Friday, May 1, 2009

21st Century PR: Exporting Pakistan to Hollywood (Bluechip, 2004)

It’s been a long time since international A-list celebrities filmed a big budget flick in Pakistan. Too long. The only motion picture produced by a major Hollywood studio that comes to mind is Bhawani Junction, starring greats of a bygone era, Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger. 

British camera crews have been relatively less wary to visit Pakistan over the years, not for filming glamorous, big-budget films, but for portraying gritty Third-World reality, as illustrated in the 1980s TV series Traffik. Though skillfully executed, the drama about smuggling heroin from the poppy fields of the Frontier Province to plush London drawing rooms didn’t exactly portray Pakistan as a lively tourist destination, except as a shopping haven for would-be junkies. 

Immaculate Conception, another film set in Pakistan during the Eighties, was based on our thriving transvestite culture and demonstrated the workings of con artists. Neither of these was particularly beneficial for our public image abroad, which didn’t seem to bother us back then. That, however, was twenty years ago.

Today, we’re trying to return to the cultural norms practiced before the Wahabbist 1980s and are earnestly re-defining ourselves as ‘enlightened moderates.’ In other words, we are repackaging our national identity and marketing it to an international marketplace by gearing up to win over the developed world. It’s all (Behavioural?) Economics. When merged with basic public relations image-building techniques including media planning and publicity, it makes considerable sense to aim towards the most influential medium of all — the silver screen. As they say, there’s no business like show business.

When it comes to the American media in general, ‘Pakistanians’ primarily figure in news headlines, in footage that illustrates horrific crimes, political chaos, and, frankly, not much else. As a result, the country’s national image suffers from what may be perceived from this corner of the world as one-sided portrayal. Widespread depictions of Pakistan as a hotbed of extremists who resort to honour killings, sectarian violence, and renewed attempts at assassinating our heads of state have a way of stigmatising the remainder of the population to the eyes of the developed world. Passion to the height of insanity reads as unglamorous to an American viewer. Bear in mind that to keep television ratings high, news reports at local US television stations are limited to one international headline every 30 minutes, and these headlines are generally of the sensational variety. 

Pre-9/11, if you told an American that you were from Pakistan, many would answer, “Isn’t that a state in India?” If you ask today, given the more politically and geographically enlightened post-9/11 scenario, you might get a “Isn’t that Taliban?” answer. Out of the frying pan and into the fire!

Each country is personified in the image it represents in the mind of the mainstream American viewer. Case in point is our favourite neighbour, India. The fact that an Indian contestant strives to makes it to the top 10 finalists in major international beauty pageants somehow downplays her sectarian violence in world headlines. India is personified as an attractive, exotic woman with sultry dance moves whose melodies are now included in mainstream hip-hop videos — the homeland of peaceful yoga, sparkly bindis and aromatic curries.

Pakistan, on the other hand, invokes the sadly stereotypical image of an angry, bearded man who mutilates his wife’s nose if she defies him — the poster boy for airport immigration authorities to pull aside and check for rope burns from ‘terrorist school.’ 

This time, however, instead of playing the usual ‘Us versus Them’ blame-game (ie blaming the American media for the way they portray Pakistanis), as we are prone to doing since it’s the easy way out, we could try examining our own conspicuous lack of contribution towards mainstream international media and even global popular culture. And then really, really think about what it is that we’re (not) doing.

If reality lets us down, maybe it’s time we turned to fiction. Enter Hollywood. After all, let’s not underestimate the power of the moving image industry. Tapping into the realm of feature films and TV would certainly be a great way to convey a brighter public relations image, which in turn, benefits economic potential and provides more depth to public opinion. There are direct economic benefits to be derived by offering Pakistan as a production site to major motion picture production firms. Such opportunities would pave the way for lucrative foreign investment, not to mention employment for both our emerging media talent and for the immense skilled labour force that would work as crew members. The increase in sophisticated projects would be followed by an increase in the availability of sophisticated technical equipment and expertise. Each year, an increasing number of big-budget (and I mean BIG budget) Hollywood productions are taking place in overseas locations, from the southern Moroccan desert (The Mummy, Black Hawk Down), to the hills of New Zealand and Australia (The Lord of the Rings & The Matrix trilogies respectively). Surely our diverse terrain may be well-utilised for an array of international productions. 

