Io Sono L’Amore (I Am Love)

The Herald: January 2011

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Io Sono L’Amore (I Am Love)

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Alba Rohrwacher, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Maria Paiato, Pippo Delbono, Diane Fleri, Waris Ahluwalia

A stand-out cinematic moment this year has to be between Tilda Swinton and a plate of prawns and ratatouille. In a scene from Luca Guadagnino’s Io Sono L’Amore (I Am Love), Swinton is suffused in an amber glow with each mouthful, the din of the restaurant fades out and John Adams’ lush score swells as the tines of the fork pierce the crimson shell of the glistening prawns – Julia Roberts’ marathon pasta-and-pizza sessions in Eat, Pray, Love are paltry in comparison.

Written by Guadagnino, Io Sono L’Amore spent eleven years in development before coming to fruition. It is the story of Emma Recchi (Swinton), a Russian expatriate living in turn-of-the-century Milan, and married into the powerful and moneyed Recchi family. As her children, Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) and Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), explore their own lives and loves, Emma is left isolated in the rambling Recchi mansion. She meets and falls in love with Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a young chef intent on breaking free from his father’s business and opening his own restaurant where he can ply customers with his delightful concoctions. Emma discovers a letter from Betta to Edoardo detailing Betta’s love for another woman – Betta’s acceptance of her homosexual desires is the impetus Emma needs to break free of the neatly delineated confines of her life.

It is only with Antonio that Emma is able to give voice to her feelings of being an outsider – she was plucked from pre-Gorbachev Russia by her Italian husband who was in search of art treasures, given a new name, language and home. The affair, when it is inevitably and heartbreakingly discovered, has disastrous consequences for the Recchi family. Despite this narrative trajectory, however, Io Sono L’Amore steers clear of any hectoring or didactic tone, choosing instead to focus on and celebrate Emma’s discovery of her true self.

In a throwback to classic Hollywood glamour and the relationships fostered between fashion houses and actors – such as between Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn or Yves Saint Laurent and Catherine Deneuve – the film credits Silvia Venturini Fendi (of the Fendi fashion house) as a producer. While Swinton’s character is dressed entirely in Jil Sander and Raf Simons, the Recchi family’s matriarch (Marisa Berenson) sports beautiful vintage furs from the 1970s and the male characters are impeccably turned out in Fendi suits. Fashion aficionados will swoon over scenes of dinner parties at the Recchi house featuring an eclectic mix of vintage and contemporary Italian fashion.

Discussing her character, Swinton says, ‘She came from so many books we discussed, and she came from films we discussed, and she came from people that we knew…’ The rich amalgamation of ideas that brings Emma’s character together makes her a pleasure to watch, as Guadagnino carefully details her cool, collected persona – and then proceeds to shatter the façade. This is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen to truly appreciate Guadagnino’s masterful visual exploration of pleasure and fulfillment.

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Pakistani Independent Cinema

The Herald: January 2011

Pakistani Independent Cinema 2000-2010

This is not a piece about the F-word – Finance – that plagues the independent Pakistani film industry (although perhaps ‘industry’ is too optimistic a term, ‘factory’ may suffice in this case) and is responsible for the dozens of hip-shaking actresses and moustache-twirling villains bounding across our silver screens. It is instead a celebration of notable films this decade that delved into the nooks and crannies of our society or turned a critical eye on Pakistan’s precarious position in the world today.

Since its inception in 2001, the Karafilm Festival has charted the progress of the Pakistani filmmakers, introducing Karachi audiences to a wave of good and bad cinema emerging from the many film schools and graduate programs mushrooming across the country.

Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye (2007), a critical success at home and internationally, made audiences sit up with interest – a filmmaker had finally given voice to the burgeoning strata of society who responded to screaming headlines about burqas, bombs and bad government with a weary, ‘That’s not us.’ The film prefigured the success of the recent Slackistan (2010), with the apt strapline ‘Think You Know Pakistan? Think Again.’

A healthy Facebook and Twitter-friendly generation ensures that all positive Pakistani activities flit across your radar – its cool to have watched Omar Ali Khan’s Zibahkhana (2007), celebrated Pakistan’s first Emmy win (Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Pakistan’s Taliban Generation, 2009) or attended a screening of Made in Pakistan (2009).

With the upcoming releases of Mira Nair’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol and Sabiha Sumar’s latest venture, 2011 definitely looks like an interesting year for Pakistani independent cinema.

 Notable Pakistani films in the last decade:

1-    Khuda Ke Liye – Shoaib Mansoor – 2007

2-    Ramchand Pakistani – Mehreen Jabbar – 2008

3-    Khamosh Pani – Sabiha Sumar – 2002

4-    Zibahkahana – Omar Ali Khan – 2007

5-    Raat Chali Hai Jhoom Ke – Hasan Zaidi – 2006

6-    Kashf: Lifting the Veil – Ayesha Khan – 2008

7-    Infinite Justice – Jamil Dehlavi – 2006

8-    Duniya Goal Hai – Imran Patel – 2006

9-    Saat Asmanon Talay – Owais Khan – 2006

Singing to the Choir: Coke Studio and Pakistani identity

Papercuts, Volume 7: January 2011

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Singing to the Choir: Coke Studio and Pakistani identity

