Horror Films Help Pakistanis Process Modern-Day Anxieties

The trend is similar to what was seen in the West in the 2010s, a decade defined by societal change and transition

Horror Films Help Pakistanis Process Modern-Day Anxieties
A still from “In Flames.” (Citylights Media)

At its outset, Pakistani filmmaker Zarrar Kahn’s “In Flames” is a horror film, accompanied by an eerie soundtrack, unexpected jump-scares and ghostly sets, but if one looks closely, it spotlights the everyday horrors of being a woman in Pakistani society: constantly being watched by men, domestic abuse, random acts of violence, and the expectation to suppress one’s trauma.

The film — in which a young woman is haunted by visions of the dead after the family’s patriarch dies — provides an intimate and realistic look into the challenges faced by millions of working- and middle-class Pakistani women. Last year, it took home the top prize at the Red Sea Film Festival, had its worldwide premiere at Cannes, was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival to a packed theater and became the first horror film to become Pakistan’s official entry to the Oscars.

While romantic comedies and family dramas dominate the Pakistani cinema landscape, in recent times, both Pakistani cinema and TV have been experimenting with horror. These films are addressing the complexities and anxieties of living in modern-day Pakistan, such as the rising discourse about feminism, the fear of Western influences, the evolution of the family system and the role of religion in everyday life. But chief among them is belief in black magic and the occult, which is banned in Islam but remains unchallenged, since there are no laws criminalizing it and people are wary of raising any red flags lest they become a target of ritualistic fervor.

This trend is similar to what was seen in the West in the 2010s, a decade which was defined by societal change and transition, such as the ascendance of social media, the rise of fourth-wave feminism and political upheavals, such as the Arab Spring and Donald Trump’s presidency. Horror films helped address these widespread, topical anxieties and led to some of the genre’s most distinctive works, including “Hereditary,” “Midsommar” and “The Witch.” They left it to the viewers to come up with their own interpretations of these morality tales, noted Mathias Clasen in his 2021 book “A Very Nervous Person’s Guide to Horror Movies.”

Besides “In Flames,” filmmaker Usman Mukhtar’s horror short “Gulabo Rani” was also released last year to rave reviews on YouTube, since studios in Pakistan were reluctant to showcase horror on the big screen. The film tapped into Pakistan’s rich history of folklore and ghost stories and followed a young man with modest means trying to fit into a private, elite college, where he has to deal with relentless bullying by his peers, till he finds himself possessed by a spirit and seeks revenge on his tormentors.

This film — which bagged several awards throughout the world, including best horror short film at L.A.’s Indie X Film Festival — offered social commentary on both the culture of bullying and the changing socioeconomic classes in Pakistan. Bullying in schools — both physical and cyber — has been on the rise and was brought under the spotlight last year through a viral video of four girls beating another student at an elite high school in Lahore.

As the country rapidly urbanized in the past two decades, working-class Pakistanis moved up the social ladder into middle-class territory. But they were more socially and religiously conservative than the middle classes that came into being in the ’80s and ’90s, who tended to hold strong beliefs in the superstitious, noted Ammara Maqsood in her 2017 book “The New Pakistani Middle Class.” But these differences also gave rise to class anxieties and finding one’s place became a reality for millions of new middle-class Pakistanis. This also led to the rise in bullying — a conflict acutely explored in “Gulabo Rani.”

Horror also provided a way to portray the plight of the poor and homeless in Pakistan, which is otherwise rarely addressed in the country’s cinema. For the past two years, the country has been reeling from one of the worst economic and political crises in its history. Countrywide flooding, shortages of fuel and electricity, and governmental instability were all made worse by backbreaking inflation, depreciating currency and precariously low foreign reserves. While the upper middle class has been feeling the squeeze of inflation, the lower middle class risks falling back into poverty.

“Jin Mahal,” a horror-comedy short released last year, revolved around a homeless man, named for Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who was forced to live in an abandoned train compartment with his family because of a financial crisis caused by COVID-19 lockdowns, till they moved to an old abandoned house, considered haunted by the locals. To ward off suspicions of trespassing and illegal occupation, the family used their blind grandmother’s loud laughter and white tresses to great effect, leaning on the “haunted house” tropes for laughs. But in the end, as the truth finally comes out and the rightful owners threaten to turn the family over to the police, Shah Jahan’s monologue throws light on the reality of millions in the country.

