Monday, 14 March 2011

'Slackistan': Hammad Khan's charming and saddening homage to Pakistan

An expensive and noxious wall of perfume, with tinges of Lacoste, Davidoff and Yves Saint Laurent, hits me as I enter the screening room at the London School of Economics in staid, beautiful old Aldwych. There's not a headscarf or beard in sight and everyone looks depressingly stylish; these are the richest, most dermatologically gifted Pakistani kids in London, studying often esoteric subjects, resplendent in designer wear and sneakers that retail for more than the average family's monthly grocery bill. And yet they converse almost exclusively in mellifluous Urdu and sing their national anthem with the same sort of passion and exuberance that you associate with a Pakistani wicket-keeper appealing for a caught-behind. Fittingly, they’ve all gathered, wide-eyed, for a screening of ‘Slackistan’, director Hammad Khan’s zero-budget homage to disillusioned rich kids in Islamabad; the staggeringly beautiful yet troubled capital of Pakistan.

The film tells the story of Hasan, the brooding son of a wealthy industrialist. He’s not quite fresh out of University where he studied business but like all rich, directionless new graduates, wants to be a filmmaker. His greatest possession is a ludicrously expensive camcorder which remains unused in its box because Hasan is unable to find the inspiration for his debut film, in spite of his rather keen eye – “Islamabad; the city that always sleeps” – and the contradictions all round him. Instead, his life revolves around his small circle of friends and ruminating about why pirate copies of 70’s Hollywood classics are so difficult to come by in Islamabad, and whether he should finally declare his undying love for best friend Aisha.

Meanwhile, Aisha is contemplating getting hitched to a soon-to-be Green Tech millionaire from the US whilst also grappling with her sexuality. Sherry, replete with the most immaculately well-maintained stubble after Roman Abramovich, uses his connections to wangle invites to Islamabad’s most glamorous parties for friends who lack the requisite social skills, but more than make up for it with bank accounts fattened with the proceeds of dubious land deals. Another friend, Saad, fancies himself a bit of a philosopher and is in love with Zara who is, in turn, in love with the wrong guy. And they all spend their time chain-smoking, downing coffee and ice cream and staring into the distance.

The film has vowed audiences around the world – from Abu Dhabi to San Francisco – primarily due the fact that it is such an unmitigated departure from the images of bloodletting and demonstrations that is spewed forth from TV news channels everywhere. The chic audience at the London School of Economics give the film a resounding thumbs-up; some are even moved to say that it will inspire Pakistanis – especially the younger generation – to paint their country more vividly, instead of in three shades of crimson as is the case now.

While that response has been the same everywhere the film has been screened, it continues to surprise Slackistan’s writer, director, producer and all-round ball-boy Hammad Khan. "Islamabad is the worst place to be when you're trying to figure out what you're going to do with your life. That's probably why I made this film. Don't get me wrong, I love the place! But if you wanted to be creative, learn something like photography or filmmaking it's the worst place to be. You just could not find a place in Islamabad where you could do that. But I had good friends there; they were always the same group from a very young age and we would just go round in circles, talking about each other and I loved that about the city. The film is basically trying to present that memory I had."

While the premise couldn’t have been simpler, the process and the aftermath were anything but. "Making a film is the most difficult thing imaginable. It’s a combination of so many different art forms; writing, directing, producing, editing. Add to that the fact that I was making a film on a shoe-string budget, with an even smaller crew and I’m filming in Pakistan. I was constantly worrying about problems that filmmakers don’t usually have to; things like whether we will be stopped by the police or if something unthinkable would happen. But we all went ahead and got the film made. I didn’t know if anyone was going to care about it. I was just trying to generate some interest and then all of a sudden it exploded on the festival scene.” Perhaps unsurprisingly however, and in spite of its international recognition, Slackistan has been banned in Pakistan, where state censors have been less than warm about the films’ allusions to Lesbianism and the Taliban and of course for showing kids getting plastered.

Films about bored rich kids are about as scarce as an empty pub in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day. However, the fact these slackers are to be found day-dreaming in a country eternally on the edge of Armageddon has captured the imagination of audiences everywhere; providing a new insight into a nation normally associated with shattered glass and masonry, burning effigies and Osama bin Laden. “The interesting thing is that Slackistan was a film about my memories of Islamabad and my friends. But people have taken it to heart and have been really eager to know more about Pakistan and get a different perspective of the country. It’s curious that in all the interviews and Q & A’s I have done, the one word that I’ve used the most has been ‘Taliban’. And I had not even made a film about the Taliban,” Khan says. “But I’m happy that the film has been able to subvert – at least a little bit – that impression of Pakistan which the outside world has.”

Whilst the production values aren’t quite up to scratch, ‘Slackistan’ is a deeply personal and witty film. Khan captures the disillusionment felt by Hasan and his friends with great subtlety and authenticity; it obviously helps that he draws not only from his own experiences but those of the cast of amateur actors as well, all of whom are uniformly good. And Khan’s script doesn’t shy away from taking a few carefully aimed barbs at politicians, religious leaders, rich but distant fathers, the fallibilities of his own youth and the pervading stench of extremism. It’s also surprisingly melancholic, about a country founded at such unimaginable cost but with a great deal of optimism and hope; and that’s what is most significant about Slackistan.

What started off as Khan’s homage to his slightly jaded youth in an idyllic city, has metamorphosized into an intriguing look at Pakistan and its’ many, maddening contradictions; the eternal struggle between liberal values and deep rooted religious extremism, the grinding poverty and fabulous wealth; a fraught nuclear power that is forever besieged by its’ enemies both at home and over its tenuous borders, and the list goes on. As Hasan and his friends contemplate what to do with their lives and how to channel their inherent creativity, they encapsulate what has gone wrong with Pakistan; the lost opportunities, suppressed ambitions and gagging of creativity and the sheer, bloody waste.

"The one thing associated with everything in life is fear”, Hammad Khan says. “You may have dreams and aspirations and you're constantly wondering how you can achieve things. The biggest obstacle by far is the fear that an individual feels. The most important thing is to overcome those fears and make things better not only for yourself but also for your country and society.”

“I firmly believe that the self is connected to the state. We always try to find fault with things around us but it's actually a whole load of individuals who collectively contribute to the ills of society. Your personal journey is something more than that, something more than just yourself. And it’s what Pakistan needs right now; individuals to go on individual progressive journeys, losing the fear because fear is determining everything in life in Pakistan; fear and suspicion and hatred. People fear each other but their real fears are within them because they are yet to grasp what they are capable of. Slackistan is just a small example of what a small group of people can do. There are many more people who are doing great things in Pakistan but even the smallest of achievements can amount to a monumental achievement. If you think about it it’s one part of a huge progressive journey for a nation."

For screenings and show times, visit http://www.slackistanthemovie.com/.

- Vijitha Alles