Hamza Bangash loves Karachi. The Canadian-Pakistani filmmaker’s latest film, Bhai, that opened to much interest and appreciation at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, is centred in his home town where, according to him, “anything can happen”.
In fact, capricious Karachi has been the setting for all his internationally acclaimed short films so far, a retrospective of which was held in Toronto on October 2.
Apart from Bhai, the selection included Dia (2018) that won the audience award at Locarno, 1978 (2020) that played at the Locarno Film Festival, and Stray Dogs Come Out At Night (2020) which 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.
An alumnus of the Directors’ Lab programme at the Canadian Film Centre as well as the Locarno and Asian Filmmakers Academy, Bangash, 30, is often cited as one of the most exciting young filmmaking voices in Pakistan, intently capturing a nation in transformation.
He catalogues the place and the contemporary times by zooming in specifically on Karachi, a city that, he thinks, pirouettes on contradictions – chaotic and frustrating as well as inspiring in equal measure. A place with diversity of cultures and communities, yet oddly constricting that offers unlimited dreams and hope, and fuels ambition of some and disappoints others.
“In every corner of Karachi, there is some conflict unfolding … Good cinema for me comes out of these conflicts and there is no end to them in Karachi,” he told Al Jazeera.
The pulsating city can also be quite brutal and callous when it comes to the vulnerable. Bhai, the turbulent, taut and moving seven-minute short, is about two brothers who have stepped out to get themselves a meal on busy Independence Day.
It is about how the mad rush and intense noise of the city affect the mind of one of them who happens to be on the autism spectrum and how the two reclaim the balance, understanding and equanimity in their relationship, and find happiness in a plate of biriyani.
“It’s a film about ‘chhoti khushiyan’ (small happiness), and about everyday bravery – the kind that Karachiites have in spades,” wrote Bangash.
Bangash himself was born in Karachi in 1991 and moved with his parents to Mississauga in Canada when he was nine. He came back to Pakistan when he was 15 and returned to Canada four years later.
Escaping being boxed in ‘immigrant narrative’
Having done a BA (Honours) degree in Arts (stage and screen) at Queen’s University, he decided to get back to his roots again as an artiste at 23, initially working in visual arts and theatre before turning to filmmaking.
He thought the multiplicity of stories that Pakistan opened him would prevent him from being boxed in the “immigrant narrative” that could have confined him abroad. So he decided to have the best of both the worlds, with a foot each in Pakistan and Canada.
A voracious viewer of cinema, Bangash admires legends such as Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar and Indian legend Satyajit Ray. In fact, it was Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) that inspired him to shoot Bhai in black and white, “to evoke the shades of grey in the brothers’ lives”.
In his short stint in cinema so far, Bangash has attempted to explore a wide variety of unconventional and contentious themes that otherwise often get brushed under the carpet.
Dia takes the viewers up close and personal into the world of two women and deals with the theme of coping with grief. The 11-minute short, Stray Dogs Come Out At Night, is about an uncle-nephew duo, what sex work entails for them, the health issues it leaves them exposed to, and how like strays, they are treated like discards of the society.
The film 1978 deals with the marginalisation of Lenny, a Goan-Christian rock star, during the rapid Islamisation of Pakistan in the late 1970s.
The 17-minute film brings to light his insecurity, vulnerability, angst as well as his refusal to reinvent himself as a state-sanctioned singer, his assertion of his identity, and the outright refusal to live a lie – a cautionary tale about the repercussions for the artistes and the minorities in the face of a collusion between state and religion.
Critique of jingoistic nationalism
All of Bangash’s films critique jingoistic nationalism – either head on or obliquely.
“There is this view that if you are patriotic, you cannot say anything negative about your nation … If you are factually reporting horrific incidents that might be happening in your country, you are said to be defaming the nation,” he told Al Jazeera.
That, for him, is the scariest thing about blind patriotism – the advocacy against any critical response to the state. “When you don’t have critical thinking, you create dictators and fascists. That is a culture that has long been nurtured in South Asia. It is something that we deal with every day,” he says.
Contrary to popular interpretation, for Bangash, the greatest act of patriotism is trying to improve the nation, for which you first need to identify the problems and be able to speak about them with candour and fearlessness.
“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 says. In other words, sensitise and help open and democratise the public’s understanding of the issues.
For Bangash, another purpose of cinema, and arts in general, is to break barriers and bring those on the margins to centre stage with empathy and dignity. “Cinema allows you to get in the shoes of people who don’t have a voice,” he says.
So, Bangash’s cinema is not just all aesthetics but also comes riding on social responsibility. For instance, he made an interesting use of diegetic sound of the city in Bhai by trying to capture the level of noise in the busiest of the streets downtown during the middle of the day.
For him, it has a larger relevance. “I wanted to capture that level of intensity from the lens of somebody who is differently abled. What it could mean to them. What happens to that character in that space when you don’t have the ability to process the sound and the situation around you,” he told Al Jazeera.
The social awareness did not stop at that. Ayan Javaid, the actor who plays the autistic brother in Bhai, identifies himself as differently abled, a rare instance of empathetic and authentic casting in the Pakistani film industry.
Bhai was released worldwide on YouTube on October 10 to mark the World Mental Health Day.
Bangash worked with Special Olympics Pakistan along with the mental health NGO, Pakistan Institute of Living and Learning (PILL), during the film’s casting process.
PILL has produced Dia, Stray Dogs and Bhai along with London-based executive producer, Mina Husain. For Stray Dogs, Bangash also worked with a Pakistani male health NGO as part of his research, but under the condition of anonymity.
“It was about building trust and showing that we are not here to sensationalise. We are not here to create exploitative cinema. We are here to create a story that shines a light on the circumstances that these individuals are going through and how those circumstances came to be,” Bangash told Al Jazeera.
Next project on women’s rights
The spirit of social conscience carries on in his new venture. Inspired from the growing women’s rights movement in Pakistan, Bangash is now set to explore the idea of creating a safe space for women in his first feature film, called Mariam.
The film goes back to his short Dia and is about two women, one young and the other old.
“It is about the challenges they are both facing at their own places in life, how they navigate both institutional as well as societal discrimination and overcome it,” says Bangash.
The project won the AFA-MPA award at Busan International Film Festival 2019 and was selected for Berlinale Talent Project Market 2020. The feature film is being supported by Telefilm’s 2020 Talent to Watch programme and the Canada Arts Council.
Bangash says it is a horror film, a genre he enjoys a lot but finds a dearth of in South Asia, barring rare Indian examples such as Tumbbad, directed by Anand Gandhi and Rahi Anil Barve.
“What I like about horror specifically is that it allows the victim to win. Horror also has a long legacy of championing feminist stories. A film like Rosemary’s Baby or The Babadook allows its female protagonist agency in a society that is hyper-masculine and hyper-patriarchal,” he says.
Mariam, he promises, would be an empowering South Asian feminist horror film. No prizes for guessing the film would be set in his eternal favourite city Karachi.