A projectionist lies asleep in the sweltering Pakistani heat, his face covered by a cloth. A colleague rewinds a reel manually while on screen, through the hashish smoke, a woman bounces on a bed singing “hello, hello, hello” into a cellphone.
To this, her would-be lover, who is in another room and is old and apparently drunk, sings “hello, hello, hello” back to her while splashing his head and shoulders with aftershave.
Then the two of them, both fully clothed, sing it again.
Welcome to the strangely innocent and overwhelmingly seedy world of Pashto cinema, or Pollywood, which once made its home in Pakistan’s wild frontier town of Peshawar, but is now confined to a handful of theatres that haven’t been attacked by Islamists.
The Taliban banned cinema and music during their five-year rule in neighboring Afghanistan, deeming them un-Islamic, and insisted that women wear all-enveloping burqas.
The Pakistani Taliban are just as strict and in Pashtocinema, where there is no sex or even kissing and only a bit of midriff on show, all their rules are broken. Several cinema shave been attacked, three of them either bombed or burnt to the ground. Bombs have also gone off outside the cinemas.
But even some of those who hate the Taliban are scornful and the industry has been fading over the decades as India’s higher-quality Bollywood movies have flourished.
“It’s been known for families (in the largely ethnic Pashtun northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to kill a daughter who becomes a singer in the movies,” one resident of Peshawar said. “People love the songs, but not the singers.”
The films, now mostly made in Lahore, capital of Punjab province, are crudely made stories with love, valor and Pashtun identity at their core. They feature middle-aged, heavily armed heroes with long moustaches wooing much younger women who, when not bouncing fully dressed on beds, sing a lot in the hills of northwest Pakistan.
Some say the vulgarity has been introduced by Punjabi filmmakers desperate to fill cinemas. And some theatres slip in blue movies between shows.
The macho interest of Pashto films is addressed with guns, swords, knives and bloodshed. In the posters advertising the films, the wild-eyed men are often pictured smoking three cigarettes at once, with one behind the ear for good measure.
Fire extinguishers at the ready
Peshawar’s Arshad Cinema, complete with private boxes, is grim and dark, with dirty stone steps, crumbling walls and bare wires hanging from the ceilings. Opposite is a brand new medical center, eight stories high and built on the site of another Pashto cinema which was destroyed.
The projectors are decades old and noisy. At the foot of one was a can of oil and three fire extinguishers near at hand. The picture itself was out of focus and the soundtrack painfully distorted.
“People like Pashto films because they are based on stories about society,” Arshad manager Khalid Khan said.
“But when there are stories in the media saying there are four or five suicide bombers in Peshawar, no one comes to the cinema. And we are suffering losses.”
But another reason for the losses is the repetitive storylines and vulgarity, though by western standards, the films are too soft and restrained to be considered pornography.
“The films we used to watch in cinemas were based on stories and real issues,” said Safdar Khan, 70. “But going to the cinema is considered a shame or bad thing today due to the obscenity.”
Scriptwriter Nazir Bhati believes Pashto movies are on their way out because they are so monotonous.
“I gave up my job when a producer asked me to include vulgar bits,” he told a newspaper.
Peshawar is the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly Northwest Frontier Province. Once a majestic walled city, a center of culture, trade, architecture and education, Peshawar is now hectic, congested and plagued by violence.
It has witnessed dozens of bomb attacks in recent years, either launched by the Pakistani Taliban seeking to bring down the government or the result of sectarian violence.
But it remains a center of Pashtun culture which celebrates the reputation of fearless warriors, the heroes of the films, even if overweight and apparently the wrong side of 60.
The men in the pitch-black auditorium lounge around in their seats, smoking cigarettes and more powerful substances and cheering the good bits. But for an outsider, it’s difficult to tell which bits are good.
“The projectors are old,” Arshad manager Khan said. “And there is so much smoke. So the quality is bad.”