist art in Muslim South Asia is a key reference point here; so too Laura Marks’s Islamic genealogy of contemporary media art, whose relevance to cinema might be explored in any number of ways within and beyond Muslim societies such as Pakistan.41 In addition, with respect to technology, the changing relationship between film and television, alongside wider transformations in the Pakistani mediascape to which it is yoked, remains paramount. Despite the emptiness of terms such as ‘New Wave’, globalization and satellite television have undoubtedly altered the overall morphology of film production in ways that demand urgent scholarly attention. Given the paucity of available data and the opaque nature of Pakistan’s media economy, qualitative research on sets and in studios is indispensible, alongside attentiveness to the textual forms and content of recent films and televisual programming.

Another important area of inquiry concerns the relationship between cinema and society,42 in particular the history of sexuality in Pakistan (and other Muslim majority societies), which has gone largely unstudied in both Pakistan and the western academy for a host of political and ideological reasons. Here scholarship must relate the thematic subject matter of films to social change, attending to the full diversity of cinema cultures across Pakistan’s various ethno-linguistic regional vernaculars instead of continually foregrounding Urdu cinema of the 1960s. In methodological terms this will entail textual interpretation that is informed by the insights of queer theory but tries to avoid reducing movies to simple reflections of social processes. To provide one example, Aurat Raj/Women’s Rule (Rangeela, 1979) – a subversive political satire in which women seize power through revolutionary violence and radical political protest – is a film that speaks volumes about the little-known global dimensions of the sexual revolution, too often thought of as an exclusively Euro-American phenomenon. Quite apart from its fascination as a rebellious document of social history, the film’s playful manipulation of voice, crossdressing and polysexual innuendo make it a masterpiece of celluloid cabaret (figure 1). Directed by the sexually ambiguous Rangeela, a sort of modern Charlie Chaplin in the South Asian Bhānd (jester) tradition, Aurat Raj’s incendiary gender politics and outrageously camp humour should not detract from its seriousness as a work of cinematic art. The opening scenes include a direct address by the director to the audience, in which he appears in multiple guises representing various aspects of the production process. Within the framework of this brief but vibrant cameo, Rangeela thus establishes himself as chorus, cinephile, technician, comedian, crossdresser, virtuoso director and trickster.

Fig. 1

Sultan Rahi, Pakistan's most famous action hero (in drag), in Aurat Raj/Women’s Rule (Rangeela, 1979).

Fig. 1

Sultan Rahi, Pakistan's most famous action hero (in drag), in Aurat Raj/Women’s Rule (Rangeela, 1979).

What is Pakistani cinema? The career of Rangeela is testament to just how exciting the possibilities of exploring this question might be. The idiosyncratic individuality of one of Pakistan’s most creative practitioners of film is even more striking given the absence of a confident, collective middle-class vision of the nation such as that which exists in India. On the other hand, future scholarship must also be open to exploration of phenomena and processes rarely thought of as Pakistani. At its outer limits, Vasudevan has made a case for opening up subcontinental cinema studies to even broader historical geographies, such as imperial circuits, diasporas and beyond. Wedding this to an approach that eschews elitism and technological determinism involves consideration of socially diverse experiences and human agencies in the spread of filmmaking technologies. Vasudevan’s idea of the bazaar as a ‘sphere of commodities, people, labour and cultural forms’, in which ‘petty commodity production, repair and recycling’ sit in conjunction with the ‘small scale technology of the workshop’, strikes me as one of the most fertile areas for further exploration.43 Indeed I would argue – with reference to an interview I conducted ten years ago with Imran, a British Pakistani restaurateur from East London – that one of the most politically urgent tasks for scholarship on South Asian screen cultures is to sketch Pakistan into the history of global Bollywood. Imran’s grandfather and father had worked in Jewish-owned textile factories before entering the catering business in the London borough of Aldgate. His career took an unexpected turn in the 1980s when copying and distributing Indian films on VHS became the household’s primary enterprise. The labour process involved all genders and generations:

You had to put the reel into the u-matic … It was quite a skilled job. I used to go with my father to a place in Epping. A gentleman named Michael there used to have a big mansion in Epping Forest. The machinery he had, I’ve seen it with my own eyes … It was me, my brother, we had another brother, my cousin, and in one of our bedrooms in our house, my mum used to put the film into the pneumatic, and she used to make us all stand near the pause button, and when she used to say, ‘Go!,’ we used to all let go of the pause button together, so we could come out with ten, fifteen films at one time … Our people were very enterprising.

Imran’s testimony provides a glimpse into the kind of investments in Indian cinema that routinely feature in ordinary Pakistani life worlds, in which Bollywood often plays a larger part than ‘their own’ national cinema. National, linguistic and religious distinctions are often irrelevant when it comes to reception contexts and networks of circulation; foregrounding them can obscure actual histories of circulation and consumption. Pakistani cinephilia might thus hold the key to a more inclusive global history of Indian film – one in which South Asian labour diasporas form the material and technological basis of cinematic diffusion rather than this or that nation-state, ethnic group or religion. Such an approach might contribute, in its own small way, to problematizing the narratives of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh maintained by powerful interests and elites in all three nation-states. All the more reason for research in years to come to probe, explore and question, rather than take for granted, the content, forms and borders of ‘Pakistani cinema’.

