While Lollywood is struggling, Pakistani actor Reema Khan is optimistic. There is no dearth of talent, all it needs is State support, she says. Excerpts from a conversation...

She finds comparisons with Aishwarya Rai flattering — the two have their beauty and Lux ads in common — but her real inspiration is Vyjayanthimala, whose appeal she says is “timeless”. Meet Reema Khan, star of Lollywood, the aspirational appellation by which Pakistan's film industry is popularly known.

For over three decades, the struggling Lahore-based industry has been trying to pull itself out of the doldrums. The hope that “Khuda Key Liye”, the 2007 film with a contemporary storyline about Islam, terrorism, youth and music, would bring a turnaround in the industry was short-lived.

Two years later, in 2009, Lollywood managed to release just a dozen films, none of them by anyone of note and all of them low-budget “formula-films” that sank without a trace. And despite the undercurrent of anti-India feelings since New Delhi put the pressure on Pakistan for the Mumbai incidents, the popularity of Bollywood films has remained undiminished. Hindi films from across the border are available on DVDs virtually on the day of their release in India, and in the last few years, cinemas have begun showing them too after a ban on them was lifted.

Rare optimist

In this barren landscape that is Pakistan's film industry, Reema is a rare optimist. The glamorous star is in India this month to complete post-production work on “Kitni Haseen Hai Zindagi”, a film that she has produced and directed, and which she believes has what it takes to revive Lollywood.

In a conversation in Lahore recently — completely un-star-like, she gamely volunteered to come to the office of Dawn newspaper — the Pakistani actor-producer-director spoke excitedly about her new project and her hope it will start new kinds of cross-border partnerships between the Indian and Pakistani film industries and shared her views on what ails the Pakistani film industry.

“Kitni Haseen Hai Zindagi (Life is Beautiful) is a film for all people, not just for Pakistanis. It's a sweet film with positive feelings for humanity,” said Reema. “I love humanity, whether they are Pakistanis or Indians... We are all the same. Everyone will enjoy this film. It is about how precious our life is; it is a gift to be enjoyed.”

Indian actor Johnny Lever has a lead role in it alongside herself and Muammar Rana, another Pakistani actor, and its songs have been sung by Kailash Kher and Shazia, one an Indian and the other a Pakistani. “This is the first time Indian and Pakistani singers have sung together. They've sung a beautiful duet,” she said.

This is the “respectable” type of partnership that should exist between the two industries, argued Reema, not the kind where women actors from Pakistan are hired not for their acting talents but to bare their bodies, and male Pakistani actors are given bit roles.

“When you call a talent from another country, you have to show some respect to him or her. If you can't, then don't call us,” she said. Even though Pakistan has no training institutes for actors and others wanting to make a career in films, she said, it has plenty of “god-given” talent. “If the Indian film industry wants to do something positive (to build bridges between the two countries), they can pair the top talent from Pakistan with the top (film) banner from India; it could be a great joint venture. People will be interested in watching such a film; it would be like cricket,” she said.

The Sahiwal-born actor has won media praise for conducting herself with dignity compared to some of her peers, and for working hard to acquire a sophistication that is rare in the Pakistani film world.

Having acted in 185 films, Reema also has very strong views on what ails Pakistani cinema and she makes no bones about zeroing in on what, according to her, is the principal reason: not the absence of talent, but the absence of state support to the film industry

Strong views

The policy of successive governments towards films has been ambivalent, trapped between saying “yes” to a form of entertainment that the Pakistani public clearly loves, and saying “no” because of how it might be received by influential lobbies that say Islam disapproves of any entertainment linked to music, dance and photography. As a result, there is little official encouragement to Pakistani cinema.

Reema cites the examples of India's national awards, film training institute and tax-breaks. “In Pakistan, what we have is a 65 per cent entertainment tax (levied by the Punjab provincial government) on the industry. It has crippled an already sick industry,” she said.

Pakistani filmmakers work with cameras from the 1970s and are light years away from the technological advances in sound, editing, mixing and the wizardry with graphics and computers that are playing such a big part in Indian films.

So, any Lollywood filmmaker with ambition and aspiration heads straight to Mumbai labs for post-production work, but most films tend to be shoddy low-budget projects that show up poorly compared to even the worst offering from Bollywood.

Of over 1,000 cinema houses, only 100 have survived and, as the ban on Indian films no longer exists, would prefer to show a Bollywood flick rather than a local one. The few cineplexes that have come up show only Hindi or English films.

“There's no comparison between Indian and Pakistani films. We are lagging behind completely. Show Bollywood films by all means,” Reema said, “but we should have some rules. I love competition because it makes you do your best, but when a Pakistani film is ready for release, there must be a rule that its release will get priority in local cinemas.”

Last month, Lollywood film makers banded together in a new trade grouping called the United Film Association of Pakistan to address the issues that face the industry. Securing government support for the local film industry, including a liberal taxation policy and tighter rules for screening Indian films are top of the agenda.

Lollywood-watchers are also awaiting the release of Reema's film to see what it can do for the local industry. It's been shot in several countries from Baku in Azerbaijan to Malaysia. The star has reportedly sunk in a couple of crores in the film, which would make it one of the biggest Lollywood films ever. Reema coyly declined to divulge the amount she has spent on the film. “I've invested a lot of money, that's all I can say, and after watching it,” she promised, “you will think it is from a big Indian banner”.