Karachi Nights

Prerana: Is The Long Night an exact translation of Raat Chali Hai Jhoom Ke?

Hasan: It's fairly untranslatable. If you tried to translate it literally, it would come to something like "The Night Walks with a Swagger," which makes absolutely no sense, so I tried making it "Night Swagger" and eventually I called it "Karachi, Night." When it went for subtitling, they changed it to The Long Night and since then I can't do anything about it!

Prerana: I wonder also whether you had that issue with the subtitling, for example with the Urdu poetry or the phone conversations?

Hasan: There are lots of nuances you can't quite capture and there are literary allusions, where it would just be impossible to explain those in subtitles. You try and make it as close as you can to the spirit of the original, but obviously you know if there's alliteration or there are particular cultural references which might be very funny in the context of the language, which don't necessarily translate well into another language.

It's the feel of the language, the rhythm of the language, which in itself can be giving a certain quality to the scene, which you can miss. For example, the way Fareeha Naz, the woman, talks, is a very flowery sort of old-style Urdu speech, which is actually what may be attracting him to her, because she's talking in very coy terms. In translation it can seem really weird and absurd, but that was the whole point -- this was much more of a Western-educated straightforward sort of language, and suddenly he's hearing this language which has allusions to past grandeur or certain conservative forms of speaking. That's the attraction for him and that's what's driving him towards her.

Prerana: This also comes up in the use of English in the film. How do different people or segments of society interact with the English language and what were you trying to do exactly?

Hasan: It's very much true. I think it's a problem that every colonial country has gone through and still goes through, because when you have the introduction of a master language, which was the colonial language, it opens up certain doors for you if you are able to speak that language, but on the other hand, it also creates a sense of inferiority for people who cannot speak it. So what's happened now is that in Pakistan, English is generally understood at the very basic level because a lot of words have come into Urdu, Urdu being a very conglomerate language.

On one hand I see nothing wrong with English becoming a natural part of the language. Some would even say that it's now become the de facto support language for Urdu, so there a lot of words that are used normally in Pakistan. But using particular words is different from when entire sentences are being used, and that very few people can do. It's a small elite which can speak fluent English, and so the people who can speak it well definitely have a social advantage. So this [in the movie] was alluding to that whole problem, which is very, very real.

For example, the policemen when they begin, they're talking about this young man they'd caught who reeked of alcohol according to them. They got hauled up [by their supervisor] for catching him because he was well connected. Had he not been speaking English, they would probably have locked him up and it would have been much easier, but because he spoke English, that meant he came from a certain class, and so he had all these connections.

Prerana: What are the similarities to other cities that have expanded exponentially in the last few years with the migrations -- I'm sure Karachi is a huge city now -- and what makes it unique?

Hasan: Why Karachi? Well first Karachi because we lived in it and we absolutely love it, and Karachi is also very different in many ways from the rest of Pakistan. It is the biggest city in Pakistan, but it's also the most cosmopolitan city in Pakistan. It has a huge number of Bengalis, there are Afghans, Sindhis, Balochis, Pathaans, Punjabis and Urdu-speaking muhajirs. Often what happened in Pakistan was, there's an attempt to impose a unitary sort of look, so that it's almost considered that if you bring up these differences they will somehow divide people, whereas we feel and I feel that these are actually what make Karachi strong. Karachi has also expanded so much in the past five years, that you probably couldn't find the same sort of thing in any other city in Pakistan, at least.

The other thing that happened in Pakistan was that from the early 1980s there was some very socially conscious dramas, multi-episode serials about, for example, feudalism on television. They were so popular that since then we've only been making those kinds of serials. It reflects one reality; it doesn't reflect the overall reality of Pakistan at all. Pakistan now is the most urbanized country in South Asia. No matter what you hear about it being a primarily agricultural place, if you look at the latest census figures, about fifty percent of Pakistan could be classified as urban, and yet you don't see anything about urban issues, the urban lifestyle, or just cities. Cities are almost never identified, they could be any city anywhere. They're shapeless, they're nameless. They don't have any ethnic differences. There's no street language because all that is shunned on television -- all of these things that we saw everyday around us and that we liked. The language for us is one of the greatest parts of the film -- the street language that normal people would speak, not the flowery kind of antiquated, bookish sort of Urdu. Anyone who's seen the film in Karachi, for example, has loved this part about the film the most, I think. They're able to see themselves and see their reality around them in the film.

Prerana: You had mentioned this being the first digital feature. Do you feel that this is part of a movement?

