Where art and cinema failed Pakistan

Published: September 8, 2010

Films like Slumdog Millionaire have increased awareness about India

We are constantly judged as the nation that has failed. What the world fails to see is that Pakistan continues to breathe. Despite the daily risk to their lives, people still get up for work, sit in their Japanese cars, listen to Coke Studio recordings, work at multinational companies, munch on American chocolate bars and end the day with by watching channels broadcast from Hong Kong with a plate of daal chawal.

The men and women on the field continue to live on, for those who have avoided the flood wage through the day. While those who are victims of the flood, wait for the sky and land to clear, clinging on to hope, dreaming of a future much like their past.

Our previously non-existent cultural image has been tarnished – grouped with the deserts of the Arabia and the cave’s of Afghanistan, countries that Pakistan culturally shares little with.  In fact, Pakistan has more in common with India. The people share the same language, watch the same movies, and listen to the same songs. Our wedding traditions are similar, our eyes dark, our hair lusciously raven and skin’s brown. The only difference in our global cultural image, we never got our ‘Slum Dog Millionaire moment’.

We never shared the Oscar stage for the average American to see. Pakistan’s name never jumped out of the world’s breaking news. While our name flashed on the scarlet news tickers, we watched India gain the golden ticket to the A-lister’s world in Hollywood. Ash and Bachan shared an ‘aha’ moment on Oprah. Even Shilpa Shetty won the hearts of the British public in celebrity Big Brother. We watched our country’s image crumble, exploding and imploding. The world can’t see past this rubble; it has no picture to the real human faces of this country.

Despite the fact that not a single 9/11 attacker was from Pakistan, and we are a US ally fighting at the forefront, sacrificing our own people, our image is worse than the Arabs. Even we have begun downgrading ourselves, feeling abandoned, by the world, the government, and our morals.

It has become ever more imperative that Pakistan shows its softer side, especially through the universal language of film and music. Not for the sake of the world, but also for our own low national esteem. We desperately need to climb out of the unfair inhuman cultural image that is burying our reputation alive. We need our very own Slum Dog Millionaire moment.

There is some work being done to promote Pakistan’s image. Though a positive step, unfortunately, some of the efforts are devoid of the true passion that is necessary to fuel the arts. Instead, they are filled with dreams of self exaltation rather than surfacing the true creative plane.  Half hearted patriotic songs, or poor story lines shot on 35 mm cameras, with little attention to artistic details will receive little attention-locally and internationally.

Of course something is better than nothing, but we do not need to apply such low standards to our art. Why should we always settle for one step and not the entire leap? Especially when the talent is here. When the internet has opened all the doors that our media isn’t prepared to open. We do deserve more. After all, Pakistan produced Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who sang only for the love of music, creating earth shattering notes, he sang till his death. The whole world wanted a piece of his tune. Junoon, who started a fresh new genre- sufi rock-the fusion of folk and rock captivated the world’s audiences, soon they had become Pakistan’s cultural ambassadors. Not only could they sing and play, but they had something to say- and the world listened. And we stood proud.

We’ve never really had a film that made an international impact. Though, we could really use one right now. Film has the capacity to shake-up cultural divides within 90 minutes. The images, starkly opposite of the stereotype is enough of a jolt, but when the film itself is a piece of quality art it can travel further in the world. That is into the hearts of millions of people.

We do not need to produce art for the sole sake of creating a national image. We need art that should first speak truthfully to our people, by our own high standards. Breaking our own norms. Just like the Iranian New Wave Cinema Movement: movies with a story, cinematography with depth, an artistic movement that has integrity. We need to find our own integrity. We need our own people to find hope. The world will follow.

It’s time for the world to see us from our eyes.

Beenisch Tahir

Beenisch Tahir

The author has graduated from the London School of Economics, London with an Msc in Social Policy and Development and she is a development professional in communications. Head of the LSE Alumni Chapter in Islamabad. Writing for a hobby. She tweets as @Beenisch (twitter.com/Beenisch)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Miriam

    a very good perspective!Recommend

  • Pasz

    Excellent! Keep walking…as Johnny! Please, do! Pakistan will only benefit from anything you keep doing to push all of you artists to step ahead! Love you, PCRecommend

  • Shahryar Ahmed

    Nice article, but i would differ with you on the Junoon part. I think bring Sufism into rock, bringing religion into rock music in my view similar to bring religion into politics. Just to sell a few records & get elected into power.

