Unveiling life in Isloo

May.01 : Oddly enough while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his counterpart from Pakistan, Yousaf Raza Gilani were taking a “historic” stroll in Thimpu, I was watching a feature film , Slackistan, which conjures up life in Islamabad or Isloo, as it is known to the young and restless who live there.
It is an unusual rite-of-passage film about Pakistan, funny and impertinent unveiling “a city which always sleeps” — as the publicity material describes Isloo. The story concerns three rich, upper middle-class boys from a feudal background who finish college —and find themselves adrift, because Isloo offers no answers or future. It is a carefully controlled society, with the highly Americanised youth up against a peculiar trinity of the Army, the mullahs and the Taliban. Slackistan tries to deal with these issues with irreverence — and a sense of humour. This has already worked successfully in literature with The Case of Exploding Mangoes, often called a Rushdie-lite moment in Pakistani literature. And now, thankfully, it seems the same insouciance is creeping into cinema as well.
After a series of films being made all over the world on Muslim terrorism, for me it was a relief to watch a film about “the most dangerous place in the world” which was devoid of bomb blasts and political rhetoric. Yet, nothing about Pakistan can ever be free of controversy.
Director Hammad Khan, who has just put a trailer of his debut film on YouTube is already feeling the heat. The film has generated both debate and arguments especially back home in Pakistan, a country quite unused to total disclosure. As he puts it, the film looks at real life in Isloo — featuring everything taboo: America, alcohol and the feudal elite. These are all dangerous and provocative issues — which is why even on YouTube the film is already creating a furore. Of course, this begs the question, why are Asian countries so worried about their “image” abroad? Do they really think that world has no idea that slums exist, alcohol is drunk ,people in South Asia have sex and would like to live in America?
Hammad is a Brit Asian who was born in Pakistan, and this is his first film, written in part with his wife, Shandana Ayub, who also grew up in Isloo. Still, for him it was a difficult film to make. The collapse of cinema production in Pakistan has been a huge problem for young directors in many ways, and even finding talent becomes a shot in the dark. Hammad had to resort to the Internet and particularly Facebook, to locate his cast in Pakistan. Given the government paranoia about bad publicity, the film had to be shot with great secrecy .Therefore, he kept the cast and crew to the minimal and shot it mostly at real locations. This is also known as guerrilla film-making. And he now thinks he has been lucky to be able to make it at all —  as he finds things becoming extremely difficult for ordinary people in Pakistan, everyday.
Slackistan makes a very strong comment on the difficulty of growing up in Isloo. The talented young ensemble cast gives a strong performance of kids adrift — wasting their lives, somehow trapped in the insecurity of living in Islamabad. Two of the main actors, Shahbaz Hamid Shigri who plays Hasan, and Shahana Khan Malik as Zara were particularly outstanding. I do hope the film does well, as we need to see more of this fresh and open approach .

MEANWHILE, THE leadership debates carry on — but this week they were completely overshadowed by a microphone slip-up by the Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He had to spend one complete day apologising over and over again because in an unguarded moment, he called a 66-year-old Labour supporter, Gillian Duffy, a “bigot”, since she happened to question him on immigration. In a febrile and tense environment, whipped up into a frenzy by the media (as ever keeping a keen eye on their ratings) any mis-speaking is going to be leapt upon with glee, as it was. Of course, it is a mistake made by many: if you have a wireless microphone attached to you — and if you forget to switch it off in time, it simply airs your most private thoughts. However, given UK’s disenchantment with politicians, this became yet another critical instance of the hypocrisy of politicians. The accusation is that they completely smarmy when faced with the electorate — but actually are totally disengaged from the common man or woman. However, Mr Brown went into an apology overdrive : he apologised to the woman on the phone, then visited her personally (when he apologised for 39 minutes) and then also came out and apologised to the world at large for another 10 minutes and THEN also wrote an email apologising to all Labour Party workers… But the real reason he got into trouble was, apparently, because his wife, the redoubtable Sarah Brown was not by his side. It seems she is the only one who can keep him calm and safe from trouble. So it is good to know that wives are more than arm candy.
And then there was the other Big Apology which arose out the question: how do you greet the Pope? He is supposed to come to the UK later in the year and so preparations are on. However, recently, the arrangements were in serious danger of becoming more adventurous than the normal formality the pontiff is used to. According to a memo sent out by the foreign office to 10 Downing Street — one suggestion was to get him to open an abortion clinic. Another was to get him to distribute “Benedict” condoms. Or maybe — and this is really a smart idea, sing a duet with the Queen to raise money for charity? If this sounds like an April Fool joke, sadly, it was not. It was part of a brainstorming session (also known as “blue skies thinking”!) at the foreign office presided over by some junior officials. It is a little worrying to think that a bunch of juvenile blokes may have taken over Whitehall, but it is a real possibility.
So it has been a season of abject grovelling. This note forced the government to apologise to the Pope Benedict XVI, admitting that the document which also thought the Pope could bless a “gay marriage”, was foolish. Some Roman Catholics admitted that they have got used to mockery in the UK in recent times, but others did query that if a Muslim religious leader was similarly ridiculed, would the matter have been allowed to rest so easily? Interesting thought.

The writer can be contacted at kishwardesai@yahoo.com

Kishwar Desai

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