Hands up if you have seen a Bangladeshi rom-com? A Pakistani political drama perhaps? Or maybe a Sri Lankan thriller? No? Me neither.
It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just that I don’t have access to them in the way I do Indian films. I can walk into a multiplex cinema or independent picture house in most UK cities and I’m likely to find at least one Indian film being screened. Be it the latest Bollywood musical, Tamil action adventure, Punjabi potboiler, Bengali art house or urban indie flick, I’m guaranteed two or three hours of desi entertainment.
The last time I was able to watch a Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan film on a big screen was at one of the UK’s handful of South Asian film festivals or the annual London Film Festival. But recently I’ve noticed fewer and fewer of these events offering me the opportunity of view productions from the trio of countries conveniently lumped together with India under the ‘South Asian’ umbrella.
Of the eleven films classed as South Asian at this years BFI London Film Festival (13-28 October), seven are Indian releases (Dhobi Ghat, Autumn, Udaan, I Am Kalam, Paan Singh Tomar, Just Another Love Story And I Am Sindhutai Sapkal), two joint productions between India-UK (Pink Saris) and India-Italy-Israel (Miral), one UK (West Is West) and one American (The Taqwacores). Like the previous year, there’s not a single Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Sri Lankan origin feature in sight.
While it’s highly commendable to see the selection of South Asian films at the prestigious London film Festival almost double in number since 2009, it’s a real shame that Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan filmmakers aren’t getting the same level of international exposure.
Why is this? According to Carey Rajinder Sawhney, South Asian program advisor for the London Film Festival, it’s not for lack of trying on the selector’s behalf. “I viewed 70 films in the South Asian category, but sadly most of the Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan films weren’t eligible or strong enough for inclusion. Some were beautiful but had already been shown at other film festivals and so couldn’t meet the criteria of having their UK premiere at London. Others were not of the quality required for a top international showcase.”
Sawhney also points to the fact that these film industries are suffering due to the sheer dominance of film output from their sister industry in India. Pakistan and India might have their long-held differences, but Pakistani moviegoers prefer the glossy productions of India's Bollywood to those of their own filmmakers. As a result, Pakistani producers say their industry is in critical condition, and could vanish altogether unless the government steps in.
Commercial films made within Pakistan are of the ‘Lollywood’ genre, which mostly seek to emulate Bollywood and consist of exaggerated plot lines and high level dramatics. “Unfortunately these films do not have a crossover appeal on an international level” states Sanam Hassan, Marketing and Public Relations for Mara Pictures, a boutique theatrical distributor acquiring films for cinema exhibition in the UK. According to Ms Hassan the paucity of Pakistani films is also to do with lack of industry investment and support.
“Recently there has been a slow but steady pace of independent films out of Pakistan including Ramchand Pakistani, Khuda Ke Liye, Son of a Lion and Slackistan. Just as the production of these films are burdened with a lack of finance, resources and the support of a production infrastructure, once the films are made they struggle to find a place in an international market that is not aware of Pakistani independent cinema or underestimate the appeal of these films hold for both Diaspora and mainstream audiences,” says Ms Hassan.?? “However with the production of these films and with distributors like Mara Pictures releasing Pakistani independent cinema in the UK- the audience, the cinemas and the festivals are becoming more aware. These films are on par with international cinema- they require the platform to be released and screened which would help the production and distribution of Pakistani independent cinema to grow further.”
This sentiment is echoed by British Bangladeshi filmmaker Sadik Ahmed whose debut feature, The Last Thakur, had its world premiere at the London Film Festival in 2008 and is one of few Bangladeshi films to get a limited UK cinema release. Billed a ‘spaghetti eastern’, his contemporary Bengal-set revenge thriller is an example of what he feels is “world cinema”. Another example is Tareque Masud's Matir Moina (The Clay Bird) (2002) which won a number of international awards from the Cannes, Edinburgh, Montreal and Cairo film festivals.
“There are a lot of young Bangladeshi filmmakers like me who want to make indie films aimed at the world cinema genre, but no producer will invest in that kind of film as it won’t appeal to the home audience who are used to watching the melodramas that are made there,” explains Ahmed. “Also, Bangladesh is a younger nation and only releases around 20-30 films each year, whereas India has been making films a lot longer and as an industry has matured. So they have their melodramas but can also afford to make world class cinema. Hopefully in years to come Bangladeshi cinema can catch up.”
Like Bangladesh and Pakistan, Sri Lanka’s film industry has also suffered from lack of official support, in addition to the volatile political climate within which it exists. In recent years, Sinhalese filmmakers like Prasanna Vithanage, Vimukthi Jayasundara, Asoka Handagama and pioneer of Sri Lankan realist cinema Lester James Peiris have been tackling gritty subjects such as family relationships, abortion and results of the conflict between the military and Tamil Tiger rebels in the north. But their number is drastically reducing.
“Sri Lanka has produced a number of good films of international standard in the past few years, but a recent change in politics has affected the industry badly,” explains Sawhney. “The government believes the film industry must stand on its own feet and no longer be state subsidised. After all the civil unrest in their country they are not interested in cinema.”
Lack of financial backing from the government isn’t just a concern for South Asian filmmakers. The recent abolition of the UK Film Council by the new coalition government has put British filmmakers in strife. “If the Brits find it difficult to make films nowadays, imagine how hard it must be for filmmakers in emerging countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Bangladesh,” ponders Sawhney.
While the present state of Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cinema does not offer much hope and creativity is at low ebb, I for one have faith that filmmakers from these regions will endure the hardships and once again make cinema all South Asians can be proud of. Until then, it’s up to us as audiences to offer them support.
For more info on the films showcased at the 54th BFI London Film Festival ((13-28 October 2010) visit http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff/