Shehr-e-Tabassum explores pertinent themes of freedom of expression and surveillance set in dystopian Pakistan
Shehr-e-Tabassum explores pertinent themes of freedom of expression and surveillance set in dystopian Pakistan

In the last few years, animated films are slowly picking up the steam in Pakistan.

But most, if not all, are either primarily geared towards children or a younger audience and don't delve into the more complicated subject matter. However, Pakistan’s first-ever animated cyberpunk short film, called Shehr-e-Tabassum, is not afraid to do just that.

Literally known as City of Smile, this alternate reality portrays the year 2071 in Pakistan, where no instances of terrorism or violent crime have been reported in over 3 decades; Pakistani citizens smile at all times in the name of peace, prosperity and security.

Inspired by cyberpunk classics like Blade Runner, 1982 and AKIRA as well as classic novels such as George Orwell's 1984, Shehr e Tabassum explores pertinent themes of freedom of expression and surveillance set in a dazzling neon city in the future, utilising dystopian storytelling in Urdu.

Speaking to Images, director Arafat Mazhar asks, "What if you take the existing governing values of your times, strip the environment of its familiar trappings and present those same fundamental values in a world with exaggerated and somewhat fantastical elements; could you still recognise the essential similarity between the two?"

He says, "Dystopia presents a great way to present a situation which is oddly familiar —thus relatable — but also alien enough that the viewer can bypass their biases and immerse themselves in a particular experience. In this case, the conflict we are presenting is the cost of giving up your right to express yourselves in the name of social order and peace. Hopefully, that internal conflict and debate can take place both in a cerebral and emotional sphere."

"It is important to emphasise that Shehr-e-Tabassum is a story rooted in Pakistan and our society; we are trying to tell a story relevant to us. Today, expressions that are perceived as portraying a negative image of Pakistan, as dissent against the state, or a critique or subversion of religious ideas are not only discouraged but are a serious risk to life, actively criminalised and often punished without due process."

He continues, "Here is a film that extracts from this context the core values behind the way censorship and surveillance operate in Pakistan today and asks the viewer to engage with those values in an abstract setting where the consequences of these ideas can be truly appreciated for what they are."

Shehr-e-Tabassum is an entirely in-house project —from the entire animation process to sound design— featuring Pakistani illustrators, animators, graphic designers, sound engineers, and actors.

Mazhar says they've tried to create a truly a Pakistani film for an audience who understands and feels what they are trying to say, even when it is not explicitly said.

The eight-minute short film will be released online for all audiences at the end of February 2020.