Much of the urban reality is imagined. Even the most experienced taxi driver will not drive every galli.
We will not meet or even see every one of the city’s residents. Of the infinite number of occurrences that happen each day, a single person experiences an infinitesimally small percentage of them.
Representations, therefore, cover the ground between our lived experiences and what we are referring to when we claim to know a place. The city, as a holder of secrets, has always inspired weavers of tales, from novelists and poets to photographers and film directors to create these representations.
Shehrezad Maher’s new film This Shaking Keeps Me Steady explores this space between the real and the represented, told through the lives of two CHHIPA ambulance drivers and a few others in Karachi.
In an interview, Maher, who was born and raised in Karachi, says that growing up in Pakistan, she developed a curiosity about “the lives of ambulance drivers and the precarity of their invisible, poorly compensated labour upon which the city is so dependent.”
The two CHHIPA workers, Ayub and Mursaleen, speak about their lives, their work, their families and their dreams in this stunning and thought-provoking film. They talk about the kind of calls they respond most frequently to and incidents that stand out.
At one point, Mursaleen narrates responding to a call about a bomb blast at a park. Recalling the violence and bloodshed of the scene he had to respond to, Mursaleen says that the memory still plays in his mind.
All while this is being narrated, a long shot plays of the other CHHIPA driver, Ayub, cleaning his ambulance at night, presumably at the end of a shift.
Immediately after, the film shifts to a shot of a young actor, sitting on a bed, screaming in terror at something happening just off-screen. This is the other focus of Maher’s film and the counter to the narrations of the ambulance drivers: the way in which the city is represented — in news reports, in dramas and in the imaginations of aspiring actors auditioning for roles.
At one point, one of the ambulance drivers recounts being called to participate in the filming of a drama based on a real incident where a woman inadvertently poisons her entire family in order to escape with her lover.
Actors were hired to be police, to be the young couple, to be the family and everyone else involved. One of the actors asks the ambulance driver, “Are you the real CHHIPA wala?”
“I’m the only real one,” the ambulance driver responds.
This juxtaposition of the real and the represented is made particularly jarring by Maher’s filmmaking.
During the narration of the bloodshed after the bomb blast at the park, a shot plays of the other driver cleaning the ambulance, something incredibly mundane that he probably does several times a week.
Maher includes shots of the ambulance drivers going to get water and asking if some noise outside would disrupt the recording of the interview.
For those whose daily work brings them in proximity to happenings so spectacular that they’re reproduced in films and dramas, their representation in Maher’s film is remarkably devoid of action.
Meanwhile, in the representations — the dramas, the films, the news productions — where nothing of significance is occuring, there is great action. Men are screaming in terror, friends threaten each other, women are crying next to hospital beds.
By so vividly placing the real and the representation in front of the viewer, Maher forces us to ask ourselves a question.
Everyone who lives in Karachi knows about its reputation for violence, disorder, chaos. How much of that is informed by representation?
As the historian Gyan Prakash writes,
“Photography, cinema, print, and advertising have trained our senses to experience modern life through images. Even if we do not always realize it, visuality is integral to our knowledge and practice. It is thus that the image of the city imperceptibly becomes the imagined space in which we live.”
Speaking to Images, Maher says, “The re-enactment TV shows give society a script through which to interpret the nature or meaning of crime that occurs in Karachi. They simplify complex narratives of gender, class, religion or ethnicity into parables about good versus evil and right versus wrong.”
“These archetypes can create a space for viewers to attend to the anxiety induced by living with the daily news or lived experience of such events while never asking them to contemplate any moral murkiness or grapple with a society that has created conditions for these events to occur in the first place.”
This is never more evident in the film than in a fictionalised production about an ambulance driver Lal Muhammad, an exhausted CHHIPA worker in Karachi.
After coming home from a long shift, he sits at the dinner table and speaks to his daughter of how the people of the city have become cruel and how even innocent children aren’t spared from the violence.
Later in the production, he is called to respond to a gun battle in Lyari and upon arriving, he is killed by a stray bullet.
The words “cruel” and “innocent.” The Lyari gangsters fighting amongst themselves with no care for the impact on others and the overworked Karachi ambulance driver working tirelessly to save the city’s inhabitants from these nefarious actors. These are dichotomies and simplicities that these re-enactments rely on and perpetuate.
These clear and simple narratives never emerge in the interviews of Ayub and Mursaleen, the CHHIPA ambulance drivers. At no point do they call someone evil or cruel or good or innocent.
In this film purportedly about ambulance drivers, we perhaps learn more about everyone but them; these directors and writers and young actors, when given control over narrative and story, show that moral clarity is what they seek most.
The fog of the urban reality, with its complex characters and unsatisfying conclusions, demands clarity.
No one represents what Maher calls the “moral murkiness” more than the third main character of the film, Kailash, a caretaker of the Shri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir situated on the water.
Besides being the Hindu temple’s caretaker, Kailash performs a side role as a first responder to the people who use the site to commit suicide by jumping into the water.
He narrates a harrowing tale of how he and one other person saved a young woman who attempted suicide with her young infant in her arms. After the initial rescue, she again managed to jump into the water. It was only after the other rescuer knocked her unconscious that they were able to pull her out.
Unlike the ambulance drivers, who are employed to respond to accidents and also victims of violent acts, Kailash has voluntarily taken up the responsibility of rescuing those who might not want to be rescued.
Maher says, “I’m interested in the politics of visibility, whose labour is rendered more visible over others within a city and how that comes about culturally, politically, societally.”
“First you have the actors who are performing inconsequential scripts and yet are hyper visible, next are the ambulance drivers who are performing a vital role in an official capacity, yet are nearly invisible to society, and finally someone operating at a multilevel deficit — a Hindu caretaker of a temple in Karachi, acting as an unofficial first responder for people who don’t necessarily want to be saved.”
As Maher acknowledges, his religion renders his work even more invisible. For the worshippers at the temple, the water below is a substitute for the sacred water of the Ganges.
Shehrezad Maher’s This Shaking Keeps Me Steady is a thought-provoking and beautiful exploration of the urban experience. What does it mean to live in and know Karachi? How do people represent themselves, their city and their lives?
The film provides no clarity or answers, and perhaps that was never the purpose.