Love, War & Other Longings: Essays on Cinema in Pakistan
Edited by Prof Vazira Zamindar and Dr Asad Ali
Oxford University Press 2020, 274pp

Reviewed by: Dr Samhita Sunya, University of Virginia
24 March 2023
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A beautifully produced volume with glossy pages and gorgeous colour photos, Love, War & Other Longings: Essays on Cinema in Pakistan declares a noteworthy aim in “Longing for Film,” the introduction by co-editors Vazira Zamindar and Asad Ali: “We urge film-makers to constitute diverse frames, to engage with the insistent reality of the social, to illuminate and give depth to the precariousness and drama of lives other than those of nationalists or the aspiring consumerist middle class” (p.12). This unique effort to directly engage media practitioners in Pakistan as foremost stakeholders—as audiences, interlocutors, and contributors—distinguishes the volume’s production history, ensuing critical interventions, and energetic debates from not only the India-centric tendencies of South Asian studies, but also the more siloed tendencies of humanities fields that construe fellow academics as their default, singular audience.

As noted in the introduction, Love, War & Other Longings grew out of the co-editors’ initial summer 2012 meetings with filmmakers in Karachi and their subsequent organisation of two eponymous film festivals at Harvard University (2014) and Brown University (2015), which put scholars and filmmakers in conversation over the past, present, and future of cinema in Pakistan. The volume’s emergence from this specific set of programs accounts for its focus on “principal theatrical releases from this period (2012-15) as an opening to examine the contours of what the majority of its proponents regard as a new configuration” (p.9). Drawing critical energy from a popular sense of buoyancy and revival around the ostensible dawn of a new era of media production in Pakistan, this cautiously optimistic volume joins at least four other recent English-language scholarly compilations that focus on media in Pakistan: “Explorations into Pakistani Cinema,” a dossier of essays in Screen edited by Ali Nobil Ahmad (2016); Cinema and Society: Film and Social Change in Pakistan (2016) and Film and Cinephilia in Pakistan: Beyond Life and Death (2020), two volumes of essays edited by Ali Khan and Ali Nobil Ahmad (2016); and “Televisual Pakistan,” a special issue of Bioscope: South Asian Screen Studies (2017).

Themes that recur across essays in Love, War & Other Longings include interrogations of the postmillennial eclipse of a “backward” Lahore/Punjabi-language film industry by a “prestigious” and increasingly visible Karachi/Urdu-language televisual industry as the national form of media in Pakistan, and reflections over gaps in accounts of cinema in Pakistan to date. These include gaps of (absent) state film archives, gaps of who and what gets excluded in pronouncements of Pakistani cinema’s “death” and “revival”, gaps in representation due to ideological pressures, and—through Kamran Asdar Ali’s tenderly poignant reading of Saheli (1960) in Chapter 6: “On Female Friendships & Anger”—the gaps in women’s voices that might offer poignant insights into the politics of everyday experiences in accounts of post-independence Karachi. The question of what exactly is new about various “new” cinemas in different eras has come up in several other global contexts. This volume’s chapters collectively offer not only an answer occasioned by a 2010s “new” cinema in Pakistan, but also a model for scholarship that emerges from public-facing programs and conversations—not always easy ones—between scholars and practitioners. What is perhaps most inspiring about the volume is that it takes the very approach that it values and advocates among film practitioners: a determination to experiment with form in ways that are clear-eyed and creative about responding to the social and political realities that indelibly shape their labours.

This experimentation with form is evident very quickly. Chapter 2: “After the Interval,” which follows the introduction, is a reprint of a creative journalistic piece. Formatted as a screenplay, the piece meanders through cinema sites in Lahore and Karachi. Details in each vignette—memories, sensations, buildings, ruins, surrounding neighbourhoods, and ambient activities—chronicle sweeping shifts in the literal landscape of cinema production, distribution, technology, and audiences. A record of these ebbs and flows both reframe and challenge the nostalgic motif of the beloved single screen’s death at the hands of television and, eventually, the multiplex. While acknowledging the shifts wrought by the latter, scholar-filmmaker Meenu Gaur and scholar-artist Adnan Madani’s Chapter 3: “The Ghost in the Projector: New Pakistani Cinema & Its Hauntings” continues to underscore the specificity of middle-class perspectives that have pronounced various “deaths” and “revivals” of cinema in Pakistan, sometimes at the cost of flattening historical and contemporary experiences of cinema that have varied across regions, cities, and neighbourhoods.

