Sarmad Sultan Khoosat in Manto
Sarmad Sultan Khoosat in Manto

Lahore, 1951 – a celebrated yet controversial writer struggles with his inner demons.

Karachi, present day – a trio of ordinary men hatch a madcap scheme to earn quick bucks, with hilarious consequences. Seoul, 1988 – an impoverished boxer rises from the streets of Lyari to win Olympic bronze for his country. Khost, 1980s – set against the breathtaking scenery of Balochistan, a widower mourns the death of his wife and the loss of his livelihood.

These are only some of the powerful stories that have come out of the local film industry in the last three years. Manto, Na Maloom Afraad, Shah and Moor are part of the new wave of cinema that has swept across Lollywood and helped turn the tide for an industry that was struggling for survival till only a few years ago.

It was 2007’s Khuda Ke Liye, Shoaib Mansoor’s slick political thriller starring Shaan, that took the narrative away from the gandassa-wielding gujjar who had come to symbolize local cinema and steered it towards a more modern and nuanced approach. Come 2016 and we’ve seen everything from stylized rom-coms to sports biopics, war dramas to animated films hit the screens and in some cases, break box-office records despite clashing with imports from both Hollywood
and Bollywood.

Azfar Jafri and Osman Khalid Butt on the set of Janaan
Azfar Jafri and Osman Khalid Butt on the set of Janaan

“It’s not difficult when you set your mind to it,” says filmmaker Adnan Sarwar on what it takes to be able to compete with big-budget films from across the border. His debut venture Shah, which told the story of one of Pakistan’s forgotten sports legends Hussain Shah, was made on a shoe-string budget and went on to receive critical acclaim. “Audiences want to hear these stories; they want to hear about inspirational people from their country,” he asserts.

That’s a sentiment echoed by another young director, Umair Fazli, whose feature film Saya-e-Khuda-e-Zuljalal (SKZ) will hit cinema screens in November this year. Fazli describes SKZ as a character-driven action drama, with a strong focus on Pakistan’s history and national heroes such as M.M. Alam and Aziz Bhatti. “People need to know that these names mean more than just road signs [a reference to two of Lahore’s busiest roads being named after them]. Their stories need to be told on the silver screen so that we can celebrate our own.”

The need to own our past as well as our present, our literary and political heroes, our land and its striking beauty and traditions – all that gives Pakistan its identity today – features as a recurring theme amongst the current crop of filmmakers. So while Sarmad Sultan’s artistic Manto paid homage to one of the greatest Urdu writers of the subcontinent, Wajahat Rauf’s unabashedly commercial road trip flick Karachi Say Lahore showcased stunning locales in Balochistan, Jhelum, Lahore, Hyderabad and Karachi.

Yasir Hussain and Saba Qamar on the set of Lahore se Aagey

A box-office hit and the first Pakistani film to have a premiere in Hollywood, it has inspired a spin-off, Lahore Say Aagay, which is set to release on November 11. Rauf promises an even more scenic ride this time around. “The sequel is shot in the northern areas of Pakistan and given that the film is releasing worldwide, including the USA, UK, UAE, Australia and Malaysia, expats living abroad are going to be blown away with what they see. The beauty of our mountains is nothing short of Switzerland.”

The Pakistani diaspora, eager for a glimpse of home, its trends, traditions and destinations, is proving to be a ready market for locally-made fare.

The Pakistani diaspora, eager for a glimpse of home, its trends, traditions and destinations, is proving to be a ready market for locally-made fare. Case in point Bin Roye, the romantic drama starring Mahira Khan that might not have impressed the critics but was one of the highest grossing Pakistani films internationally last year. Pakistanis abroad loved the vibrant scenes showcasing wedding festivities and Eid traditions, as well as the leading lady’s designer wardrobe, provided by the likes of Elan, Sania Maskatiya and Feeha Jamshed.

If you need any more convincing that the local industry is alive and kicking, consider this: last year (2015) saw the release of a record number of local films, 12 in total. 2016 has already seen 10 films hit the big screen and many more are slated for release in the last quarter. Eid, the most profitable time of the year for box office business, is finally seeing a diverse line-up of local films clash with each other in a move that spells growth for the industry.

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-5-21-59-pmThis Eid, for example, will see three movies compete for gold. There’s Janaan, of course, starring Bilal Ashraf along with Armeena Rana Khan and Ali Rehman. Set in KPK, the film promises to have something for everyone –plenty of laughs, an important social message, Swat’s gorgeous scenery and of course, a cast that’s pure eye-candy.

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-5-21-40-pmThen there is Actor-in-Law, the second venture from the makers of the super-successful Na Maloom Afraad. The fact that they have roped in veteran Indian actor Om Puri to star alongside Fahad Mustafa and Mehwish Hayat speaks volumes for the strength of the script.

The film, like its predecessor, promises to be a socially- relevant comedy, with tongue-in-cheek references to pop culture galore.

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-5-22-56-pmLast up is the romantic drama Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai, which marks the big screen debut of popular TV actors Sajal Aly and Feroze Khan.

The good-looking lead pair share great chemistry onscreen and the film’s melodious soundtrack is fast rising up the charts.

Things have never looked this good for local cinema and as for the competition, in the words of our cover star: “Bring it on!”