First Screening of “Mudhouse & The Golden Doll”

I just had the pleasure of being part of an exclusive screening of a new motion picture by an upcoming Pakistani director, screenwriter and more importantly a very capable stage and film actor, Hamza Ali Abbasi. The motion picture is called “The Mudhouse & The Golden Doll“. It was screened in the auditorium of the Pakistan National Arts Council in Islamabad. But before I even get close to commenting about the film, let me mention a thing or two about the Arts Council.

Now while the PNCA is a rather pleasant setting for any exhibition related to art, those of you who have actually had the distress of watching a motion picture there before would know that it is usually a disastrous experience. The simplest reason for that is that they use a multimedia projector instead of a movie projector and that is more or less a nightmare if you are screening your film, because let’s consider the fact that even if it is a short film of 15 minutes, it takes an enormous amount of effort to make it.

However, things were not as bad because the film was apparently burned well into a digital video file and it went well despite the projector. But I do hope that the PNCA take care of that some day, so that watching films there become a more pleasant experience  but I would think twice before screening my film there.

Anyway, the motion picture was preceded by a rather irritating and unnecessary introduction by the organizers, which apparently had nothing do with the film production team, referring briefly to the moral lessons that the audience was about to witness in the story. Apart from the fact that such an introduction creates a bias in the minds of the viewers, it is in bad taste because it sort of takes away the element of surprise in whatever information it reveals to the audience. So that is yet another thing that I would not want to have right before the screening.

However, moving on, the introduction from the director was charming, because he focused on the importance of the revival of the Pakistani cinema through independent ventures like this one. He emphasized how you don’t need a lot of money to make a motion picture and that actually you could shoot with your cellphone if you wanted to. Yeah right, but that depends on the script, doesn’t it?

On to the motion picture itself, now. What I was most impressed with was the photography of the picture. That really went to show that the filmmakers are capable of much greater things. The sound mixing was not up to the mark, which is another euphemism for pathetic, and created just the wrong impression every time but the rest of it was masterfully done, which is actually more brilliant than what you would find a lot of professional Pakistani directors to be doing. So maybe Abbasi is something far more impressive in the making, but it is too early to say anything, but the intent and direction are right.

My favorite part of the film were the opening credits. Sounds funny/dumb/offensive, right? But actually, that is the case. The opening credits montage was so terrific that it overshadowed the picture for me. The effect it created was fantastic and I would really like to congratulate the director for that. The music of the film was original, apparently, and impressive but very forgettable. However, it did create the right effect, so it was used brilliantly well. Here’s the official trailer, which won’t disappoint you too much if you like spoilers.

I did have some issues with sound editing because in terms of technical production, the film was just about perfect otherwise. Maybe it was the PNCA’s fault too, but nah. I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie gets noticed in the Film Festivals where it makes an appearance. Can’t say if it would be successful but it certainly will not go unnoticed. However, the story of the film is pretty straightforward and a touch too melodramatic. It said that it was based on a true story. Though I find it pretty hard to believe, but hey, fact is stranger than fiction, isn’t it? I just hope it’s not the sort of true story that was portrayed in the Coens’ Fargo (1996). A not-so-true story.

I’d keep spoilers to a minimum over here. The only actor that managed to impress me apart from Abassi himself, was Fauzia Mahmood, who plays the mother of the little girl Sonia who is the protagonist of the story. At least her accent seemed to suit her character unlike the actor playing her husband in the play, who ironically happened to be the Assistant Director. Perhaps he looked right, but sounded pretty wrong. The rest of the acting was pretty much out of the place, except for the protagonist, the little girl Sonia played by Tajwar Raza and her juvenile schoolmate lover. Other subtle detail was neglected as well but I’d rather not mention.

The rest of it was just alright at times and unacceptable at others. Apart from that, the locations, the execution and the photography was absolutely breath-taking. Credit due to DOP Shayan Latif here. I am amazed how technically superior this rather amateurish production is to some of the so-called professional motion pictures that are released by the dying Lollywood industry every year. I think this is the moral of this story for every aspiring Pakistani director, or any aspiring director for that matter.

