China to Release First Pakistani Film in 40 Years As Beijing Eyes Closer Diplomatic Ties

Rebecca Davis
·7-min read

A Pakistani film will hit Chinese cinemas for the first time in more than 40 years this November, as Beijing seeks to bolster relations with Pakistan at a time when its connections to India are at a nadir.

The military action-romance film “Parwaaz Hai Junoon” will screen in wide release from Nov. 13. Access to what has this month become the world’s largest film market is an attractive prospect for Pakistan, whose struggling film industry has grown anemic since its pipeline of popular Indian films was banned last year due to tensions over Kashmir.

The premiere date was announced the day after Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian lauded Pakistan for its stance on Xinjiang, a region in northwest China where Beijing is holding more than a million ethnic Uyghurs in camps as part of a campaign that critics have deemed a genocide. The Pakistani prime minister’s advisor on national security, Moeed Yusuf, recently said that Islamabad had “absolutely zero concerns” about any issues there after a Chinese state-sponsored visit to the region.

Beijing has invested tens of billions of dollars in Pakistan in recent years, financing railways, hydropower projects and other infrastructure, and gaining access to the country’s highly strategic Gwadar port. The dependence on Chinese investment has pushed Pakistan to repeatedly take China’s side on human rights abuses and other issues.

Now, film is also being used to forge closer ties.

Chinese authorities agreed to import “Parwaaz Hai Junoon” back in April 2019 at the Pakistan-China Trade and Investment Forum, an event on the sidelines of Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum, which sought to drum up international support for China’s overseas infrastructure-building agenda. At that forum, producer Momina Duraid signed a distribution deal with Wang Ye of Fire International Media at a ceremony overseen by the Pakistani prime minister’s advisor on commerce.

The film’s release comes ahead of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Pakistan in May 1951 — an occasion that Chinese state-backed media reports on the news are careful to emphasize.

Directed by Haseeb Hassan, the 2018 Urdu-language film “Parwaaz Hai Junoon” is the fifth highest grossing Pakistani film of all time with receipts of $2.1 million in its home country — a stronger performance than “Avengers: Endgame,” which ranks eighth with a $1.9 million gross, according to local reports. “Parwaaz Hai Junoon” has grossed just $261,000 overseas so far from runs in Australia, Norway, U.K. and the Emirates.

Billed as “a tribute to the Pakistan airforce,” the film mixes colorful song and dance numbers, a love story and action elements to tell the story of the trials and tribulations of a group of patriotic young cadets who become Pakistan’s best fighter pilots, including a young woman who leaves behind a privileged life to join them.

Patriotism that highlights new ties between China and Pakistan at America’s expense appears to run throughout. The group of cadets dream of flying JF-17 fighter jets, which make an appearance in the film. The model jointly developed by China and Pakistan seen as an alternative to American F-16 jets that have been increasingly difficult to obtain as Islamabad’s ties with Washington fray.

“For the sake of the country, be selfless,” the cadets are commanded — a line that would be right at home in any of China’s myriad jingoistic local war films filling the cinemas this year.

Covell Meyskens, a historian of modern China in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, notes with a laugh that the focus on fighter jets makes sense, given that it’s a trick Hollywood has used for years in films since “Top Gun.”

“There’s a few highly fetishized military objects, and one of them is definitely the fighter plane,” he said. Such military tech is “one of the areas China wants to compete in; they’ve been partnering with Pakistan on this stuff for a long time.”

A mutually beneficial agreement

In the 1970s, at the height of “Lollywood,” a portmanteau of film center Lahore and Hollywood, the Pakistani film industry was one of the world’s largest, producing 100 films a year to screen in more than 1,200 cinemas, Pakistani industry journalist Akhtar Ali Akhtar told China’s official Xinhua news agency last year. Production plummeted to just 20 films in 2018, most of which tanked at the box office, given that there are now less than 40 cinemas. Last year, only 22 Urdu-language films were released.

Exhibitors in Pakistan have all along depended heavily on revenues from Bollywood films, but following its war with India in 1965, Pakistan prohibited Indian film imports for 40 years in a ban that only lifted in 2008. Movie-going rates have been plummeting again now in their recent absence. Compounded by the impact of COVID-19, it’s sent ever more cinemas out of business.

Some, like Adnan Ali Kahn, general manager of the country’s largest cinema chain Cineplex, speculate that this content vacuum could make space in Pakistan for Chinese action films dubbed into Urdu, if they were better marketed, or if Chinese companies could be bothered to care. Currently, local moviegoers are mostly drawn to action titles but “have no choice but to watch Hollywood movies in English,” he told Xinhua.

Pakistani industry players are hopeful that greater cooperation with China in film will give their industry a boost, both by attracting Chinese talent who are able to film in the country, where costs are lower, to transfer their greater technical know-how; and by bringing in much-needed box office revenue through releases in the mainland. The latter is likely inspired by the enormous success of Bollywood titles like “Dangal” and “Secret Superstar” in the world’s largest film market.

Until now, however, the amity between Pakistan and China hasn’t yet translated into the film space, despite a “cultural cooperation agreement” signed back in 1965.

The most expensive Pakistani film ever made, the forthcoming “Legend of Maula Jatt,” a Punjabi-language reboot of the 1979 Lollywood cult classic “Maula Jatt,” was widely billed in the local press as the first Pakistani film to receive a day-and-date release in China. Its planned Eid al-Fitr May 2020 debut was indefinitely pushed back, however, by COVID-19, and its China fate appears unconfirmed.

Only a half dozen Pakistani films have ever even screened in China in recent years, and only at government-run, highly politicized Chinese film festivals created to serve Beijing’s foreign policy agenda, such as the “Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Film Festival” and the Silk Road International Film Festival.

The cold shoulder of recent decades belies some deeper cinematic ties. Dubbed golden era Lollywood films circulated amongst Chinese audiences in the industry’s early days. The first was the 1956 film “Baaghi” from director Ashfaq Malik — supposedly based on a Chinese folktale — which appears to have screened in China in the 1960s. The 1975 romantic drama “Mera Naam Hai Mohabbat” also received a very limited Chinese release.

The 2017 Pakistani romance “Chalay Thay Saath,” which featured Chinese Canadian actor Kent S. Leung (“Skyfire”) as a Chinese traveler who falls in love with a Pakistani girl, became the first Pakistani film to screen in Hong Kong, but never hit China. It tanked at the box office worldwide.

Meanwhile, a handful of low-budget China-Pakistan film collaborations are under way, all of which are propagandistic.

“The Journey,” announced at SCO Film Festival at a ceremony with Jackie Chan in attendance, tells the stories of real-life Chinese businesses participating in international trade with Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Beijing’s $62 billion package of infrastructure projects in the country that’s been ongoing since 2013. Others previously reported include one that is not-so-subtly titled “I Love China.”

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