Hamza Bangash's 1978 transports you to a time when Karachi truly was the city of lights

Updated 03 Jun, 2021 07:20pm

Siham Basir

The short film follows a Christian-Goan rockstar in the 70s who must decide whether, like his country, he too will change.

How much do you know about a time when Karachi truly was the city of lights? A short film on a rockstar in Karachi in the 70s is going to transport you back to a long gone era of discos, music and rock n roll.

The film, 1978, has been nominated for two awards at the Palm Springs Film Festival 2021, a qualifier for the Oscars, and is about a Christian-Goan rockstar who must decide if he can change with the times, as Pakistan transforms under a revolutionary fervour. It has been nominated for the Best of the Festival Award and Best Live Action Film Over 15 Minutes Award.

The 17-minute film stars Rubya Chaudhry, Zeeshan Muhammad, Sherwyn Anthony and Naveed Kamal. The director and writer Hamza Bangash, told Images the film is loosely inspired by the real life experiences of Norman D'Souza, Karachi's own rockstar.

"After my experiences of creating the film with him 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 said.

And bring back the era they did. The recently released trailer takes us on a journey to the forgotten world of Pakistan's once groovy music scene.

"The idea to do a film on the era came after I met with Rashid Maqsood Hamidi, 1978’s executive producer. He grew up in the 70s in Pakistan and was nostalgic of the era: of a Karachi that I couldn’t believe existed," Bangash explained. "A city that thrived on multiculturalism, tolerance and was considered to be the ‘Paris of the East.’ Rashid had teamed up with producer Abid Aziz Merchant to make a feature film off of a treatment that Rashid had developed."

But that film was set in modern day Pakistan and Bangash realised that it would be far more exciting to revisit a time when Karachi truly was the city of lights. "I convinced them to make a short film set in the 1970s first — and then if that was successful — perhaps a feature later."

During his research, Bangash spoke to prominent members from the era — the musicians, dancers and nightclub owners. "I discovered that the Goan-Christian community was integral to the scene and through my producer Carol Noronha (who is also part of the Goan-Christian community), I was introduced to Clifford Lucas. I met Cliffy at his home, where he had invited a bunch of the musicians from the 70s for a jam session."

It was then that he was introduced to Norman D'Souza. "When Uncle Norman told me his about experiences in the changing Pakistan of the 1970s, I knew I had found my story."

The film was inspired by D'Souza's real life experiences. "He had the option to emigrate to the US but he loved Pakistan. If you ask him now, he still can’t imagine living anywhere else," explained Bangash.

That kind of rebellious spirit got imbued into the character of Lenny. "I think now, with resistance and identity politics taking hold on a global stage, we’re moving past victimhood. Our victims are fighting back, they are taking their own power. I’m not interested in showing a disenfranchised community in a pitiful light — I want to show badass, complex characters like Lenny."

Lenny is combination of D'Souza's experiences as well as those of producer Hamidi and Bangash's own imagination. "I like to combine fact and fiction, to create a truth greater than reality — that’s where a lot of my passion for cinema comes from."

Casting an actor to play Lenny was challenging but eventually, Bangash decided on Muhammad Zeeshan, who wasn't an actor at all. "He is a renowned artist and was the curator of Karachi’s 2019 Biennale. But, in his audition, he showed a playful rebellious energy that I recognised would allow him to shine in the role of Lenny. His trust in my direction allowed me to help him craft a performance that is both urgent and meditative. I’m so proud of his performance in the film."

The real challenge though was creating a 70s era film in 2020. "It was a nightmare! We don’t really do 70s films in Pakistan, and this is an era that has never been revisited in contemporary Pakistani cinema. My approach was research, and tonnes of pre-production. Shoot at authentic locations. Find heads of departments who are highly skilled at their jobs. We were operating on a shoe-string budget, so to make this happen really required an incredibly dedicated team," he explained.

But they used reference photos from the era provided by D'Souza and Hamidi and worked with their production designers Hira Mansoor and Tanvir Bhai to create locations that felt authentic to the world of the 1970s. Tanvir Bhai coincidentally also used to build sets for Pakistan National Television in the 1970s, so for him, this was a trip down memory lane, related Bangash.

1978 has already been screened in Pakistan and had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival 2020, which was during the first wave of Covid. "As a consequence, the festival went online, and streamed all the films that were playing in-competition free on their website across the globe."

It was only available for two weeks, and the response we got from Pakistani viewers was unbelievably positive, said Bangash. They plan on doing a live screening tour of the film in Pakistan this fall, depending on the Covid situation. "I miss engaging with live audiences through films and cannot wait to share this film with the many people who came together to create it. We still haven’t had a live premiere for the cast and crew — it’s been a crazy couple of years."

