Pakistan's Oscar contender 'Zinda Bhaag' faces formidable hurdles

KARACHI, Pakistan — The first Pakistani film up for Oscar consideration in half a century faces 75 foreign-language rivals from around the world, many made with much larger budgets and far slicker marketing campaigns. It must survive the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's winnowing process that narrows the field to five before the envelope opens at the Dolby Theatre on March 2.

For the filmmakers of the low-budget "Zinda Bhaag" set in the back alleys of Lahore, however, getting the film into Pakistan's few cinemas and showing the world a different side of their country is in itself a big win. The movie opens Friday in Los Angeles

"Just seeing something positive come out of Pakistan beyond war and terror, when there are so many problems, something beyond guns and jihadis, is an achievement," producer Mazhar Zaidi said. "At a larger level, it's something people here can relate to and take pride in."

The film, which cost less than $1 million, focuses on three young working-class Pakistanis from Lahore in eastern Punjab province faced with limited opportunities and unlimited problems who dream of a better existence overseas. The filmmakers keep a tight focus on daily life in the city's narrow streets, avoiding obvious references to terrorism or politics.

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"Embodying a nation's hopes, that's scary," said director Meenu Gaur, speaking in a Karachi apartment overlooking a moody Arabian Sea. "It's just a victory that it's out."

"Zinda Bhaag" starts as a light comedy as the three steal and cook a chicken, drink, gamble and work for a local mob boss, searching for a way out of their low-paying jobs. But it soon turns dark as despair mounts and legal avenues fail, prompting the characters to try more questionable methods. Illegal emigration has a long tradition among Punjabis whereby a few return rich and many more die in shipping containers or live bleak lives overseas, too ashamed to come home.

"Zinda Bhaag," meaning "get out if you can," is an ironic twist on the national slogan "Pakistan Zindabaad," meaning "Long Live Pakistan." A Gilani Research Foundation Survey this month found that 40% of Pakistanis under 30 want to emigrate.

At a food court and multiplex in Karachi's Atrium mall, two engineers sip sodas on a Saturday afternoon, having run a gantlet of machine-gun toting guards and metal detectors to enjoy the air conditioning. They prefer such Hollywood blockbusters as "Avatar" and "Transformers" but found "Zinda Bhaag" "thought-provoking."

"The sad part, even though their friends were dying, they still wanted to go overseas," said Athar Shaukat, 26. "That's how desperate things are in Pakistan."

"We want to go abroad too," added his friend, Baar Mehdi, 25. "It's the sad reality."

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Most critics here gave "Zinda Bhaag" high marks, calling it edgy, a new genre for Pakistan and the embodiment of a nation's Oscar hopes. There was also some grousing that the story line jumped a bit and a few of the songs were self-conscious.

"The long drought since Pakistan's last Oscar contender in 1963 underscores the state of an industry so decrepit it was unable to sort out the simple task of organizing a committee to promote one of its own," said Mira Hashmi, a film studies professor at the Lahore School of Economics. "Pakistan had a film body, but there was a lot of infighting and it was dormant for a long period of time. It's really our fault."

Finally this summer, a few filmmakers decided to put the country back on the cinema map and formed the Pakistani Academy Selection Committee, which chose "Zinda Bhaag" over three rivals.

Underscoring Pakistan's deeply divided society, however, even this modest exercise sparked controversy. Rival filmmakers accused the committee of approving "Zinda Bhaag" before it had a proper commercial run, operating in secret and favoring a film that wasn't really Pakistani. (The film, which uses a lot of non-actor Lahore locals, cast Bollywood star Naseeruddin Shah as the Lahore mobster, and Gaur, married to Zaidi, is also Indian.)

"We didn't object to the choice of the film, but the way it was selected," said Shahzad Nawaz, director of "Chambaili," a film the committee turned down. "Just because we're in Pakistan, you shouldn't start bending the rules, as happens with everything else."

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the committee's chairperson, counters that the process was transparent and followed academy guidelines. "These allegations are biased and incorrect," she said. "We believe this was a targeted effort to malign the team behind 'Zinda Bhaag.'"

Even as India's Bollywood film industry has prospered, its Pakistani counterpart, Lollywood, has foundered, say film lovers, with more than enough blame to go around. "The Pakistani film industry has gone through a very rough patch over the past several decades," said Hasan Zaidi, a film critic. "It basically collapsed."

The industry still faces huge hurdles. Post-production technology is weak, studios are rundown and underutilized, and there's little local market. Filmmakers estimate they'll need 100 Pakistani screens to make homegrown films a commercial success. "That said, it's a beginning," Hashmi said. "You have to start somewhere."


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