Let’s not limit ourselves to that. Untapped literary heritage could be picked up and adapted into cinematic screenplays targeted towards audiences of millions worldwide. It’s incredible that we have so little faith in our critical and commercial appeal that we restrict ourselves to producing shoddy rip-off versions of commercial Bollywood flicks for a limited domestic audience. Local producers claim that this is what the ‘masses’ want although scanty box office returns prove otherwise. As a result, all we are left with in our decaying film industry are glorified mujra productions meant for titillation, known as ‘Lollywood.’ Film projects with higher budgets aim for a glossy veneer by employing Indian musicians and renting editing facilities in Singapore. This is hardly forward-thinking behaviour because content-wise, there is not much difference between the two. Amongst regional cinema, Pushto-language films have an impossibly low standard of production that’s hard to beat. Characterised by ridiculously audacious camera angles objectifying generously-sized human flesh, the cinematic products from the country’s most conservative region could ironically be termed as Pakistan’s ‘Adult’ movie industry. There’s little marketability so far in terms of aiming towards a global audience, unless one counts a possible niche in the kitsch-cinema market. It isn’t surprising that more enterprising film and video entrepreneurs focus their lenses towards the television industry.

After establishing several independent TV channels and an Internet revolution, Pakistanis are confident of having made leaps and bounds in the realm of media. An even bigger achievement, however, would be to create a large-scale original work of cinematic art that can be transported across cultural borders, the way that Children of Paradise did for Irani cinema. Storytelling on the big screen has the potential of being both a work of art and an effective marketing tool. Currently, our feature film industry has little hope of entering the global mainstream, not counting box-office successes by second-generation British Asians, or independent short films and documentaries by Pakistani-American film-school alumni making the rounds at film festivals and indie (independent) cineplexes. 

Exporting an updated version would be a large-scale PR triumph
Realistically speaking, it would mean venturing into mainstream entertainment media via local feature film productions that are conceived with international audiences in mind beyond our own expatriate communities worldwide. Initially, we could meet budgetary requirements by participating in international co-productions of high production value. 

The questions are many and we need to start coming up with answers: can ‘Pakistani-ness’ translate into commercial appeal for overseas audiences if we target mainstream global entertainment media? Is anyone even interested in us, let alone paying $10 to watch a film produced in Pakistan by Pakistanis on the big screen? Before budding investors cave in from a lack of confidence, consider how ludicrous it would have sounded 10 years ago to be told that Hollywood would be literally dancing to the tune of Indian commercial cinematic culture, which today has proved to be a profitable exportable cultural commodity. The roots of the Hindi song-and-dance movie genre are to be found in old Hollywood musicals such as Singing In the Rain. But today, it’s Hollywood who’s doing the imitating. Recent movies have featured Bollywoodesque choreographed dance sequences by A-list leading ladies including Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge, Heather Graham in The Guru, and now Reese Witherspoon in Vanity Fair. It may seem shallow, inane and frivolous, but hey, that’s why it’s called popular culture. And it works like no other.

When it comes to a drastic face-lift in the international media — which we’ve finally realised is what Pakistan needs — we ought to look beyond the confines of what we traditionally consider as our selling point. Yes, the K-2 is impressive, and yes there are still lots of mountain climbers out there for whom it holds allure, but it doesn’t possess the kind of mainstream pull for the scale of dramatic reconstruction we need right now. So let’s stop relying solely upon (circa 1970) pictures of Pakistan’s scenic beauty as our primary exportable image, making Pakistan look more like an airline than a country. What we essentially need is three-dimensional material that conveys the living, breathing, creative, interesting human beings we are, whom others can relate to beyond cultural, linguistic and geographic disparities. We need to address the preconceived notions that oversees visitors have of Pakistan and show our other sides, the sides that visitors discover after arriving here and getting to know the real deal. In short, we need to sell ourselves, without actually selling ourselves.

Through centuries, cultures have bonded over themes of humanity and universality in works of art, including literary fiction, paintings and sculpture. In recent years, this has been made possible with the globalisation of popular culture. National identity —that phenomenon that defies a rigid definition because of its dynamic nature— constantly evolves into a mosaic of traditional cultural heritage and contemporaneous trends. Popular culture has made its presence felt by evolving into a massive cosmopolitan swirl of activity and expression, albeit mainstream and commercial. If this is a way for bridging cross-cultural distances and making us more culturally accessible, should we be fighting it or contributing towards it? 

After all, if cultural expression is the most dynamic way of bringing people together, aiming first towards mainstream commercialism would only broaden its audience base by creating awareness, thereby paving the way for independent, experimental and alternative forms of creative expression. 

It’s our problem and we need to deal with it. The search for talent agents is on.

— the writer is a TV Producer & Director

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