The story was good but it was not intense enough to really captivate your attention, but the great thing about it is that it is capable of engaging audiences of any age. So maybe if you are looking for something too intellectually complex, you may not get it, but it is the simplicity which is the greatest strength of the film. The simple things in life which are the most precious and the most commonplace things which are the most intellectual at the end of the day. For that I commend the director by all means.

I didn’t like the way the children delivered their lines, especially the little Sonia. Her acting seemed at its best when she remained silent. Had a strong face, often blank, at times exaggerated, her eyes told an untold story and was photographed very well, but I can’t say if she is an actor already, or maybe not an actor yet. Who knows. Yes, children can be very good actors. I know quite a few of them. The little boy who played her lover did a great job though who seemed too crazy and sexually-obsessed for his age. But actually, I found that quite charming.

I will not discuss the moral lessons of the story because quite frankly I am not bothered by that aspect of the motion picture. I was concerned with the story and a good motion picture and that was what I went to see and not to see what was wrong with the world and the society. Motion pictures can portray the ugly truths of the human society but cannot just claim to be responsible to mend them. So we can leave the job to activists and politicians.

All in all, it was a great effort and I hope Hamza Abbasi continues to make more films.

I have a feeling he will improve significantly.

Maybe we have a new brilliant director in the making.

 P.S. I was not paid to write this.

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Freedom of Speech and the Illusion of Secular & Liberal Political Parties

Source: Pakistan Today

The May 20 twitter ban from the Pakistani government and the recent announcement of the PTA to seek vendors in order to block “objectionable” material from the internet have been revelations for those who are under the impression that the current Pakistani government has anything to do with promoting freedom of expression and values consistent with their democratic claims. They may be pretty tolerant of the local television channels and the crude satire and criticism that is the part of the most of their content, but they have really shown signs of weaknesses where it really matters.

Nothing highlights a government’s intolerance of freedom of speech more than its restrictions on the internet, the most immediate medium of publication for the common man. Some of the most undemocratic and authoritarian regimes have been noticed of their intolerance of the internet. Blocking websites, internet censorship and limited user access are common in regimes such as China and North Korea. However, in the recent years countries such as Pakistan and, surprisingly or maybe not so surprisignly, India are joining the list.

The funny thing is that the government does not realize that its most immediately noticeable act of suppressing the freedom of expression on an international level is banning websites and putting controls on the internet. As a matter of fact, the Pakistani government and its overzealous telecommunications watchdog, the PTA, have been highlighting online events perceived to be blasphemous themselves by going out of their way and banning them. And ones that hardly anyone in Pakistan even knows about, let alone bother about them. Responding to anything that can be perceived remotely blasphemous has actually become a political stunt to gain cheap public sympathy in Pakistan. It is even worse to see these tactics employed by political parties which claim to uphold democratic, liberal and secular values.

The funniest thing about these bans are that they only last a while. Why is that so? Not sure what changes about the internet afterwards. One of the greatest examples of that is the Wikipedia page about Prophet Muhammad which contains his illustrated images. The problem about that page is that to date it has still not changed a bit since the ban on it was imposed and lifted, so I am not quite sure what do you achieve by a ban, other than have a false sense of self-importance that you are in charge, just because you can block access to certain webpages. Also, the banning of certain social media websites as a response to any blasphemous event taking place would not take away all the blasphemous content from the internet.

The blasphemous content can actually turn up in an instant with a simple Google search. But hey, I guess the only ones searching for such content seems to be the PTA. Because frankly, I can hardly imagine that an average intenet user in Pakistan is even bothered by that. And even if they are, why would they disarm themsevles in response of an action supposedly carried out to offend them? Why should they not keep themselves empowered to respond to that? Why cannot they use the same medium to protest against any blasphemy, which is used to carry it out?

You really can count on the Pakistani government to make fools of themselves in whatever manner they can find possible. I don’t even want to start with foreign policy examples, but the mere mention of the twitter ban episode is enough to prove that point.