The horror genre in Pakistan had its heyday in the 1960s and early ’70s, when Lollywood saw its first attempts with the release of “Zinda Laash” (Living Corpse) in 1967. Pakistani cinema, built on the backs of those who had migrated after the Partition in 1947, got breathing space when the government restricted the import of Indian films and flourished till later in the ’70s, when social and economic discontent and a period of Islamization under General Zia Ul Haq’s rule stifled creative output. However, as the media industry saw a slow resurgence in the 2000s, it led to a proliferation of serialized shows on TV, which paved the way for the slow rise of cinema.

Horror made a comeback in 2007 with filmmaker Omar Khan’s “Zibahkhana” (Slaughterhouse), which was heavily influenced by classic American horror films like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Night of the Living Dead.” It focused on misbehaving teens being punished for their liberal lifestyle — involving sex, alcohol, partying and drugs — by a flail-wielding psychopath donning a burqa. Using irony and satire, it aimed to address the debate about progressive lifestyles threatening the conservative fabric of Pakistani society, and the film found success in part because it rejected the simple dichotomies of “radical Islam versus kind and gentle Sufism,” which usually appeal to the more religious factions of society. Instead, it accomplished the rare feat of bringing into focus the values and lifestyles of various social and religious strata in modern-day Pakistan.

It struck a chord with the city’s middle-class urban youth and became a cult classic among progressives, inspiring a new generation of filmmakers to experiment with the genre. The most notable of them was producer Imran Raza Kazmi, who made “Siyaah” (Black) in 2013, which dealt with themes of black magic and exorcism and followed a young couple who adopt a little girl after a miscarriage, who turns out to be possessed by a jinn. The film skillfully incorporated concepts about miscarriage, grief and marital strife — issues that resonate with the growing middle classes — and showed a way horror could be made to work for the masses.

Since then, there have been multiple films and TV series that meld ancient fables, folklores, myths and supernatural beliefs with contemporary stories centering on family life. For instance, Kazmi’s “Siyaah,” which was adapted into an anthology series last year, had storylines following families looking to reconnect with dead relatives to sort inheritance disputes; a husband seeking the help of black magic practitioners to cure his wife’s mood disorder; a journalist hoping to debunk a popular ghost story in an abandoned school; and a hit-and-run accident leaving the perpetrator haunted by the victim’s spirit.

Writers are also exploring their own fears and anxieties about black magic through TV dramas, highlighting the myriad of ways belief in and practice of black magic negatively affects individuals and families. For instance, “Bandish,” one such critically acclaimed show, depicted the misfortunes of a family with three sisters dealing with curses and spells cast upon them by a jaded, former acquaintance. “Nazr-e-Bad” (Evil Eye) told the story of a man who turns to black magic out of jealousy when his love interest chooses to marry someone else, while “Kaala Jadu” showed how a woman was tormented by her in-laws through the use of black magic.

In his 2022 documentary “The Dark Secrets of Kalaa Jadoo Revealed,” filmmaker Adeel Wali Raees spoke to the writers of some popular horror TV dramas in Pakistan to explore why the genre has picked up steam in recent years. Aside from an uptick in interest with the audiences, the writers said, they themselves wanted to shine a light on the hold supernatural tales and black magic rituals have on people. “There’s always this fear, this uncertainty in your heart,” said Raees. “You’re always thinking, ‘Is this real or not?’ And I wanted to see if I could find an answer to this question.”

Since this “horror renaissance” in Pakistan, more supernatural-themed TV shows are being greenlit by studios. Mainstream films have also started incorporating elements of horror in otherwise family-oriented or rom-com genre films. A recent example is “Daghabaaz Dil,” which is billed as a family comedy about love conquering all, though in the film, the female protagonist is possessed by a spirit. Theaters have also started showing international horror films. Earlier in January, moviegoers were surprised to find packed theaters for the Indonesian horror flick “Sijjin” in Karachi.

There is more openness to the darkness of horror now in Pakistan, said media studies researcher Ali Nobil Ahmad. “Audiences want something that feels a bit more real, a bit more dark, and the emotions of anxiety and spookiness that horror provokes feels more authentic of an experience,” he said.

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