Eight minutes. In eight short minutes, the city of smiles will ironically have you feeling overwhelmed with uneasiness and wrecked with the aftermath of 2071 Pakistan.
Hand-drawn animated short film, Shehr-e-Tabassum is the first of its kind Pakistani dystopia which is doing screening rounds in major cities; and that's how I ended up at Habib University to catch a sneak peek.
Imitating the feel of a video game, the audience is directly launched into the future and has the liberty to gauge the entire scenario through a first person perspective.
By the end of it, there is a strange heaviness of the heart, and discomfort has casually seeped its way in without giving one a moment to sit back and really process with what just happened.
What the future holds
In this future Islamic Republic, there drafted is a new ordinance '512-E', according to which there is only one rule every citizen needs to obey, one law that needs to be abided, and one expression people are allowed to have – smile.
Smile regardless of your poverty, smile regardless of not being able to afford the gold card membership to healthcare, smile if you need access to more water, and smile despite the fact that you want to explode with frustration because the city is watching your every move and your existence will be exterminated if you fail to follow.
In this new country overburdened with a surge of issues, crime is not terrorism, money laundering, extortion or abduction – but instead it is making any changes to the device, ‘Muskaan’.
Playing in the background of this dystopia are announcements of a cruelty-free Pakistan because citizens display a wide smile on their faces under constant surveillance. Almost as if what you see is the ultimate truth since there now exists a universal emotion for conformity.
While the idea behind Shehr-e-Tabassum is riveting, the execution left a little to be desired. It is the treatment of the movie that leaves its audience wanting more - and personally for me, not in a satisfying way.
Some questions are unanswered. What is the significance of the dates (ordinance 512-E, 1971 Civil War, 2071 Pakistan)? Do they have a meaning or have they just been drafted on whim? Why is there a reference to only the Civil War?
There lingered a sense of uncomfortable incompletion as character interactions didn’t seem to be well-connected; the minimal conversations felt superficially developed, and it wasn’t until the second watch that one could focus on some of the actual dialogues being said behind the loud music.
Did I leave wanting more? Maybe.
Made within an Independent studio, creative director Isma Gul Hassan was responsible for translating the vision into reality. Superwoman Rasti Farooq was manager, co-producer, research-member, and also four different characters; while Arafat Mazhar was directing the film.
The panel discussion that followed introduced the audience to Haseeb Rehman, the man in charge for animations and one who received the loudest applause.
The critique of censorship in all arenas and the way it is seamlessly immersed into a powerfully drawn animation was perhaps the highlight of the film, and the reason audience members – specifically those majoring in communication and design, left the room with all praise.
The entire film is politically charged and no doubt it emotionally resonates – but as one audience member pointed out, the “progress” lacked imagination with the onset of flying rikshaws and presence of beggars, fruit-walas and small alleys similar to today. Maybe, because in the words of the director, “in many ways, a lot of people ended up writing the screenplay”.
However, ‘the city of smiles’ raises important questions for a layman watcher – the person who does not understand the intricacies that lie behind the construction process, and who was there to absorb a moving story.
I say this because the film raised narrative doubts – especially after the information that it inspired by cyberpunk classics like Blade Runner and one of the most celebrated novels in dystopian history, namely Animal Farm by George Orwell.
Having done my own dissertation on exploring development imagination through utopian and dystopian fiction by South Asian writers, I found the narrative of Shehr-e-Tabassum lacking in the way it delivered what it meant to, at least in comparison to dystopian films such as Leila by Prayaag Akbar, exploring the same themes of authoritarianism, water-crisis, surveillance, power, violence and aggression.
The entire film is politically charged and no doubt it emotionally resonates – but as one audience member pointed out, the “progress” lacked imagination with the onset of flying rikshaws and presence of beggars, fruit-walas and small alleys similar to today. Maybe, because in the words of the director, “in many ways, a lot of people ended up writing the screenplay”. And we could see how too many people spoil the broth.
Overall, the experience of attending the screening was wholesome because the effort put into its visuals, and the build-up of an intense mother-son relationship being driven under urgency and panic, was unforgettable. It was an immersive experience and fresh to imagine what a future Pakistan could look like given current issues are left unresolved.
The movie will be up on YouTube after the initial release cycle, while a graphic journal will follow in March for those who have questions regarding the significance of the dates.
Here’s hoping Shehr-e-Tabassum encourages local writers to take inspiration from its Urdu roots, discomforting yet beautifully distorted inscriptions, and a nudge into creating more such impactful narratives on conformity, censorship and the horrors it brings.