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Photography by Professor Jamal J. Elias, inspired by Pakistani Cinema of the 1970s

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Photography by Professor Jamal J. Elias, inspired by Pakistani Cinema of the 1970s

Jamal J. Elias, Walter H. Annenberg Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies and of South Asia Studies, is one of eight artists featured in an exhibition at Twelve Gates Arts in Philadelphia. Entitled “Cinephiliac: Art Transcending Technology & Motion,” this exhibition marks the centennial of South Asian cinema. Each of the featured artists works with the interplay between moving film and still life pieces and installations. 

Elias’s photographic work draws on Pakistani cinema of the 1970s. The late 1970s represent a defining period in Pakistan’s history. It is no surprise, then, that it is also a significant moment in Pakistani cinema. The laissez-faire social attitude of the mid-70s came to an end when Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto initiated a policy of Islamicization in order to shore up his waning popularity. The intrusion of religious values on the arts and on society at large increased with General Zia, Bhutto’s handpicked military chief, who deposed and hanged him.

In the world of cinema, the period saw increasing censorship and a growth in vernacular culture at a time that overlapped with the introduction of the VCR as the preferred medium for watching films among the Pakistani middle classes. The practice of viewing films while sitting at home in multi-generational, mixed sex family audiences reinforced a move away from the relatively sophisticated, sometimes adult themed, cinema of the 1950s and 1960s to an aesthetic that favored the “safer” subjects of comic book emotions and unrealistic violence. Such changes went hand in hand with a shift away from the use of Urdu as the language of film – it seemed literary and cosmopolitan – to that of Punjabi, which is cherished for its rusticity and color.

Maula Jatt is the iconic film of this transitional moment. Released in 1979, it set records in theaters by running non-stop for two and a half years, and it made its star, Sultan Rahi, a legendary action hero. With deplorable production quality, writing, acting, and direction, Maula Jatt enjoys cult status in Pakistan to this day.

In this exhibition, Elias presents a series of photographic renditions of the film Maula Jatt to represent a seminal moment of transition in Pakistani cinema and society, in particular the increasing value given to lowbrow aesthetics and kitsch at the expense of what had been presented as a refined national culture. Each image is of a scene from the film, printed on cotton fiber paper using a rustic encaustic technique in order to be nostalgically evocative of the luminescence of film and of the passage of time.

The exhibition runs from November 1 to December 15, 2013 at Twelve Gates Arts, 51 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. For more information, visit 


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Jamal J. Elias teaches courses on Islamic thought, culture and history, with a focus on Sufism, Islamic and modernity, as well as visual and material culture in the Middle East and South Asia. A recipient of many grants and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Social Science Research Council (among others), he has lectured and published broadly on history, religion, literature and material and visual culture in the medieval and modern Islamic world. His two most recent books are On Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity and Culture in Pakistan (Oxford 2011) and Aisha's Cushion: Religious Art, Perception and Practice in Islam (Cambridge, MA, 2012).

Edited by Naomi Shavin.