The Growth and Tumble of the Pakistani Cinema
The Growth and Tumble of the Pakistani Cinema

The Indian subcontinent in 1947 was divided into two countries and three parts: India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan. My essay aims to look into the development of the film industries of the subcontinent, with a focus on Pakistan. Moreover, when in 1971 Pakistan was fractured, and East Pakistan was lost, how did it affect Pakistan’s films culturally and socially?

The Beginnings of Pakistan’s Film Industry

The British divided the subcontinent in a casual and sloppy manner, leaving it in shambles. We know about the blood bath that followed and the migration that took place on both sides. In July 1947, five weeks before the British were to leave the subcontinent, a British lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, was commissioned to draw the borders that would divide British India into two countries.

“Partition’s effect on the film industries of the two countries was radically different. While India lost some good talent, Pakistan had to literally restart from scratch.”1

Even though the film industry in India, particularly in Bombay, was truly cosmopolitan and secular in nature, some people from the industry did relocate. Those who chose to come to Pakistan did so because of their own personal sentiments. Though there was loss of some good talent in India, it was pretty much business as usual in Bombay and in other film centres across the country. However, the Bengali film industry of Calcutta (Kolkata) did suffer, as a large portion of its market got taken away by the East wing of Pakistan.

Noor Jehan began singing at the age of five and received early training in classical singing under Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Her singing career spanned for more than six decades.

Singing star Noor Jehan, who was born in Qasur, Punjab, and actor Swaran Lata who was born in Rawalpindi, were both Hindi cinema’s top female stars, who opted to return to this side of the border where they were born. Writer Saadat Hasan Manto, filmmakers Shaukat Hussain Rizvi (who was married to Noor Jehan), WZ Ahmed, Zia Sarhadi, and actor, director, producer Nazir Ahmed Khan (he was married to Swaran Lata), as well as composers Feroz Nizami, Ghulam Haider, and later Khwaja Khurshid Anwar also migrated to Pakistan. Nonetheless, these were rare instances of big names within the Indian film industry who opted for Pakistan, as most of the others who left, had played character roles, or whose careers had begun to decline. Many Muslim actors, technicians, etc. who were doing well for themselves preferred to stay back in India. There were also some prominent Hindu artists who left for India from Lahore, including actors Pran and Om Prakash, and filmmakers Dalsukh M Pancholi and Roop K Shorey.

However, a Hindu distributor, Jagdish Chand Anand (better known as JC Anand), preferred to stay back in Pakistan, and went on to become one of the most successful producer-distributors across the border. In 1946, he had formed his own company, Eveready Pictures, and after 1947, by distributing Indian films – in particular the hit Mahal (1949) from Bombay Talkies, and Raj Kapoor’s films, including Barsaat (1949) and Awara (1951), he did not look back.

Eveready Pictures was the only film company operating across East and West Pakistan. JC Anand died in Karachi in 1977. He left behind a rich cinematic legacy, and his son, Satish Anand has been running the Eveready Group of Companies in Karachi ever since. I met Satish Anand in his office a few years ago, and learnt that in the last 70 + years his company has released over 650 Hollywood, Bollywood and Pakistani feature films.

Unlike India, where there were film centres in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, Pakistan only had Lahore for making films. The two major studios there, owned by Pancholi Art Pictures and Shorey Pictures, were razed to the ground in the communal riots of 1947. The Pakistani film industry therefore had no proper funding or any technical infrastructure. It struggled to make its first film, Teri Yaad, directed by Dawood Chand, which was released on Eid-ul-Fitr in August 1948. But despite Dilip Kumar’s brother Nasir Khan, and Asha Posley (who also sang her own songs in the film) starring in it, the film failed completely. It had very poor production and technical standards. Yet, Teri Yaad signaled the birth of a new film industry in South Asia.

Teri Yaad was Pakistan’s first film.Released on August 7, 1948

The film-going audience, who now lived in Pakistan, was used to watching better films from the pre-Partition era.  Not only were the stories, songs and dances more commendable, but also the technical expertise of Indian films was better. From the mid-1950s onwards, in order to cater to that taste, some ground-breaking efforts of dedicated filmmakers such as Nazir, WZ Ahmed, Anwar Kamal Pasha and Sibtain Fazli made it possible for the Pakistani cinema to move forward. They overcame huge obstacles to create a feasible industry by giving opportunities to new actors. These included Santosh Kumar (whose real name was Moosa Raza), and Sabiha Khanum,   who later became his life partner. The two can be termed as the first film couple/family of Pakistan. While Santosh was the romantic hero, Sudhir, better known as Lala Sudhir, was the action hero of several Urdu and Punjabi films.

