June 16, 2021

Pakistan: Pashtun cinema resists

In the half-light of the Arshad cinema, the thousand spectators in traditional long shirts are silent, sensing a decisive turning point in “Leave the poor alone“, the new house opus that comes out that day.

On the screen, a puny shadow enters an armory: the hero’s mother, devastated by the death of her husband, victim of police torture. Facing the merchant of death, she removes her veil, revealing a withered grandmother’s face with a look drunk with revenge. She places an order: “KA-LACH-NI-KOV!

The room explodes in manly ruts: “Ouaaiiis!“, “Go mother!“Vendetta, a principle renowned among the Pashtuns, a tribal and conservative people living between Pakistan and Afghanistan, will be the event as usual.

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Back home, the matron hands the weapon to her son Gul Khan, summoned to avenge the father. That’s good: the stocky hero has cozy pride, easy trigger and used to say yes to his mom.

In the packed two-story concrete lobby of the Arshad Cinema, the air conditioning goes out. The room becomes an oven, a kind of hammam with the smoke of hashish for steam.

On the first day of the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, seven new Pashtun films were released in Peshawar, the birthplace of local cinema. A rebirth: last year, two deadly attacks in other cinemas, undoubtedly the work of radical Islamists denouncing the “perversion“films, had plagued an industry already undermined by competition from the Internet and DVDs.

But this industry has resisted, like the city that is reborn after a bloody decade of Taliban rebel attacks. In this region, half illiterate and often speaking only the Pashtun dialect, the cinema, a rare affordable leisure activity, has always been able to find an audience.

Shot during the summer in Lahore (east) and in the hills of Murree, near Islamabad, “Leave the poor alone“was put on in five weeks. Just in time for the Eid premiere in Peshawar, where tickets at 400 rupees (4 USD), double the regular price, were snapped up in a perky male fairground vibe.

– Frenzied pop –

Faithful to the canons of the Pashtun genre, Gul Khan, the hero of the film, is a peaceful, honest and upright man, but forced to rebel in the face of the oppression and crimes of the corrupt elites and police.

To renew himself, director Arshad Khan added references to the news, such as the death of Gul Khan’s nephew in the attack on his school, inspired by the Taliban carnage that killed more than 130 children at the end of 2014 in Peshawar.

Another must, romance. There is of course no kiss between the hero and the beautiful nurse who disturbs him, but their dances carried by a frenzied local pop are very suggestive.

The brunette with long hair swirls her generous forms there, bare head and arms, belly uncovered under a tight top with sequins: the exact opposite of the large tunics, veils and burqas de rigueur in the region.

The scene raises the temperature in the already sweating room. The spectators are mesmerized. Some start to dance, spinning around and waving their arms. Others are rolling a new joint.

But Gul Khan sacrifices his idyll on the altar of vengeance and turns into a local Rambo distributing bursts between two revolted incantations, uttered with black eyes and hollow voices.

His clan ends up pulverizing the enemy convoy with rockets via special effects worthy of Western films of the 1970s, including lasers transforming each SUV into a fireball, which stands out with a neat high definition production.

At the end of the 2h30 of the film, the hero spits his worst enemy, a corrupt deputy, after having cut off both his arms.

– Uncommon –

We are far from the black and white masterpieces of the 1970s, letters of prude and poetic nobility founders of Pashtun cinema. The influence of wars, especially Afghan wars, made it more violent, and that of the West more sexy.

This “vulgarity“, according to the influential local conservatives, made flee women and families, hardly inclined or authorized by the men to mix with the current public of workers, peasants and refugees, considered not to be frequented.

Producers meet the expectations of their main audience: illiterate workers who come to relax, smoke and see some action and girls“, notes Fakr ul Islam, professor at the University of Peshawar.

Accused of promoting violence, the Khan family defends themselves. “The film tells the authorities: + Give young people work instead of (discriminating against them and) pushing them to take up arms. Otherwise you will suffer the consequences +“, pleads star actor Shahid Khan, brother of director Arshad and incarnation of hero Gul Khan.

The team is rubbing their hands: produced for 6 to 7 million rupees (60 to 70,000 USD), the film goes off strong. “We hope it will bring us twice as much“, explains Arshad.

Beyond the Pashtuns, the whole of Pakistani cinema is blooming again these days, boosted by the opening of a dozen multiplexes in most major cities – except in Peshawar, where risks and conservatism still cool investors. .

At the exit of the room, the crowd is streaming and satisfied. “The government should listen to this message and take care of us because we are poor!“, estimates a spectator with the incipient mustache.

But a young passer-by, cleaner, denounces these cinemas which “should be closed because they show bad movies, in a bad atmosphere for families“.

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Pashtun cinema survived the attacks, but it will take more to make it a family hobby again.


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