Do you know about the 22-year-old Pakistani who showcased his brilliant documentary — Masters of the Sky — at the Cannes International Film Festival last week, arguably the most prestigious film festival in the world? What’s remarkable about this young, talented filmmaker is that he didn’t chose a subject like terrorism, persecution of minorities or women’s rights to talk about Pakistan (as important as those issues are, they’re already given plenty of coverage). Instead, this documentary focuses on the traditional art of pigeon fighting and shows a slice of life in Karachi that few locals are aware of, let alone foreigners.
Serajus Salikin, a student at SZABIST, originally directed this short documentary as a final project for a course taught by Shehram Mokhtar, the head of the media sciences department. Before I tell you more about this filmmaker or his documentary, I want to talk about another Pakistani hero: the fastest man in Asia — a Pakistani named Abdul Khaliq who won over 30 international gold medals as a sprinter in the 1950s and 60s. Those who saw the Bollywood blockbuster Bhag Milkha Bhag, based on the life of the Indian athlete Milkha Singh, would have seen Abdul Khaliq in the famous racing duel between the two men.
I forgot about Abdul Khaliq after watching Bhag Milkha Bhag until a few days ago, when a friend posted a Facebook meme with a comparison of the two athletes. According to the meme, Milkha Singh has been honoured by India with the Padma Shri Award, a book (The race of my life) as well as a movie. The post questions why Abdul Khaliq has won no award and doesn’t have a book or movie in his name, even though he won more than six times as many international gold awards as Milkha. This inspired me to read up on Abdul Khaliq and the more research I did on him, the more the stature of our unrecognised hero appeared to grow. According to one report, Khaliq was a prisoner of war after the 1971 war and when the then Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, offered to release him early, he refused and said that he preferred being released with the rest of his countrymen.
Now, let’s come back to Seraj, whose beautifully-shot documentary follows 68-year-old Mehmood Ashraf, a pigeon fighter from Jamshed Road. Ashraf and his fellow pigeon fighters buy pigeons at prices as high as Rs5,000 each and maintain fleets of pigeons worth up to Rs800,000. They feed and fly pigeons with military-like precision and discipline, training them to battle with fleets of pigeons from other fighters, while commanding their troops from the rooftop of their homes. The documentary also shows the budding chemistry between Ashraf and his student Huzaifa. In any other city, this would be an ordinary story about two men following their passion but in a city like Karachi, the ordinary suddenly transforms into the extraordinary because glimpses of ordinary life are so rarely shown on camera with such storytelling finesse.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me reveal that while I had no role to play in this documentary, I’ve taught Seraj journalism for a semester. I wish Seraj was the type of student that a teacher can proudly claim they already knew was destined to accomplish great things and make an impact in society. But Seraj wasn’t that student. I remember having to encourage him to step out of the shadow of his friends — who were able to draw more attention to themselves by speaking up in class. “I think I prefer speaking through my work rather than speaking about myself,” argued Seraj, when I interviewed him for this article. Perhaps this is a good metaphor for Pakistani heroes, who quietly do great things without drawing attention. This one’s for you Seraj. We’re all rooting for you.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2014.
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