What is the Pakistani dream?

Published: November 10, 2013
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A country torn by its reality weaves a unified dream in Sabiha Sumar’s new film. DESIGN: KIRAN SHAHID & SAMRA AAMIR

A country torn by its reality weaves a unified dream in Sabiha Sumar’s new film. DESIGN: KIRAN SHAHID & SAMRA AAMIR

Sabiha Sumar has had a good month. As her film Good Morning Karachi (Rafina) had its London premiere at the Raindance Film Festival, Sumar and the team of Saving Face — the Academy Award-winning documentary that she served as producer of — picked up an Emmy award for Best Documentary. In the works since 2011, Good Morning Karachi was filmed over a period of eight weeks, following an intensive three-month workshop with the cast and features Amna Ilyas, Atta Yacub, Beo Raana Zafar, Yasir Aqueel, Khalid Malik and Saba Hamid. “It was like running a film school,” Sumar recalls, as she worked with a motley team of Indian and Dutch crew members as well as local film enthusiasts who had never been on a feature film set.

The film found its inception in a chance meeting between Sumar and the author Shandana Minhas at a mutual friend’s house. “I had read Shandana’s articles in newspapers,” explains Sumar, “and I invited her to write a novella on the life of a young woman coming of age in Karachi.”

The story of a girl, Rafina, who dreams of leaving the gallis of Faisal Colony for the glamour of Pakistan’s fashion and beauty industry, Good Morning Karachi moves between the different worlds that Karachi is home to; there’s the bubble that Rafina’s clients at a beauty salon inhabit, where women complain that you just can’t get a decent bagel in Karachi, the corporate world where ad executives look for models who encapsulate a notion of enlightened innocence and look as though they have seen a lot but are not corrupted by it, to sell their products. Then there is the world of Rafina’s fiancé, who plasters images of Benazir Bhutto in his home and the white noise of the city and Pakistan as a whole as the radio intermittently announces news of bombings or terrorist attacks (the film’s title takes its name from a radio show, Good Morning Karachi). Even as she is initially bound between her home and the salon she works at, Rafina moves between these spheres — the clipped received pronunciation of a male voice on an English audio guide teaches her to say, “I would like to see London by night” or ask for a hot chocolate or directions to the nearest nightclub while she washes clothes in her home or whiles away her time staring at a luminous model advertising lawn cloth on a billboard outside her room’s window; her marriage is fixed in this home and later, the police break down the door to her home to arrest her fiancé on terrorism charges.

PHOTO: ZEESHAN HAIDER

The heart of the film lies in dreams, more specifically, the Pakistani woman’s dream. “Two of the largest film industries in the world deal with dreams,” explains Sumar, adding, “Hollywood is driven by the American dream and Bollywood by its secular dream of Akhand Bharat (united India).” Sumar feels that the way Pakistan developed as a nation, it did not succeed in manufacturing a dream that would be acceptable to all the people of the nation. The lack of vision, she argues is inextricably linked with Pakistan’s struggle to develop arts and culture, and more specifically the film industry, in the country.

Accordingly, Good Morning Karachi peddles in a number of celluloid fantasies: while Rafina dreams of upward social mobility (“I want my own apartment and my own life,” she informs her brother, telling him, “all modern women live with cats”), her fiancée Arif says, “all women dream of getting married and making a home,” as he dreams of political salvation, a revolution brought about by the leader of the political party he supports. Meanwhile, a young girl at Rafina’s salon says, “I always dreamt of getting married in a white dress,” as she is prepped for her wedding day. Once Rafina finds success as a model, she hopes to help women from her socio-economic strata and launches a campaign with the catchphrase ‘Unveil your loving glow’, featuring the image of a woman lifting the veil of her burqa to reveal her face. The image is plastered on a billboard and on leaflets that are distributed across the city. Thereby, Sumar explains, her film has provided for a Pakistani dream by taking Rafina beyond her personal gain and broadening her dream to reach out to ordinary Pakistani women.

PHOTO: ZEESHAN HAIDER

The image, however, of Rafina, clad in a powder blue mini-dress, discussing the campaign on a morning talk show, is problematic, representing the penultimate Pakistani dream as one in which the country’s women are freed from religious conservatism, able to dress and live just as women in the West. The film thereby further reinforces the disconnect between the people Sumar describes as the vernacular educated and the English-educated elite that has opportunities at every corner, as Rafina is unable to straddle her two lives and, by the film’s conclusion, is firmly positioned within the sphere of the elite.

