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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Back in the picture – Time to take Pakistani cinema seriously

Farahnaz Zahidi | Oct 20, 2013, 05.56 AM IST

Back in the picture
Zinda and kicking: A still from ‘Zinda Bhag’, Pakistan’s first entry to the Oscars. The film grossed 75 lakh Pakistani rupees in its first week.
Entering the cinema, I wondered if Zinda Bhaagwould be all that they were saying it was. Turns out the neo-realistic film, set in inner city Lahore and directed by Farjad Nabi and Meenu Gaur, was more. Watching the scene where Khaldi, a young man desperate to get out of Pakistan, looks with burning eyes and a quiet longing at his friend Chitta, who is leaving as an illegal immigrant to Italy, I realized that Pakistani cinema had finally arrived.

Zinda Bhaag is the country’s first entry to this year’s Oscars, in the foreign language film category. But equally important, the film’s box-office collections (75 lakh Pakistani rupees in its first week) are an indication that Pakistanis are returning to the cinema. Many youngsters queuing up at the new multiplexes mushrooming across cities are discovering Pakistani films for the first time.

For over a decade, barring the occasional activism-laden films, very few movies have been produced in Pakistan. After the fall of East Pakistan (now Bangaldesh), Pakistan lost over 1,100 cinema screens and a major chunk of talent and technical expertise of the film industry. That, coupled with the steep taxation policies of the mid-’70s, discouraged traditional investors, and new financers entered the game. “Investors, primarily from Punjab, who wanted to turn black money into white via the film industry affected the kind of films made,” says Pakistani film critic Rafay Mahmood, referring to the crass, violence-fuelled Punjabi entertainers that became the staple. Pushto films from the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa suffered a similar fate.

Pakistani television then became the benchmark for quality, and soon cinema had to compete with this mass medium. Realistic serials like Khuda ki Basti (1969-74) and Waris (1980) were both critically-acclaimed and successful. The ban on Bollywood, in place since 1965, was only lifted in President Musharraf’s era, with a restored version of Mughal-e-Azam that paved the way for more Indian releases. But families preferred watching these films from across the border on their VCRs, as it was both convenient and cheaper.

The ‘revival’ of indigenous films today is due to a number of factors, including the success ofBollywood in Pakistan, which revived exhibitor interest. The advent of multiplexes over the last two years has also helped. The mid 2000s saw a surge in graduates from local institutes like the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in Karachi, all keen to act in films in Pakistan. They will find a supporter in Nadeem Mandviwalla, the man behind The Platform, Pakistan’s first independent film distribution body launched a few months ago. Mandviwalla promises to incentivize filmmakers experimenting with alternate genres by helping them with film distribution and promotions. Also the owner of multiscreen cinemas like Atrium in Karachi and Centaurus Cineplex in Islamabad, he is enthusiastic about the work he is seeing today. “An industry that had not made films for the last 10 years comes up with Mein Hoon Shahid Afridi(MHSA) and Waar. Imagine what they will produce a decade from now,” he says.

MHSA, touted as Pakistan’s first commercial sports film, was produced by and stars Humayun Saeed, a reputed TV star. Saeed believes local cinema needs more support from distributors, who push foreign films because they generate higher revenues. Director Bilal Lashari’s Waar, an English film about terrorism starring the industry’s only superstar Shaan, released Oct 16 and has reportedly beaten Chennai Express’s opening day box-office collections in Pakistan.

Critics agree that the latest offerings of Pakistani cinema have a freshness reminiscent at times of the acclaimed films of Iran. Which is why Mahmood refers to this phase as the birth, not rebirth, of Pakistani cinema. “It is no longer Lollywood. It is something new,” he states.

Life after breast cancer

Sajida Ilyas (name changed) did not have a history of cancer in her family. None of her siblings or parents had this disease. Sajida had done everything right. As a 48 year old mother of three, she had breastfed all her three children. She never used Oral Contraceptive Pills. She had never touched a cigarette. She had a simple, content, healthy life. Eat, pray and love had been her mantra. She was not expected to develop breast cancer. But she did.

One fine day, out of the blues, in the shower, she discovered a lump she describes as big as “a small mango’s seed”. Since that fateful day, one year ago, life has not been the same for Sajida. After being diagnosed with Stage 3 of breast cancer, she has undergone a lot. Surgery to remove one of her breasts, chemotherapy, radiation therapy. The pain, the anguish, the hair loss, the social stigma. And the family support, the bonding, the closer relation with God, the strengthening of faith. She may have lost a few battles, but has won many, and flaunts her scars of battle with pride….the pride of a fighter. Here are a few of her experiences, in her own words….the words of a woman who feels fortunate each day to be alive and have another day with her family.

“I have always been known as someone with a contagious laughter and a good sense of humour. I am a talkative, chatty, social person. But all that changed when I discovered I had cancer. The “C” word, the unthinkable had happened to me! I would sit for hours in the same position, staring at one object like a zombie, with my mind and soul literally feeling empty. For the first time in my life, I was at a loss for words. I had nothing to say…..neither to anyone else, nor to myself. My laughter had been sucked out of me.

But my faith never dwindled. I knew one thing in my heart with conviction that I would not die before the time God had destined for me. That is why my fear was of suffering from the disease, but not of death. After this illness, I started having more one on one sessions with my Creator. I would weep and cry and had so many questions. But eventually, it was through prayer and faith only that I got the strength to fight back. I became surer and surer that Allah loves me and will heal me, and has some benefit hidden even in my suffering.

