Peshawar: A projectionist lies asleep in the sweltering Pakistani heat, his face covered by a cloth. A colleague rewinds a reel manually while on screen, through the hashish smoke, a woman bounces on a bed singing "hello, hello, hello" into a cellphone.

To this, her would-be lover, who is in another room and is old and apparently drunk, sings "hello, hello, hello" back to her while splashing his head and shoulders with aftershave.

Then the two of them, both fully clothed, sing it again. Welcome to the strangely innocent and overwhelmingly seedy world of Pashto cinema, or Pollywood, which once made its home in Pakistan's wild frontier town of Peshawar, but is now confined to a handful of theatres that haven't been attacked by Islamists.

The Taliban banned cinema and music during their five-year rule in neighbouring Afghanistan, deeming them un-Islamic, and insisted that women wear all-enveloping burqas. The Pakistani Taliban are just as strict and in Pashto cinema, where there is no sex or even kissing and only a bit of midriff on show, all their rules are broken. Several cinemas have been attacked, three of them either bombed or burnt to the ground. Bombs have also gone off outside the cinemas.

But even some of those who hate the Taliban are scornful and the industry has been fading over the decades as India's higher-quality Bollywood movies have flourished. "It's been known for families (in the largely ethnic Pashtun northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to kill a daughter who becomes a singer in the movies," one resident of Peshawar said. "People love the songs, but not the singers."

The films, now mostly made in Lahore, capital of Punjab province, are crudely made stories with love, valour and Pashtun identity at their core. They feature middle-aged, heavily armed heroes with long moustaches wooing much younger women who, when not bouncing fully dressed on beds, sing a lot in the hills of northwest Pakistan.

Some say the vulgarity has been introduced by Punjabi film makers desperate to fill cinemas. And some theatres slip in blue movies between shows. The macho interest of Pashto films is addressed with guns, swords, knives and bloodshed. In the posters advertising the films, the wild-eyed men are often pictured smoking three cigarettes at once, with one behind the ear for good measure.


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