The incandescent documentary Song of Lahore narrates a hopeful story about culture and the arts in Pakistan which has witnessed since the 1970s a steady decline and erosion of both. Directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken frame the recent emergence of Sachal Studios, set up to try and bring together some of Pakistan and Lahore’s best classical musicians, in a much wider historical framework stretching back to the Indian Mughal era and their patronage of music. The turning point in terms of debasing the cultural significance of music as an ancient tradition passed on through generations is located in the totalitarian reign of General Zia who by imposing Sharia law re-situated music as something worthless and sinful. Such puritanical sentiments are still deeply entrenched in the psyche of Pakistan, made altogether worse now by the presence of the Taliban, the most philistine of ideologues. Song of Lahore follows the success of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, beginning with their inspired rendition of Brubeck’s Take Five, and ending in a collaborative performance at New York’s Lincoln Centre with Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz Orchestra. It is an impassioned plea positing music as cultural exchange, comradeship and reinstating the edifying significance and place that classical music deserves in a nation suffering from cultural, historical amnesia.
There is an argument to be made that when the state or government fails to provide any kind of moral, social or political direction and support for its people then traditionally institutions like the media and film in particular are able to respond to crises, concerns and anxieties in both an allegorical and populist way. However, for all the suppression, be it religious and social, that has permeated Pakistani society for a number of decades now it is difficult to account for the consistent failure of film makers to act upon such misgivings in a constructive way. Personally, in times of political and social failure, it is the responsibility of a nation’s film industry to try and demonstrate on screen, the problems and inequalities that are evident in society. Yet no such aspiration or didactic impulse has really ever existed in Pakistani cinema. Perhaps it is to do with the reality that an orthodox religious fervour affects all walks of life in such a way that images are regarded somewhat suspiciously and possibly associated with an out dated, decadent view of a corrupted western society. But this argument seems invalid and even absurd when one looks to Iran after Khomeini swept to power as the Islamic revolution not only helped purify cinema but paved the way for a new Iranian cinema based on neo realist principles.
Many continue to refer to Pakistan as a new nation yet this seems like an awkward scapegoat for the poor economic support and creative discouragement expressed by a government to indigenous film makers, many of whom have constantly been forced to work in the television industry. With such a young population, it is surprising that the youth are not been actively encouraged to engage with film as a career choice, but the steady decline of cinemas in Pakistan over the last ten years is alarming and makes for grim analysis of the current dire state of an industry in desperate need of a proper support structure including funding, film courses and an adequate means of implementing some kind of nationwide film education programme. Karachi which is located in the province of Sindh has never shied away from tackling social taboos and unlike the feudalism of Punjab, the emergence of an intellectual middle class has meant a far greater level of involvement with theatre, television and cinema. However, it is not solely Karachi that has continued to offer a pluralistic vision of what might be possible if the government was to get behind artists, Lahore’s intellectual circles have also had success with television drama, taking on a broad range of social issues in a very melodramatic format. Prior to the partition of India, Lahore was an influential and important city for South Asian cinema, offering a home to established film studios. Unfortunately, the partition forced many key writers, technicians and film makers to leave Lahore and settle in Mumbai.
Even today, Karachi does not really see itself as part of Pakistan, the on going rivalry with Punjab and Lahore in particular has seen some politicians criticise the westernised, outward looking middle class of Karachi as ideologically dubious. Pakistan’s only internationally recognised film festival, The Kara Film Festival, takes place annually in Karachi. A recent development and established in 2001, the festival tends to show a broad range of films from mainstream Hollywood blockbusters to more specialised world cinema films. This year, ‘Firaaq’ (Separation), the directorial debut of Nandita Das which focuses on the recent communal riots in Gujarat, India, walked away with the top prize.