Actor Santosh Kumar was Pakistan's first superstar film hero. Seen here with his wife, actor Sabiha Khanum

Some years after Independence, there was an effort to ban the exhibition of Hindi films in Pakistan in order to help the indigenous film industry to flourish. Finally, in 1965, after the second war between Pakistan and India was fought, Indian films were banned by General Mohammad Ayub Khan. It was after more than 40 years that another military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, removed that ban.

It is interesting to note that despite the diplomatic tensions, as hot and cold winds have kept blowing between the two nuclear-armed countries, Pakistani and Indian actors, singers and writers have had a long history of collaboration. These include actors Zia Mohyeddin, Nadeem, Talat Hussain, Zeba Bakhtiar, Javed Sheikh, Salman Shahid, Saba Qamar, Humaima Malick, Sajal Ali, Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan; singers Ghulam Ali, Nusrat Fateh Ali, Rahat Fateh Ali, Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan, Atif Aslam, and Ali Zafar; writers Haseena Moin and Syed Mohammed Ahmed. They were all invited to work for the Indian cinema on various projects.

Indian actors who have worked in Pakistani films include Kirron Kher,  Nandita Das,  Naseeruddin Shah,  Johnny Lever, Om Puri,  Vinod Khanna, Shweta, Arbaaz Khan, Gulshan Grover and Neha Dhupia, and singers Talat Mehmood Hemant Kumar, Asha Bhosle, Sonu Nigam and Mika Singh who lent their voices to Pakistani films.

Fast forward to 2016, the Uri attack happened in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in which 19 Indian soldiers were killed. Three years later, in 2019, India accused Pakistan for the Pulwama attack – a charge Pakistan denies, but after Pulwama the All Indian Cine Workers Association announced a total ban on Pakistani artists from working in Bollywood. In 2017 the famous Pakistani actor Mahira Khan had made her Bollywood debut opposite India’s Shahrukh Khan in Raees but she could not travel to India to promote the film.  Similarly, popular Pakistani hero Fawad Khan’s career in Indian films also came to a sudden halt.

As compared to other arts, especially through literature, filmmakers on either side of the border have only occasionally explored the subject of Partition. This is especially true in the early years following independence. Lahore (1949), starring Nargis and Karan Dewan was the earliest Indian film that had Partition as its backdrop, while Pakistan first explored it in Masud Parvaiz’s Beli (1950), written by Sadat Hasan Manto, in which Sabiha and Santosh had acted.

“Around a dozen (Pakistani) movies have been made on the issue of Partition: Kartar Singh (Saifudin Saif -1959), Khaak aur Khoon (Masud Pervaiz -1979), Tauba (S A Hafiz -1964), Lakhon Mein Eik (Raza Mir -1967), Behen Bhai (Hasan Tariq -1968) and Pehli Nazar (Islam Dar – 1977). All these movies fared well on the commercial circuits, with Kartar Singh becoming a record breaker and very popular in India as well.2

Until 1971, Pakistan had three main film production centers – Lahore, Karachi and Dhaka. Lollywood, based in Lahore, has been the largest. By and large, Bollywood and Lollywood films are formulaic entertaining appropriations of drama, comedy, music, and dance – popularly known as masala films, but several others have also been made that explore unusual, off-the-beaten-track stories.

According to a Pakistani film analyst Omar Adil, “this lack of cinematic coverage of the Partition of Bengal largely was due to the fact that mainstream moviemakers were not only based in Lahore and Bombay, but also that the bulk of people associated with cinema in the shape of writers, directors, actors and lyricists also hailed largely from Punjab, and what they brought out on cinema appealed to an audience that could personally as well as culturally identify itself with the milieu.”

It must be mentioned that in 1959, film Jago Hua Savera , for which the screenplay was written by none other than Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was shot in East Pakistan, and directed by A. J. Kardar, who was from West Pakistan. He selected Zahir Raihan from Dhaka as his assistant. The film was made in both Urdu and Bengali.

