ANIMA STATE (Hammad Khan, 2013, UK/Pakistan) – Critical Condition

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Revival, resurgence, rebirth, a new era are some of the ways in which Pakistani cinema has been described as of late. Since the academic discourse on Pakistani cinema is so narrow, incomplete and barely existent makes it problematic for anyone trying to offer an adequate historiography and even more impossible when situating contemporary Pakistan cinema.

Progressive initiatives facilitating the reconfiguration of the Pakistani film industry emerging against an unstable political and economic framework are welcoming. This includes the establishment of film/media related courses at Universities, the emergence of television as an alternative source of financing and distribution, Indo-Pak cross border collaborations, the promotion of film as part of a wider cultural agenda and the increase in cinema screens and development of Multiplexes. A question of significance and one that needs to be asked repeatedly is if this new wave or new cinema questions a status quo that has and continues to bludgeon the masses into submission. It is difficult for me to adequately answer the question when I have yet to see many of the recent Pakistani films garnering critical and commercial attention. (Refer to my previous posts on Pakistani Cinema: Khuda Kay Liye and Ramchand Pakistani).

Given the unending moral consternation in a semi-oppressive nation that appears more fragmented and disjointed than ever before, the space for oppositional cinema could despondently be extinct. The populism of mainstream cinema is in fact a validation of the embarrassment of riches often associated with independent cinema. The relative absence of independent filmmaking in Pakistan does not necessarily mean there are no filmmakers engaged in such an ethos. The way Pakistani cinema is disseminated in the media and outside means it is a silent cinematic act potentially unfolding on new media platforms with an immediacy gone unrecognised by a discourse gravitating to mediocrity. Writer Rafay Mahmood had the following to say about the 2012 Pakistani blockbuster Waar (currently playing in the UK): ‘It’s disheartening to see Pakistan’s most awaited film turn out to be a bland, peculiar and uninspiring piece of propaganda’.

Anima State, indie filmmaker Hammad Khan’s latest film, refuses to imitate to the medians of new Pakistani cinema, constructing an oppositional voice brimming with discontent and outrage at the state of a nation. Film history suggests it is the margins which offer the more prescient, ideological and innovative cinema. Slackistan, Khan’s promising debut feature, sensitively explored the specific milieu of middle class Islamabadi youth. Although Slackistan was banned from being shown in Pakistani cinemas, the film was warmly embraced by the film festival circuit and received a limited release in the UK. Slackistan as an indie film demonstrated it was possible to work outside the mainstream in Pakistan and be able to say something original.

Whereas Slackistan models itself on American indie cinema, Anima State is an altogether different and at times experimental film that is both a reflexive commentary on his first film and elliptical taboo breaking meditation on politics, the media and identity. The narrative revolves around a cipher, a man with a bandaged face, who begins by randomly massacring a group of Pakistani youth (the cast of Slackistan) as a means of underlining a pervasive cultural numbness to acts of violence. The cipher’s invisibility to the police and media metaphorically reinstates a commentary on the failure of institutional power. It is a metaphor doubly visible in the way Khan makes the gun and camera interchangeable as a source of oppression and liberation.

Anima State moves with a frenzied episodic trajectory through Pakistani society, offering us a timely nightmarish journey in which everyone seems utterly disconnected and resolutely apathetic. If this is Khan taking the pulse of a nation then the diagnosis is critical. A female character, credited as ‘The Archetypes of Women’, appears in several guises, functioning as an allegorical representation of pluralistic femininity critiquing a nation severely at odds with the rights of women. In a controversial sequence, the stranger is shown masturbating to an old video recording of Pakistan’s world cup victory. Although it is a deeply comical moment, the juxtaposition of male sexual gratification and cricket proposes a ritualistic equation in which dreams of a great nation state remain suspended in time. Even more chilling is that the stranger’s random acts of violence go unheeded in a nation accustomed to and numbed by terrorism perpetrated by America and the Taliban. The extent of such normalised violence registers satirically when the stranger is invited on live TV with the grotesque promise of committing suicide.

If the banality of the media seems almost like a universal norm today then the stranger’s Kafkaesque metamorphosis into a filmmaker in the final act and his subsequent persecution suggests art (cinema in this case) is more radical than violence given the ideological intent can in some cases lead to the reawakening of a people. Director Hammad Khan is certainly one of Pakistani cinema’s boldest critics but what sets him apart from his fellow contemporaries is his capacity to fuse European aesthetic/stylistic devices with an affecting socio-political sensibility. Anima State like Slackistan is likely to garner screenings at film festivals but the real breakthrough would come if his films are screened in Pakistan to an audience that urgently needs to see them. I was privileged to see the film as an exclusive by director Hammad Khan and I thank him for such an opportunity. Anima State is unlike any other Pakistani film; bold, idiosyncratic, agitprop, experimental.