Actress and campaigner of women’s rights, Nandita Das has been very supportive of the Pakistani film industry and her presence in a film like ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ was instrumental in attracting an audience and the attention of film festivals. Before I move on to have a closer look at the possible significance of a film like ‘Ramchand Pakistani’, it may be useful to mention that for a long time, Pakistani cinema was dominated by the ‘dacoit’ (bandit) genre, and that during the 1980s, the presence of the country’s two biggest film stars, Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi, besieged the box office with a traditional brand of rural identity that appealed to a wide section of the population. In the BFI’s contemporary survey of South Asian Cinema, the Pakistani journalist, Sajid Iqbal underlines the cultural significance of Pakistani cinema’s most successful film:
‘But the best was yet to come two years later with the release of Punjabi film Maula Jat featuring violent hero Sultan Rahi. The running period of this movie at cinema halls was so long that people simply lost track. This was undoubtedly the most successful film ever made in Pakistan. The typical axe (called gandasa in Punjabi and Hindi) held high by the character Maula Jat is an accepted symbol of violent protest against the cruel military regime by the poor masses. It established Sultan Rahi as the most successful film personality of Pakistan’
‘Pakistani Cinema’ by Sajid Iqbal, July 2007, BFI
For all its iconic status, ‘Maula Jat’ (1979) is a poorly directed film that features some wonderfully over the top performances. It is a very violent film and borrows heavily from the western genre but the exploitative tone maintained throughout what is a meandering narrative transforms ‘Maula Jat’ into a film that is defined by a populist appeal rather than its unsatisfactory technical achievements. The lack of investment in the latest cameras, film stock and lighting has also played a crucial part in preventing Pakistani cinema from achieving some acceptable degree of technical competence. The stark reality is that the vast majority of films produced by the Pakistani film industry have been of a relatively poor quality, both in terms of aesthetics and storytelling. Audiences have always had to turn to television drama in Pakistan for some kind of commentary on the country’s social and political problems.
Ramchand Pakistani’ is the directorial debut of Mehreen Jabbar, somebody who is better known in her home country for the many popular series she has directed for television. It is not surprising that Mehreen Jabbar’s formal training and background is television based as Pakistan has yet to establish some kind of accredited film institute where directors, writers and cinematographers can learn to specialise in a specific area. She has benefited enormously from the support provided by her father, Javed Jabbar, who is a well known television producer and film maker, having directed in 1976, ‘Beyond the last Mountain’, Pakistan’s first English language film. Mehreen Jabbar’s studied Film and Television at the University of California before returning to Pakistan to enter the television industry. The press kit for the film says that she is currently based in New York. This is interesting as it places her alongside other South Asian diaspora women film makers like Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta who have also used cinema as a platform to address the unfair treatment and discrimination faced by women in contemporary society.
‘Ramchand Pakistani’ is derived from a true story concerning the accidental crossing of the Pakistan-Indian border during a period (June 2002) of extreme, war-like tension between the two countries by two members of a Pakistani Hindu family belonging to the ‘untouchable’ (Dalit) caste, and the extraordinary consequences of this unintended action upon the lives of a woman, a man, and their son.
It’s not hard to see why an actress like Nandita Das would naturally gravitate towards a story that explores an unreported and often hidden part of society, the untouchable caste. The film also questions what it means to be a woman in such a feudal, suspicious and patriarchal way of life. When her husband and son accidentally cross the border into India, they are captured and illegally detained in a prison. With no word of their capture, Champa (Nandita Das) fears the worst and is forced to pay off her husband’s debts. Lonely and isolated, Champa starts to form a relationship with Abdullah (Noman Ijaz), a villager who is eager to help her find her husband and son. The villagers misinterpret the idea of companionship for something much more taboo. Mehreen Jabbar uses the idea of separation to explore how prejudices exist in all facets of Indian and Pakistani society, not just village life.
Champa’s isolated position in the later half of the film represents her as somebody struggling to maintain her dignity in the face of regressive attitudes harboured by those around her. When Ramchand (brilliantly played by Fazal Hussain) accidentally crosses the Indo-Pak border, it happens without any kind of real emphasis, it is merely a boy taking a stroll across a patch of land. Yet this child does not see the lines that have been drawn up, separating and dividing humanity, to Ramchand, borders are invisible. The father/husband, Shankar (Rashid Farooqui), is benign as his son when it comes to the intense rivalry that exists between Pakistan and India. Jabbar seems to suggesting that to a lot of people, living in the rural areas and in villages, they are oblivious to such tensions.
