Four short films voicing Karachi's untold stories that you must watch

Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Hamza Bangash held a retrospective and screening of his work at Karachi's Capri Cinema on Sunday.
14 Dec, 2021

Capri Cinema showcased a retrospective of award-winning films by Hamza Bangash on December 12 for a “first look at four short films that have traveled from Locarno to London, and are now finally home.”

Sundays are for rest and recovery but if you also feel like you need to make the most of your day off like myself, you pursue any opportunity to fill the day with interesting experiences. This Sunday I signed up to go to a film festival at Capri Cinema — a place I’ve never been before (the explorer in me was already excited) — and it truly ended up being something worth experiencing.

Capri Cinema is half-a-century old and when you’re that old, you are sure to have met a lot of people in your life — especially if you’re a cinema hall —and it showed. I bustled in with the audience and seated myself square in the centre of the theatre for a balanced view. I immediately felt comfortable — Capri Cinema is an aged soul that knows what mehmaan nawaazi (hospitality) is about.

After waiting for a bit, the ginormous red curtains in front of the largest screen in Karachi finally parted — in slow motion though, which made the anticipation all the more animate and we dove into four stories handpicked by Bangash brought to life on screen.

Dia (2018)

The film started playing and my first impression of the cinematography projected one word into my mind — raw. The short is shot from angles of varying distance, you see the characters up close and from a bystander’s view, which felt like I was getting to know the characters personally and from a distance.

The story revolves around the journey and impacts of grief. It starts out by highlighting a young woman’s everyday routine — she has a family, she’s studying, and has a secret affair that's mostly online — and then takes a dark turn as reality starts getting twisted.

Mental health issues are barely covered by the Pakistani media and if they are, they’re given a curt nod of acknowledgement and translated into unreasonable outbursts. Bangash went deeper and showed the more quiet nature of someone who’s in mental anguish. The main character is distressed, withdrawn, starving herself and the majority of her struggle is seen by the audience rather than the family — because we got to be present for the private moments.

Bangash collaborated with the Pakistan Institute of Living and Learning (PILL) for three of the films including this one and it also won the audience award at Locarno.

Dia is available on Amazon Prime (US and UK) for streaming.

Stray Dogs Come Out at Night (2020)

This story follows two sex workers in Karachi — an uncle-nephew duo — who, like many others, moved to the city for better opportunities. The main character Iqbal's background story branches out with the show of his conversations with his wife and family back home and the audience catches his reluctance and perplexity as the talk continues.

What I loved was how information was conveyed to the audience through visuals and the characters indulging in conversations so naturally, it was difficult to separate the actor from the character. We learn that Iqbal has an illness, a disease that was sexually transmitted and seems to be incurable.

A big chunk of the short is set at Karachi's Clifton beach and that's where Iqbal convinces his uncle to go for a day of respite. We watch the characters have their Karachiite beach day — they even ride a camel — and just a few dialogues between them reveal more about the two men than anything else could.

The stray dogs in the title made an entry in the film too and were juxtaposed with the characters — at one point the uncle also said "we're the only two dogs left," commenting on the killing of dogs in Karachi.

Stray Dogs Come Out At Night is described by Bangash as "a revolt against toxic masculinity."

The 11-minute short was showcased at the biggest festival of short films, Festival International Du Court Metrage De Clermont-Ferrand, as well as at BFI London Film Festival, Dharamshala International Film Festival, and KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival.

It can be watched on Short of The Week's YouTube Channel.

1978 (2020)

Forgive me for having a favourite but 1978 definitely stole the show — and my heart. Maybe it's the fact that it's a period piece or that it's based on Karachi in the 70s — a time that we've all heard about and a time that's also described as the golden era of Pakistan — it was thrilling to experience my hometown in an era that long precedes me.

Bell bottoms, musical invasion and hipper times, the 17-minute short walks us through the life of a Christian-Goan singer Lenny who's nothing short of a rockstar. We also get glimpses into his home and his relationship with his brother which may not have been the main theme but sure did grab my attention.

The plot displays the overnight revolution that was caused by the Islamisation of Pakistan and how it drastically transformed the whole city and culture, zooming in on the main character who was prodded to keep up with the times.

It was amusing to see the stoic Lenny observe the changing environment and industry as he took a drag from his cigarette wordlessly.

The retro piece incorporated elements from the actual decade into the production. This included costume design, the sets and colour grading.

“1978 lives on,” said Bangash, who revealed that due to the success of the film, they have shot a music video which is going to come out very soon. "After my experiences of creating the film with him [Norman D'Souza, the rockstar who inspired Lenny] and other members of the Christian-Goan community, we have decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to help Norman's band record and shoot a music video! I am very excited to help bring back a glimmer of Karachi's glorious disco era," he told Images in an earlier interview.

1978 will be screening online globally for seven days in February as part of Locarno Shorts Week.

Bhai (2021)

Bangash’s first black and white film takes a page out of the life of two brothers as they park on Tariq Road, one of the busiest roads in Karachi. One brother goes to buy biryani while the younger one waits in the car. Though it starts out really sweet and silly, everything is uprooted within seconds as the scene progresses and it leads to a very distressing situation where the brother in the car’s reaction to loud noises reveals that he’s autistic.

The scene brings to light both the struggles of children on the spectrum and their families. Bangash told Al Jazeera that the decision to have the film devoid of colour was “to evoke the shades of grey in the brothers’ lives.”

The story progresses and the two brothers seem to find a middle ground as they share a meal inside the biryani shop.

“It’s a film about chhoti khushiyan (small happiness) and about everyday bravery — the kind that Karachiites have in spades,” the filmmaker told the publication.

Bangash's film is a welcome and powerful addition to the representation of neurodivergent people in the Pakistani media.

The seven-minute short was shot during the pandemic after Zoom rehearsals. The actor who played the role of the autistic brother identifies as differently-abled and was present at the screening.

Bhai will be released with Short of The Week on CityLights Production's Vimeo channel soon.

Bangash seems to have made Karachi his muse as all four shorts are based in Karachi. In the Q&A post viewing, Bangash said, “My films are set in Karachi because we have such a diversity of stories here. My process begins with meeting people.” When asked about how he chooses stories, he responded that he doesn’t choose stories, he chooses storytellers.

What's most impressive is the versatility in the films he's directed. They all take up very different stories, the common thing amongst them being a voice that needs to be heard.

“That for me is a big part about what media or cinema can do. It can get people to view issues from different lenses and perspectives,” he told Al Jazeera, “cinema allows you to get in the shoes of people who don’t have a voice.”