SLACKISTAN (Dir. Hammad Khan, 2009, Pakistan) – Tales From The City


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was somewhat conflicted both emotionally and ideologically whilst watching this latest feature film from Pakistan. Such a conflict arouse from my desire to turn away from the lives of Pakistani middle classes many of whom have indirectly helped to sustain such the ruling elite’s indiscriminate grip on power since the country came into existence whilst part of me could not be helped to view the film as an example of South Asian Diaspora cinema largely because the director Hammad Khan is based in London. I think what makes Ramchand Pakistani the most pertinent and powerful of the recent cycle of Pakistani films is Mehreen Jabbar’s decision to approach the politics of Pakistan through the point of view of the poor, underprivileged and largely forgotten strata of Pakistani society. Arbitrarily touted as Pakistan’s first slacker film Slackistan should really be translated as perhaps the country’s first independent film. Having received favourable reviews at various film festivals, director Hammad Khan’s excursion into the lives of a group of spoilt and over privileged Pakistani youth based in the rich enclaves of Islamabad may easily have worked as a TV series.

Slackistan does provide us with an insight into the striking contradictions of life in Islamabad, suggesting that lurking beneath our perceptions of a religiously conservative city is an anti authoritarian and rebellious impulse generated by the middle class youth who seem to spend their days waiting for something unexpected to happen. Boredom is a popular symptom and the director does question if it is valid for the youth in Islamabad to simply escape from the dearth of opportunity by migrating to either America or England. Very few seem capable or brave enough to take up the challenge of remaining put in Islamabad and attempting to give something worthwhile back whilst openly resisting the system. Thematically, questioning of the status quo by the middle class youth does emerge in the character of the budding film maker and it a direct action validated in the response of a camera pointing at the lives of an underclass. It may be an idealistic action but it is surely a step in the right direction in terms of wanting to enact wider change. Slackistan is an uneven film – the performances are clumsy and at times the dialogue feels contrived yet given it’s flaws, which are mainly ideological, it succeeds as it is rare to come across a film such as this one that offers something new and even revelatory about the state of Pakistan and its disillusioned youth.

KHUDA KAY LIYE / IN THE NAME OF GOD (Dir. Shoaib Mansoor, Pakistan, 2007) – Awakenings

Dormant for a long time, the Pakistani film industry is going through a number of changes which may lead to some hope of economic and artistic resuscitation. The history of Pakistani cinema since partition has been a disappointing one and the crisis it has faced in terms of funding, distribution and exhibition seems to mirror that of the successive governments which have categorically failed to invest in arts and culture. Whilst a successful and progressive theatre tradition has been maintained in Karachi and many of the other major cities, cinema and most of the arts have been treated with suspicion and scorn by religious groups. The period lasting 1998 to 2002 has been referred to as the collapse of the Pakistani film industry, a statement that seems quite true given President Zia’s infamously regressive policies. Ironically, Musharraf’s notoriously pro American reign as President, lasting between 2001 and 2008, inadvertently opened the doors to privatisation and for a freer media with the emergence of new television networks including most notably GEO TV and ARY Digital, both of which are available in the UK and cater to the Pakistani Diaspora.

Yet again it might be too early to suggest that we are seeing the beginning of new dawn in Pakistani cinema. However, with the recent release of films such as Mehreen Jabbar’s critically acclaimed Ramchand Pakistani which I have talked about in a previous post, Pakistan’s first slacker film Slackistan and Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Kay Liye, Pakistani cinema is attempting to reconstruct itself. A number of recent factors have helped emerging film makers to get funding and also engage with relevant political and social issues. Perhaps most importantly, television continues to provide a fertile training ground for new directors. Both Shoaib Mansoor and Mehreen Jabbar started out in the television drama series format before venturing into feature film making. Mehreen Jabaar is perhaps Pakistani television’s most distinct director and together with regular script collaborator Umaira Ahmed they have used the drama serial to address the concerns of Pakistani women from both the underclass and the middle classes. GEO TV, which is based in Karachi, not only helped to distribute Jabbar’s directorial debut but also directly financed Khuda Kay Liye. Similarly like in the UK in which the BBC and Channel Four are involved in supporting the British film industry, a similar pattern of funding and distribution seems to be emerging in Pakistan. Hopefully more of the Pakistani TV networks including ARY and HUM will also begin investing in films as it has also proved to be commercially lucrative as was the case with Khuda Kay Liye.

