How the Pandemic Hit the Entertainment Industry in Pakistan

Life, as we knew it, has changed considerably since COVID-19 became part of our lives. Everything that was once ‘routine’ is now something we would like to happen sooner than later. There is no going out with friends as a countrywide ban on indoor and outdoor dining is in place; there is no recreational activity as cinemas are on a hiatus, malls are not open till late and seaside, parks and other mentally stimulating places are closed.
The worst part about the pandemic is however the majority’s decision to treat it as a normal thing instead of considering it dangerous. Despite pleas and orders, the general public is not taking the pandemic seriously that has claimed thousands of lives in the country and has wreaked havoc across the border. From making fun of the vaccination process to pressurizing others to not follow the SOPs, the general public has been there, ‘not’ done that.

It is due to this very careless and non-serious attitude that those at the helm have come up with restrictions, and plan to keep it that way until the numbers go in their favor. Since the entertainment industry also employs many from the general public, that sector was also affected by the micro lockdowns, bans, and restrictions. On June 15, 2021 it will be the 15-month anniversary of major cinemas being closed across Pakistan, and while a few cinema houses tried to stage a comeback following SOPs, that couldn’t last long.
Cinema Industry – Things are Not Looking Good for the Film Industry!
Many major feature films including Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad, The Legend of Maula Jutt, Dum Mastam, and others are pending release whereas many others are nearing completion. At a time when content from across the world, be it Hollywood or Bollywood, is finding a new market in digital platforms, we are still behind in a way that: a) we don’t have a representation in these platforms, and b) we don’t have a major platform of our own. Hence, the resumption of cinemas is the only thing that can save us from going back into the days when VCR was the norm, and cinemas were considered expensive.
Actress Amar Khan who would be making her debut through Ehteshamuddin’s Dum Mastam is no ordinary actress. In fact, the youngster is the person behind her own debut flick as an actress, as she penned the screenplay and the dialogues. While talking about the pandemic, she was hopeful that things would improve soon, otherwise 'we might be going down the same road that led us to the downfall of Pakistani cinema.'
‘There is a reason why film and TV are treated differently in Pakistan; people pay to watch films and escape into a fantasy world while TV is usually for those housewives who want to watch reality-based drama. In simple words, a subject where the characters are supposed to appear larger than life usually ends up in film, whereas TV caters to those who want their plight to be highlighted at a smaller scale.’
‘My film Dum Mastam fits the film category and that’s why I conceived it as a feature film, with song placements, accents of the actors and above all, how to play with the emotions of people in the cinema theatre. However, if cinemas don’t open soon, majority of the audience would switch to other platforms and that will not help filmmakers, especially in Pakistan. We can’t go to Netflix and Amazon Prime to sell our projects whereas the other platforms aren’t that common, hence we will have to wait for the opening of cinemas so that the very audience for which Dum Mastam was written would be able to enjoy it fully.’
Theatre Will Not Revive If It is Interrupted with Pandemics, Closures!
The same is the case with the theatre industry which was on its way to becoming the third option after TV and films. Sadly, with the rise in pandemic cases, the corporate sector that was sponsoring the industry had to take the backseat, spelling doom for the on-the-floor stage plays as well as those who were in the rehearsal process.
Theatre director and actor Syed Talal Jilani said that it was unfortunate that while the auditoriums in schools and colleges across the world are in use, the theatres in Pakistan are still closed due to the pandemic. He said that without the backing of sponsors, things looked bleak for the theatre industry that was once thriving in Pakistan.
‘During COVID-19, most of the corporate sector distanced itself from sponsoring entertainment activities like theatre to save their own image. Just imagine a pharmaceutical company sponsoring a theatre play from the funds that could help them develop a vaccine. That’s why we lost three to four major clients – accumulating to 16 shows – of our drama Alif Noon that was being performed when COVID-19 hit Pakistan. A few clients had added a clause on the contract regarding COVID-19 which didn’t help us in any way. Until and unless the corporate sector realizes that COVID-19 is the new normal, things wouldn’t improve for the theatre industry in Pakistan.’
Talal Jilani also added that his team did suggest some proactive changes to the current theatre setup, but they were not accepted for management reasons. ‘We suggested that since families will come to the theatre together, they can be made to sit together with a space dividing two families but the idea was shot down; the reason being non-sanitized chairs, common walk through gate and lack of ventilation. Similarly, the one seat gap wasn’t acceptable to us since it reduced our profits (if there was any) as well as the audience to half.’
