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Online Extra
February 2005

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Lollywood: Pakistan's Formulaic Film Industry

Bollywood Online Extra
Photograph by Aamir Qureshi, AFP/Getty Images

Pakistani artists add finishing touches to billboards announcing a movie in a Karachi theater.

By Saadia Iqbal

Pakistan's film industry is often described as hapless. Dubbed "Lollywood" for its base in the city of Lahore, it doesn't compare with the thriving art, literature, and music scene of this cultural hot spot in the heart of Punjab Province. Funds are short, and movies are painfully formulaic. In fact, if film reflects a culture, then to outside observers Pakistan's collective psyche would seem to be fixated on love songs, dancing, and fistfights where good always defeats evil: something of a simplistic society. But in a country where poverty, illiteracy, religious fundamentalism, and population growth are all serious issues, the movie image circumvents reality. Films remain strictly escapist and stick to fun, frolic, true love, and heroism. Frankly, most Pakistanis I know have become bored with them.
I speak from personal experience. I was born and raised in Pakistan, and ever since I can remember, my friends and I watched Lollywood movies only if we were utterly bored—or if we wanted a good laugh (the more tragic the movie, the funnier). But our parents and grandparents reminisced about the golden era of film in Pakistan, when stars such as Waheed Murad, Santosh, and Sabiha charmed the nation. That was during the sixties when Lollywood was producing almost 200 films a year. Today less than 50 movies are produced annually. 
Lollywood's movie madness started in 1947 when the Hindu-majority subcontinent was partitioned to provide a separate country—Pakistan—for Muslims. The film industry, centered in Bombay, became part of what is now India. At the time, several of the silver-screen idols were Muslims who, for the most part, opted to stay on in India rather than migrate to Pakistan.  Struggling heroically, Pakistan's new movie industry progressed and became very popular. But apparently, those days were short-lived. Lollywood never tried new directions or broke from hackneyed themes.
Perhaps the films' early popularity also stemmed from providing a sort of sexual outlet. In Lollywood's younger days, couples in the movies freely serenaded each other under moonlit skies, danced together in idyllic settings, and faced death and disownment to save their love. But audiences have traditionally consisted of illiterate people from conservative backgrounds where male and female contact is controlled, and relationships between members of the opposite sex are taboo. After all, this is a country where the police sometimes accost couples simply for holding hands in public or for driving together unchaperoned. Occasionally, married couples are forced to produce legal documents to verify their legitimacy. All of this seems odd in light of the censorship board that approves the onscreen vulgarity and sexual permissiveness that defines Pakistan's movies today. Lollywood has lost its innocence and charm, and the mystique has deteriorated into kitschy repetition as producers strive for box office success. 
The films do have one unexpected feature, at least for Western viewers: Traditionally, Pakistan's movie heroines haven't had to be thin to be considered attractive. More is better, particularly in the Pashtu-language films in the north. And so, in a refreshing change from the anorexic-looking stars of the West, many popular actresses range from healthily plump to downright fat.
Indian directors say that there is a lot of beauty and talent in Pakistan, but its film industry lacks the technical skills and funding to produce good movies. That's where Bollywood comes in. In today's atmosphere of Pakistan-India reconciliation, the time is ripe for the two nations' film industries to collaborate.
Film critic Omar Khan agrees that Lollywood's current situation is dismal. "Production has virtually ground to a halt. Most film studios have been converted from those furnishing film sets to those who provide for advertising or TV. It's all coming to its logical conclusion, sadly. Cinemas shut down with regularity, defeated by a combination of piracy and government apathy."
But with digital video being so affordable, the time is ripe for an explosion of film of all kinds. It's just a matter of time. Journalist Mohsin Sayeed wrote online in Gulf News, "Today, the digital revolution has seen a surge of new filmmakers picking up handy cams and using editing software... In Pakistan, cinema has seen several ups and downs, but now it seems to be on the threshold of reinvention. It wouldn't be long before Pakistani cinema will emerge far stronger, vibrant and diverse, and gain more popularity worldwide."
I agree with Sayeed. A host of new talent is emerging in Pakistan, so things are looking up. Recovering from years of repression under Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988), art is slowly reasserting itself in Pakistan. Independent film productions are gaining momentum. Sabiha Sumar's 2003 film, Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters), won awards at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland and received rave reviews. In 2004, Karachi's Kara Film Festival was held for the fourth time and has been influential in encouraging alternate and independent filmmaking.
With signs of Pakistan's economy improving, industry insiders are hopeful that more funding will help Lollywood gain momentum. There is also talk of lifting the ban on Bollywood movies, allowing Lollywood to face more direct competition. That might serve as a stronger incentive to produce better quality—and less conventional—films.


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