Another explanation for this shift in the industry might also be traced to the growing investment in training and courses for film makers in Pakistan. Film education is virtually non existent in Pakistan but the establishment of the country’s first film school in Karachi, the South Asian Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Television (SAAMPT), offering a range of film making courses points to a positive step in the right direction for elevating the cultural status of film as a whole. Additionally, some of the major universities in Pakistan also offer film making courses and director Shoaib Mansoor’s next film Bol which releases in January 2011 was completed with the help of students from Lahore’s National College of Arts which has its own film making department. Perhaps more importantly, the number of screens in Pakistan has always been on the decline but a programme is underway by Cinepax of investment into new multiplex cinemas in many of the major cities. This of course is going to be absolutely essential to nurturing a viable indigenous film industry, giving home grown films a chance to find an audience. The lifting of the ban on the exhibition of Indian films, the most idiotic and regressive of impositions by the Pakistani government meant a film like Khuda Kay Liye was able to be shown in India and Pakistan at the same time.

Released in 2007, Khuda Kay Liye is a post 9-11 film that focuses on three major narrative arcs. The first deals with the story of Mary, a British Pakistani girl, who is taken by her father under false pretences to Pakistan and forced to marry a young Pakistani man who turns out to be a religious fundamentalist. Mary hopes to marry Dave, a British student whom she has fallen in love but her father disapproves. The bitter irony is that Mary’s father is married to a British woman and yet cannot show any understanding for his own daughter as he feels they would be ostracised from the Pakistani community. This turns out to be a pretty feeble excuse for her father’s attempts to repress what emerge as regressive patriarchal attitudes.

Mary’s story is intertwined with that of Sarmad who lives in Pakistan, most probably Karachi or Lahore. Sarmad is in a band with his older brother Mansoor (Shaan) who forms the third narrative arc. Sarmad’s journey is perhaps the most interesting and political of the three as we witness his slow indoctrination into the ranks of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Blinded by his own religious beliefs, Sarmad is misled by a corrupting Mullah and leaves to fight in Afghanistan for the Taliban. By the end of his journey, Sarmad realises that his religious beliefs do not necessarily have to be translated in terms of a modern jihad and that his faith is purer than those fundamentalists around him who merely want to use Islam as a political platform for contesting power.

The final story focuses on Sarmad’s older brother Mansoor who leaves to study music in America. Mansoor, played by Pakistani superstar Shaan, falls in love with an American girl and as they grow intimate, the cataclysmic events of 9-11 throws a shadow of doubt over Mansoor’s presence in America. Accused of terrorism, Mansoor is illegally detained and tortured until he is left with brain damage. In the end, Mary takes her case of patriarchal and religious exploitation to the Pakistani courts and scores a victory for British Pakistani girls who are regularly made victims by tradition. In the final court sequences, Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah shows up in a minor yet significant role as a wise Islamic scholar who berates Pakistani society and especially those who misinterpret the Quran for altruistic ends.

Whilst director Shoaib Mansoor uses songs, they are effectively placed within the narrative. Most of the direction was surprisingly restrained for a Pakistani film and the virtual absence of histrionics made me appreciate the film’s honesty even more when dealing with such prescient issues such as terrorism, fundamentalism, women’s rights and the Diaspora. Technically, the film is well made with some strong cinematography throughout and the performances are excellent particularly from Pakistani actors Fawad Khan as Sarmad and Shaan as Mansoor. This is probably one of the best films I have seen to come out of Pakistan and compared to the atrocious and embarrassing bandit films that seemed to dominate Pakistani cinema for a long time, Khuda Kay Liye proves it is very possible and achievable for film makers in Pakistan to engage with the issues of their age and do so with some integrity. On its release, Mansoor’s film created a storm of controversy in Pakistan with many of the religious groups calling for an outright ban and deeming it blasphemous. However, this only seemed to help the film find a sizable audience, making it a commercial success in both India and Pakistan. On a final note, it is encouraging to see film makers from Pakistan like Shoaib Mansoor and Mehreen Jabbar taking on those issues like religious fundamentalism which are usually being misrepresented in western cinema especially Hollywood films. It is the only way in which the cinematic discourse on Islamic representations can be contested and perhaps challenged in many respects, reconstructing ideology from a South Asian perspective.