Just as she screened Khamosh Pani across the country through mobile cinema halls, Sumar says she plans to exhibit Good Morning Karachi in towns and villages in Pakistan. It will be interesting to note the reactions of more conservative audiences, particularly as Rafina comes to embody all that is seen as too modern or Western by many in the country. Sumar isn’t worried, however. “Rafina’s dream represents the aspirations of many young women whether they are rural or urban,” she explains, adding that, “I believe TV and media in general have opened up our understanding of international fashion and I don’t think Good Morning Karachi will be viewed in a narrow perspective.”

PHOTO: SABIHA SUMAR

While Rafina’s campaign to unveil your loving glow is a tad flimsy in its goals, it is ultimately our inability to emotionally connect with Rafina’s journey that renders her dream a singular vision. Towards the film’s conclusion for instance, Rafina, now a model for a national brand, says, “I don’t hate my part of the city anymore.” When pressed for details of what she loves about her neighbourhood, she says, teary eyed, “The gola gunda from Five Star.” The sentiment, while it may be true, rings hollow, particularly as the film ends with Rafina’s successful transition from Faisal Colony to a more affluent neighbourhood in the city. At the film’s screening in London, actor and comic Beo Raana Zafar explained that, “One thing Sabiha taught us was that there’s a line and there’s a subtext. You don’t act the lines, you act the subtext.” With this film, unfortunately, much of this subtext fails to translate, most tellingly as a mystified member of the audience asked Zafar, “So, really, how did your character die at the end?”

PHOTO: SABIHA SUMAR

Good Morning Karachi is ultimately a celebration of the spirit of the city of Karachi and the fortitude of its people, a city where, as Rafina believes, anything is possible. “This city is not like any other city in Pakistan,” says Sumar. “It’s sad that Karachi has sunk into violence in the past few years but its potential as a city that drives ambition is certainly palpable.”

Despite its shortcomings, the film is an important contribution to Pakistan’s fledgling independent film industry, which can only learn from its successful and not-so-stellar productions. Sumar notes that the industry is changing, buoyed by the successes of projects such as Saving Face, Zinda Bhaag or Seedlings and the recent inclusion of Pakistani entries for consideration at the Academy Awards. “The audience was always receptive,” she explains, “but there were no opportunities.” But times, it seems, are changing and Sumar has thrown herself back into work, with two feature films and a documentary in the pipeline.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 10th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • 123
    Nov 10, 2013 - 12:52PM

    pakistan likes to pat on its own back!

    its really hilarious.

    Recommend

  • Ali S
    Nov 10, 2013 - 1:15PM

    Really, how many girls from Faisal Colony want to be lawn models? You’re far more likely to hear they want to be teachers or doctors. This was one of my biggest gripes with Khuda Ke Liye too – how many middle-class Pakistanis go from here to the USA to study music? Maybe one in a billion? Why not pick a premise that’s at least somewhat practically believable? I think this represents a very serious social disconnect between these elite uppity filmmakers and the middle-class public that they claim to represent.

    Recommend

  • Sohail Khan
    Nov 10, 2013 - 1:47PM

    There is no lack of dream i think. Pakistan was made with a dream, that dream needs to be reviewed. I think it was a tolerant Islamic state, progressive state with knowledge based economy and having good relations with neighbor countries.

    Recommend

  • BlackJack
    Nov 10, 2013 - 2:21PM

    Hollywood is driven by the American dream and Bollywood by its secular dream of Akhand Bharat (united India).”
    Ridiculous – how many patriotic films are made in the Hindi film industry? – a handful. How many Hindi films have South or East Indian characters or story lines? not even a handful. Pakistanis parrot whatever they are told, and this particular quote is sillier than most. In the 60s/ 70s there were a few movies that promoted social causes and even fewer addressed integration (not of disparate states and languages, which continue to be parodied, but among different religions), but that age is long gone.What Bollywood peddles successfully is dreams that cater to the eternal optimism in most Indians that tomorrow will be a better day, and this is why these films do well in Pakistan as well.