I want the PTA and the Government of Pakistan to read this.

Because I want them to know that their way of protesting against something is absolutely nonsensical.

Grow up please.

Manto’s Centennial: Tapping the Lost Memory

Saadat Hassan Manto (1912-1955) – Source: Wikipedia

Saadat Hasan Manto would have turned 100 today. Anyway he passed away more than 50 years ago in the most hostile of circumstances. However, it is needless to say that his stories continue to be an inspiration and I have personally found them to touch my imagination deeper than I expected, but I cannot say that about all of them. He is certainly a man worth remembering and telling your children about, if you have any or would ever like to have them. He was often criticized for vulgarity and obscenity by his contemporaries, for whom the crude realism and daring of his writing were nothing less than a shock and an attempt of an apparently libertine writer to break the conventions of the time.

I have not read all of Manto’s work as of this day though I do want to. I need to read more to write about it but I doubt if I’d feel too differently. I don’t know much about Urdu literature either but of whatever I have read of Manto’s short stories, I have found it really fascinating. I can’t say but probably there is some sort of encoding of the memories from the past centuries on our DNA from grandparents to parents and so on, or so it seems, probably just our imagination, which seems to be revived or activated by such stories. In Manto’s case, this is true for India during the Raj, particularly around the turbulent years of the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.

Manto’s writing style is often associated with a lot of sexual crudeness and what is commonly and popularly referred to as “obscenity” or “vulgarity”, at least for his time, and for which he had been tried quite a few times as well, but the fact is that his writings are among the most sensual and sensitive that you will ever read. It largely depends on the particular story you are reading but really I am in no position to offer a critique on what sort of a writer he was. I don’t really care about critical analysis as long as the writing taps the lost imagination, or if I dare say, the lost memory.

As a matter of fact, I find a lot of commentary on Manto’s writing very crude and in bad taste itself, especially one which tries to emulate it in admiration and ends up in putting you off. If the writing is indeed “crude”, “obscene” and “vulgar”, the sort of commentary makes it doubly so, or makes it so if it was not in the first place. Those who know about it would know about what I am talking about. Those who do not would probably have to start with his stories first. While his stories are popularly considered to drive a lot of lust and sexual stimulation in the imagination, I wonder if it is really meant to be taken that way at all. I don’t know. This is the beauty of any art form. However, carrying out an open surgery on it certainly does bring the reader’s mind to that level.

But enough of the unpleasantness. I am more of a fan of the subtle detail that constructs the picture of the India that a part of me has known even before I was born perhaps. I keep on going to that absurd threshold of lost memory, instead of lost imagination, because somehow the feeling is far stronger and far more overwhelming than just imagination. Perhaps it is that, imagination, but I would like to think otherwise, or go one step further, calling it lost memory anyway. It feels more like memory. Perhaps, it is my grandmother’s old house, my grandparents themselves, the neighborhoods I grew up in and the city that had not yet lost its tradition to the mechanized modernity disguised in progress. The curiosity how the earlier generation used to live, the loss of the different elements of the Indian society living together, the lost hormony, the lost peace, the lost values.

Some of his short stories such as Mozelle have had a deeper effect on me than others. The greatest thing about those stories is not just the people, but the very environment around which the story has been woven. Another one being Sahib-e-Karamaat, but these surely not being the only ones. It is not just the sensitivity of the story that matters but also the universe that it exists in. Of course it exists merely in our brain cells, but that information certainly comes out of each individual’s association with the time. I know this really has nothing to do with what his stories are actually about but maybe it does not really matter as much since each person can relate to it in their own way and a person born in a different era can find it as a link to reach the years he or she cannot reach otherwise or physically, in their own way. It’s a good portal.

