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Swimming with Sharks and Playing with Fire – The Revival of BS in Pakistan

The experience of making a feature film in Pakistan and subsequently dealing with Pakistani businesses and conglomerates and government has been a real eye opener and I feel I need to share this with other aspiring filmmakers in the land who might be as naïve and trusting as I have been.

The first tip is to select your support system judiciously and I thought I had got this right only to find that my assistant director upon the arrival of the first day of shooting asked me for a quiet word and told me the fortunes of money (“crores”) he would be missing out on due to his taking on the task as Assistant on my project.  Almost instantly I got a taste of what was to come and fortunately we managed to part ways after the tenth day of the shoot when the atmosphere on set became insufferable.  So, tip number one is to not take people on who suffer from delusions of grandeur and start telling you from the onset about the millions they are missing out on because they are working on your puny production.  If that wasn’t bad enough, on the second day of the shoot, my ex-assistant informs me that “legally speaking” he ought to be made the producer of the film as he was taking on the burden of so much work!! Needless to say, these matters ended up in the only way they could and a new Assistant Director was assigned much to the joy and relief of all involved.  So, the first lesson is to make sure your assistants are there to assist you and not fuel their own dreams and delusions at your expense.

Secondly, months and months later after the film had been feted in festivals in Europe and America, I decided to try to share the film with Pakistani audiences and therefore go for a proper, authorised, censored commercial theatrical release.  The test screenings in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi had resulted in near riot-like conditions and it was clearly evident that something about the movie was connecting with the largely young audience.

Dealing with the censor board was an experience and a half.  I really didn’t know what to expect from them as I kicked off the process of trying to acquire clearance for a theatrical release.  The first thing was to deal with a plethora of red tape which meant signing up with Film Associations and local versions of the Actors Union as well as meeting the boss at PEMRA the body that regulates media here in Pakistan. Having gone around in circles completing the paperwork I finally made my way down to the censor’s office where the subject of the format of the movie came up.  It seems as though my film was deemed unacceptable as cinemas locally were only equipped to show films in a 35mm format. However the censor policy revealed that “a moving image created by any source” is acceptable as a format and therefore even shadows cast on a wall could be justifiable cleared as a legitimate film.  However each time I pointed out to an increasingly disgruntled censor’s office that according to their rules and regulations (however out of synch they were) there was nothing that could legally stop them from issuing a clearance for my film.

Very reluctantly, they agreed to arrange a screening for the board members of which only one showed up about twenty minutes into the screening.  At the end of the screening, he stormed out claiming that “such a film didn’t reflect the culture and values of Pakistan” and that it was only about “5% of the rich kids who live in Clifton, Karachi” and upon this basis the film could never be allowed a certificate in Pakistan.  When informed I was flabbergasted having watched a plethora of Pakistani cinema bordering on violence-preaching, women-hating pornography over the years to be told that my film was unacceptable was not on.

Then, perhaps injudiciously, I warned the censor board that I could merely do what everyone does, which is to run the film privately and earn money without even bothering with the tax payer.  Both the censor board and I know perfectly well that running films illegally in Pakistan happens even at the 5 star hotels without impunity and I told them that if I was deprived of legal means then I would be left no option but to resort to illegal means like everyone else.  Finally they complied, albeit with extreme reluctance.  It was nothing short of a miracle that Zibahkhana managed to acquire a censor’s certificate for a commercial release in Pakistan.  In fact it is the first time ever that a film that has been digitally shot has been certified in Pakistan for a theatrical release.  Strange but typical was that the censors didn’t object to any of the swearing or even the drug use in the film but only to a few bits of gore.  Stranger still as the films they pass on a daily basis contain extreme levels of brutality against women and children on a regular basis yet they now were getting all squeamish at the sight of some drops of blood.  So, ten seconds of gore was to be cut from the film which I actually never removed!  Believe me, I pleaded with the censor that a film like Zibahkhana ought not to be viewed by those younger than the age of 15 but this too fell on deaf ears.  It was granted a Certificate for General Viewing for people of all Ages along with Disney’s Enchanted, enough said.