    Wrong as far as I am concerned, but then again it is my own personal view & I maybe wrong.Recommend

  • sadaffayyaz

    Why are we shy of projecting our right image? Can we make a movie on Sialkot incident? why?Recommend

  • Ashoo

    Beensih! Slum dog Millionare was an imported movie. just featuring indian actors.. moreover the main lead was also immigrant!!

    but i agree with your take on the critical need of creating good cinema IN pakistan and FOR pakistan.. this will cover the distance much much faster than the NEWS Channel phenomenon.Recommend

  • Wasim Ali

    Beenish You are absolutely Right. I think the Shoaib Mansoor have to do Masterpiece work for this. Because in the field of cinema, he is the only Qualified & mature personality. He also has produced the remarkable movie “Khuda Ke Liye“. We need qualified & intellectual persons, professional of this field like india have. If not then we must have professional movie maker like our PTV Drama makers at least.
    I do agree with your point of view. Recommend

  • Lalit

    too many negatives news are dominating pakistani media and it seems that pakistan is notorious for only bad things,which in my view is definitely not correct.
    absurd self criticism without presenting any positive path ahead serves no other purpose than to just make the situation look hopeless.and hopelessness cant contribute in nation building in any manner.
    in order to improve things films are a very effective media..but before films could break this ice,media specially electronic ,would have to take a firm step.it can help a lot by bringing to the people the news which shows the positive part of a nation.it helps a nation regain self esteem and inspires the citizens to strive for better.than only the movies can get a conducive environment to initiate the long mission of national enlightenment.we often tend to discard the potential of movies in bringing social changes any portray them in a negative shade.but i feel if some of them can corrupt a society,some good ones can definitely bring good changes too.the impact of films are both short term and long term.the long term effects shape the psyche of nation in a long run…for making such movies pakistani directors and actors would have to study the people and be extremely professional.than only they would be able to capture the imagination of the nation and worldRecommend

  • Beenisch Tahir

    Thanks everyone. Film and music can continue being in urdu ( so the masses can understand), that’s what subtitles are for, but it should first be a masterpiece that would appeal to us, then the world will follow!

  • Neeraj, India

    How can art, music and cinema flourish in Pakistan when vast majority of Pakistanis keep renouncing their sub-Continental roots?
    Why get surprised if pakistan is depicted with deserts of Arabia and caves of Afghanistan, when your heroes are Muhammad-bin-Kasim, Ahamed Shah Abdali, Ghory and Ghaznavies, instead of Porus, the great warrior, who made Alexander literally sweat and bleed? Recommend

  • Tayyab Raza

    very nice!! impressive. 100% agreed.
    And good to see another JUNOON fan :)Recommend

  • http://nazarbaaz.blogspor.com Kashif

    Good one; but the problem is whos gonna invest? Recommend

  • Armguhan

    My comment is a response to Miss. Sadaf’s comment. for one, there was life before the unfortunate Sialkot incident and there will be life after it. A bad event doesn’t mean the World comes to an end, its unfortunate that such things happen but they are a part of the world we live in.

    Secondly, if you search a little on the net and get the figures of abuse, murders on the basis of cast and dowry abuse etc, i am sure your jaws will hit the floor in a micro second. The purpose of the article is that we should let the world see that we have a normal side, we do not live the way Conan the barbarian lived. Recommend

  • Anoop

    Well, the problem is even if Pakistani industry get good directors which way will they go? Will they make movies with Songs in them like the Indian movie Industry? If they are thinking on that plane then they will never succeed. Since, Urdu/Hindi are almost like dialects of the same language Hindi Film Industry will crush any Urdu Industry. Also, Indian movies are already called distasteful by the Mullahs and even State Govts like Punjab Govt.