    Recommend

  • Zen.one
    Nov 10, 2013 - 2:52PM

    “Hollywood is driven by the American dream and Bollywood by its secular dream of Akhand Bharat (united India).”
    This is really hilarious. They are two completely different analogies. Akhand Bharat is a Hindi term used to represent the Undivided India as it existed prior to the Partition of India in 1947 and the Independence of Bangladesh in 1971. The call for recreation of the Akhand Bharat has on occasions been raised by some mainstream/ extremist Indian cultural and political organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
    The ‘Shining India’ dream is a better term which the Bollywood is driven by/to.

    Recommend

  • PiS
    Nov 10, 2013 - 4:22PM

    I saw it in San Francisco tonight. With it’s shortcoming, it was still an enjoyable film. think the kind of transition depicted in the movie (for rags to riches) is much similar to many female models in Pakistan. The only difference is that Rafina’s character learned to speak way better english than some real models out there do. Beo Raana Zafar was superb in the movie hands down.

    P.S. I think Amna Ilyas is going to be known as the Freida Pinto of Pakistan.

    Recommend

  • M. Emad
    Nov 10, 2013 - 4:29PM

    Now there is no ‘Pakistani dream’. My father’s generation — who fought for Pakistan in 1940’s — had the real ‘Pakistani dream’. ‘Pakistani dream’ was burried at Ramna Race Course ground in Dacca (Dhaka) on 16 December 1971 by Pakistan Army (however, according to the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi, ‘Pakistani dream’ was thrown into the Bay of Bengal on 16 December 1971).

    Now there is no ‘Pakistani dream’ — there is only ‘PAKISTANI NIGHTMARE’.

    Recommend

  • S
    Nov 10, 2013 - 5:06PM

    The problem with Pakistan is people her, unveil ur glow? Extremely disgusted to read this.

    But yes it is a matter of time, these people make these movies to get awards in London, show the movies in London and get praises in London. But west is in tatters itself, only a matter of time before these people won’t find any solace in west.Recommend

  • S
    Nov 10, 2013 - 5:12PM

    Point to note all such articles of pro India and west and westernisation are all written by Pakistani women.

    And on a separate note, when they talk about Pakistani dream for the film industry as identity then why a dream for women only? Mis selling the movie

    Recommend

  • Zen.one
    Nov 10, 2013 - 6:19PM

    @M. Emad:
    ‘Pakistani dream’ was burried at Ramna Race Course ground in Dacca (Dhaka) on 16 December 1971 by Pakistan Army (however, according to the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi, ‘Pakistani dream’ was thrown into the Bay of Bengal on 16 December 1971).

    You erred here again…but to err is human. Indira Gandhi said ‘The two nation theory is drowned in the bay of Bengal today, and she also vehemently added ‘ today we avenged the 1000 years of Muslim rule/domination in the Indian subcontinent’.
    Kindly don’t distort history to your liking and disliking.

    Recommend

  • Cosmo
    Nov 10, 2013 - 8:05PM

    As someone has aptly put it, there cannot be a Pakistan-Dream, there can only be Pakistani-Nightmares. And only movies which would tickle that nightmare will be a successful one. Prime example: Success of Waar. The reason is very obvious, the nation of Pakistan has been carved out insecurities, the whole mantra for future is installing fear-of-India in peoples hearts and minds and therefore, a legitimacy of Army-the-savior.

    Even the author of this article buttress this point when she/he puts Bollywood and Aakhand-Bharat in the same sentence. I cant help, but just get amused as such silly analogies.
    There is no akhand-bharat themes in our movies. The reason we are successful is not coz Indians are chasing after some elusive unifying-India dream, but because Indians celebrate there diversity and we respect our differences. We got, many movie industries within Indian and each one maintains its own identity.

    I hope though, one day Pakistanis should start dreaming for real and stop concatenating conspiracy nightmares.Recommend

  • Nov 11, 2013 - 10:13AM

    Sanam – thank you for an honest look and no holds barred review. A lot of the film rings hollow and firmly places progress as upward mobility into a more elite and westernized sphere.

    My take here.

    Recommend

  • Parvez
    Nov 12, 2013 - 3:31PM

    All of a sudden there’s quite some talk about Pakistani films………….absolutely fabulous.Recommend

  • RHS
    Nov 22, 2013 - 1:04AM

    I went with much higher expectations from this film and its director. They were both just “alright” but one can hope!

    Recommend

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