As the global focus shifts to the "Bollywood" juggernaut and the increasingly aggressive independent cinema from India, the Pakistani film industry is quietly reinventing itself. Known for decades for low-budget imitations of the Hindi masala fare, Pakistani cinema has long suffered from insufficient funding, political turmoil in the country, and the expansive shadow of it's Indian counterpart. But there is now an emergence of young talent that is giving Pakistan a whole new cinematic identity. Hammad Khan's directorial debut Slackistan is a revitalizing film from an ailing film industry. It's a 21st century upper class portrait of the capital city of Islamabad and is a telling tale of a side of Pakistan that the world doesn't see in the news. Slackistan screened at the recent South Asia International Film Festival in New York followed by a Q&A with the director.
Slackistan is narrated by a twenty something aspiring filmmaker Hasan who is fresh out of college and doesn't know what to do with his life, even though his brand new video camera constantly taunts him for his lack of motivation. He has a close circle of westernized friends who are all in the same boat - they are bored, uninspired and, besides a whole lot of partying, driving aimlessly around town, and smoking shisha, they don't know what to do with themselves. Sheryar is Hasan’s childhood friend who is addicted to the high life with secretly borrowed money while Saad often comes off as the third wheel with the two old friends. Then there’s Zara who constantly dolls herself up to please the arrogant and cocky Zeeshan. Completing this circle of friends is the beautiful Aisha, Hasan’s soft spot. In a way she’s the most ambitious of the lot, ready to move to the U.S. for graduate studies and, much to Hasan’s heartbreak, to be with another man. Yet as boring as their lives appear, writer-director Khan keeps the story moving through restrained drama and plenty of humorous moments and actually makes watching boredom quite entertaining.
A very strong undercurrent in the film is the city of Islamabad and the “Islooites.” The city’s perfect plan is gradually unwrapped to show a place that is struggling to find its own voice and that is losing its young for better lives abroad. In director Khan’s words, it’s “the city that always sleeps.” The commentary on Islamabad is constant, subtly pointing to numerous issues that are overlooked as the world only looks at the city (and Pakistan) through the lens of terrorism. A DVD copy of the film Mean Streets, for example, is impossible to find. As is a single movie theater. Hasan’s relationship with his servant is another issue that becomes an undercurrent without much notice. In this way, the film wavers between becoming a documentary on Islamabad and a narrative about the bored youth that live there.
The pacing of the film is somewhat uneven. There are moments of lethargy in the plot but then it picks up with hilarious moments like when the guys interact with Aisha’s mother, incidentally played by the director’s own mother due to lack of available actors. At times, Slackistan seems to meander with too many themes and issues, juggling class differences, globalization, political instability, cultural stagnation, and many others. But the reason this film works overall is because it presents a fascinating insight into a Pakistan the world simply does not see. Khan, whose father was a political exile in the U.K., wrote and directed this film based on his own youth in Islamabad and assembled a rookie cast that was literally plucked from the same strata of society that the film depicts, thus lending it a realism that only makes his telescopic view more appealing.
During the Q&A after the screening, Khan explained the reason for his characters' lack of inspiration was "the fact is that there are no good role models for the current generation. They are frustrated.” Slackistan’s global festival jaunt is finally making people take notice of a unique film and hopefully taking steps towards providing those role models. Khan emphasized that “there is no Pakistani cinema right now, I want to continue making films in Pakistan to resurrect the cinema with its own distinct voice.” For the sheer resilience of extremely low-budget, non-actor, often secretly filmed, display of a part of Pakistan that’s the complete opposite of the world’s perception of the nation, Slackistan deserves a watch.