Bollywood on the Streets of Bombay

Boat magazine: August 2012

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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.

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What we talk about when we talk about Karachi

Boat magazine: June 2012

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“It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London,” wrote Henry James in 1881. “It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent.” James’ observation lends itself just as well to Karachi – a Pakistani city of more than 18 million (the last census was held in 1998, and the figure has well surpassed this modest calculation since), the former capital of the country until the 1960s and a place composed of inherent oppositions – always brutal, but never not-beautiful, shockingly violent and welcoming in equal measure. Karachi is home to those who casually drop five-figure sums on a restaurant table and little girls who go to schools where a tree-covered enclosure serves as a lavatory, where one of the largest garbage dumps in Asia is populated by Peter Pans who never age as they breathe deep the fumes of the city’s rotting detritus and forage through the festering piles of human and animal feces for precious bits of copper and other material to salvage and where the women are amongst the most educated and hard-working in the country.

I am often disgusted by and unhappy with this city; rarely am I not proud. My identity as a Karachi’ite is a marker of courage and resilience, most evident when speaking with an outsider who is horrified by the city’s crime, poverty, filth and cruelty. Recently, while interviewing a New York-based filmmaker who had shot a documentary on the city’s misfits, mobsters and miscreants, I felt a surge of pride when he mentioned how terrified he had been while speaking with a target-killer – a hit-man who confessed to murdering up to 35 men (and often killing the wrong man). It’s an odd thing to feel proud about – a thick skin, an armour that the city teaches you to develop. And in that subject, Karachi’ites have had a fine, full education.

In December 2007, Pakistan’s former prime minister and the leader of one of the largest political parties in the country, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated at a rally. For nearly a week, protestors torched cars, railway stations, rickshaws and motorcycles – vehicles belonging to the poorest of the poor – and shops and ransacked ATM machines and banks. More than 20 people lost their lives in the violence. But the memory of this fury is not as tangible as the days I spent with my family, cloistered in our house, uninterrupted by work, school or outsiders, as it was unsafe to venture into the streets.

While the pixelated image of Bhutto’s final moments is forever seared into my memory, so are the images of the late artist Asim Butt’s graffiti across the city during those days – in one work, he stenciled the ‘Stop’ sign onto the skeletons of burned rickshaws and later, in a comment on the country’s ‘addiction’ to violence, created the altered image of a cigarette pack on a wall near Bhutto’s mausoleum, with the words “Kills Kings”. During the 1990s, my generation of school-going children delighted in multiple protest strikes and warnings of violence that meant one less day in class as the government and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a political party criticized for its militant tactics, waged a war in which the collateral damage – hundreds of young men, found shot or mutilated, their bodies tightly bound in gunny-sacks across the city – haunted those who witnessed the government’s “operation” to cleanse the city of those who held it hostage. An older journalist once told me how, during those days, it was common practice for him to head to the city’s beaches after a day of reporting on rising death tolls and scores of women widowed in one fell swoop, in order to scream in anger and frustration against the roar of the ocean – it helped him, he told me, to let it all out, or he felt he would go mad.

When writing about Karachi, or more specifically, Pakistan, it is common to seek out the superlative – “the most dangerous country on Earth”, “the most dangerous place for journalists”, “the worst country to live in as a woman”, “Pakistan’s dark heart… dangerous, chaotic, ungovernable… one of the most violent cities on Earth… doomed… indestructible” (this last quote courtesy Time magazine’s January 2012 article on Karachi, which seemingly had a quota of adjectives to ascribe to this third-world country to fill). As citizens of this “most dangerous” country, we are naturally “the world’s bravest nation” (a headline that appeared in Newsweek magazine’s local edition, three years after we were labeled the “world’s most dangerous nation” by the same publication). Often, however, ‘necessity’ is mistaken for ‘resilience’ in Pakistan’s case – the romantic assumption that the ‘bravest’ nation on earth keeps on going out of sheer will and determination, and not because they might have no option, no other means of taking home a paltry sum of money at the end of the day. While researching a story on the persecution of the Ahmadi religious group in Pakistan, I spoke with Umer, a twenty-nine-year old shop-owner living in the city of Faisalabad, whose father, uncle and cousin were murdered in a drive-by shooting in 2010 for their religious beliefs. I asked Umer why he continued to live and work in a country where he can be jailed for even uttering the traditional greeting of ‘Assalam-o-alaikum’ (Peace be upon you), forbidden to members of the Ahmadi religion, who are considered to be traitorous non-Muslims for denying the finality of the Prophet Muhammad. “I’m sitting in my father’s chair right now,” Umer replied. “This is the same shop he worked in. I wish to leave, but practically, it’s quite difficult.”

