Strolling through the busy streets of the city, pedestrians will come across furious faces holding bloodstained daggers or AK-47s. However, these menacing characters instill little fear as they are not in the flesh.
Painted onto thousands of rickshaws in the city, violent scenes from Pashto movies zip from street to street and corner to corner, giving locals and visitors a taste of local cinema. Onlookers may never have seen one of these movies, but the rickshaw art provides a quick synopsis of plot of many such flicks – blood, gore and alpha males.
For the rickshaws owners wanting to add some colour to their lives, there are only a few people left to paint these images on their vehicles. One of them is Ustad Hafiz Khan, an artist who brings the silver screen of yore back to life by painting actors like the late Bader Munir and Asif Khan.
Holding out for a hero
With a love for action flicks, many of these rickshaw drivers, perhaps unwittingly, immortalise—and in doing so glorify—the bloody images of their idols.
The artist and his brothers were busy at their workshop with their brushes, painting the back of rickshaws. According to the ustad, every young driver wanted his rickshaw to stand out and woo passengers. Hafiz added customer requests served as his muse.
Hafiz recalled in days gone by, the trend was different as rickshaw owners were happy with elements of truck art –motifs made with rexine-like material and chamak pati. But as a result of what seems to be a revival of Pashto cinema among rickshaw drivers, the artists saw an increasing demand for dramatic characters at each other’s throats painted on the vehicles.
Over the years as the number of cinemas kept reducing and technology made billboard printing more affordable, artists who used earned a living by painting posters and hoardings for movies became less marketable. As a result, most of the cinema billboard painters have been forced to substitute massive hoardings for a quarter of a rickshaw as their canvas.
“This has also become a way to keep this art alive as painted posters have already been replaced by printed ones,” said Hafiz. “However, it took no time for young rickshaw drivers to take to such images as they like to watch these movies.”
Produced mainly in Peshawar, Pashto movies have been widely criticised for being anti-culture and packed with violence. However, even the giants of Bollywood cannot hold a candle to their mass appeal.
According to the filmmakers, young people such as rickshaw drivers and daily wage labourers were their loyal fans. “It is these people whom we make movies for as they are the main audience,” said Shahid Khan, a Pashto film producer. On Eid, seven new movies will hit the screens across the city.
Thanks to the introduction of radium strips (what car stickers are also produced on), silver screen violence can be viewed any time of day. Needless to say, it does come at a price.
“The first effort after buying a rickshaw is to decorate it,” said Rahat Gul, a rickshaw driver. Gul shared Rs20,000 have been spent to do up his vehicle.
Just like Pashto films are criticised for their imagery, so is the art. However, the critics are not the ones with mouths to feed. “We are trying to make our vehicles more beautiful with the hope that passengers are attracted towards them,” said a rickshaw driver.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 4th, 2015.