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Lights, camera, action men

 

 

Pakistan’s army gets into the film business

 

SOMETIMES the old army dictum “Don’t volunteer for anything” must be broken. As when, for instance, a soldier in Pakistan’s army is given the choice between fighting rebels in the badlands of Waziristan, or volunteering to appear in a film in which he portrays a soldier fighting the same rebels. Whatever thespians may say about the sweat, tears and pain that go into acting, compared with actually fighting in north-western Pakistan, it is at least safer.

Pakistan’s film industry lacks the size and razzmatazz of Bollywood. This year Pakistan looks likely to screen 48 local films. That is a record, but between April 2014 and March 2015, India released more than 38 times as many. The army, envious of its great rival’s soft power, is trying to rectify that imbalance. Hassan Waqas Rana, a prominent Pakistani director, says that the army “looks at the script, and if they think it is good enough they give you whatever you need.”

The army does not finance films. Instead it makes low-budget productions look like higher-budget ones, mainly by offering logistical help and access to military land and hardware: guns, explosives, helicopters and the occasional company of soldiers to appear in the background for extra authenticity. “When we were done shooting a battle sequence,” says Mr Rana, “our extras went straight back to an operation.”

Some credit the army with helping to revive an industry nearly killed off by decades of high taxes. But liberal critics charge it with promoting crude jingoism. Unsurprisingly, the army likes scripts that portray it in a good light. Army-backed films also tend to reflect the institution’s dim views of India and of politicians, whom the generals regard as irredeemably corrupt. Mr Rana’s first film featured a sultry female Indian spy who cooks up terrorist attacks with the Pakistani Taliban—a favourite lunatic trope of Pakistan’s security establishment, which loves to blame India for fomenting jihadism in Pakistan.

Can help that comes with such strings attached make a creative industry flourish? Some think not: Nadeem Mandviwalla, a cinema-chain owner and film financier, says that Pakistani audiences “won’t accept” relentless India-bashing. Despite official bans, Bollywood films are popular: the government turns a blind eye to distributors who buy the films through third countries. Mr Rana agrees. He resisted calls last year to make a film retaliating against “Phantom”, a Bollywood drama about Indian spies thwarting Pakistani terrorists. “Pakistan needs to get out of this whole anti-Indian thing,” he says.

From the print edition: Asia

 

Courtsey The Economist