When speaking of Karachi, it is easy to peddle in nostalgia: a cabaret dance in one of the city’s numerous clubs; the Beatles’ brief stop-over at the airport, on their way to Australia (John Lennon is reported to have said, “Karachi, yeah yeah yeah”); Dizzy Gillespie playing his trumpet in a public park in 1954, a snake-charmer seated beside him; American tourists cavorting on the beach in the city that was “the Paris of the East”. It is easier, in fact, to keep these stories of a different Karachi in mind, rather than the one in a photograph printed in an English-language newspaper in 2011 of family members fanning the open caskets of two men killed in a spate of violence in the city’s Liaquatabad area. It happened during a routine bout of ‘load-shedding’, hours of no electricity as the country’s energy grid is weighed down by a demand that far exceeds the supply.

It is common for people to stop reading the newspaper or watching news channels here, because the news is always bad. As a journalist, I cannot tune out, as much as I’d like to. And so, I look for examples of the city’s (often inadvertent) sense of humour. The graffiti in an upscale shopping district, which features a burqa-clad woman in heels, her outfit billowing around her, a modern-day Middle East Marilyn (circa The Seven Year Itch); the presence of a paan kiosk named “Tension Paan House” in a neighbourhood plagued by gang violence; a street vendor selling French fries from a pushcart painted with the McDonald’s logo; ‘wall-chalkings’ that advertise solutions for male erectile dysfunction. I take photographs of these everyday sightings, because they remind me that the best approach to surviving in this city is, as the Urdu slogan painted on thousands of trucks reminds you, to dekh (look), magar pyaar se (but with love).

The common thread of genius at TEDx

The Express Tribune: August 6, 2010

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The common thread of genius at TEDx

This week, the city of Lahore got under my skin. It wasn’t just the idiosyncrasies and beauty of the city that crept into my resolutely Karachi-heart, but the people that I was able to meet. I was attending TEDxLahore, and in the lead up to the conference on July 31, I tagged the team for three days, meeting a rag-tag group of individuals from various backgrounds who had little in common besides their unwavering belief in the ideas they wanted to present to Lahoris (and Pakistanis) via the TEDx platform.

In the absence of local arenas to showcase developing research, social or philanthropic projects, burgeoning talent or the work of individuals making a difference in their respective fields, TEDx provided the perfect platform to celebrate and honour the work of Pakistanis who, as the team put it, “are the silent movers and shakers who may not have always been in the spotlight but who haven’t stopped working for what they believe in nonetheless.”

Ideas worth spreading

The first TEDx conference in Pakistan was held in Lahore in 2009 and this year, curator Asim Fayaz (its rather befitting that he’s a mere 21 years old) and his team were determined to bring the TED mantra of ‘ideas worth spreading’ back to the city in an even bigger way.

Fourteen speakers came together in acknowledgement of ‘collective genius’ – ranging from a musician (the inimitable Noor Zehra, who stunned the audience with the sagar veena or ‘ocean of sound’), economist, linguist, two digital cartographers and an urban planner to an architect, a cycling fanatic, corruption buster, a former-extremist-turned-peaceful-activist and a man who models suicide bomb blasts. The common thread? These men and women have consistently plugged away at their ideas, despite the manifold challenges facing them as Pakistanis.

Not all of them are the ‘usual suspects’ (as Khurram Siddiqi, in charge of Speaker Facilitation, put it) who’s talks can pull in the crowds (such as, for example, Mr. Arif Hasan) or who’s work has been lauded at international conferences. While some speakers enjoyed the benefits of local and international organizational or government support, others, such as Mudasir Zia, a graduate of the University of Engineering and Technology Lahore, struck out alone. Mr Zia, with a little help from his friends, founded and now teaches at an English medium free school, organises blood-donor drives, solid waste management projects and financial aid and education for girls amongst many other projects.

A blast of inspiration

The speaker who undeniably stole the show, Dr Zeeshan Usmani, works on the ‘simulation and modeling of blast waves in open and confined spaces.’ The audience was not prepared for a highly energetic man who stumbled over his words in a frenetic effort to present as much of his remarkable project as possible within the 12 minute timeslot. Dr Usmani has meticulously researched and analysed the detritus (including stacks of government records and testimonies) from suicide blasts in order to create a software that can simulate suicide attacks while also forensically mapping out an intricate web of the attacker’s fingerprints all over the scene.

Pulling up a blue-print of Ali Auditorium, the venue of the conference, Dr Usmani’s programme drew grimaces from the audience as he showed us what a potential attack at the venue could look like, complete with a photograph of a victim based on his proximity to the hypothetical bomber. While this may sound morbid, it is important to consider the impact of such research on emergency planning, disaster management and relief efforts in the wake of a bombing, not to mention investigative efforts.

