Big fish in a little pond

Big fish in a little pond

World Cinema

Visitors to Islamabad, the small but perfectly formed capital of Pakistan, could be forgiven for thinking that the only things to rock the place were terrorist attacks. But they would be wrong. The city, population approximately 600,000, forms the backdrop for the country’s first slacker movie. Titled Slackistan, the low-budget independent film from first-time British director Hammad Khan features the Pakistani young and privileged as they drift around in a rarefied world of cars, dating, drinking and parties. Worrying only about what to wear and where to go, this group of fashionably-dressed kids could be in Orange County or New York’s Upper East Side.

Khan, who co–wrote the no–budget, independent film with his wife Shandana Ayub, says he could have picked an easier target for his debut but wanted to capture an undiscovered world. “It’s a countercultural film, one that rejects the stereotypical western view of Pakistan, as well as one that rejects the prevailing establishment of older cultures and traditions.”

The turbulence in Pakistan hasn’t dampened spirits among the young creative community. As the first film of its kind, Khan is confident it won’t be the last. “The people who worked on the film are writers, actors, photographers, musicians, artists and film-makers. Slackistan should be a wake-up call to the wider youth base, both in and outside Pakistan, to redirect the future of the country. I made the film without any backing and I hope it can influence others to tell their stories. Pakistan has had a zombie movie in the last couple of years, now my slacker movie. Who knows what’s next to counter the same old superficial song’ n’ dance ‘masala’ movie?”

The turbulence in Pakistan — played out on rolling news channels — has not dampened spirits among the country’s young creative community. Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore, has a thriving underground rock scene (and has recently seen the launch of its first guitar school) while Islamabad is about to gain a new outdoor auditorium and recording studio, the Rock Musicarium. Its founder Zeejah Fazli says there’s a real thirst for entertainment and estimates that there are at least 20 rock bands in the city.

Khan, meanwhile, likens Islamabad to Canberra or Brasilia — seats of power that are very organised but entirely uneventful — and affectionately calls it the city that always sleeps. “Islamabad is quite dead but it has a lot of young people. It feels like smalltown America. The kids are living in a bubble. It’s chaotic outside but the two worlds don’t meet.

“The only pictures of Islamabad you see are western journalists reporting on the Taliban.” The Slackistan story — if it can be called that considering the absence of a hard and fast plot — is about the lives of young people in Islamabad. Khan cast locals — Islooites — with no acting experience, who were essentially playing themselves on screen.

“Every Islooite is talking or listening to stories of other people. It is a small town and the mentality is that of characters from Gossip Girl. Who was seen with whom, what car they were in and what happened at the last party are typical concerns for the Islooite. This town isn’t big enough to get away with much.”

If you were in Islamabad and in your twenties, he explains, you’d probably be seen at places like The Hot Spot, an ice–cream parlour and B–movie shrine housed in a disused train, or Rendezvous, somewhere that offers outdoor sheesha and indoor dating. Ice-cream parlours and Gossip Girl? This hardly sounds like a cinematic feast. So why should anyone care about another bunch of bored and privileged kids?

“They are the kids of businessmen, politicians or professionals,” explains Khan. “They are the future of Pakistan. They will inherit Islamabad and it is more interesting to look at what they might do with it, rather than look at the poor or the radicalised who have very little real power. The film is about growing up, too. It asks, can we really do this for the rest of our lives?” It’s not just the cast and story that lend Slackistan its realism. The soundtrack features underground hip–hop and rock artists such as Zerobridge, the Fatsumas and Adil Omar.

Indeed, the strapline for the film is: ‘Think you know Pakistan. Think again.’ While it sounds like it ought to be part of a tourist campaign, it points to a country that is rarely explored in modern cinema, TV or literature. “It’s a weird conflation of Pakistani and western cultures and privilege,” observes Khan.

His friend and mentor Asif Kapadia, who won a Bafta for his film The Warrior, says the trailer surprised him. “I have my ideas of what I think Pakistan is like, so I can only imagine how much of a shock it will be for western audiences. It will really affect their preconceptions. It’s exciting.”

For Slackistan’s two leads, Shahbaz Shigri and Aisha Akhtar, the film is quite simply a reflection of their day-to-day realities. “It’s about being a big fish in a little pond,” says 20-year-old Aisha, when we meet in a bar at London's Cumberland Hotel. “You live in your comfort zone but you get stuck in a rut there.”

Shahbaz, 21, who plays the film’s protagonist Hasan, an aspiring film-maker, says there’s a real lack of ambition. “Most jobs that kids get are through contacts. Ninety percent of Pakistani boys say they want to take over their dad’s business. The slacker thing was always there, I was just never aware of it.”

“No matter how bored or unproductive it gets, it’s nice,” adds Shahbaz. Having lived in the US and the UK Aisha says she has a more “rounded vision” than people who never leave Isloo. Both say it is “completely normal” for 20-somethings to hang out with and date 30-somethings in Islamabad, whereas it would be socially unacceptable elsewhere in the country. “You’re friends with whoever is left in town,” says Aisha.

Shahbaz feels the audience for Slackistan is a limited one. “All the films that come out of Pakistan are either religious or political. I’m looking forward to see how it does abroad. It’s made in a way that an indie would be made.” That would be, according to Khan, with a one–man crew, no script, no budget, no permission and, at one point, when the Taliban were just 60 miles away from Islamabad. Shahbaz used his own car in the film, Aisha used her own room and they borrowed houses from friends to keep costs down. “We enjoyed making it and when it was over we were so bored, we were just being pathetic,” says Aisha.

“This is the anti–Slumdog,” proclaims Aisha. "That was a good film but highly overrated. It wasn’t anything new. It didn’t show people a side they didn’t already know. This will be a film people talk about.”