Film in the Time of Fascism

Despite the precarity of cinemagoing during the turbulent Zia years, cinema in Pakistan became a site of desire, transgression and political disobedience.

Momina Masood

May 21, 2019

Film in the Time of Fascism

As a child in small-town Sialkot during the 90s, spotting a cinema was an event. During shopping trips with my mother, my brother and I would fight over a place on the tonga (horse-led carriage) to get a better view of the billboards between Railway Road and Commissioner Road — the nexus of where the poorer inner city gave way to the more affluent Cantonment Area. These two cinemas, located a few miles apart, stood where the city split, a midpoint for both the inner-city mazdoor (laborers) and the posh aunties from Saddar. Everyone frequented these single-screen cinema halls, despite their seating arrangements designed to separate the classes.

After the military coup in 1977, when Chief of Army Staff Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq overthrew Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, cinemagoing in Pakistan became a forbidden space associated with an imagined identity: illiterate, working-class, possibly dangerous men, who had become the intended audience for the low-budget “trash” cinema during this period.

The theater was doubly forbidden for me, both as a girl and as a member of the “respectable” Urdu-speaking middle class. Yet I would fantasize about the movies playing inside, and the men and women huddled together watching them. My earliest memory of Pakistani films was that they were not supposed to be seen. Or, that they were mindless, violent Punjabi melodrama, exemplified by billboards of women holding bloodied knives. Remembering her own childhood without visits to the cinema, Hira Nabi wondered: “Is it possible to feel a loss for something that I never personally experienced?”