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Pakistani Film Industry Fights for Survival

Pakistan and India might have their long-held differences, but Pakistani moviegoers prefer the productions of India's "Bollywood" moviemakers to those of their own filmmakers. As a result, Pakistani producers say their industry is in critical condition, and unless the government steps in, it could disappear altogether. VOA Correspondent Benjamin Sand reports from Islamabad.

Pakistani mega-star Shaan has appeared in more than 200 movies during his 15-year career. He is also a writer, producer and director, as well as a regular in the Pakistani gossip columns.

But popular as he is, Shaan might be a member of a dying breed.

In 2006, Pakistan's film industry produced just 40 movies, a fifth of what it turned out during its heyday in the 1970's.

Back then, there were more than 1,000 movie theaters throughout the country. Today there are only around 200, and not one in the capital, Islamabad.

The main reason is that Pakistanis prefer films from their neighbor and rival, India, which have higher production values than the Pakistani product.

Theoretically, Pakistani filmmakers are protected by a decades-old government ban on Indian movies. But the movies are still available from local stores on pirated DVDs.

Movie star Shaan says lower quality films and the lack of theaters are killing the Pakistani industry.

"I know people in Pakistan who go to Dubai for one day and watch a film and come back with their families," Shaan says. "The culture has not died, it is the faculty that has worn out, it needs to be changed. The people have to have more incentive to go."

Increasingly, filmmakers like Shaan are turning to the government to help provide that incentive.

More than 200 industry leaders recently met in the capital for a conference on how to revitalize the ailing business.

Filmmaker Jamal Shah helped organize the conference along with Pakistan's Ministry of Culture. Shah says the government can and should play a major role in promoting the domestic movie industry.

If politicians are not motivated by their artistic sensibilities, he says, they should also consider the government's interest in keeping the country's 170 million citizens entertained.

"The thing is, if you do not have quality entertainment in your society, aggression and hostility will take over," he said. "That is the problem, and in Pakistan, I am afraid there is a lot of aggression."

Reema Khan, a 35-year-old model and movie star, is about as popular as one can be in Pakistan. In addition to the countless movies she has appeared in, she is also featured in a major advertising campaign for Pepsi Cola.

She is also one of the few female directors in the country, and her movies offer a perspective on Pakistani society that is rarely seen.

She would like to send that perspective abroad, but without government support, she says, foreign audiences may never see her latest work.

"I have produced my film and directed and acted in it," she said. "And I am trying to release it all over the world, but I have not got any opportunity in the international market, so that is why I need government support to do our best, and we really want to show our capability and our talent to the world."

Most of that talent is found in the city of Lahore.

In the 1930's, when Pakistan and India were still united under British rule, there were two competing centers of the film industry: Lahore, in what is now Pakistan, and Bombay, now known as Mumbai, the home of India's fabulously successful "Bollywood" filmmakers.

These days, of course, there is little question who won the competition.

Bollywood is not just big, it is the world's biggest, producing more films per year than any of its competitors including the United States. Its movies are slick and lavishly produced. It is hard for the Pakistanis to compete.

Reema Khan and her colleagues want the government to establish a new film academy to nurture local talent. They also want the government to liberalize its film censorship board, which reviews local movies for so-called sensitive material. And they want more tax breaks for producers, and financial incentives for developers to open theaters.

G.G. Jamal is the federal minister for culture and was a keynote speaker at the recent conference. He says the government is committed to providing help, and will consider each of the filmmakers' proposals.

"It is important to us," Jamal said. "The government, definitely, we have assured them we can help them in all these aspects."

But Jamal says he recognizes the movie industry is in critical condition. Unless something is done soon, he says, Pakistan's moviemakers may soon be filming their final act.