A sign of things to come

During a quick break between speakers, many in the audience commented on the glitches the organizers were facing with the audio system and the inability of certain speakers to grip the audience. This is not a reflection on their work or ideas, but speaks of the high level of regard and expectation the audience had for an event of this nature and one with a rigorous application process for attendees. What we need is a busy calendar of such events in order to create not just appreciative audiences but platforms for the thousands of Pakistanis who continue to forge paths in their fields despite the myriad challenges facing them.

Kudos to the organisers for giving each attendee a tree sapling in their goodie-bags – I’ll never forget walking back into the auditorium to see a swathe of green dotting the red and blue seats. Lahore is all the more rich with gulmohars and rose trees this week – and I hope I’m able to return soon to see how my tree, planted in my aunt’s garden, is growing.

Bhutto: What More Could You Ask For?

The Express Tribune: June 14, 2010

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Bhutto: What More Could You Ask For?

I am someone who has saved the ticket stubs for every movie I have been to since I was sixteen years old. I could watch paint dry, as long as it is projected onto a screen in a darkened cinema hall. But this Saturday, I would have gladly burned to the ground a certain cinema near the sea. I was there to watch Bhutto. How was the documentary? It would have been nice to see it. Literally. The film was in a widescreen format that did not fit the cinema screen and hence, the documentary came to resemble a student art-film replete with fractured, disjointed images. I feel worst for one faceless woman who was interviewed – all we saw was her chest and heard her disembodied voice.

At the end of the day, this is Pakistan. We have all had our share of pirate films. It was ultimately the audience that made Bhutto such a unique experience.

A woman sitting in front of me brought her two young children to ostensibly give them a crash course in Pakistani history, complete with a child-friendly version of the Hudood Ordinances. And I’d like to recommend the lady sitting two rows behind me as a translator to the film’s producers, should they need one. This lady’s friend did not speak a word of English and needed all content translated into Urdu for her – it was like a live version of Cliff’s Notes, complete with discussions about Benazir’s children, family, clothes…

To the gentlemen sitting next to me: perhaps the lack of ashtrays was your first clue that this cinema was a no-smoking zone?  For future visits, I believe the cinema needs to issue this caliber of visitors with some guidelines – foremost on the list would have been the request not to treat your usher like a waiter at Rajoo Ice-cream and ask him to fetch you tubs of Movenpick Ice-cream.

Ultimately, I’d like to thank KESC – two power breakdowns forced us to sit in the dark and ruminate on the contents of the film. Perhaps this might have been more interesting if we didn’t know how the story would end? The cinema displayed a 30-second countdown on screen for the duration of these breakdowns. Of course, keeping Pakistan Standard Time in mind, these 30 seconds stretched into five minutes during one power breakdown. The very helpful cinema staff ensured that once the film was back on, we were able to recap what we had already seen.

For Rs. 350 per ticket, what more could you ask for?

TEDx: Stand Up And Sing

The Express Tribune: June 4, 2010

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TEDx: Stand Up And Sing

Sanam Maher

I had the good fortune of attending TEDxKarachi today. The men and women who spoke about ‘What Pakistan Needs Now’ exhausted me – they were engaging, innovative, thoughtful and above all, active. They put to shame all the drawing-room conversations and critiques of what plagues our cities, society and county. The audience applauded at all the right moments – we gave nods of approval to small ideas that mushroomed into actions and organizations affecting the lives of hundreds, optimistic pronouncements about Pakistan and its strengths, affirmations that our nation can be corruption- and bribery-free if we as individuals refuse to feed the beast and so on.

And then, Roshaneh Zafar of the micro-financing Kashf Foundation ended her talk by asking us to sing the national anthem with her. As she launched into the anthem, there was an awkward shuffling in the audience and some voices joined her in singing. The girl sitting next to me said nervously, “Shouldn’t we stand up for this?” Some of us stood up. We summoned up memories of Independence Day celebrations at school or the half-hearted choir that heralded a movie at the cinema. A lot of us did not stand up. A lot of us did not sing.

The irony was painfully obvious – we are willing to engage in dialogue about what Pakistan lacks and sorely needs but too often, unwilling to walk the walk. Standing up for the national anthem is purely symbolic – a gesture that alludes to the love you feel for your nation. As a nation, we may feel fractured at the moment, ridden with problems that seem insurmountable. But stand up. It may be difficult to feel ‘love’ for a nation that resembles the various factions of an overgrown, boisterous family (pushy aunties, pulpit-pounding uncles, overfed and bratty nieces and nephews, the cousin with the inferiority complex, siblings that don’t share…) but the only way we can make any real progress is if we tap into a depleted reserve of patriotism.