Pakistan film fans prepare for Waar

Moribund industry makes song and dance about violent thriller billed as most anticipated movie in country's history

It claims to not only be the most anticipated film in the history of Pakistan, but to be based on true events. And, for once, the Hollywood-style hyperbole can be excused. The feature-length action thriller called Waar ("to strike" in Urdu) is eagerly awaited, despite being out of tune with the trend for movies packed with singing and dancing.

Waar is coming to cinemas in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and even the restive frontier city of Peshawar later this year. The trailer was viewed more than 500,000 times in the first month when posted on YouTube in January, entering the website's top five videos.

Inspired by real events such as a Muslim extremist assault on a Pakistani police academy in 2009, the film follows a team of anti-terrorist police officers who, with time running out, try to stop a new attack. But the subject matter is not the only attraction, say local critics. With its slick production and use of digital technology, the film, reportedly the country's most expensive ever, is a long way from the staples of local cinema.

"Waar is very, very new," says Sher Ali Khan, film reporter for the Express Tribune newspaper.

In recent years, there has been a series of films dealing with edgy subjects in Pakistan but these were made by, and watched by, the westernised middle classes. "So far the masses haven't accepted these new kind of films. They have catered to the westernised upper middle class. Popular tastes have stayed with the standard styles of plot and production," says Khan. "Waar can be considered the first new wave film to go mainstream."

One major difference with the traditional fare is the lack of song and dance routines. Director Bilal Lashari, who studied film-making in California, says: "There was just no question, even if people were telling me: 'How can you do without them?' For audiences here, it is going to be a complete 180 degree shift. From cinematography to style of acting, it is different from what has gone before."

The Pakistani film industry, which flourished after the country's independence in 1947, has languished for decades.

Cinema owner and distributor Zorraiz Lashari says a combination of booming cable television outlets and competition from India's Bollywood film industry almost finished off the local studios, concentrated in the western city of Lahore and known collectively, if somewhat unoriginally, as Lollywood.

"It costs 20m rupees [£140,000] minimum to make a decent movie and it's very difficult to get your money back. You can buy a Hindi-language film from India for half or a quarter of that price," Lashari says.

From 700 cinemas in 1977, there are now only 175 and the only films to turn a profit have been in languages such as Pashtu or Sindhi, spoken in particular regions of the country, where Indian productions are incomprehensible.

Weak regulation leading to endemic pirating is one major problem. There are even occasional efforts to temporarily ban Indian movies.

"Even if a couple of multiplexes have opened, cinema is still very niche," says Sarah Tareen, a Lahore-based producer. "The main medium is television. Only a fraction of the population go out to watch films."

However, along with Waar, a whole series of similar films is being readied for release in coming months.

One is Kaptaan, a cinematic rendering of the recent life of Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician who currently tops popularity polls in Pakistan. The film will cover Khan's life since retiring from sport 20 years ago and will dramatise his entry into politics as well as his failed marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, who is played by a Pakistan-American actress.

Tareen is producing Tamanna (Desire), a drama exploring class, adultery and, through flashbacks, the heyday of Lollywood. "It is neither action-based nor Bollywood-style. It is much more a pure drama with a narrative telling the story of three individuals," she says.

Sanaa Ahmed, a film journalist in Pakistan, sees the new developments in Pakistan as part of a broader global trend. "There are a lot of new young people with stories to tell who are figuring out ways to tell it," she says. "It's a new wave."

Lashari says Pakistan needs to "recreate" its cinema. "Everyone here has been following Bollywood but the best we can ever come up with is going to be a B grade knock off. We need to create our own identity," he says.


Jason Burke in Islamabad

The GuardianTramp

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