My other biggest strength has been my family. My sister who is a doctor flew in from Canada. My siblings stood by me like a rock. My husband was by my side. But more than anyone else, my children have been my friends, confidantes and biggest support. Our family has grown closer. My daughter served me the most, but even my two sons left no stone unturned. Acceptance of my illness was not easy for them too. There were days when we all collectively sat down and cried together and at the end of each such session, our resolve to fight this together became stronger.

Initially, it was a tough decision for me whether I should go for a mastectomy (breast removal) or simply have a lumpectomy (remove the lump). Relatives and friends were ever so interested in this decision. I was losing a part of my body but they seemed more curious about it. But I knew that I had something worth living for in my family and in myself. At Stage 3, I did not want to take chances and so I went for the complete removal of one of my breasts. Women would come to me before the surgery and say ‘you will lose all self-esteem. Your husband will no longer be attracted to you. You will feel ugly’. But I had confidence in myself. I wanted to be alive. If that meant facing the potential risk of my husband losing interest in me, so be it. It was not worth risking my life. Luckily, nothing of the sort happened to me, although I did feel a distance build up between me and my husband for a while. But my outlook had changed. Arguing and fighting with my spouse over his reaction meant losing precious energy – energy I needed to live on. So I concentrated more on my inner strength and less on people. I guess sometimes men don’t know how to react in trying situations. They mean well but cannot express it.

The reactions of people have been varied. Mostly very supportive but often irritating and demoralizing, especially when people over-sympathize and patronize. A woman had the guts to tell me that I must’ve done something wrong that angered God that I got this illness! Recently, a family proposing for my daughter suddenly disappeared after I told them that I had breast cancer. Some of my closest people avoided me, thinking this is contagious.

But it is not just people. It is also difficult to face yourself in the mirror. When I lost my hair as a reaction to chemotherapy, I dreaded looking in the mirror. But my children encouraged me and I never stopped going out and did not fear being spotted like that. There is more to me than my hair.

The most painful part was the chemotherapy sessions and the radiation therapy, and after that the Herceptin treatment. Your inside is on fire. You cannot keep food down but have to eat to live on and have enough strength for the next treatment. The radiation burnt my skin and it became infected with pus. At that time it seemed this will never end. But it eventually did.

Today, I feel blessed to have been given a second lease at life. I still feel weak. Every day is a struggle. Even the mundane chores are a formidable task at times. But then I look at my beautiful family and I know that this is worth fighting for. This disease may have wounded my body, but cannot destroy my soul. I feel stronger than ever.”

 Originally published in Dawn (2011)


Collaboration, not Sufism, answer to Pakistan’s violence


by Farahnaz Zahidi

01 October 2013

Karachi – The notion that one faith, philosophy or idea alone is the answer to stopping violent episodes like the tragic suicide attack at the All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan last week is hard to swallow. Still, recent decades have seen an interesting surge in the view that Sufism is a solution to violent extremism in Pakistan.

Sufism is most simply described as Islamic mysticism or spirituality, but like most things it is too vast and deep a concept to be described by simplistic definitions. Without a doubt though, messages of love, peace and acceptance are at its core.

But is Sufism actually a feasible solution to violent extremism in Pakistan? Can it be the missing link in the internal peace process we need? In these troubling times, many Pakistanis find sanity in the ideology of our Sufi saints who believed that serving humanity is the surest way of getting close to God. Belief in the core messages of our saints reeks of much-needed hope. However, thinking that Sufism is the antidote to extremism in Pakistan may be too simplistic, especially when juxtaposed in opposition to stricter interpretations of Islam, as many who are inspired by it do today.

In Pakistan, which is complicated and far from monolithic, we have those who practice faith through the hard-line dos and don’ts of religion, and those who are more inclined toward spirituality than jurisprudence. With growing polarisation, centrists who respect both schools of thought are becoming a minority and feel pushed to the margins.

The problem lies in the fact that those who tilt more towards Sufism and those who focus more on the do’s and dont’s in Islam are considered adversaries by Pakistani society today.

There is an irony in all of this – while Sufism is about acceptance at its core, some of its unseasoned proponents seem to be increasing the already wide gulf between those who follow strict or hard-line interpretations of Islam and those who feel Sufism is the answer.

It feels contradictory to Sufism’s core messages.

Thus, we risk losing out on the central point in Sufism— to bring everything in its fold and accept all kinds of people, irrespective of ethnicity, language, caste and even creed.

Part of the solution could be for liberal proponents inspired by Sufism to recognise the efforts of some middle-ground Islamic scholars and give credit where it’s due. The recent show of flexibility by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), the constitutional body responsible for giving Islamic legal opinions to the Government of Pakistan, is a case in point. Scholars on CCI, such as Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, are clearly trying to build bridges between segments of society when it comes to blasphemy laws, by strongly opposing false accusations.

Imam Ghazali, the 11th century Persian jurist, theologian and mystic, seems to have gotten it right. He became the bridge between more orthodox Islam and adherents of Sufism. Followers of both schools of thought, via Ghazali, developed a mutual understanding by utilising established Islamic theology to reconcile Sufism with orthodoxy, and Sufism to enrich theology.

Rather than one philosophy being the solution to violence, which has the propensity to make others wrong and put them on the defensive, perhaps reconciliation and collaboration is a better method. If not the solution, this may at least be a step in the direction toward peace.


* Farahnaz Zahidi is a Pakistani writer and editor. Her areas of focus include human rights, gender, peace-building and Islam. She currently works as Features Editor for The Express Tribune. She blogs at Chaaidaani and her photo-journalism can be seen here. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 1 October 2013,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.