By Zia Ahmad
Genre films are best exemplified by Westerns, Sci Fi, Musicals, Action/Adventures and any number of such labels that are designed to lump films together that share certain similarities. Such commonalities may be tonal (Film Noir, Horror), conceptual (Sci Fi, Fantasy) or textual (Biopic, Period Drama, War) in nature.
Genres enable the viewers to form certain expectations from films that work as an identifying device. For instance, with the knowledge of watching a Film Noir, the viewer anticipates the basic set of conventions and motifs that operates as a comforting and familiar visual as well as a cerebral experience.
Having stocked up a sizeable movie watching experience in Pakistan, some of us have nurtured a finer appreciation for genres that goes beyond the broad and loud “Comedy”, “Full Action”, “Love Story/Romantic” and “Harrar” tags. The manifestation of esoteric genres can be observed in various ways; a crossover between genres as in Romantic Comedies/Sci Fi-Horror/ Musical Westerns, or a finer distinction of existent genres as seen in Gangster films or discovering strange new samples in quirky offbeat films. In a nutshell we are consciously or subconsciously aware of film genres owing to our exposure to Hollywood films.
Looking right next door at Bollywood, classifying genres can be a bit problematic. By default virtually every film is a musical which is embellished with elements from other divergent genres that stews up to a Masala film which has everything for everyone. Any one can find comedy, action, romance, domestic drama replete with the essential song and dance routine that make up for the consummate Bollywood film.
In our own backyard, we see three well bodied genres that have featured significantly through local films. These genres are resolutely Pakistani that over the years have minted a distinct impression in terms of form and content enjoying populist approval through the times. From a critical standpoint, the films may fall suspect in objective quality. It would be a Herculean task holding up any of the films in front of the ranks of Citizen Kane to Pulp Fiction, but as a genre, it stands a good chance of putting up residence on the fringes of cult cinema as Italian Horror and Chinese Wuxia (Martial Arts) films did in the 70s.
A cursory glance at these three indigenous film genres is in order now. Please indulge:
In the absence of any agreed upon label, the spew of violent Punjabi films can safely be categorised under this genre that derives its name from the indigenous axe amply brandished in such films. In the same manner as the Western, the Gandasa genre is primarily informed by its geographical setting, namely the rural plains of central Punjab.
The geographical framework of the genre arbitrarily represents the culture of the setting which provides basis for the subsequent conflict. By design it is a sequence of events channelled through a narrow spectrum of vengeance, punctuated with intermittent bursts of violence. At the centre of the narrative is the traditionalist male hero who, more often than not, either attends to a personal vendetta, some issues regarding honor, or takes up a woolly headed cause against a significant adversary. Occasional twists have been introduced into the genre with the action brimming out to urban centers (Muala Jutt in London (1981) is a blaring example) or the placement of a female protagonist (Wehshi Aurat) (1995).
Basheera (1972) is commonly identified as the film that kick started the Gandasa trend and appropriately featured Sultan Rahi as the titular character. For the uncomprehendingly uninitiated, Sultan Rahi personified the genre, similar to John Wayne’s stature in the Western. It wasn’t until Maula Jutt (1979) that the genre established itself as a resolutely steady trend that has survived to this day despite its main progenitor’s ironically violent demise in 1996.
So far the genre has immensely benefited from its core Punjabi speaking working class audience that doesn’t seem to get enough of the same premise that has been rehashed infinitely since Basheera. Shaan has effectively replaced Sultan Rahi as the 21st century Jutt/Gujjar/Chaudary/Malik, prone to dispense his brand of justice with guns rather than Gandasa.
Stock players: Sultan Rahi, Mustafa Qureshi, Aasia, Anjuman, Shaan, Saima
Notable Film: Basheera (1972), Wehshi Jutt (1975), Pindiwal (1976), Maula Jutt (1979), Asoo Billa (2001), Humanyun Gujjar (2002)
Muslim Social Films:
This genre is a relic of its time. Early to mid 70s saw a rise in the Muslim Social genre that exults the virtues of eastern tradition and morals conversely demonizing western culture as debauched and decadent. This reflected the utter sense of shock and fear experienced by the conservative status quo in the wake of the cultural/social/sexual revolution in the late 60s. The custodians of morality felt threatened by the revolution seeping its way out to the east. The intimidation felt by their western counterparts was manifested in attempts to clamp down a new sense of personal freedom the Pakistani youth may have started to enjoy. To borrow an oft-quoted line, the revolution was in the air and the moral brigade in Pakistan was petrified of it.