It took around two years to make 1978. "From research and community outreach to script development, casting, recording original songs and even building a 70s nightclub — the film turned out to be a huge undertaking. I’m lucky I have such an incredible team who came together to recreate history," the director explained.

"I think that a lot of the film’s visual strength comes from the understanding and camaraderie with my director of photography, Yasir Khan. Yasir is also a huge fan of music and a musician in his own right. I think because we were speaking about the lost musical culture — and from such a rock n roll perspective — he was really driven to do his best work yet," he said. "We both wanted to create a film that was alive — with bright, furious colour and bold camera movement. We wanted the film to have the energy of the time."

Thankfully for the team, they were in the post-production phase when Covid hit, so it didn't impact the project. "I’m honestly not sure how we could have shot a film like this through the pandemic — we had big crowd scenes, multiple locations and were often working 18-hour days," said Bangash.

Norman D'Souza and the In Time Band

The kickstarter campaign is Bangash and the 1978 team has launched is to film D'Souza's first ever music video for his band The In Time Band.

"I was introduced to them through my producer, Carol, and they ended up being huge collaborators in the film. Not only did Norman help inspire the story of Lenny, but the band also performed the title track in the movie — with Cliffy providing the musical vocals of Lenny."

The song is called ‘Zindagi Ka Safar’, which translates to ‘The road of life' and was written and composed by Ricky Leachay for Cliffy’s then band, Vision’s.

"With the help of Cliffy and songwriter Mehreen Rizvi, we wrote out new lyrics and recorded it at Gangwar Studios," explained Bangash. The Kickstarter campaign is to raise funds for the music video. "It’s an honour to be trusted by them to create their first music video and to ensure that Pakistan’s legendary artists get their due credits."

Short films and the challenges of making a 70s era film

The film is only 17 minutes long and while Bangash would have loved to make a longer, feature length version, he couldn't due to budgetary constraints. "We’re currently trying to raise financing to create a feature version, but it’s going to be an uphill task. Making a 70s-era period film is incredibly expensive, and the Pakistani cinema industry is now more fragile than ever. I’m optimistic though."

This is Bangash's fourth short film but that doesn't mean it gets easier as it goes. "It gets easier in the way that my team and I are growing our skills but each film is such a different project that we always end up facing a unique set of challenges."

When he was making 1978, it was the biggest project he'd made at the time and it almost felt insurmountable. "Prior to the film, I’d only ever had four or give actors on set at a time. In 1978, we had over 60 extras!"

For my next project, a film that we shot in between the second and third waves of Covid, we ended up working with predominantly child actors, he explained. "If that wasn’t enough, we decided to shoot on location, in the middle of downtown Karachi, during a heatwave." But the most the most unexpected challenge they faced was when the restaurant they were shooting at flooded because of a broken pipe.

"But, that’s the magic of cinema, you never know what you’re going to get!"

The Goan-Christian community's impact on Pakistani music

One surprising thing the director learned while filming 1978 was how indebted Pakistani music and culture is to artists from the Goan-Christian community.

"The community was the foundation of the music scene in the 60s and 70s, making up majority of live musicians from the era. With the cultural changes that came in the late 70s, the community was disproportionately affected, with many left jobless and forced to emigrate.

"Those that remained in Pakistan did not benefit from the cultural resurgence of pop in the mid-80s, despite training many of the musical acts who went on to find great success. The community faced both discreet and open discrimination."

I think the thing that surprised and inspired me the most is the resilience and warmth of the musicians, Bangash told Images. "The artists that I met, they continue to create music, to believe in a better Karachi — even though it’s now to a much quieter tune."

Noronha, the film's producer, explained that the 60s and 70s were the glory days of Christian pop bands, where music thrived and the community was vibrant and full of life. "Our musicians performed live at clubs, discotheques, weddings, parties and this enriched them, not just emotionally but also financially, this was their livelihood." She even had some recommendations for people looking to explore these bands — The Black Jacks, Talismen, Keynotes, InCrowd and the Benjamin Sisters.

D'Souza was in-fact a key member of the bands The Incrowd and Talisman, which were some of the most in-demand bands of the time.

"Our community contributes to the music scene even in present day. We’ve lost some fantastic musicians, but still have some living legends among us today like Norman D’Souza and Cliffy Lucas, including fantastic present day artists and bands such as Alicia Dias, Zoe Viccaji, Selwyn Fernandes, Gumby, Shane Anthony, Jason Anthony, Lenny Massey, the InTime Band and Club777 and so many more," she explained.

But while the Goan-Christian community is very much still present and active, there has been drastic change over the years. "When the glory days of Karachi took a bad turn overnight in the late 70s, many couldn’t survive due to loss of income as well as the immense joy that came from a lifestyle they were so used to. Some fell into depression, others turned to alcoholism as a coping mechanism while many simply migrated for a better standard of living," she explained.

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