In considering the politics of a range of art practices, Gaur and Madani cite contemporary works like “the digital prints of Iftikhar Dadi,” a scholar-artist whose contribution to this volume focuses on Gaur’s own acclaimed film Zinda Bhaag in Chapter 5: “The Zinda Bhaag Assemblage: Notes on Reflexivity and Form.” The volume makes explicit such dialogic strands of conversation and practice between an especially versatile group of contributors. Dadi carefully examines the aesthetic, historical, and political layers of Zinda Bhaag as a uniquely ambitious film whose experiments with form—rather than solely with narrative or, worse, aesthetics that uncritically avow an elite consumerist ethos—address a perceived “lack of experimentation in Pakistan’s moving image production as a very serious shortcoming for developing new approaches” (p.97). Dadi reads Zinda Bhaag’s reflexive mobilisation of elements that range from Punjabi fables to Lollywood (Lahore commercial cinema) motifs to Faiz’s Urdu poetry, as amounting to a critically incisive and socially conscious avant-gardism. Dadi’s chapter offers an effective teaser for his much-awaited book Lahore Cinema: Realism and Fable (2022).

Kamran Asdar Ali’s aforementioned Chapter 6: “On Female Friendships and Anger” is a sensitive reading of female friendships in Saheli (1960), a film whose narrative resolution is one that reunites two longtime female friends in a single household, as co-wives who share a husband in a polygamous arrangement. Ali eloquently articulates the importance of asking questions about women’s experiences of urban life, whether coterminous with public spaces or domestic spaces, and he marshals the methods of his earlier work on popular women’s magazines to “translate the particular cultural and historical milieu of the narratives into a sociological language while remaining sensitive to the plurality of interpretive possibilities open to us” (p.117). In noting Saheli’s status as an award-winning hit that was showered with national accolades despite polygamy having just been outlawed, Ali astutely focuses on the film’s life-worlds and energies as, perhaps, revolving most powerfully around female intimacy and friendship—even within an undeniably heteropatriarchal milieu.

Ayesha Jalal’s Chapter 8: “Engaging Manto: Film, Fiction & History” is uniquely polyphonic, consisting of a transcribed interview between Ayesha Jalal, a historian, scholar, and relative of iconic writer Saadat Hasan Manto; and Sarmad Khoosat, a filmmaker who directed Manto (2015). Bookended by editors’ notes that highlight tussles over fact and fiction in cinematic representations, the chapter ends with a brief essay in which Jalal reflects on Manto’s subcontinental legacies in and through Khoosat’s Manto and Indian filmmaker Nandita Das’s Manto (2018). While Jalal praises Khoosat in the interview for “bringing to the screen a discussion of sexuality” (p.168) among other bold portrayals, she takes issue with the film’s self-presentation as a biopic despite several embellishments, to which Khoosat responds with exasperation over all the constraints and difficulties of making a film, least of which is censorship. In her brief essay that follows, Jalal notes the arbitrariness of censorship in the case of the two films’ journeys (and chokepoints therein), and that both films blur Manto the author with his characters. For Jalal, the stakes of confusing fiction with fact lie not only in Manto’s integrity as a historical subject, but also in the very provocation that Manto’s life and writings pose to nationalist histories’ own hegemonic impositions of fiction as fact. A point of tension in this chapter emerges around the biopic as a film genre: does this genre necessarily invite credulousness, or does the biopic ring familiar as a cinematic mode of quintessentially embellished storytelling? One additionally wonders out of sheer curiosity, how might Marathi filmmaker Samit Kakkad’s Manto-inspired Hindi film debut Ascharya Fuck It (2018) have figured into the chapter’s concerns with contemporaneous Manto films?

