Binge-watching desi films

My article in The News on SundayJan 1, 2017, on two film festivals in New York recently showcasing work from Pakistan and India. I wanted to write more about some of them but didn’t have space. Below, with additional links and pix.


Mah-e-Mir director Anjum Shehzad and producers Badar Ikram, Khurram Rana with Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Desi audiences thronged to two recent film festivals in New York showcasing films from Pakistan and India

Many of the films in what is being heralded as a revival of Pakistan cinema feature the sprawling megapolis of Karachi. The multifaceted city’s historic sandstone buildings, sandy beach, traditional tiles, boundless energy emerge in these films… dreamily romantic under a perpetual full moon (Mah-e-Mir), wildly eclectic (Mailay), effervescent, multi-cultural (Actor In Law), violently revengeful (Gardaab), creative, musical (Ho Mann Jahan), a playground for street dancing (Dance Kahani), a tangle of underworld sewers and space-age factories (Teen Bahadur, animation).


Desi crowd at the Pakistan Film Festival at Asia Society.

Karachi… an urban jungle where exuberant creativity counters suffocating traditionalism, mafias, and lawlessness. Many filmmakers are themselves products of the opportunities provided by this microcosm of Pakistan. They symbolise a pluralism that media portrayals of Pakistan overlook. Their films reclaim and embrace multicultural Pakistan – thoughtfully, cheekily, or through historical references.

As the elderly professor tells the anarchic young poet in Mah-e-Mir, directed by Anjum Shehzad, “You can’t drive without a rear-view mirror”. The epic, deeply researched film about the poet Mir Taqi Mir scripted by Sarmad Sehbai, is Pakistan’s official entry to the Oscars this year.

Two festivals with different aims showed these films in New York recently, drawing packed halls with mostly ‘desi’ audiences.

The South Asia International Film Festival (SAIFF) at the Village East Cinema (Dec 1-4, 2016) annually hosts selected non-commercial films. Starting a couple of days later, the first Pakistan Film Festival (PFF) at the Asia Society (Dec 4-5, 2016), organised by the Permanent Mission of Pakistan to the United Nations aimed to “show diplomats from 193 countries at the UN what the country’s entertainment industry is producing”.


Director Ahmed Arif in his film Mailay.

SAIFF featured films only from India and Pakistan this year. Moderated discussions with directors after each screening added depth to the event. PFF flew in directors also, as well as actors, but held no discussions. Incidentally, PFF was not the “first-ever” Pakistan film festival outside the country as advertised. Harvard and Brown universities have jointly organised such festivals in 2014 and 2015, like PFF free and open to the public.

Many Pakistani filmmakers “tend to look outside their own class” and focus on terrorism, violence, and poverty at the expense of authenticity, says director Ahmed Arif. “Maybe they feel their experiences aren’t valid”.

Arif’s own black-and-white short Mailay (15 min.) deliberately ventures into the director’s world. So does Mehreen Jabbar’s Dobara Phir Se (132 min.), a ‘desi’ version of When Harry Met Sally set in New York (sold out several days before the event), and Asim Raza’s Ho Mann Jahaan (170 min.), a coming-of-age feature on Pakistan’s vibrant music scene a la Coke Studio.

These films also tackle the new, complex relationships faced by urban, middle class Pakistanis at home and abroad. The young directors draw versatile performances from their actors many of whom appear in more than one film this year. 

Premiering at SAIFF, Mailay is a voyeuristic peek into upper middle class Karachi, featuring amateur actors, and a couple of cameos by well known Karachi-based actors, Sunil Shankar and Joshinder Chaggar. To say more would be to spoil the surprise ending. 

The film follows a day in the life of a 40-something man, played by Arif himself, as he gets breakfast for his young daughter, goes about his day, then heads to a party at a friend’s house that evening. With minimal dialogue, low-key acting mostly by amateurs and imaginative cinematography, the film is a comment on the universal nature of relationships —including the complexity and life of “dead relationships”.

Mailay is the first film for public release by Cinema Pure, an independent platform for Pakistani film-professionals started by Arif in 2013. The Karachi-based collective aims to promote strong, non-commercial, low budget films. The focus is on exploring cinematic narratives rather than expensive film technology.

Mailay’s experimental nature carries into the acting style. At the post-screening discussion, Arif explained that he strictly instructed the actors to not emote, which was especially hard for the more experienced ones.

Paired with Mailay was Mantra (90 minutes) by Nicholas Kharkongor from India, his debut film after nearly two decades working in theatre and film in India and abroad. Both films encapsulate challenges and conflicts that urban, middle class Indians and Pakistanis face with changing emotional and material needs and aspirations.

Mantra is also a commentary on India’s economic liberalisation and the rise of Hindutva that had was being chillingly felt in 2004 when the action takes place. Kharkongor says it was a deliberate decision to keep two of the film’s characters identifiable as Muslims only by their names — both fiercely secular but playing vastly different roles, one wild and provocatively aggressive, the other placating and appeasing.

Amna Ilyas in Gardaab.

Amna Ilyas in Gardaab

Pakistani-American director Harune Massey’s first feature film, Gardaab (Whirlpool, 93 min), produced by Mateela, listed as SAIFF’s “Centerpiece” is a gripping Romeo-and-Juliet suspense thriller set in contemporary Karachi. It features senior actors like Khalid Ahmed and Nimra Bucha alongside relative newcomers like Fawad Khan (the Karachi-based theatre actor) and Amna Ilyas (who played a similar role in Zinda Bhaag, where Massey was Assistant Director).

For all its fantastical elements, Gardaab draws on real-life stories including, explained Massey, the “life cycle of a child soldier” from The Citizens Foundation (TCF), a non-profit providing quality education in low-income areas of Pakistan. Massey’s team held theatre workshops with youngsters in Karachi; Shahbaz who plays the pivotal transformative character of Akmal has no acting experience (he is the younger brother of a cast-member’s tailor).

Hassan Amin, director of SAIFF’s third Pakistani film, Veham (14 min), is a recent graduate of Beaconhouse National University with a degree in Film, Theater & Television. It is exciting that Pakistani educational institutes are producing filmmakers doing interesting work that is reaching the international circuit.

There are also talented mavericks like Nabeel Qureshi with his second film Actor In Law, impressively professional as was his debut Na Maloom Afraad. Actor In Law features excellent performances by Fahad Mustafa and Indian actor Om Puri. Mehwish Hayat plays a television journalist who happens to be Parsi, a deliberate, welcome choice by Qureshi.

Om Puri and Fahad Mustafa in Actor in Law.

Om Puri and Fahad Mustafa in Actor-in-Law

The film provides thoughtful if at times simplistic commentary on the media and legal systems of Pakistan – including a cheeky parody of a ‘top’ television anchor’s villainous real-life role. Bring it on!

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