World Cinema - Pakistan, November 2015
Michael Rowan, a member of Chiltern Film Society's committee, is finding out about how people from different countries experienced cinema in their homeland.
With one exception I have only ever visited the cinema in the UK and had always assumed that mine was a universal experience. One day a chance conversation made me wonder if perhaps I was being naïve and so I set myself the challenge to find out what people living in Chesham but born in another country recalled about cinema in their homeland. I am very grateful to everyone who gave up their time to give me such an insight often reviving memories that they had forgotten.
This time I had the pleasure of meeting a man in his eighties who felt unsure that his story would be of interest in that self effacing way that belong to men of a certain generation. Needless to say that I spent the next hour in his thrall and only wish I had another excuse to talk to him about his fascinating life.
Today I am speaking to Mohammed Alam who came to Chesham in the 1970s but is originally from Krachi in the south of Pakistan. He lived first in London before moving to Chesham. Mohammed worked in an engineering firm in Amersham he now lives in Chesham with his eldest son and grandson.
One of Mohammed’s sons is Maz Alam, a famous TV presenter on the Asian Channel and latterly a TV and Film Director.
He now lives with his son and grandchildren of whom he is immensely proud and the affection is returned by Umar his grandson who accompanied him to this interview
1) How does the cinema here differ from that in Pakistan?
Mohammed tells me that before Partition in 1947 the experience of all cultures in India was influenced by the Raj. The wealthiest of the patrons, generally the English and the wealthier Indians hired boxes which boasted waiter service and extreme comfort.
Most cinemas had a first class section complete with chairs made more comfortable with cushions and the best view of the screen. Second class was for the more middle class patrons whilst the third class had wooden benches where patrons were straining their necks looking up at the screen
There was no religious segregation within the cinema, class was the only divider.
Post partition the cinemas in Pakistan underwent modernisation as they were all owned privately and the owners in Pakistan were able to get permission from the Government to upgrade their buildings with different signage and more comfortable seats throughout.
Nowadays, Mohammed tells me you can have dinner at the cinema.
Some cinemas were reserved solely to show English films both before and after partition and that continues even today
Most show films in the national language with a few showing in the local language.
2) What is your first memory of going to the cinema as a child?
Mohammed - There were several reasons why children were not allowed to go to the cinema: they had to be about 12 before their first visit when they would have been accompanied by their parents. The bigger factor was that poverty meant many people couldn’t afford to take their children due to the cost.
Parents also tried to keep their children away from the cinema because of the nature of the films which were usually about a boy and girl falling in love and it was considered too early for children to learn of such things.
Boys were allowed to go to the cinema when they were around 12 or 13 years, but the girls had to be older. You have to remember that at that time films were not made for children.
3) What was the first film that you recall seeing?
Mohammed apologises for been unable to recall the name of the film but he thinks that he would have been 12 or 13 and the film was in black and white. ‘I was taken by my father but my mother would have stayed at home.’
'I can remember seeing Samson and Delilah and have loved those religious epic films ever since.
‘When Partition came we had to flee, leaving behind our home and all our possessions and with no home, money or work to go to, so visiting the cinema took a back seat until we settled and had rebuilt our lives.'
4) How expensive was it to visit the cinema?
Mohammed – In 1947 it was cheap - third class was under 1 rupee.
5) What was the etiquette in the cinema in Pakistan?
Mohammed - The cinemas reflected the target audience so were much cleaner with better service in the wealthier areas or near where the soldiers were stationed.
The cinemas showing only English films were notable for their behaviour as everyone queued politely and there would not be any pushing and shoving and the audiences were quieter. Of course the audience for such cinemas was restricted to those who spoke English.
Smoking was allowed; everyone smoked in those days, and there would be some talking with friends even when the film was on.
Married men would take their wives having first checked that the film had no ‘awkward scenes’ that might prove embarrassing. Films would not show kissing or hand holding. Even today films in Pakistan still do not show scenes of kissing. If the Indian Bollywood films show the stars kissing it is still considered sensational and makes the news.
In the last 20 years Pakistani films have virtually disappeared with only one or 2 films being made a year. This is because it is so difficult to get the filmed financed within Pakistan. The constant threat of terrorism deters film makers from travelling the country for location shooting and famous actors are reluctant to travel to other areas of Pakistan due to the incidence of people get kidnapped or killed, especially as fame makes them more of a target. For this reason TV drama is on the increase and taking over from cinema which heavily feature drama and as a consequence there is now a crossover of experts from cinema to TV drama so the production standards are higher.
Most of the film industry has since shifted from Pakistan to Dubai because it is safer to film and that is where the finance is.
Pakistani drama is based on content whereas Bollywood tends to be more aspirational and materialistic.
The decline in cinema (as is much of the rest of the world) saw many cinemas closing only to be replaced with more shops.
Now that they are allowed to show Indian films in Pakistan, people are returning and cinemas are now reopening for the new audiences.
6) When I was a child the only food eaten in the cinema was tubs of ice cream or choc ice, Orange Juice and hot dogs. What kind of food could you buy at the cinema?
Mohammed - Well obviously there was no chocolate on sale due to the high temperatures. In the first class section they served tea, biscuits and cake.
In the foyer would be a proper Tea room for customers to take refreshment.
7) What sort of films were shown in Pakistan? Was it the usual blockbuster? Walt Disney or something else?
Mohammed - Mostly the films were of a romantic nature which followed a general pattern of a young couple falling in love following which a fight would ensue as one set of parents wouldn’t like the intended object of their son or daughter's affection followed by some form of resolution. Kissing is still not allowed.
If a film proved popular it could be shown for weeks, months even a year or more with 3 screenings a day and most films were 2 hour plus.
Mohammed recalls one particular film that featured a woman who lost her son and the actress on the screen was crying and so were all the women in the audience.
8) Do you go to the cinema in UK – what were your first impressions?
Mohammed - One thing I noticed was that the seats were more comfortable. I saw a lot of Hollywood films and English films e.g. James Bond.
9) We have certain films that are shown every Christmas, is that the same in your country and if so what ?
Mohammed – Well films can be popular at Eid because everyone is on holiday but no particular films associated with Eid are shown.
10) And what film character would you like to be?
After some thought Mohammed said, ‘I think that it would be Kirk Douglas’s character in Spartacus’
11) Finally what is your favourite film?
Mohammed - I like to watch the historical films and the old James Bond Films.
I like very much the epic films like Ben Hur which I watch every time it is shown on the TV. It is a moral religious story with great spectacle but more importantly there is nothing rubbish in the whole film and you can watch it quite happily whilst sitting with your family. There is nothing embarrassing in the film.
Mohammed Alam thank you for sharing your experience of cinema