Home and away

The Express Tribune’s T Magazine: November 24-30, 2013

“This is the first time that I’ve had to talk to CNN about one of our exhibits,” quips Sarah Bevan, curator of the Imperial War Museum’s (London) IWM Contemporary programme, which features 5,000 Feet Is The Best, a short film by artist Omer Fast exploring the subject of drone warfare.

“At 5,000 feet,” explains a drone operator interviewed by Fast in the film, “I can tell what type of shoes you’re wearing from a mile away.” The film is structured around segments of interviews with this former drone operator (now employed as a security guard) who claims to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a consequence of the missions he has been a part of in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The film, played on a loop, has no discernable opening or ending, and viewers are free to watch the narrative, comprised of a series of vignettes, unfold at any point.

Link to full article in T Magazine

Link to excerpt from Fast’s short film


What is the Pakistani dream?

The Express Tribune’s T Magazine: Cover story, November 10-16, 2013

Sabiha Sumar has had a good month. As her film Good Morning Karachi (Rafina) had its London premiere at the Raindance Film Festival, Sumar and the team of Saving Face — the Academy Award-winning documentary that she served as producer of — picked up an Emmy award for Best Documentary. In the works since 2011, Good Morning Karachi was filmed over a period of eight weeks, following an intensive three-month workshop with the cast and features Amna Ilyas, Atta Yacub, Beo Raana Zafar, Yasir Aqueel, Khalid Malik and Saba Hamid. “It was like running a film school,” Sumar recalls, as she worked with a motley team of Indian and Dutch crew members as well as local film enthusiasts who had never been on a feature film set.

The film found its inception in a chance meeting between Sumar and the author Shandana Minhas at a mutual friend’s house. “I had read Shandana’s articles in newspapers,” explains Sumar, “and I invited her to write a novella on the life of a young woman coming of age in Karachi.”

Link to full article in T Magazine

The Great Indian Peninsula Railway

The Express Tribune’s T Magazine: August 4, 2013

Head down Northampton Road in London’s east end and you’ll find yourself in the waiting room of a train station from the 1920s in India, where a bejeweled lady in a mint green and gold shalwar kameez fans herself while cautiously keeping an eye on a leery ticket inspector. A woman in a safari suit, her hair a mass of pin-curls, clutches a glass of port as she scans the crowd on the platform for her son, Dickie, who ran away from their home in England to head to India. Her husband, a colonel, is laid up in their train compartment with a terrible case of dyspepsia.

The destination is Srinagar. The train journey begins in Rangoon and winds through Chittagong, Patna, Lucknow, Delhi and Jullundur before its final stop.

Link to full article in T Magazine

Jinnah’s abode: No. 35, Russell Road

The Express Tribune’s T Magazine: July 21, 2013

The Indians get India House. And a serene cross-legged Gandhi in Tavistock Square. And Chicken Tikka Masala, now one of Britain’s favourite national meals. And Bollywood premieres in Leicester Square. When I asked some friends living in London what comes to mind when I said ‘Pakistan’, I got ‘Im-run Kahn’ (New Zealand), ‘houses in the middle of the desert and sand everywhere’ (Brazil), ‘your terrorists’ (Belgium) and ‘no clue’ (Ireland).

So when, during the course of research for my MA dissertation, I read the following sentence in Stanley Wolpert’s biography of Quaid-e-Azam, I thought it might help me feel a little more rooted in London, to allow me to feel as if I could have a foot in both my Pakistani and British worlds: “His father deposited money enough to his account in a British bank to allow Jinnah to live in London for three years. There is no record of precisely how many hotel rooms or ‘bed and breakfast’ stops he rented before moving into the modest three-story house at 35 Russell Road in Kensington…”

Link to full article in T Magazine

Bollywood on the Streets of Bombay

Boat magazine: August 2012

Link to Boat

When he was eighteen, Ranjit Dahiya dropped out of school after failing his exams in the 11th grade. Against his parents’ wishes, he sought employment as a whitewasher in his village of Garhi Brahamanan in India’s Haryana state. Paid 40 Indian rupees for a day of labour, Ranjit graduated from daubing the walls of Garhi Brahamanan to the city of Sonipat. Here, after a day spent whitewashing the paan-stained and graffitied walls of Sonipat Railway Station, Ranjit was accused of stealing a paintbrush, worth 120 rupees. “I wasn’t paid for my labour that day,” he recalls, “and my father was very upset with me, he said I was casting a shadow on his respectability.”

The task of whitewashing a school’s walls led Ranjit back to his first love, painting, after he was asked to create a mural of the goddess Saraswati on one of the walls he had whitewashed. “I was always a good painter,” says Ranjit, a self-described “Bollywood freak”. “At the age of 13 or 14, I would come home from school and make portraits of film stars using photographs cut out from magazines and the newspapers.” Ranjit decided that he would return to school, in the hope of gaining admission to the Chandigarh Fine Arts College.

