Hard times in Lollywood
According to Mahmood Butt, the executive producer and 41-year veteran of Evernew Studios, Lahore’s sole functioning film studio, the Pakistani government’s decision last year to ease a 43-year ban on screening Indian films sounded the death knell for the city’s cinema industry.
Known collectively as “Lollywood”, two decades ago 11 studios averaged a production schedule of roughly 120 films per year, with cinemagoers filling the more than 1,700 theatres across the country. Today, Evernew struggles to produce 30 films for less than 200 decaying venues.
“Indian films are made with budgets of millions,” Butt says. “Ours are only about 100,000 Pakistani rupees (Dh4,600). We cannot compete. The number of Lollywood films being made is decreasing due to investment loss because only two or three films a year ever make a profit. Otherwise, they nearly all screen at a loss.
“I used to have hope. Now I am just disappointed. We are using ancient equipment. Our cameras are more than 30 years old. We’re over three generations behind in all forms of technology. Bollywood and Hollywood are using DTS sound – we’re still using mono.”
Butt also blames inexperienced financiers who have taken over the industry – people with money to burn who are content to make one generic movie after another. “Twenty years ago the people making films were educated. Now the uneducated are destroying what is left of Lollywood. The financiers who are funding more than 90 per cent of the films coming out of Lollywood are making purely formula movies,” he says.
Nearly all films produced in Pakistan are financed by the Gujjars – a wealthy family whose money comes from the dairy industry who often provide backing for films with salacious and violent content.
“Unfortunately we have not changed the type of films we have been making,” Butt says shaking his head. “The only way to recover Lollywood is to get back to making family films, comedies and social films.”
Movies filled with buxom, gyrating, gun-toting women and sweaty, moustache-twirling bad guys grace decrepit theatres across the country and attract an audience mainly comprised of working-class men from rural areas. Women are never seen in cinemas as the films’ content and theatre conditions have all but driven families away. They choose to stay at home, enjoying the far cheaper option of watching high-quality Hollywood and Bollywood movies on pirate DVD.
Aslam, a 25-year-old cinemagoer, stands outside one of the larger cinemas in Lahore, clutching his ticket to a recent Indian blockbuster. He only has time to visit the cinema two or three times a year and wishes that more Pakistani films were being made.
“I want to see more love stories,” he says. “I would never take my family to see a Gujjar film,” he says.
Small venues have also suffered thanks to the demise of Lollywood. Between the declining quality and quantity of Pakistani productions, not to mention the higher prices charged to screen Western and Indian films, hundreds of theatres have had to close their doors. Now their audiences flock to technically advanced cinemas with the resources and finances to screen imported films.
Shabbir Hussain, a 49-year-old old projectionist from the Odeon Cinema in Lahore, says that his employer can only afford to screen western movies and now even has to forgo Indian celluloid. Showings have declined to just three per day and Hussain spends much of his time sleeping between two 50-year-old projectors that belong in a museum rather than a functioning 21st-century cinema.
“Fortunately they still make spare parts,” says Hussain, referring to the tools of his trade. “But we barely have the resources to show modern films. I am worried about the film industry. I worry for my family and my children. I only know this job.”
There are further casualties. Pakistan’s film industry spent more than 60 years scouting out a steady supply of movie heroines and musicians from the Hira Mandi area, in Lahore’s Old City. Today, it has descended into a cesspit of drugs, gangsters and violence.
“About 25 years ago, all the women came from Hira Mandi,” says Butt.“Most were talented and also many of the musicians who performed on the films’ soundtracks were from there. Nowadays, people there are not so qualified.”
Away from the city’s hardscrabble back alleys, others are also losing their livelihoods. The new trend for computer-generated posters has driven traditional billboard painters out of business.
An art form unto itself, the Lollywood billboard is a dying medium. Productions facing severe cost cuts can no longer afford six-metre, hand-painted billboards to adorn the local cinemas.
“Ten years ago, the business was huge. But now it has it has declined,” says Mohammed Ajimal, one of Lahore’s most respected billboard artists. “Computer posters have taken over, the billboards have finished completely. The last one I painted was almost a year ago.”
Ajimal’s hand-painted billboards used to take up to three weeks to paint, with four or five people working on them, and cost upwards of 65,000 Pakistani rupees (Dh3,000).
“We halved our prices just to be able to compete with these computer posters. It’s a total loss,” he says. “At least three people in my field have stopped painting altogether. I am just surviving, but it will probably end soon. I used to love to paint the stars’ faces on these billboards – the bigger the better. I loved recreating the colour, the detail and the light. I felt good. Now I just feel tired.”
Ajimal’s movie billboards were his main source of income. Now he only does requests – portraits and simple paintings mostly.
“God gives me just enough to survive,” he says. “But this other work is child’s play. Work for artists in Pakistan is disappearing. If I cannot paint, I am dead. Painting is the only way I know I am alive.”
Some in the industry believe Lollywood is experiencing a slump from which it will recover. Others, however, claim that its days are numbered. “Film is the best entertainment,” Butt declares, “but when this studio closes, Lollywood will be finished.”