Chanda (1962), was the first full-length Urdu feature film from East Pakistan for which its director Ehtesham introduced Shabnam in a side role

East Pakistan produced some riveting Urdu films in the ‘60s, with actor Rahman making his Urdu film debut in 1962 in Chanda, directed by Ehtesham, who presented in the film a new actor, Jharna Basak as ‘Shabnam’. She became a superstar of the industry as she gave one hit after another. The talented Robin Ghosh (who married Shabnam) had composed the music of Chanda. The success of that film as well as several others made both of them stars, and they were advised to work in West Pakistan. Shabnam ruled the hearts of movie-goers, and remained active in Dhaka, then Lollywood in the late 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. In the late 1990s she relocated to Dhaka.

In the same year as Chanda, i.e. 1962, in West Pakistan actor Waheed Murad, who later came to be dubbed ‘the chocolate hero’ made his debut as a supporting actor in Aulad. Waheed Murad’s father Nisar Murad was a film distributor, and Waheed had entered the industry as a producer when in 1960 he produced Insaan Badalta Hai, starring Santosh Kumar’s younger brother Darpan opposite Shamim Ara in the lead.

Waheed Murad was Pakistan’s ‘chocolate hero’, and his pairing with Zeba was the precursor for the success of a film

Actors Waheed Murad and Zeba, music director Sohail Rana, singers Mala and Ahmed Rushdi, writer Masroor Anwar and director Pervez Malik emerged as a team of unbeatable artistes who gave the Pakistani film industry some unforgettable films, including its first platinum jubilee feature film, Armaan (1966), which also introduced audiences to the first South Asian pop song: “Ko ko ko rina…” creating a new genre of Pakistani disco music.

Another movie that became a milestone in Waheed Murad’s career was film Anjuman (1970), with Rani playing the role of a courtesan opposite him. Zeba married another popular Lollywood actor, Mohammad Ali.

Actor Nadeem made his debut in director Ehtesham’s East Pakistani film Chakori (1967), starring opposite Shabana. Chakori (1967) was a runaway success with some great songs sung by Nadeem, Firdausi Begum, Ahmad Rushdi and Mujeeb Alam.
In the 1960’s Bashir Ahmed was a popular name in playback singing for films mainly made in Dhaka. Referred to as Ahmed Rushdi of East Pakistan, Bashir Ahmed gave many immortal songs for Urdu films
Nadeem and Shabnam co-starred in over fifty movies, and most of them were hits, but Aina (1977), with melodies produced by the legendary Robin Ghosh, was a super-hit, running for more than 400 weeks in a single theatre

In 1967 the film audiences of East and West Pakistan were introduced to singer and actor Nadeem, who made his debut in Chakori, a film by Ehtesham – the acclaimed director from Dhaka. Like the numerous other movies for which Robin Ghosh continued to compose music, Chakori also had lilting songs. Nadeem had joined the industry wanting to be a singer, but as luck would have it, he became an extremely successful actor instead.

The Loss of East Pakistan in 1971: Consequences on Pakistan’s Film Industry

Similar to the physical distance of over 2,000 kms between East and West Pakistan, there was a stark difference between the Bengali and West Pakistani culture as well as sensibilities, even if the films from the east or the west wing depicted some common subjects such as class divides, rural and urban struggles, college romance, or love between a rich girl and poor boy (or vice versa).

On December 16, 1971, after a bloody and tragic civil war, Pakistan lost its Eastern wing, which gained independence as Bangladesh.

“The loss of East Pakistan was not just devastating on a psychological, economic or political level. In very real terms, it also affected Pakistan culturally and socially.”3

Zahir Raihan had been one of the most promising directors of united Pakistan. A prolific writer and journalist himself, Zahir had practical filmmaking experience as chief assistant director of Jago Hua Savera. He produced and directed Pakistan’s first colour film Sangam (1964),   which was possible to make since the first colour-film processing laboratory was set up in Dhaka. Sangam was shot in Eastman Colour on location in the beautiful Chittagong Hill Tracts and Kaptai Lake. It is pertinent to mention here that the West Pakistani colour film Naila was released in 1965. It was shot in Agfa Colour. Raihan also made Pakistan’s first Cinemascope movie Bahana (1965), and he directed a number of artistic Bengali films too. He was not only a film director but also a politically charged novelist. His novels provided excruciating portrayals of social injustice, raising the consciousness of his readers; motivating them to protest against those injustices.

For Pakistan, together with the loss of a brilliant director, many other creative people, including other directors, actors, writers, lyricists, singers, and skilled technicians, as also a major production centre and market was lost.