After Shankar and Ramchand are captured and imprisoned, the film maintains audience interest by focusing on the details of prison life and also using Ramchand as a means of tackling the outspoken prejudices and racism that exists within Indian society. The roles portrayed by Nandita Das exudes a sympathy with the plight of those who are continually oppressed within Indian society today including the repression and discrimination faced by the Muslim minority in cities like Mumbai and Gujarat. Though this is not solely a film told through the eyes of a child, by focusing on the father/son relationship, it does offer an acknowledgement of the enduring and influential quality of De Sica’s masterful ‘Bicycle Thieves’.
So what is it that makes ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ such a unique and special film? The press pack on the official website offers a valuable insight into some of the ‘special aspects’ of the film:
1. This is possibly the first film post-1971 (after the loss of East Pakistan) in which the central characters of a Pakistani film are Pakistani Hindus.
4. This is the first full-length feature film for cinema directed by a young Pakistani woman director, Mehreen Jabbar. Her work reflects a deep concern for the individual identity, rights and empowerment of women.
6. While the film is indigenous to Pakistan, it also represents a rare example of creative and constructive co-operation between Pakistan and India on a non-official level. With the consent of the Government of Pakistan, one of India’s reputed actresses Nandita Das has played a lead role in the film as a Pakistani Hindu woman. One of India’s leading music directors, Debajyoti Mishra, has composed the background music and 4 background songs, 3 of which also feature the voice of one of the leading Indian woman singers, Ms Shubha Mudgal. A widely acknowledged Indian film editor, Aseem Sinha has also co-edited the film with the Director.
It is true that many of these aspects are new to Pakistani cinema and perhaps the most revealing fact is that this oppositional attempt to create a new kind of cinema has come from the most repressed section of Pakistani society, women. I would go as far as to say that ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ is a rarity and is part of a handful of Pakistani art films (‘Khamosh Pani’ / Silent Waters, 2003) to have been made recently in the country since its creation in 1948. ‘Khamosh Pani’ was also directed by a Pakistani female director and it too is very critical of how women are treated and discriminated against.
The other aspect that makes this film stand apart from the traditional Pakistani musical melodrama is the technical achievements. Beautifully shot using HD cameras and on location (Thar Desert), the film benefits greatly from the invaluable contributions made by experienced veterans from the Indian film industry like Debajyoti Mishra (Ritapurno Ghosh’s regular composer) and editor, Aseem Sinha (editor on many of Shyam Bengal’s films). In this context, the film is a strong example of a genuinely artistic and mutually beneficial co-production between India and Pakistan. ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ continues to make its way around the different film festivals, attracting a lot of critical acclaim. It was shown at the London Film Festival in October, 2008. Once again, like Sivan’s new film, ‘Tahaan’, I am not sure entirely sure if Jabbar’s film will be able to find distribution in the UK, but this should not stop audiences from seeking out what is a rare example of a Pakistani art film that one hopes will inspire a new generation of film makers in Karachi and Lahore.
Director Mira Nair’s latest feature is somewhat of an uneven film but it is an important one in the context of post 9-11 cinema. Based on the best selling novel by Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist re-situates Nair’s Diasporic gaze to a post 9-11 geopolitical context in which commerce, politics and religion are intertwined. Given Nair has always been caught between two cultures, she has naturally been inclined to favour the social outsider in many of her films. This was a precedent set in her earliest films especially Salaam Bombay! in which Chiapau’s (Shafiq Syed) arrival in Bombay positions him as an outsider attempting to adjust and fit into the new environment around him. Chiapau’s desire to make enough money so he can return to his village in order to pay off his debts makes him a creature of survival but Nair’s later films such as The Namesake (2006) saw a shift to Diasporic anxieties to do with belonging, identity and a wider existential search. Sometimes it can be critical to have read the original source material when viewing an adaptation of such significance. Unfortunately I have not read the novel upon which the film is based but it may be worthwhile comparing the two and considering what compromises may have been made in the adaptation process. Nair says it took five years for the film to get made since financing kept falling through. The difficulty in attracting adequate financing can be attributed to the film’s supposedly controversial and commercially unappealing subject matter, that of contemporary Pakistan.
