ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Rethinking Subversive Cinephilia: Audience and Spectatorship in Pakistan (1979-1999)


Masood Syeda Momina - University of Pittsburgh, Film/English, Pittsburgh, United States


49 – Public Knowledge: Audiences in South Asian Media and Screen Studies


General Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship in Pakistan during the late 1970s ushered a period of strict state surveillance and media censorship. During this period, Zia’s authoritarian regime introduced the Motion Pictures Ordinance which was a series of censorship laws meant to regulate onscreen depictions of violence, sexuality, and anti-establishment sentiments. Cinemas in Pakistan would often get raided by the police to check whether any clauses in the Ordinance were being broken or not and cinemagoers were at a constant risk of imprisonment. However, Ahmad (2014) and Nabi’s (2018) ethnographic work on audiences in Pakistan suggests the presence of a stubborn cinemagoing culture that not only survived the difficult Zia years but kept the declining film industry alive through the next two decades. In conversation with these scholars, this paper theorizes the audiences of Pakistani cinema during the dictatorship and their affective and political attachments to cinema spaces and to film itself. Audiences not only navigated state surveillance to simply go to the movies but further colluded with projectionists in the screening of banned films. Theorizing spectatorship and cinemagoing in Pakistan during the Zia years then, I argue, requires a rethinking of cinephilia itself. The purpose of this paper, therefore, will be to theorize the many different attachments and desires (political, queer, ordinary) that marked cinemagoing in Pakistan during and since the Zia years.