The Bengali-Muslim cultural identity portrayed idyllic East Bengal settings in the Urdu films, showing rustic villages, serene rivers and boats, accompanied by enchanting music. There were saree-wearing women who adorned their long lustrous hair with flowers, and their foreheads with bindis as this had nothing to do with religion, but were purely secular cultural statements. It was all quite simple and basic, and those films were watched in the entire country. But after the fall of Dhaka, it took over a decade for the Pakistan film industry to recover.

In 1977, another disaster struck the country in the form of General Zia-ul-Haq. He seized power in a military coup and enforced an ultra-conservative Islamisation agenda, bringing in strict censorship laws. Due to the stifling overall environment for creative pursuits, there was lack of quality films.

“Contrary to popular belief, the collapse of the Pakistan film industry was not a gradual process. In fact the crumbling was a rather sudden happening.4

“This was also the time when the practice of turning cinemas into ‘shopping plazas’ kicked in, with Karachi’s famous Naz Cinema becoming the first casualty.

“Interestingly though, these policies and restrictions that barred filmmakers from showing ‘excessive sexual content and violence,’ seemed only to have been targeted at Urdu films because there was a two-fold growth in the number of Punjabi and Pushtu films, in spite of the fact that they were studded with sexual raunchiness and anarchic violence.”

In August 1988, after General Zia was killed in a plane crash, the democratic government of Benazir Bhutto was established, and a few gallant filmmakers made some very good films on contemporary issues; thereof the middle-classes started to return to the cinema in the 1990s. There are innumerable eminent actors, producers, directors, composers, singers and cinematographers who have been associated with the Pakistani film industry, but unfortunately it is not possible to name them all in this essay.

In the new millennium, multiplex cinemas started coming up in major cities of Pakistan, which further prompted the return of the film-goers, albeit those who could afford the price of the tickets. It wasn’t only the venues either, but the kind of cinema that was being offered by a class of filmmakers who were from educated, modern middle-class backgrounds that was appealing for the audience.

At the end, I would like to quote this line written in an article by a former student of mine:
“…instead of a New Wave, or the even more abused term Revival, let me christen this moment the Return of Cinema to Pakistan.”5


Director-producer Mushtaq Gazdar founded Films d’Art in 1967 when there wasn’t much interest in Pakistan for documentaries and independent films. He wrote, directed and produced almost 200 short films, documentaries and newsreels during his career. His seminal work, a voluminous hard-cover book titled ‘Pakistan Cinema 1947-1997’ was published by Oxford University Press to mark Pakistan’s fifty years. He wrote about the dislocation of people at Partition, the military rulers of Pakistan, and how those socio-cultural-political developments impacted the Pakistani society, and its cinema. Gazdar passed away in the year 2000. The book was later updated by his children Aisha and Haris for its second edition. Aisha Gazdar is herself a producer-director, and Haris Gazdar is a social scientist, and they have included in it a sociopolitical analysis of the films made after 1997.

Two other books, ‘The Cinema of Pakistan’ (1969) and ‘Film in Bangladesh’ (1979) by film-maker and critic Alamgir Kabir – he died in 1989 – present a wealth of historical detail. And more recently, in 2016 a book titled ‘Cinema and Society: Film and Social Change in Pakistan’, edited by two academics, Ali Khan and Ali Nobil Ahmad was also published by Oxford University Press. This book has several essays, memoirs, journalistic and scholarly writings.


  1. The break in the script: How did Partition affect the film industry?’ by Karan Bali, Hindustan Times, updated on August 14, 2016.
  2. ‘Revisiting 1947 through Popular Cinema: A Comparative Study of India and Pakistan’, author(s): Gita Viswanath and Salma Malik, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 36 (September 5-11, 2009).
  3. ‘What Pakistan’s film industry lost in 1971’ by Asif Noorani, December 15, 2016, DAWN.
  4. ‘New-wave of Pakistani cinema: Zinda and kicking’ by Nadeem F. Paracha, September 26, 2013, DAWN.
  5. ‘A Return to Cinema’ by Ahmer Naqvi.

Rumana Husain is a writer, artist and educator. She is the author of two coffee-table books on Karachi, and has authored and illustrated over 80 children’s books. Four of her books have won awards in Pakistan, Nepal and India. She has been a contributor to various newspapers and magazines, and written hundreds of articles, travelogues, art and book reviews, and has also conducted numerous interviews in the print and electronic media.

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