This is certainly Nair’s most ambitious film to date and its rich, sympathetic depiction of Lahore echoes similar Punjabi sentiments evident in her most successful film, Monsoon Wedding (2001). In fact, Nair’s husband has referred to the film as ‘Monsoon Terrorist’. Given the dire security issues in Pakistan, which makes it an impossible place to film in, Nair found an area in Delhi to act as a replacement. Although the film has a global feel to it, taking place across a number of cities including New York and Istanbul, it is Lahore that offers Nair the opportunity to deal with her own ancestral connections and prescient ones to do with America’s hegemonic foreign policy towards Pakistan and its people. This is why Nair chooses to use a framing device in the form of an on going dialogue between Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) and Bobby Lincoln (a journalist turned ‘spook’ working for the CIA played by Liev Schreiber) because it becomes an extended symbolic exchange of ideological perspectives between America and Pakistan in regards to foreign policy. The story of Changez sees him become a successful financial analyst at one of the top firms on Wall Street but after September 11, anti Islamic sentiments triggers a reawakening within him concerning his direction and place in American society. Changez’s decision to return to Lahore and teach at a university makes him an enemy in the eyes of an American government that acts with impunity when it comes to protecting western interests. Given the references to Ahmed Shah Masoud, a potential future leader of Afghanistan who led the resistance against the Soviet Union, it is clear to see that Changez is represented as a potentially transformational figure with an intellectualism that would appeal to the youth in Pakistan.
Riz Ahmed does a splendid job in the lead role and continues to show great range as a leading British actor with an increasingly international profile. Intellectualism as resistance is a theme evident by his father who is a famous Punjabi poet and the rejection of his exploitative role as a financial analyst condemns capitalist ideology as a form of internal oppression that inevitably leads to a loss of identity. In the film, two particular moments stand out in the opening half which probably explains why the film struggled to attract financing. Nonetheless, they are exceptionally significant ideological moments since Nair daringly allows us to see the reaction to 9-11 through the gaze of a Pakistani male. Such subjectivity is important as it has barely registered in many films that have tried to depict the so called war on terror. The first moment concerns the pleasurable reaction of Changez as he watches the planes crashing into the twin towers in his hotel room. I’m not sure if this moment breaks a taboo but it certainly offers an unsanctioned truth about the way a lot of oppressed people around the world reacted to such events and its a moment that will more than likely have some reviewers in America condemning the film for even attempting to humanise a Pakistani like Changez. The second moment concerns the the xenophobia which was rife in the wake of the attacks. On his way from a business trip, Changez is detained at the airport and dehumanised when he is strip searched by the security. Such open and discriminatory persecution is really the beginning of the end for Changez and his American dream. Both of these moments are critical in delineating the alienation of Changez from his environment.
Nair’s films are also important in their use of music. The Reluctant Fundamentalist returns to a similar musical pattern of a film like Monsoon Wedding which saw a fusion of classical and contemporary music on the soundtrack. Nair taps into the contemporary Pakistani music scene which over the last few years, sponsored by The Coke Studio, has produced some eclectic and innovative collaborations between old and new artists. The film opens with a lengthy traditional Punjabi Qawwali (devotional Sufi music) ‘Kangna’, performed by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, which is used to underline the middle class tastes of what seems to be a progressive Pakistani family. Interestingly, the film opens with the professor Anse Rainier and his companion exiting a showing of Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor’s most recent film Bol (Speak, 2011), a portmanteau of stories that depict the oppression faced by Pakistani women on a daily basis. Bol is used predominantly to anchor the events within a contemporary Pakistani landscape and remind us of the centrality of Lahore as a key milieu in the narrative. Perhaps the most ideologically significant deployment of contemporary Pakistani music is when Changez leaves his job and makes the decision to return to Lahore. This sequence is juxtaposed to the introspective song ‘Mori Araj Suno’ (Hear My Plea) which makes explicit use of the poetry by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of Punjab’s most famous and revered poets. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a radical leftist who used his poetry to criticise the state of the nation and Nair makes a striking parallel here by juxtaposing the song with Changez’s transformation from capitalist to eventual teacher. Nair and all those involved especially the writers should be praised for their refusal to demonise Changez and let the film reach a conclusion that opens up a space for a dialogue and discourse that lets the Pakistani male become an active symbol of social and political change. I have still have a suspicion this one will end up in my end of year list since I find both Mira Nair and Riz Ahmed to be inspirational figures.
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.