Lahore Film Industry: A Historical Outline

Farooq Sulehria is a London-based researcher in media studies. An MA in Mass Communication, he has written for many publications and periodicals in Pakistan, Sweden and elsewhere.

Farooq Sulehria

Lollywood survived partition of the subcontinent against all odds. However, it could not escape the militarisation of the state and the consequent Talibanisation of the society.

The wound partition inflicted on Lollywood is a theme constantly explored by Stockholm-based political scientist Ishtiaq Ahmed (see the Lahore Film Industry in Anjali Roy’s and Chua Huat’s Travels of Bollywood Cinema).

While literature on the topic beyond Ahmed’s academic and journalistic writings is almost non-existent, Mushtaq Gazdar’s Pakistan Cinema: 1947-1997 is the only full-length analytical study of Pakistani cinema ever written. Yasin Goreja’s Pakistan Millennium Film Directory (2003) offers a mine of information but no analysis. Drawing upon Ahmed and Gazdar for historical facts, this brief essay will epigrammatically outline the general causes that contributed to Lollywood’s decline. 


A still from Shepherd King/Gudaria Sultan (A R Kardar, 1930)
A still from Shepherd King/Gudaria Sultan (A R Kardar, 1930)

The first silent film made in Lahore, The Daughters of Today (Director: G K Mehta), was released in 1924. A.R. Kardar, along with M. Ismail, established the first studio in 1928 and produced the first talkie, Heer Ranjha, in 1932 (first Bombay talkie, Alam Ara, was released in 1931). As Lollywood pioneers, Roop Lal Shori and D.M. Pancholi, a Gujarati, also deserve special mention.

While Bombay, Calcutta and Madras emerged as filmmaking cities earlier than Lahore, the latter did not take long to catch up. Most importantly, unlike Calcutta and Madras, Lahore film centre was tightly integrated with Bombay. It was a mutually beneficial interaction.

The partition severed the link. While a talented lot from Bombay moved to Lahore, notably Noor Jehan, Khurshid Anwar and Manto, the talent-drain from Lahore was enormous.

While Indian films until 1965 were shown in Pakistan and vice versa, film workers also moved across the border. For instance, technically, the first film produced in Pakistan, Shahida, featured Nasir Khan, Dilip Kumar’s brother. Decades later, Muhammad Ali featured in Manoj Kumar’s Clerk. Zeba Bakhtiar, Mohsin Khan, Qatil Shifai, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Haseena Moin were welcomed in Bollywood in the late 1980s onwards.

Of late, Atif Aslam, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and a few others have established themselves as accomplished performers in Bollywood. However, these days, Pakistani talent is migrating to Bombay in search of survival as Lollywood has entered a terminal decline. Lollywood’s decline, however, was not pre-destined.

Yamla Jat (Moti B Gidwani, 1940)


Showing great resilience, Lollywood overcame the partition loss. Despite competition on the circuit until 1965, films featuring Santosh Kumar and Sabiha, Muhammad Ali and Zeba, Ejaz and Firdous, Nadeem and Shabnam, or mega-star Waheed Murad attracted huge audiences and did big business.

In the 1960s, Lollywood was among the top ten film-producing industries in the world. While Lollywood was able to both survive the partition and compete with Bollywood, it could not escape the objective socio-political realities.

On the one hand, a nation imagined on puritan basis always had an awkward tolerance for an impure artistic expression, laced with ‘vulgarity.’ Our film actresses, especially, could never command the social acceptance and respect despite their enormous talent and fame. They remained ‘red light area girls.’

Armaan (Waheed Murad, 1966)
Armaan (Waheed Murad, 1966)

On the other hand, an unfriendly state made the film job even more difficult when democracy was overruled. A strict censorship introduced by the first military rule reduced the film genre to song-and-dance romantic sequels. No doubt, progressives in Lahore offered sober classics such as Kirtar Singh, arguably the best film on partition made in the subcontinent, yet creativity was discouraged.

The ban on Indian films and censorship introduced another rotten trend of plagiarising. Film makers and script writers would drive to Kabul where Indian films were shown on cinema and popular Bollywood plots were unabashedly replicated. This practice in vernacular was called “charba” which further discouraged creativity, consequently hampering Lollywood’s growth. 

Thus, restricted by censorship, petty commercial interests turned Lollywood into a wasteland.

A national cinema has also a pedagogical role to play. Lollywood had the responsibility to hone popular taste and aesthetics. But profit-seeking filmmakers would not dare violate the ‘best practices.’ As a result, excellent production which in some cases won international acclaim, such as Jago Hua Sawera or Mati Ke Diye badly flopped.

In 1973, Bhutto’s government, realising the deteriorating condition of the film industry, established the National Film Development Corporation (NAFDEC). However, Zia regime’s censorship was so restrictive that it became virtually impossible to express new ideas through form, content or artistry in a film.

On the one hand, outright jihadist films were produced by Lollywood, for instance: Ghazi Ilam Din, International Gorilay, Changa Manga, Mujahid, Aalmi Ghunday, Hum Panch, on the other hand an Islamified on-screen discourse became a norm.

Every conflict in most films would be solved or explained by invoking religion. Islamified narratives would help please censorship authorities and were unquestionably accepted by uncritical audiences.

Meantime, a generalised Islamification of state and society not merely constrained the political imagination of ordinary Pakistanis but also changed country’s ideological outlook. The post-Zia generation had no time for artistic expressions. While members of an Islamist outfit were already planting bombs at theatres in Lahore, still-surviving cinemas houses attract the puritan wrath every time zealots take to streets to vent their anger at the USA.

On September 21, last year, six theatres were gutted to protest against an anti-Islam US video. Meantime, the number of Lollywood productions from a peak of 100 productions annually, at average, has declined to 10. National cinema, at least in case of Pakistan, truly reflects the nation.

First published in The News on April 28, 2013 as a part of the Special Report on the 100 years of Cinema in the sub-continent.

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