The Swat show goes on but stars stay away

Video stores reopen after Taliban rule and people clamour for new Pashtu movies, but actors remain in exile.

MINGORA, PAKISTAN // A year after being forced out of business by a deadly Taliban ultimatum, the entertainers of Pakistan's northern Swat valley have resumed production of popular Pashtu-language dramas, but are struggling because big-name actors are reluctant to work in the freshly pacified region.

The resurrection of their briefly banned art was marked by the release in January of the drama, Ward No 420, into the compact disc-based entertainment market of the Northwest Frontier Province. Produced two years ago, just before the militant uprising in Swat, the drama is a farce based in the psychological ward of a hospital, and revolves around three patients: a politician, a jilted lover and a shopkeeper from Shina Market, a shopping precinct exclusively for female shoppers in Mingora, the regional capital.

The producers of Ward No 420 said its release was as much about alerting the Pashtu-speaking audience, both in Pakistan and expatriate populations in the Gulf, that the Swat entertainment industry was back in business. The release of the drama, starring Asif Khan, a popular actor of Pashtu films and television serials, is also aimed at attracting political support from the provincial government, the producers said.

"Now that there is peace again, we want to start shooting new dramas and sitcoms, but we can't persuade big-name actors to come and work in Swat unless the government supports our efforts," said Sana Gul, executive producer of Ward No 420. The reluctance of actors to return to Swat, popular because of its scenic locations and the availability of local supporting artists, reflects the horrors inflicted upon entertainers by the Taliban after the militants launched an insurgency in July 2007.

As masked militants spread their influence into Mingora, centre of the Swat entertainment industry, in 2008, the producer-proprietors of the wholesale media market were delivered ultimatums to destroy stocks of entertainment videos and replace them with CDs portraying the murder of Pakistani security personnel. By the time the Taliban took over the region in late 2008, the militants had graduated to bombing and burning record and video shops to force the proprietors to switch to supposedly morally appropriate businesses.

But even those violent acts were deemed to be mere warnings, with the final punishment - communicated in no mean terms - being a public beating and summary execution, producers said. "I would awake not knowing whether I would return home alive, and constantly look over my shoulder on the way home in the evening, hoping I wouldn't be shot by a Taliban sniper," said Haji Majboor Isakhel, a producer and actor popularly nicknamed Khan Baba.

At the height of the Taliban oppression, in January 2009, it became apparent that even public advertisements of repentance and change of trade was not enough to save Swat's entertainers from a gruesome fate. Shabana, a renowned local dancer and star of many music video-based CDs, was dragged from her home, beaten and shot, and her corpse, covered with cash and CDs, was put on public display at Green Square, the major traffic intersection in Mingora that came to be called Zibahkhana Chowk, or Slaughterhouse Junction, because of its gruesome use by the Taliban.

Such acts of terrorism against entertainers has left a legacy of fear that has prevented local artists, both actors and dancers, from returning to their Swat homes. They remain ensconced in Peshawar, the provincial capital, making occasional visits in secrecy to avoid attracting potentially lethal attention from militants suspected to be living in hiding in the area, producers said. However, fears about lingering militants have not dulled the enthusiasm of the Swat public for entertainment deemed illegal by the Taliban. Customers thronged the once-banned video stories in a shopping precinct of Mingora, in the shadow of the Palwasha Cinema.

The city's other cinema has remained closed, despite the rout of the Taliban, because of a commercial dispute between its owners, creating a monopoly for the proprietors of the Palwasha, who have responded by hiking ticket prices to unprecedented levels. That has boosted the sales of uniformly cheap disks, thousands of which had been smuggled out of Mingora to avoid destruction by the Taliban, inadvertently helping local producers to re-establish their businesses. Ward No 420 was practically flying off the shelves at Mr Gul's cramped shop, along with every other new Pashtu video release - all of them produced at studios in the central city of Lahore, some 500km to the east.

However, amid the beaming smiles between producer-proprietors and customers, who were buying films by the half-dozen, the urge to revive Swat as a regional centre of drama and film production remained a key motivator. "The people of Swat are passionate about the performing arts. Whenever we needed extras [supporting artists], we would just ask passers-by. They would never say no," said Mr Gul. "We have got to get the stars to come back to Swat so that we can once again promote the scenic beauty of our valley and help it to regain its former glory."