He added that although a few people like the Arts Council didn’t raise their rates, it was difficult, even for them to allot their halls for rehearsals without charging for them. ‘In normal days, we could rehearse anywhere we want but due to COVID-19, everyone from the actors to the crew was skeptical about coming to the venue and rehearsing. Even though the Arts Council didn’t raise their rates like others, they put in an extra charge for the use of their halls for rehearsal, and we understand that was necessary for survival.’
He also spoke about the lack of resources that resulted due to COVID-19. ‘Artists are also human beings who want to get paid and raise a family. With no theatre, they opted for permanent jobs and got busy elsewhere and that hit theatre enthusiasts like me who were already working on a minimum budget. We had to go with just two ushers in a few of our shows, because most of the regular guys were either not working, or scared of COVID-19. Had theatre been paying them well, this might not have been an issue but sadly in Pakistan, theatre is treated as a hobby, and hobbies don’t run the kitchen!’
According to Talal Jilani, until and unless things improve, people get vaccinated, and auditoriums open, theatre would remain on a ventilator in Pakistan. ‘It will take a year to come back to normal life especially in a country like Pakistan where theatre is not a priority. When SOPs ease down, talent will sit together, develop a play and finally execute it, which will take time. Open air theatre might be a solution but not unless we get a fully-vaccinated audience, easy COVID-19 testing and proper ventilation. It is time bigger corporations invest in theatre so that it can revive and excel; theatre needs us now more than ever, and we should get creative to save it, rather than just make money out of it.’
Actors ‘Survived’ the Pandemic but Many Working for TV Industry Didn’t!
Television in Pakistan is a bigger medium than either films or theatre, however, it was also affected by the pandemic in a big way. Major productions including that of currently on-air dramas Dunk, Phaans and Qayamat were halted due to the rise in COVID-19 cases, whereas many directors had to get creative to complete their dramas during the pandemic.
TV actor Ahsan Khan was fortunate enough to survive the ‘closure’ but he disclosed that the technical staff that worked on a daily basis wasn’t that fortunate.
‘When COVID-19 hit Pakistan last year, everything was closed for a few weeks including shooting for both films and TV. Some of us who were financially stable were able to resist the ‘closure’ but unfortunately many of our junior colleagues weren’t able to survive those testing times. I am not talking about the actors but the people who make us actors look good on screen like the makeup artists, the lighting crew, the editors, and all those technicians who work day and night to support their families.’
‘Many actors helped their fellows in need without coming forward and it is acts like these that save us from things such as COVID-19. One thing that this pandemic has taught us is that we are merely nothing when it comes to planning, and that He has everything planned for us. We can do good deeds in this world to gain a better place in the afterlife, but for that, we will have to be humble and helping at the same time.’
Pandemic Came Both as a Challenge and an Unexpected Opportunity Call for Musicians in Pakistan!
Things that were once doing well were hit hard when the pandemic struck. However, since the music scene in Pakistan, especially for independent music producers wasn’t ideal, COVID-19 came up as an unexpected opportunity for many. The strategic entry of international platform Spotify did help a few but others had to be creative in order to survive and deliver. Singer and music activist Nazia Zuberi Hasan believes that COVID-19 affected every established industry, including music.
‘With the introduction of a variety of platforms in Pakistan, the music producers now have a wider audience, and their work can be shared with the world. Also, with so many musicians on digital platforms, COVID-19 saw a surge in music collaborations.’
‘It was during the pandemic that I released my original single Naina digitally. It was received very well on a variety of different platforms. Subsequently, I released my second original song called Jeenay Do – a project that is very close to my heart. It is a plea to stop all forms of exploitation of children including abuse, neglect and bullying. Jeenay Do was shared across all digital platforms extensively, and through this, the message of the song was carried to a much wider audience. Lots of people joined hands and we received a huge response, which might not have been possible in normal days.’
‘I am fortunate to have been able to write, produce and release my music during these challenging times, but many musicians, and artists, associated with recording and performance industry are facing real hardship. These testing times are the worst for session musicians, sound engineers and singers who do live shows. I hope that the pandemic is behind us soon, and people are able to return to their professions.’

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