Perhaps one of the great things about his stories has been the way it lets you construct the scene and that is the greatest thing about any writing. Of course, it is meant to bring out that lost lust in you and it was important in a more or less repressive society of the India of the earlier twentieth century, perhaps not as much as a modern mind would imagine, but at least to the extent that such writing style would have been found out of place at the time. To me, writing is supposed to be. Manto was sort of an iconoclast in terms of Indian literature at the time and of course was way ahead of his time. Not to imply that he did not have an audience or people who did not understand and who were not good enough to receive it without going into a state of unproductive shock instead of ecstasy or at least literary if not hormonal pleasure of some sort. But it nevertheless is a fact that the society mostly acts unlike its individuals.

You would say that about every artist probably but more work out of Manto would have been great because the thought of having read all his stories is frightening, as is the thought of watching all the motion pictures from Fellini or Buñuel and getting done with it.

Because we need more inspiration to tap that lost memory.

A sense of nostalgia, a past-future, that is just not supposed to be there, or maybe it is.

Maybe we should try ourselves.

What the World Can Learn from Japan

Fukushima Nuclear Plant Disaster (Source: blogs.cas.suffolk.edu)

I have immense admiration and respect for the people of Japan. Not only because they have endured some of the most atrocious acts of war and constant threats of natural disasters with great bravery and resilience but also because they have decided to change their lives for the better by at least minimizing the man-made threats around them. I don’t know, maybe it takes massive misfortune to realize how precious life is and how responsible it is to make the world a safer place for others. You may not always agree with the Japanese, such as some of their eccentric dietary habits leading to whale hunting, which has been criticized widely by the Western media, but their approach towards Nuclear energy is something that the entire world, not just the West, should learn something from.

Probably the best piece of news that I read in my recent memory was that Japan had shut down it’s last nuclear reactor. This is a delightful development for anyone who realizes the risks of nuclear reactors present anywhere on the planet. The greatest thing to see was the Japanese people marching on to the roads and actually celebrating the shutting down of the last nuclear reactor. There were warnings that Japan could face a power shortage crisis if nuclear energy is abandoned for power production but the people insisted on going ahead with the closure of the power plants to make their country a much safer place. Call it just a reaction to the Fukushima nuclear plant leak after the recent devastating earthquake if you will, but it is an important step indeed.

While the idea of abandoning power generation through nuclear energy seems very right and noble and uncontroversial and whatnot, it is not really greeted so cheerfully around the world, whether you like it or not. As a matter of fact, people defend power generation through nuclear energy very enthusiastically, saying it is the safest way in the world to produce power. The primary rationale in Europe is that this method of power generation has very low carbon footprint. While that is right, but when you consider the potential risk to the surrounding populations, it does not seem like a very good idea, because Europe is not a very large continent in terms of area and population though it is also not one which is so sparsely populated. As a matter of fact, it is not just about Europe, a part of the world with a history of long wars. Even sparsely populated countries such as Russia would still be at great risk of the occurrence of such accidents.

I think humans tend to get a bit too selfish, as in most of other issues, when they discuss why nuclear energy is dangerous. All we think about is the risk of a potential disaster for the surrounding populations of the area but the responsibility is much greater than that. Because this encourages the proponents of nuclear energy for the construction of plants away from population. While that is the right thing to do in the first place, does it prevent the potential contamination of the environment and the spread of the nuclear waste to other areas, as we witnessed in the nuclear accidents in the past? Of course, you should be pissed about nuclear tests anyway, absolutely unacceptable. The point here is that we are putting the entire environment of the planet in danger because of exposure to nuclear contamination and that jeopardizes all the flora and fauna of the world and not just human life. Furthermore, it endangers the very possibility of life on the planet in the long run.

The fact that we often ignore is that there is no place “safe enough” for building a nuclear plant, let alone for testing a nuclear weapon. There is no place immune to a natural disaster and probably there is no nuclear plant which is absolutely infallible and invincible.

Call it cowardice and losing a great energy source but energy at the cost of safety in such a proportion is certainly not a good trade.

The Japanese have learned this lesson the hard way but I appreciate the way they have reacted to adversity every time it knocks their door.

It is time the world learns this lesson from them.

While there is still time.