A broad insight into the conventions of a characteristically melodramatic Muslim Social film sees a downward slide of a misguided soul, a part normally played by Shahid yet occasionally filled by Waheed Murad and Nadeem, that has embraced western values. The subsequent cause and effect trajectory leaves no stone unturned in vocalising the inherent flaws and sundry moral vices that are part and parcel of such “decadent” values.
This would invariably lead the wayward hero/antihero of the film to break up his family, earn alienation from his peers and the utter contempt by society at large. The hero/antihero is almost always saved from a dismal fate by an angelic personification of unadulterated Eastern Muslim tradition (in the face of a beaming, clad in white Rani). Such were the ways of the Muslim Social films whose certain demise became inevitable with the passage of time.
Stock Players: Waheed Murad, Shahid, Nadeem, Rani, Sabeeha Khanum
Notable films: Tehzeeb (1971), Daulat aur Duniya (1972), Daman aur Chingari (1973), Miss Hippy (1974), Ek Gunah aur Sahi (1975), Muhabbat Zindagi Hai (1975), Playboy (1978)
Unlike Gandasa films and Muslim Social films, the labelling of a select number of Pustho films is a tad challenging. It appears unfair to brand a collection of cheaply made exploitative features solely on the basis of language. Then again, it is hard to ignore a prevalent trend in a majority of films made in Pustho that exhibit similar stories and a camp sensibility that safely qualifies to be categorized under a genre. For the sake of convenience and impartiality we shall refer such cluster of films as the Pollywood genre.
Following the rise of Gandasa film in Punjab, in the wake of military rule in 1977, Pollywood film witnessed a significant growth in the next decade. By the early 90s, various elements gave Pollywood films a distinct identity that, on a theoretical level, communicated by invoking a certain tone entrenched in camp and low brow taste on screen.
Colorful casting, horrid performances, logic defying plots, garish costumes and makeup, unintentionally surreal sets, positively baffling song and fight sequences add up to an exercise in administrating a mood that often outstays its welcome but works strongly at given moments.
The limited sustainability to channel this visceral tone is subjective to the viewer on either receiving it as exploitative, titillating escapist fare or surreal Dadaist artwork. Inasmuch, Pollywood films qualify for generic recognition under the common ground provided by the telegraphed mood rather than any shared setting or pointed issue.
Stock Players: Badar Munir, Mussarat Shaheen, Asif Khan
Notable films: Haseena Atom Bomb (1990), Adam Khor (1991),Da Khwar Lasme Spogmey (1997), Kacha Ghotay (1999), Shock Maar (1999)
Going over this limited list, it is apparent that as much as Pakistani cinema is scoffed off as a rag tag bunch of sub-intelligent films, the aesthetic and critical liability can be turned over its head inviting informed insights. The strange celluloid treasure grove is open to be minted for its cult potential and find relevance in our times through a post-modern set of exercises such as constant interpretations, incisive deconstruction as well as attaching culturally stronger currency to its symbols, icons and images.
An encouraging example can be found not far away from home in the Chinese Wuxia genre mentioned at the start of the article. The martial arts films were as cheesy and paper thin as our Gandasa films in the 70s but now have graduated into artworks worthy of critical re-appraisal and getting glossier big budget as well as thematically complex treatments as seen in a spate of recent Far Eastern films; Hero, Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon, Curse of the Gold Scorpion and House of the Flying Daggers amongst others.
By all accounts, the unmistakably Pakistani genres have it in them to break out from the rusty vaults and make a distinct impression to the outside world. All is required, is to step out from the complacent habit of criticizing ourselves and look at things from a fresh set of perspectives.