Film Theory in Pakistan: Recognizing the Need for Theory

By Zia Ahmad


There are parts of the world where writing meaningfully about films has generally been deemed as a subversive indiscretion; so much so you have to keep looking over your shoulder every two minutes just to make sure nobody’s prying on you. Pakistan finds it effortlessly easy to nudge into the ranks. Films have been consistently and categorically relegated as the most trivial pursuit for any no-nonsense individual to entertain. As an artform, cinema has seldom been seen anything more than means of entertainment in Pakistan. The mere idea that films may have to say anything of importance positively baffles and even offends upholders of our tradition. Hardly a fresh observation, cinema in Pakistan has failed to evolve from its “entertainment for the masses stage. 
Furthermore it devolves into producing industrious levels of smut and exploitative features. The constant referral to the state of Pakistani cinema culture as “fillum industry” serves to objectify its machinations. To serve insult to the injury, cinema in Pakistan has been criminally neglected in the extension of capital investment unlike rest of the morally sanctioned industries. Nonetheless, making and exhibiting a film requires variable capital investment. On a practical level film production is consequently a commercial enterprise where the end product is expected to cover its expenses and provide a suitable profit at that. Though a cursory study of existent models of stable film production illustrate a pattern where there is equal room for blockbusters and socially relevant films. Alongside the margins exists a parallel or alternative film culture that provides platform for more personal and challenging films, making do with inferior equipment along with modest capital. In the absence of capitalistic means of film production, finances of a less commercial project invariably is raised privately or supplied by the government. The closest thing in Pakistan that could be said of making culturally and aesthetically significant and relevant visual narratives fell squarely on PTV’s shoulders during the 70s and 80s. This trend was forgone with the onset of private TV channels and commercialization.


 At the risk of stating the obvious, Pakistan illustrates a criminal failure to see film as an artistic and cultural structure in its own right. In addition, an absence of any attempt to be made at forming an academic approach to film compounds our cinematic illiteracy. There is an urgent need to dispense away with the conception of films as an escapist indulgence, as well as the banal exercise to document the song and dance and latest fillum gossip as film literature. Film demands critical approach and previous models have shown that criticism can only be beneficial for any art form.

 Often enough film critics have proven to be competent filmmakers (Godard, Truffaut, Bogadonovich standing out as only some notable examples) giving credence to Godard’s famous quote, “the best way to criticize a film is to make a film.” Generally, film criticism goes beyond listing the merits and demerits of any other film, calling for a closer inspection of the film, its interpretation and breaking down to smaller components. The film should be posited through relevant analytical perspectives to be seen in relation to applicable theories. History gives much evidence on how critical thought has benefited artistic approach in the West following the age of enlightenment. Our own part of the world has made its own independent artistic progression in music, literature, painting and architecture that exist in a continued state of complacency without any critical approach to respond to.

Film theory was introduced as an academic discipline at colleges around the 60s, with French critics already making their mark in the 50s, and their work indented and shaped successive work in cinema. Closer to home, Indian and Iranian parallel cinema display the understanding of film theories. The gradual transition of cinema from craft to art is attributable to comprehension and application of various film theories around the world.

In recent years Pakistan has seen film and TV studies introduced as academic disciplines at college levels. This should, by default, be a certain indicator of a turn towards a more informed understanding of cinema and performing arts. Proliferation of TV channels and common sense has already achieved the enviable task of diluting the slew of taboo, reservation and suspicion attached to the performing and visual arts. Still in face of it there is the overwhelming risk of not selling out to commercial prospects that invariably cater to the most common denominator. The relationship between finer sensibilities and commerce is a perpetual field of conflict that has been a lopsided affair in a cinema culture obsessed with violent gandasa movies and eloborate shadi/dholki choreography. A shot of critical theory in the arm just might do the trick.



Filed under Art, Cinema, culture, Media, Pakistan

7 responses to “Film Theory in Pakistan: Recognizing the Need for Theory

  1. simply61

    TV of the 70’s made socially relevant points with such ease.The TV drama “House Full” made its argument about the need to have smaller families (and by implication about birth control) in a Muslim country through a laughter riot.It was a wonderful way of using humor to drive in the need for family planning (talking openly about it could have been the proverbial hot potato).

  2. Zia, thanks for this excellent article.
    I agree with you in entirety..

  3. Zia i need to know is there a school in pakistan that offers the following subs

    Film studies
    Drama studies




    Reply back or e-mail me at

  4. Rao

    I was reading about USSR few days back, what interests me was its Film industry, CCCP govt was running state production houses, they made such beautiful films that actually compete with hollywood in international arena.
    Our govt can follow same line, we can invest in production houses, allow banks to play in this sector as well, remake old Pakistani movies, lend small installment plan loans on cinemas. By this we can also earn foreign exchange and can comprehensivly compete Indian propaganda..
    Long live my mother land

  5. @ Rao

    The Bolshevik Revolution was the most liberating event in the history of mankind when working-class played a historical role, being protagonists of the society, in changing it.

    That new system also brought an entire change to the culture, arts, aesthetics and literature of their country. Such literary and artistic contributions prove that artists and creative people of Soviet Union were not alienated and that’s why they created the masterpieces.

    Our state would have to achieve such higher revolutionary position in order to change the situation of arts including the medium of cinema.

    We cannot compare our country to the great Soviet Union, unless we truly follow the ideology towards revolution, which was the reason of their progress…
    Only a proletarian revolution can develop our aesthetics to that extent… and only a Socialist government can make developments for the betterment of people in that manner.

  6. @ Zia Sahab

    An intellectual analysis!

  7. Milind Kher


    What is the Indian propoganda that you would like Pakistani films to compete against? We have been speaking of a closer understanding and rapport, so then why this thought. Do tell