Dawn | The Life and Times of Video…for It Lived Well, till It Died


By Kamran Jawaid  |  The feature was published in Dawn’s Karachi Notebook in the Metropolitan section, on 11th December 2016. That copy be read here.

Back in the 80’s, which is vaguely vivid in memory, one used to undergo a gush of adrenaline-rush when going out to rent movies.

These were simpler times, when people weren’t in a constant state of media overkill and movies still had a measure of fanciful allure to them – despite the level of intellectual and aesthetic merit.

In contrast to the then-routine city-wide shutdowns brought on by faux-roars of impromptu strikes, the video rental business was booming. Every other lane (if not every lane), had a pint-sized, make-shift video shop, brightly lit by 100 watt tungsten bulbs, with flashy, slightly serrated posters of popular Bollywood flicks hastily pasted over one another. (As for Hollywood, there was plentiful collection of B-grade actioners and gory-horror fests – sometimes with killer monkeys or vampires – and an unending variety of Chinese imports to choose from).

Back then, even dreadful entertainers like Jadugar or Main Azaad Hoon (a rehash of the classic Meet John Doe) were rented out by the hours, because all it took to grab one’s attention was a harshly cut poster-image of Amitabh Bachchan’s, bloodied, angry face.

Families – especially the women – would send a list of titles for the weekend (this was when weekends were Fridays and Saturday’s); in luckier days, they would get most films from the list. Cousins (and aunties) would huddle in front of 21-inch (or smaller) TV’s and someone close to the VCR would rewind the print, pause it for loo-breaks, or tighten it with a key-screw when the reels became loose or were gnawed off by the VCR’s head.

The business of movie rentals was big. Two shops I remember in particular – Abba Video, in North Nazimabad near Donisal, (whose name undoubtedly owes a lot to the popular disco group of the 70’s), and Dolly Video, in main Aisha Manzil – had an extensive library running in the tens of thousands. The prints were numbered in silver or gold glittered markers, to track customers.

This high-count was more-or-less arbitrary, because they were over-written. No one had time to update the films’ entry in the registers, or later, in the PC database; renumbering was far easier.

When Dolly Video closed in the mid-2000’s, the once treasured collection was dumped off in bulk, stuffed one over the other in big disposable plastic bags. The going cost per video-cassette was PKR. 50. The pricier ones, about PKR. 100 per pop, belonged to Pulse Global and Communication City – two companies that released officially licensed titles from Hollywood studios. These prints were originally priced PKR. 350, with sharp, vibrant quality and the over-the-top incentive of Urdu subtitles.

In Pakistan, pirated prints, pilfered fresh from the cinemas, have always been a fact of life. Actually, I doubt if anyone, ever, has truly brought a movie that benefitted its real distributor.

Regardless of peculiarities the VHS craze reigned supreme for a time, replaced by Laser Disc’s, and then subsequently the CD’s and the DVD’s; each technologically advanced stop, was a step down for the rental business.

Today, the glitz of the video-wallas is snuffed off. In their place are the less-popular, and lesser populated DVD sellers. Renting movies doesn’t make sense, when one can buy a DVD with three movies rather than rent two for the same price.

Vendors in the once-proud hub of video piracy, Rainbow Center (Saddar), have accepted their fate with a feeble whimper. Where there were once exclusive film shops, hang clothes and computer paraphernalia.

Nearly 60% of the market has changed its focus with the growth of the internet, the popularity of the torrent sites – and most importantly – of illegal servers like DoDear, that accumulate thousands of movies, downloadable in minutes by the click of the button.

The dire situation is not exclusive to Pakistan. At the top of their game, Blockbuster, one of the giants of the video rental business in America, had 9000 stores. Today, they have 11. That’s probably the number of video rental stores still active in Pakistan.

Of course, I am hypothesizing, but the possibility of some, still exist.



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