With a Bachelor in Fine Arts, he went on to study at Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design, and in 2008 found his calling: street art. Ranjit joined a collective of artists who, when faced with the city’s myriad blank canvases and stretches of grey concrete, felt that “something has to be done”. The Wall Project (it has since found homes in cities across India) invited residents of Mumbai to join street artists to bring colour to the city – their most notable collaboration took place on a 2.7 km stretch of wall along Tulsi Pipe Road, a highway that runs parallel to train tracks and is home to hundreds of homeless families. Here, 350 Mumbai’ites, including Ranjit, created a mélange of graffiti, social commentary and educational initiatives (one artist painted letters from the Hindi alphabet along the wall).

In 2009, Dhaniya Pilo, one of the founders of the Wall Project, contacted Ranjit and asked if he would be interested in bringing his art to an exhibit in Paris. In February that year, Ranjit travelled to Paris’ Salon du Cinema exhibit with 31 canvases featuring his beloved film stars, particularly Amitabh Bachchan, Kishore Kumar and Rajesh Khanna. “The organisers gave me a 32×12 foot canvas and gave me four days to paint it, as part of a live demonstration of my technique of traditional hand-painting, which dates back at least 70 years,” he says. “They asked me what I wanted to paint, and I chose an image of Amitabh Bachchan from the 2008 film Sarkar Raj. Amitabh came to the show, saw my work, told me he loved it and signed my painting.” For Ranjit, there could be no higher praise. “I grew up on Bollywood,” he explains. “Our neighbour’s house had a television, and we were part of the VCR generation – we’d always be at our neighbour’s house watching the latest films. We didn’t go to the cinema in the village often, but every Sunday, we’d watch the movies screened on Doordarshan (*broadcaster) and I fell in love with Amitabh, Dev Anand, Sanjiv Kumar…”

Today, Ranjit spends his days dreaming of bringing Bollywood back to its original home in Mumbai (which he refers to by its old name, Bombay) – he creates striking cinemascapes on the city’s walls, paeans to some of the biggest stars that the industry has created. “I came to Bombay in 2008 and I really wanted to feel a connection to Bollywood – this is, after all, where Bollywood was born. I didn’t feel that connection though. There are lots of advertisements and hoardings for films, but that feeling of being in Bollywood was missing.” Ranjit subsequently teamed up with a friend, Tony Peter, to found the Bollywood Art Project in April this year, an urban art project celebrating 100 years of Bollywood (the film industry’s first feature-length film was the silent movie, Raja Harishchandra, which opened in Mumbai in 1913) and creating public works of art to rekindle this particular feeling that Ranjit seeks. Their first mural featured Pradeep Kumar and Bina Rai, the two stars of the 1953 classic, Anarkali, which tells the story of an ill-fated romance between a courtesan and a prince. A 20×15 feet mural on Chapel Road in the city’s Bandra’s neighbourhood (home to many stars from the film industry) depicts the two in a loving, glorious technicolour embrace.

The tradition of hand-painting film posters and advertisements on cinema hoardings and billboards has yielded some iconographic images – original poster prints are avidly collected in India and Pakistan as this art faces certain death at the hands of computer-generated images – but Ranjit chooses to steer clear of re-creating these poster images in his murals. “I approach the film from the point of view of an artist and I look at what the film means to me, what its most potent visual is, an image or idea that has survived across decades,” he explains. Thus, the group’s second mural featured Amitabh Bachchan as the iconoclastic ‘Angry Young Man’ from the 1975 film Deewar (The Wall) – a film that redefined the identity of a generation of young men bristling against traditional values and norms. Dubbed ‘Deewar pe Deewar’ (‘The Wall on the wall’), the mural was created in ten days on the Bandra neighbourhood’s Bandstand Promenade by the sea.

Ranjit’s process is simple: while the 24 year old Tony handles the “production” side of the project by gaining permissions to paint on public property or seeking funding, Ranjit scouts locations for his next mural (he has plans to create at least 25 murals in Mumbai alone before moving on to Delhi or even international film hubs such as Los Angeles). “I do a lot of recce between murals,” explains Ranjit. “I look at areas which have maximum visibility and thoroughfare – the murals should be public and accessible to the maximum number of people.” Ranjit adds that he chooses his images carefully. “I don’t want to paint vulgar scenes or images that are not good for society, which will cause people to make a noise about what I’m doing.” Sometimes, however, Ranjit’s notion of ‘vulgarity’ is challenged. “I wanted to create a mural of Bollywood’s first ‘item girl’ (an actress who appears in a film for one song-and-dance sequence) Helen. But once I’d finalized a wall I wanted to use and gained permission, a woman from the neighbourhood absolutely refused and created a fuss. She said, ‘If you paint Helen here, log uss ko dekh ke pagal ho jayengay (people will see her image and go crazy).’”