    The truth is whatever Pakistan has to offer, India offers it too and is better at it. Canada is prosperous country but doesn’t have the cultural vibrancy as a USA. It doesn’t produce movies itself but sends talent across to the US. Pakistan can do the same. Its just not vibrant and is too non-secular.Recommend

  • Uncle Sam

    From pictures and videos of pakistan, it does not look like most pakistani people “sit in japanese cars” or “work for multinational companies”. It looks like the writer has the same disease that most middle class pakistani/indian/bangladeshi has i.e. they think that the whole country/majority is like them. Or may be they don’t count those unfortunate poorer people as humans or pakistanis.Recommend

  • sogul

    How can Pakistan project itself through arts when its people are still struggling with their identity? Arts represent the current state of mind people are in – if there is no such coherency in the country and people are confused with their identities no wonder that its arts doesn’t develop and get the international acclaim. With regards to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – he became only famous to us Pakistanis once he left this world. As if Pakistan only knew his worth when he passed away – There was a reason why he migrated to India because arts is cherished and developed there. Arts as such is not taken seriously in PK. the younger generation has started to take arts seriously in PK but I guess it’ll take plenty of years before we get the international recognition – due to the constraints we put on ourselvesRecommend

  • SKChadha

    Art & Culture ….. are we Joking? ‘Tere Bin Laden’ Khuda Hafiz Pakistan Ka ….. !!!Recommend

  • ritu

    In fact, Pakistan has more in common with India. The people share the same language, watch the same movies, and listen to the same songs.

    Few years ago saying something like this was offensive to Pakistani people.Pakistan was pure islamic country and we were next door
    kaffir.Now when your image is negative and our positive you guys trying to cling us.Recommend

  • H Syed

    My fellow Pakistani, i agree our artist are behind in projeting an image of Pakistan but geopolitics is not affected by these things. Lebanon has one of he most liberal media in the muslim world, but it didnt help them escaping a vicious U.S. backed israeli attack!
    I agree with you that our film industry needs to be revived and supported to produce quality products but i dont think it matters much on the international stage. China for its size and economy does not have the most known film industry, they are know around the world through their hard work and national unity. I do not agree with this whole idea of IMAGE,its important but its useless until it is backed by substance. What we need first and foremost is to solve our social issues, which are enormous. We have million to feed and cloth, then we need to revive our economy and increase our productivity, we need to have a national vision and longterm goals.And for all of that we need a sincere, eduated political leadership.You solve that problem and everythign will fall into place.Making affective movies, projecting a soft image of Pakistan wont help when there are suicides bombings everyday or when people are hanging themselves because they cant feed their children.
    As far as Indian image goes, good for them. But it has more to do with business and international politics, they can project that image because they have real economic and industrial growth. Now our main concen should be to find that sincere political leadership first, thats a puzzle we need to solve first.Would llike to hear your thoughts…Recommend

  • Beenisch Tahir


    I do agree with you entirely. Obviously, without the ‘substance’, as you term it, our soft image isn’t going to go so far. However, one of my points was to first and foremost, make film, or any other art for our people. Not just the urban classes, but the entire population. The movie for instance, need not be in English, it should be in Urdu. But first and foremost, it would be there to inspire our own people, give us our hope, and so then the rest of the world can follow. I would just like clarify, that I’m not advocating making films for the rest of the world. I feel if our quality is good, it will be recognized eventually the world over. Just like the tennis player wasn’t initially looking for international attention, he was just playing tennis.

    As far as leadership goes, well, my friend, I believe that is the piece to our puzzle. But in the meanwhile, lets do anything we can to give Pakistan a better name. Recommend

  • Nida

    You got the wrong impression my friend. The writer is asking Pakistan to develop a positive image not through Indian stage but by promoting Pakistan arts and culture in the world. Basically the writer is asking to project soft image of Pakistan which the international media never captures.Recommend

  • M. SaleemRaikodi

    Its a well introspected article. There has never been a clash of culture and tradition between India and Paksitan but a distressful political one. Artists and cultural exchages are much sought after even inspite of such institutional hatred between the two. Specially for Pakistan, it is imperative for it to go an extra mile to shake hands perhaps grudingly as both the parties have so much brimstone of bad stories to tell. This is say just because what you gain in cooperation you wont in confrontation.Recommend