It took some time, but Pakistan is finally working to lift the 1965 ban on Indian movies.
Cinema theatres in Pakistan are already screening Bollywood movies shot at third-country locations. Even these restrictions will go with Islamabad’s reported decision to permit import of 12 Indian films per year by local distributors. “A notification allowing imports is expected anytime,” said Pakistan Film Producers’ Association chairman Jamshed Zaffar. The numbers restriction will make up for the local film industry’s low output without putting its future at risk.
It took some intense lobbying by Pakistani distributors-exhibitors against the four-decade-old ban. “Indian films allowed entry since 2004 were those shot on third-country locales and brought here as foreign films. The new regime will do away with these restrictions,” claimed Zaffar.
Political intervention at the highest level saw an exception being made in recent years for the screening of Mughal-e-Azam and Taj Mahal to raise funds for earthquake relief. Bride and Prejudice was the first film cleared for theatre screening in “foreign” category in December 2004.
The total ban saw Pakistani distributors and exhibitors hit badly by piracy, cable TV, paucity of quality local cinema and big screens, down to 200 from 1,500.
On an average, 1-2 of the 7-8 Lollywood-produced Urdu films did good business, the latest hit being the critically acclaimed Khuda Ke Liye.
Little surprise that Lahore's top-of-the-line Sozo theatre near Fortress Stadium, where the city's gentry goes picnicking, presents a rare sight these days; its façade plastered with posters of Akshay Kumar's Welcome, John Abraham's Goal and Emraan Hashmi's The Killer alongside those of Khuda.
Appreciated for its handling of a difficult theme, the Islamic jehad, Khuda's sub-continental star cast includes Naseeruddin Shah, Lollywood superstar Shaan and Pakistani debutants Ms Emaan Ali and Fawad Khan. The film's bumper success can be measured by the Rs 1-crore business it has done at Sozo alone.
Sozo's CEO and chairman Exhibitors' Association Zoraiz Lashari said Indian filmmakers and distributors should recognise the limitations of the Pakistani film market and rationalise the money they seek. "Release of new films here is restricted to ten prints for want of enough theatre," he said.
Recalling the Rs 5 crore demanded for distribution rights for Dhoom-II, Zaffar said such quantum of business was currently inconceivable in his otherwise film crazy country with a huge fan following for Shah Rukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor and Bipasha Basu. He felt profit-sharing arrangements might accommodate Indian expectations and Pakistani constraints.
The key to Indian films doing good business was their simultaneous release in both countries, said Lashari. For this reason, Goal did good business in Pakistan despite an unimpressive draw in India. "To match release dates, prints will have to be sent 3-4 days in advance to offset last-minute delays due to red-tape on our side," he said.
All praise for Bollywood's professionalism, Zaffar, who is in touch with his Indian counterparts, cited piracy fears as a hindrance in early dispatch of prints. "We need to trust each other for a lasting business relationship," he said.