During the creation of the Anarkali mural, which took eleven days, Ranjit was approached by curious passersby who would inevitably ask him the same question – “Who is paying you to do this?” “When you tell people that you’re doing this work for free, they’re amazed,” says Ranjit. “They can’t believe I don’t have a motive other than to celebrate this film culture, but it always makes them very happy.” With an average cost of 35,000-50,000 Indian Rupees, the murals are a pricey passion to maintain. Ranjit finances his passion project through freelance design work (he churns out mobile applications and brand identities through Digital Moustache, a graphic design company he founded in 2009) and chooses to work alone, thus cutting out additional labour costs. Following the completion of the mural, BAP held an open-air screening of Anarkali on Chapel Road, bringing Bollywood back onto the streets of the city and away from the enclaves of publicly inaccessible studios and glitzy premieres in London or Dubai.

On the 18th of July, the film icon Rajesh Khanna – the man who inspired female fans to ‘marry’ his photograph and write letters in blood professing their love for him – passed away. Two days later, Ranjit started work on his third mural, paying homage to the star in a 17×26 feet mural at Bandstand. The work cost an estimated 37,000 rupees – entirely worth it for Ranjit, who was approached by a grateful and happy Rajesh Khanna-fan who brought his entire family to see the mural once it was complete. As the project grows, however, Ranjit has had to learn to be prudent. “My first plan right now is to look for funding,” he explains. “I cannot keep paying for these murals and while people really appreciate the work, they’re not willing to help finance it.” His goal is to take his art to “wherever Bollywood-lovers are” and to create his own team of painters. And while he has gained attention in the media, following the creation of the Rajesh Khanna mural, he says his parents remain cautiously optimistic about his chosen path. “My father is a little upset that I’m 33 years old and I spend so much time outside the house, and my mother wants me to get married, to settle down and to have a stable monthly income,” he explains. But at the end of the day, he says “they believe in me and when they see me on television or in the newspapers, they feels proud – they think, hamara larka kuch toh kar raha hai (at least our boy is doing something).” Ranjit’s next plan? To win over his mother by painting her favourite film star, the actress Hema Malini.

Bad for business

The Herald: March 2012

Bad for business

The Khatm-e-Nabuwat Lawyers’ Forum’s proposed ban of Shezan products is yet another illegal action against Ahmadi business-owners, who continue to face violent persecution in the absence of state intervention.

In the summer of 2011, TA (name withheld), a shop owner based in Faisalabad, received a call on his mobile phone. The man on the other end of the line refused to identify himself, but he knew TA’s name. His motives became clearer when he asked, “Tum Jamaat e Ahmadiyya mein kya kartey ho?” (What do you do within the Jamaat e Ahmadiyya?)

“Who is this?” persisted TA. “How did you get my number?”

“Khuda ko banda dhoond leta hai, tum kya ho?” replied the man, before he hung up. (trans)

TA continued to receive a slew of text messages as well as other such phone calls. One message read, “You liar Ahmadi. You better accept the truth. Warna toh apna intezaam kar lo.” (trans)

Such communication has become routine, he tells the Herald, after he was named in a pamphlet distributed in June 2011, at eight Clock Tower bazaars in Faisalabad. “My friend saw a couple of men who looked like mazdoors distribute these pamphlets outside our shops,” TA says. “When we took a look, we realized how dangerous they were.” The pamphlet reads “Qadiyanis are deserving of death” and “To shoot such people in public view is jihad and it is a blessing to kill them.” 

Link to PDF of full article

Making a mark

The Herald: Cover story, December 2011

Making a mark

Defacement or censorship in international publications

British GQ’s September issue features a portfolio of images by photographer Mario Testino, including portrait of supermodel Gisele Bündchen. You are denied a comparatively innocuous glimpse of the curve of Bündchen’s breast – it has been scribbled over with black marker.

The director of distributor Liberty Books’ magazine division, Jamil Hussain, explains that this process, which the company refers to as “defacing”, is carried out by buyers in the U.S. and U.K.. Liberty, who supplies an estimated 95% of the market in Pakistan, is responsible for the purchase and distribution of 250 titles ranging from GQ, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health and Esquire to Harvard Business Review, Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest and The Economist across Pakistan. With magazines such as Maxim, which promises “scantily clad cover models and plenty of revealing photo layouts,” Liberty has what Hussain refers to as a “standing order” from the Pakistani Press Information Department (PID) and Customs to ensure that “nothing sexually explicit and anti-Islamic” makes its way into the local market. International buyers approach publishers such as Conde Nast on behalf of Liberty Books, acquiring magazines that are subsequently checked for images that would not pass the litmus test of the market’s sensibilities – Pakistan or the Middle East, for instance. In warehouses in London and New York, black marker-wielding employees restore the modesty of the scantily clad models.

Link to PDF of full article

Link to full article on Herald site