This September, bookshops in Karachi found themselves sold out of copies of American Vogue on the first day the magazines hit the shelves. With their hefty price tag, the magazines usually linger in the shops well into the next month, when fresh copies replace them. Francis, who works at a bookshop I frequent, pulled me aside to explain conspiratorially, ‘All the designers, they have bought all the copies. Because this time, they have been featured in Vogue, you see.’ Fashion journalist Carla Power’s coverage of Pakistan Fashion Week in her article, Revolutionary Style, gave good face to some of the most prominent Pakistani fashion designers and models, lauding their courage in a country that is projected as a place of bombs, burqas and bad government. When I finally got my hands on a well-thumbed copy of the magazine, despite the hyperbole of the article, I felt a sense of pride. It was the first time I had seen Pakistan in those glossy pages, sandwiched between paeans to fashion and design heavyweights; reports on the latest accessories and clothes (which, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot on only the most well-heeled of Pakistani women); and work by some of the best photographers in the business. I felt a sense of belonging, of recognition and a (somewhat misguided) feeling of affirmation. 

I experienced similar emotions while watching the first episode of Season 3 of Coke Studio, as thousands of boys swooned over their first glimpse of Meesha Shafi singing Alif Allah Chambay Di Booti, and thousands of girls thought, she looks just like us (albeit thousands others probably thought, I wish I looked like that).  Since its inception in June 2008, the show has fostered and encouraged this sense of recognition and community amongst its viewers, whatever their age. In addition to wide coverage on radio and television channels across Pakistan, Coke Studio’s music and videos are downloadable through the show’s website, while you can request songs straight to your  mobile phones during episodes. It has become standard practice to hear snippets of songs on calls to mobile phones. English subtitles added to YouTube videos of the songs have only escalated their popularity, with millions of hits and shares on Facebook and other social networking websites amongst both Pakistani and diaspora communities. The official Coke Studio website also encourages fans to download the shows logo and branding and tweak it to express their creativity and ‘make it their own’. Fans can also download ‘I heart Coke Studio’ and ‘I love Coke Studio’ support badges while bands and musicians can download ‘Watch me on Coke Studio’ badges to be displayed anywhere on the internet.

The show embraces a multitude of musical expressions – sufi, rock, devotional, pop, modern and so on. It suggests that as Pakistanis, we are cultured, rooted in tradition, while also straining at the leash of conservatism – the music reflects our curious nature as straddling both Eastern and Western culture. As Haniya Aslam points out, Coke Studio is ‘the perfect way to reach out to the world with our culture and remind the world that we’re not isolated, we’re linked.’

Producer Rohail Hyatt’s brainchild has been applauded for its ability to seamlessly bring together two generations of Pakistani viewers – Amanat Ali’s rendition of Noor Jehan’s classic Ae Watan Ke Sajeelay Jawanon, for instance, is a bittersweet refrain from 1965. While speaking to an older generation of listeners, the current adaptation of the song has a poignancy for younger viewers of Coke Studio as well – as Louis ‘Gumby’ Pinto says, ‘I played this song with a lot of pride’, while Amanat Ali dedicated the song to the thousands of soldiers currently fighting for Pakistan.

Coke Studio’s YouTube channel offers video-blogs and blooper footage designed to suture the viewer further into the studio experience. The format of each episode gives audiences an intimate behind-the-scenes glimpse into the production of each song – cumulatively, such access to artists not only gives unprecedented insight into the creation of music within the Pakistani industry, but also serves to highlight the level of professionalism and technical expertise of the men and women behind the scenes. While as a nation we may be flailing in various arenas, Coke Studio offers a refreshing image of Pakistani art and culture as thriving despite the odds, flirting with experimental forms and attracting the attention of millions across the world. It remains to be seen, however, if the show continues to straddle the fine line between presenting popular artists in a fresh light and showcasing new talent or more traditional forms of music that may be ignored by music channels and radio stations across the country.

‘If it doesn’t come on television, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,’ pointed out Tina Sani, when discussing the more traditional forms of music present on the show. Ms. Sani’s pronouncement is apt when considering the model of Pakistani identity adopted and catered to by Coke Studio – this identity may not be present in the faces of those we have become familiar with on the daily news, but it is a far more malleable, flexible face, ever cognizant of the changing times and Pakistan’s precarious position in our world today.

In July this year, when an organization called the Pakistan Peace Builders held the first New York Sufi Music Festival in the city’s Union Square, Abida Parveen, Mekaal Hasan Band and Zeb and Haniya’s lyrics underscored a message often repeated amongst those labeled Pakistan’s ‘educated elite’: this is our true face, this is our nature. A diverse line-up of musicians from all four provinces, ranging from Sindh’s Soung Fakirs to Balochistan’s Akhtar Chanal Zehri, emphasized the multi-faceted nature of the Pakistani identity. Aunty Disco Project’s Omar Bilal Akhtar pointed out a similar presence of such diverse voices within Coke Studio, saying, ‘We’ve got so many different artists and they’re all coming together on the same platform and its something you don’t see very often.’ He further suggested that the show presented a positive model in that ‘if we can do it in this industry, it sends a great message to everybody that we can bring so much diversity together and make it work.’ Eschewing the politics of provincialism, Coke Studio seemingly endorses Arif Lohar’s belief that ‘Hum Pakhtoon, na Punjabi, Sindhi na Balochistani hain. Aik Khuda aur aik nabi, hum saaray Pakistani hain.’