Writer and editor

Slackistan: Welcome to Pakistan

Added on by Anealla Safdar.

It has already been described as the anti-Slumdog movie, the first feature of its kind from Pakistan and one of the most unexpected and surprising films this year.

At the world premiere in London earlier this month, during the Raindance film festival, tickets for Slackistan sold out. At the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last week, seats were once again unavailable to those who have left it too late. The 85-minute low-budget film and its director Hammad Khan will then fly to New York for the South Asian film festival on October 30 and take a trip to the West Coast for the November 5 San Fransisco South Asian Film Festival. Slackistan will also be the only Pakistani movie to show at the oldest, largest film festival in India, the 41st International Film Festival of India.

There is one country, however, that has shown little interest in picking up the film for distribution — Pakistan.

“I am trying to secure distribution partners in Pakistan, but am awaiting someone to help me do it,” said 34-year-old Khan. “There is a lot of demand but the so-called industry hasn’t taken notice yet. It’s ironic that the film is invited to screen around the world and nobody has made an offer in Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s industry executives, he says, are failing local filmmakers by paying little attention to movies that not from neither Hollywood nor Bollywood.

“What makes it worse is that fans of the movie, the people who should be seeing it think that we’re choosing not to release it in Pakistan and prefer to screen it in other countries. I tell them, they chose us, we didn’t choose them.”

During the international festival tour, Khan is working to get Slackistan, which was shot over three weeks in April 2009 in Islamabad, showing in Pakistan but he called for a protest to speed the process. Fans, who have probably watched the 100,000 times-viewed trailer on YouTube and created a Google alert to check when the film may arrive in Pakistan, should launch the campaign.

“If you want to see our film on the big screen in Pakistan, I tell the fans, campaign don’t complain. If we all did that, we might be able to change not only Pakistan’s film culture, but the entire nation itself.”

At the London show, the audience, in the low hundreds, attracted mostly British Pakistanis and a handful of others curious about a side to the country rarely depicted in the Western press.

On an unusually balmy evening in Piccadilly Circus, cinema-goers crammed the theatre to catch a glimpse of the lead actress Aisha Linnea Akhtar, the director Khan,his co-writer, wife Shadana Ayub, and his mother, Shahana Ahmed who plays Aisha’s mother in the film.

“Making this film has been a long journey,” said British Pakistani Khan, who was born in Pakistan and has spent around eight years living there. The film, described by Khan as an antidepressant for Pakistan as the country’s situation goes from bad to worse, centres around the lives of three lazy young men, no older than 25. They spend their days drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Their nights are filled by attending parties to smoke more cigarettes, sheesha and drink alcohol to escape the mundane nature of their lives.

The deliberately thin plot is a consequence of the lead characters’ dilemma; they are educated, attractive, young and rich but irritatingly unmotivated and disaffected. They have little to worry about but themselves and what they should do with their lives but instead make a life out of doing nothing.

There is not a mullah in sight, no bombings, violence (ignoring a comical scene where the three lead actors get beaten up by a politician’s son who has to pay to get invites to ‘hot’ parties) and little mention of religion or politics.

Though only three actors out of the entire cast have had professional training, the acting is convincing, natural and of a higher calibre than most debuts.

Humour breaks up the occasionally slow story and the commitment to ‘keeping it real’ extends to a scene where one character could have run to the airport to stop his beloved from flying to America but instead cries into his duvet to the bewilderment of his servant.

Neither keen to promote Pakistan nor bash his homeland, Khan’s debut cannot be interpreted as propaganda. The beautiful Islamabad scenery, the decision by the lead character to choose Pakistan over America as a place to build his career and the general avoidance of stereotypes demonstrate Khan’s neutrality.

Conservative critics are likely to be offended at the discussion of purchasing condoms or depictions of men and women drinking at basement parties. Nationalists may also criticise the characters’ moral code and their explicit language.

Amid the sensation and humour, however, Khan slips in many (perhaps too many) messages for Pakistan, its inactive youth and those watching the country’s every move. The first one comes in the opening scene following a debate between two characters, Hasan and his friend, over where to eat. “If they can’t make up their mind and they choose nothing, they’ll end up with nothing,” warns a voiceover. Hasan, who at one point calls his country an “illiterate nation, man” also delivers some gems. While watching a friendly cricket game in a park, he says: “The whole world used to be scared of playing Pakistan, now they’re scared to play in Pakistan,” and while partying with his friends asks his love interest, Aisha, “Do you see a room full of people that are happy or in denial?”

But, Khan, who insists he is passionate about showing another side of Pakistan, maintains he is not attempting to save the nation through film.

“I just saw people leading a vacuous existence,” he said, during a question and answer session after the showing. “People need to look at themselves and the youth needs to take more responsibility.” But, he added: “You cannot fix the country’s problems in 90 minutes of film time. I have an allegiance to cinema, not Pakistan.”

Slackistan was the only Pakistan-origin film at the eight year old Raindance festival and beat almost 30 other entries to get a showing.

“It passed with flying colours,” said Elliot Grove, the Raindance founder. Turning to Khan, he accurately summed up Slackistan: “You did take me to a world that I did not know,” he added.

Published in The Express Tribune weekend magazine on 24th October, 2010