The volume ends with Zamindar’s Chapter 9: “A War of Our Own: Notes on Living & Dying in Reel Time,” and Asad Ali’s Chapter 10: “Pissing Men, Dancing Women & Censuring Oneself.” Zamindar’s chapter examines the politics of the war film genre in Pakistani cinema, which may at first seem to offer a retort of sorts to Hollywood and Bollywood war films’ representations of Pakistan. A thought-provoking chapter that would be particularly amenable for inclusion in courses on war and cinema, the chapter reminds us that muscular nationalisms alone are neither a substitute for democracy nor a particularly liberating rejoinder to imperial campaigns. Ali’s chapter takes up William Mazzarella’s figure of the subaltern “pissing man” as the primitively credulous subject who becomes the oft-invoked excuse for censorship, alongside the figure of the dancing woman in the comedies Na Maloom Afraad (2010) and Wrong No (2015). Through an analysis of the films, Asad considers collisions between aspirations of upward mobility and the inertia of one’s class and gender locations, which cinema makes transgressively visible and public.

An interval of sorts, the middle Chapter 4: “Burnt Film Reels, Nishat Cinema, Karachi” consists of a 12-page, black-and-white photo-essay by artist Bani Abidi. Her photo-essay is devoid of any explanatory text, though one might have noticed that a still-standing Nishat cinema is mentioned and pictured in Naveed’s Chapter 1. The volume’s introduction briefly notes that Abidi’s images are of “charred reel boxes in the rubble of one of Karachi’s oldest pre-partition cinema houses, which was burnt down during protests in 2012” (p.17). While one might be frustrated by the lack of further details, the photo-essay produces a compelling juxtaposition in the context of the volume: it presents images of burnt reels as both a striking absence (a literal loss of images, amid the loss of the historic cinema) and a vivid presence (in the materiality and distinctiveness of each charred reel rendered in high-resolution, sharply-focused close-ups).

The volume includes one other photo essay by Vazira Zamindar in Chapter 7: “Ek Haseen Archive: Notes on Love & Longing in a Film Archive.” Zamindar’s photo essay is intertwined with the text of a translated interview with aficionado Guddu Khan about his archive, at a juncture when his work as a private collector has drawn the interest of other scholars and been acknowledged in publications that include Timothy P.A. Cooper’s interview with Guddu Khan (2016) and Salma Siddique’s article “Archive Filmaria: Cinema, Curation, and Contagion” (2019), which anticipates the incisively cross-border approach to historiographies of South Asia and its cinemas in her recently published monograph Evacuee Cinema: Bombay and Lahore in Partition Transit, 1940-1960 (2022). The 2010s burst of energy around a “new” cinema in Pakistan has thus, as this volume attests, unfolded in step with a burst of energy on the part of scholars, filmmakers, artists, and journalists for looking back and looking around.

The vitality of Guddu Khan’s archive, as Zamindar’s photo-essay concludes, “is not dependent on the historian,” but a testament to how much value popular cinema in Pakistan has long held, and continues to hold, for many. In a way, the two photo essays work well together to challenge any singular notions about cinema in Pakistan. The former seems to chronicle charred cinematic remains, while the latter seems to chronicle an effervescent grassroots-level zeal for keeping alive a cinematic past and future. Both, we ultimately find—like the volume as a whole—are labours of love and, indeed, of longing: for a future that is enlivened by a sensitivity to its pasts, cinematic and otherwise.

Ahmad, Ali Nobil, and Ali Khan, eds. (2020) Film and Cinephilia in Pakistan: Beyond Life and Death. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ahmad, Ali Nobil. (2016) “Explorations Into Pakistani Cinema: Introduction.” Screen 57, no. 4: 468–79.
Cooper, Timothy P.A. (2016) “Raddi Infrastructure: Collecting Film Memorabilia in Pakistan: An Interview with Guddu Khan of Guddu’s Film Archive.” Interview translated from Urdu by Abeera Arif-Bashir. BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies 7, no. 2: 151–71.
Dadi, Iftikhar. (2022) Lahore Cinema: Between Realism and Fable. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Khan, Ali, and Ali Nobil Ahmed, eds. (2016) Cinema and Society: Film and Social Change in Pakistan. Karachi: Oxford University Press.
Mazzarella, William. (2013) Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity. Durham: Duke University Press.
Siddique, Salma. (2019 “Archive Filmaria: Cinema, Curation, and Contagion.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 39, no. 1: 196–211.
Siddique, Salma. (2022) Evacuee Cinema: Bombay and Lahore in Partition Transit, 1940–1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vasudevan, R., Thomas, R., Srinivas, S. V., Nair, K., Mukherjee, D., Hoek, L., & Siddique, S. (2019). “Televisual Pakistan.” BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies, 10 no. 2, 105–110.

© Bloomsbury Pakistan 2023


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