The Rise and Fall of Pollywood

Recent flooding across Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) region and the provinces of Punjab and Sindh has wreaked havoc on an already downtrodden and terrorized Pakistani citizenry. The floods serve as a stark reminder of how vulnerable the people of Pakistan are, especially those in the KP region. In July I had the unique and rewarding opportunity to visit Pakistan’s KP province. For four days, I visited Peshawar and the surrounding villages alongside members of Pakistan’s Pashtun film industry, which has steadily declined since 2001. Today, the Pakistani Pashtun film industry is reduced to a risky and largely underground operation.  With Australian filmmaker and artist, George Gittoes as my guide as well as members of the Pashtun film industry, I was able to gain an appreciation for the hardships this community faces at the hands of extremists, or miscreants as they are called in KP. The Taliban and religious extremist parties like the Muttahdia-Majilis-e-Amal (MMA) have have declared these films haram, or against the laws of Islam. As a result, theaters in Peshawar and across KP have been forcibly closed, DVD sellers killed and their shops razed, and the actors and actresses that are the mainstay of the industry forced underground.

The Miscreants of Taliwood Poster

George Gittoes Poses with Taliwood film stars for the 'Miscreants' Movie Poster

I witnessed the second and third order effects of this clampdown on creative expression firsthand on a visit to the village of a famous Pashtun actor.

Three hours north of Peshawar, in the heart of KP, I received a warm welcome into the modest village and home of one of the industry’s great actors, Javid Muzavi. With more than 300 movies under his belt (both as an actor and a director), this star of BBC radio programs has name and face recognition that would make George Clooney blush.

During the 1990s Javid and his fellow Pollywood stars made more than enough money to support their large extended families. More importantly perhaps, they made films that entertained and resonated with the broader Pashtun community. Today the situation has changed dramatically. The remnants of Pashtun film industry have split; core talent like Javid and his colleagues are now making low budget action/drama tele-movies as a seedier faux-Pashtun cinema emerges out of Pakistan’s Punjab province. It is the Punjabi variety of Pashtun cinema, predominantly funded by criminal elements with ties to the Afghan poppy industry that include storylines which run counter to Pashtun values, that is currently masquerading as true Pashtun cinema. The real Pashtun film industry and its stars remain, in large part, in hiding and out of the limelight. There is, however, room for hope. The MMA party was thrown out of office in the last election and a progressive and educated class of citizens in Peshawar and across KP and the Swat valley are organizing against the miscreants to promote the rebirth of Pashtun arts and culture. While the United States remains deeply unpopular in KP and the tribal regions, the Taliban and other insurgent groups’ popularity and the support from the general population is waning.

When I sat down to dinner one evening in Peshawar with faculty from Peshawar University, local businessmen, and other individuals from the community, it was heartening to hear the hope and optimism they had regarding the future of their region and that of the Pashtun community. At the cornerstone of this resurgence of moderate Pashtun culture is the film industry that at one time so accurately reflected the values and mores of Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With support from local and international NGOs, the Pashtun film industry is slowly being put back to work, distributing their work through established vendors across the region. While the revival of this industry will not signal the defeat of the extremist and miscreants, it will surely provide a sense of hope and semblance of normalcy to a population that has suffered enormously over the past decade.