1 Ali Nobil Ahmad ‘Fascism and real estate: an inquiry into the strange death of traditional cinema halls in Pakistan’, in Ali Khan and Ali Nobil Ahmad (eds), Cinema and Society: Film and Social Change in Pakistan (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2016).
2 Ehsan ul Haque, Furrukh Khan, Ali Qazilbash and Farrah Arif, Current Impediments and Prospects of the Film Industry Revival in Pakistan (Unpublished Report for USAID, 2013), pp. v–vi.
3 Shayan Shakeel, ‘Back from the dead?’, Dawn, 18 August 2013, <> accessed 19 September 2016.
4 Sher Ali Khan, ‘A Pakistani New Wave’,, vol.10, no. 21, 25 May 2013, < new-wave/> accessed 19 September 2016.
5 Chaired by Professor Rachel Dwyer of SOAS, a panel discussion featuring Zinda Bhaag director Meeenu Gaur explored the validity of referring to a ‘Pakistani New Wave’ as part of a special day of talks at London’s Southbank Centre, ‘Pakistan: satire, film and cricket’, 25 May 2014, <> accessed 19 September 2016.
6 Haque et al., Current Impediments, pp xi, 8.
7 These include Gwendolyn Kirk’s ethnography of Punjabi cinema, Farida Batool’s important study of new media and Zebunnisa Hamid’s research into distribution and exhibition.
8 Iftikhar Dadi, ‘Roundtable on Bioscope and screen studies in Pakistan and of contemporary art’, Bioscope, vol. 1, no.1 (2010), pp. 11–15, and Ali Nobil Ahmad, ‘Film and cinephilia in Pakistan: beyond life and death’, Bioscope, vol. 5 no. 2 (2014), pp. 81–98.
9 Lotte Hoek, Cut Pieces: Celluloid Obscenity and Popular Cinema in Bangladesh (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2014), p. 9.
10 Ahmad, ‘Film and cinephilia in Pakistan’.
11 Paul Willemen, ‘The national revisited’, in Valentina Vitali and Paul Willemen (eds), Theorizing National Cinema (London: BFI Publishing, 2006), pp. 44–60.
12 Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, ‘National/international/transnational: the concept of trans-Asian cinema and the cultural politics of film criticism’, in Vitali and Willemen (eds), Theorizing National Cinema, pp. 254–61.
13 Ravi S. Vasudevan, ‘Geographies of the cinematic public: notes on the regional, national and global histories of Indian cinema’, Journal of the Moving Image (2010), pp. 94–117, <> accessed 16 September 2016.
14 Ibid., pp. 94–95.
15 Mushtaq Gazdar, Pakistani Cinema 1947–97 (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1997).
16 Aijaz Ahmad, ‘In the mirror of Urdu’, Lineages of the Present (London: Verso, 2002), pp. 103–25.
17 Tariq Rahman, From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 366–88.
18 Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen, Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema (New Delhi: Tulika, 2009).
19 Vasudevan, ‘Geographies of the cinematic public’, p. 107.
20 A long poem composed in rhyming couplets, the masnavi is common to Urdu, Farsi, Turkish, Arabic and other languages. Epic in scope, masnavi tend to deal with romantic, ethical and spiritual themes.
21 Ravi Vasudevan, ‘Shifting codes, dissolving identities: the Hindi social film of the 1950s as popular culture’, Third Text, vol.10, no. 34 (1996), pp. 59–77.
22 Iftikhar Dadi, Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), pp. 29–31.
23 Sumita S. Chakravarty, National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema: 1947–87 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 21–435.
24 Anirudh Deshpande, ‘Indian cinema and the bourgeois nation state’, Economic and Political Weekly, 15 December 2007, pp. 95–103.
25 Vasudevan, ‘Geographies of the cinematic public’, p. 107.
26 Lotte Hoek, ‘Cross-wing filmmaking: East Pakistani Urdu films and their traces in the Bangladeshi Film Archive’, Bioscope, vol. 5, no. 2 (2014), pp. 99–118.
27 Hoek, Cut Pieces, p. 11.
28 Ibid., p. 14.
29 Tejaswini Ganti, Producing Bollywood (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).
30 Haque et al., Current Impediments, p. vi.
31 Ibid., p. ix.
32 Ibid., p. 11.
33 Ibid., pp. 14–15.
34 Ibid., p. vi.
35 Adrian Athique, ‘From cinema hall to multiplex: a public history’, South Asian Popular Culture, vol. 9, no. 2 (2011), pp. 147–60.
36 Partha Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004).
37 Haque et al., Current Impediments, pp. vi, ix.
38 Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid (New Delhi: Tulika, 2009).
39 Ahmad, ‘Film and cinephilia in Pakistan’.
40 Hoek Cut Pieces.
41 Laura U. Marks, Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2010).
42 ‘Cinema and Society’ is the title of a course on Pakistani film I have taught at universities in Pakistan and the USA; see also Khan and Ahmad (eds), Cinema and Society.
43 Vasudevan, ‘Geographies of the cinematic public’, p. 112.