Then came the business of finding a cinema or a distribution company who might be interested in releasing the film. The natural choice was GEO, a huge local media conglomerate who were touting their commitment to the “Revival of Cinema in Pakistan” at the time with their films Khuda Kay Liye and Mohobattan Sachchiyan.  I sent out screeners ofZibahkhana to the co-owner of the budding local chain of Cineplex’s called Cinepax and was delighted to discover that they extended a hand of support by agreeing in principal to exhibit the film at their cinema.  This was an incredible step towards achieving a dream but logistical problems lay ahead as none of the cinemas was equipped to screen films on anything but 35mm and we could hardly afford the cost of conversion at this stage.  The other option was to supply my own personal equipment for projection to the cinema for the theatrical run which was not expected to last more than a couple of weeks at best especially as we had minimal advertising and were standing up against major studio releases from Hollywood, India and local heavyweights like Khuda Kay Liye.  So, I provided the projector at personal cost but meanwhile having been least interested for months, suddenly GEO get in touch saying they would like to pick up the film for national release all over Pakistan.  This is where I committed my biggest and most fatal blunder by breaking my commitment amicably with Cinepax who could only screen the film one city at a time and signing up with AAG, a subsidiary of GEO who would release the film all over Pakistan and do so with the support of their media empire covering TV and the print media.

To cut a long story short, the film completed a ten week run at the Rawalpindi’s cinepax where I had provided the projection however the projection was mangled in Karachi where audiences got to see a version of the film with only the torsos of the performers on screen while their heads and below their knees were off screen!  Needless to say audiences weren’t too thrilled.  In Lahore, our new partners AAG failed to secure a cinema and the film didn’t screen even for a single show.  Subsequently cinemas were closed for days following the death of Quaid E Awam Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Queen of Hearts & Democracy, his daughter, the Daughter of the East, Shaheed Mohtrama Bi Bi Sahiba Benazir Bhutto and the film was removed from its single screen in Lahore before even a single show had been screened.  The reason they offered was “poor ticket sales” – BUT, the cinema had been closed so how could there be any ticket sales at all!  So, of three cities we had one highly successful run; that being in the cinema where I had personally provided the equipment for projection.  Where AAG were supposed to be handling things, it was nothing short of a disaster. Incidentally, though the film outperformed even Khuda Kay Liye on a couple of occasions and managed a few sell-out crowds, I have yet to receive even one solitary rupee from the receipts from my business partners AAG in this regard.

A few months on in August, the DVD containing the AAG logo on the print itself as well as the AAG cover art etc hit the markets.  I was told by AAG that it was a pirate copy, but how odd that it should contain the AAG version with their logos burned into it.  It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to realize that somebody at AAG had deliberately leaked the DVD and at Rs. 250 per each one sold was making more money off it while I have yet to be paid a single rupee.  So while the supposedly pirated version with the official AAG logo and artwork of the film was out for months,  AAG did nothing to stop the pirate print for saturating the market even though none of there other releases falls prey to the pirates as Zibahkhana did. I was called by Karachi’s most famous pirate outlet who told me that AAG needed to make one phone call to the “pirates” to get them to comply but sadly in the case of Zibahkhana, that call was never made and while Khuda Kay Liye and Ramchand Pakistani after it have not had any pirate copies floating around, the Zibahkhana pirate was all over the video shops like a bad rash.  Finally on Halloween AAG screened the film on local TV.  Subsequently they also released the official DVD as well which was indistinguishable from the pirated version in every way.  Six months have passed and I have yet to paid even Rs. 1 by AAG for DVD sales nor for the TV screening , they have not even bothered to send me any info or details nor any accounts though according to the agreement that we both signed they were to provide statements by the first ten days of every single month.

Finally I have arrived at the conclusion that if there is a next time around, it would be far better to deal with the pirates rather than deal with companies with scruples and operations that are just as criminal if not worse.AAG have in essence stolen my film and not paid a cent for it despite the fact that according to our terms of contract I was to receive a 50% share of all revenue of all DVDs sold and all earnings from advertising from TV. Not a penny has been paid.  Also the fact that somebody deliberately leaked the AAG DVD version which was claimed to be a pirate and made thousands off my work is galling to say the least.  There is little point approaching the courts in a land where the law has been made a mockery of.  I will walk away from this experience a wiser but embittered man but at least I hope that my experience with AAG will be beneficial for anyone else who might follow in my footsteps and act as a warning which reads – beware of those making tall claims about “The Revival of Cinema in Pakistan” – its all a deception and all they are really interested in is reviving their own bank statements by stealing and leeching off the work of others.  If ever there is a next time for me in Pakistan, I would much rather deal with the pirates than deal with the likes of AAG.  Cinema in Pakistan can never revive if those who supposedly support the movement are its greatest detractors.  We have managed to snag deals forZibahkhana in the US, UK, Japan, and India thus far and each time have been treated as partners, sadly not the case of our own country.Having said all this, I must confess that nobody forced me to sign the dotted line with the people I signed with – I accept full responsibility for my blunders but at the same time, there is a story that needs to be told. Beware of the “Revivers of Cinema” and their intentions.To rub salt into the wounds, they even spelled my name wrong on the DVD cover!

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