Hasan: The digital thing I feel very strongly about, purely because it has allowed costs to be cut down so much. It allows the cost to come down so much that it allows more people to make films, and it allows different themes to be taken up, more experimental films, which would not necessarily get made in the mainstream cinema. I've tried to explain this to major film distributors in purely economic turns. I've said, "Listen, you spend X amount of money on your films, most of them flop. If you do it this way -- make it in digital, blow it up, have it for theatrical release -- the cost to you would come down to about a quarter or a third of what it would normally cost you, and therefore you have two options. One, that you'll probably recover your money even if it doesn't do very well. If it does do well, your profit margins will be really huge." So it just makes a lot more economic sense for them to do it. Plus, the third thing is they would be able to try out new directors, new writers, new kinds of themes. All around it would be good for the industry, and then they can do whatever else they want. They want to make blockbusters, fine, but this would also be a niche market that they could tap into. They just don't seem to understand the whole concept yet. I'm sure they will eventually.

As far as whether this heralds any sort of movement -- I don't know if it's a movement, but definitely there are a bunch of filmmakers in Pakistan, both in Karachi and Lahore, and also elsewhere, who are interested in doing different kinds of film which they wouldn't be able to do in the mainstream circuit. The major problem that they've had so far is that they had nowhere to show. It wouldn't get shown in the cinemas. It wouldn't get shown on television, because it probably would be too controversial, or didn't fit into certain neat soap opera standards of what should be shown.

So what we did was that we, a bunch of filmmakers, got together last year and we set up what became known as the KaraFilm Festival, which is the Karachi Film Festival. It's a very unusual sort of festival in that there were filmmakers who were actually running a film festival. The basic idea behind it was to create a space for filmmakers to be able to show their work. Last year was the first time, and this year we saw almost immediately the results of that first endeavor. It might be too grandiose to call it a movement, but definitely a coming together of filmmakers who are doing different things, and who are trying different things. I think that there's a good chance that there will be a different sort of cinema emerging from Pakistan soon.

Prerana: You mentioned that you made the film more for audiences in Pakistan, or even Karachi more specifically, but after having been here in New York, and having seen the large number of people who want to see the film, has that changed your mind in terms of how you see this picture being released?

Hasan: You're right, there's people wanting to see different kinds of work even elsewhere, and in the U.S., I guess there's a huge number of South Asians who would be interested in this sort of work. The encouraging thing is, it's not just South Asians who are into it. So it is a very heartwarming, uplifting experience that you finally actually see there is an option opening up. I think the Indian cinema for example has done rather well by tapping into this kind of market, because they can recover so much money from abroad that they actually basically cover their cost, so their domestic returns become kind of an added bonus to everything. Pakistani cinema has not done this yet and, hey, if it helps get a film scene, if it helps me or anyone else make another film that we want to make in Pakistan, then everything is fine. The only thing that sometimes you have to be careful about is not losing perspective, because immediately you become aware of things that will be easily marketable, so there is a tendency sometimes to go for those sort of things, and that's usually the kind of cinema I hate the most, so that's one thing I definitely will watch out for.

Prerana: Can you give us a sneak peak at what that might be, or ideas that you're trying to work into your next project?

Hasan: I sometimes feel like this character in the film, who wrote one poem at the age of 26 and peddled it around for eight years. So I always feel like that's just the worst thing possible if I continue to just be running around with the same film even for another year or so. I am definitely ready to move on. We're actually working on a couple of scripts -- I actually don't want to give you the story! I guess what I can tell you is that one of them is an out-and-out commercial film -- commercial in the sense of Pakistani commercial, in the sense that yes, it will have songs and dances in it. Because I quite enjoy songs and dances. But obviously it will not be the regular fare you see, it will be something with an edge.

The other one is completely story, it's more in the line of The Long Night. I fear it will probably never run in Pakistan. It might be released in the U.S. first, but we're working on it and let's see how far we get with it. It's embarrassing when the first film hasn't sold and you feel you've kind of this debt to pay and you want to move on, but you're stuck because you're being held back by something else.

Prerana: Could you talk about shooting in a neighborhood with the residents around? What was their reaction? As you said, these aren't people who normally have film sets in their neighborhood. What was that like for them and for you?

Hasan: Well, after we finished the film, after shooting for fifteen nights in a row -- and we were completely zonked out in the end -- the thing I told my writer was, "The next film you write, two or three things have to occur. One, it should not take place at night, it should take place in the daytime. It should be in fewer locations. And it should have fewer characters in it." Sometimes it's hard when you're in the middle of it to actually enjoy it, but the moment you take a step back, you look back and you think, wow, those were great stories that we came across.

For example, one of the areas that we were shooting in is considered a very politically volatile area, and so we had been warned about what to do and what not to do there. So, we were careful and we had policemen come up to us in flak jackets and tell us, "Well, you shouldn't do this here because it's a very dangerous area." The people who came to our help were the area's strong-arm, very politically charged young men who came to our help and said, "We'll take care of everything." They did our crowd control, they even picked our extras for us. It was a bizarre, surreal experience, but then it was fun because there were people from the area, and what they told us was "If anyone says anything to you, for example, abuses you or says something, just don't reply back and we'll take care of it later." So this was like the strong-arm of the film unit, and there were various other instances.

Later on, we were told by one of these people -- we were supposed to shoot another scene there -- and he called me up, and he spoke in such code words that I understood absolutely nothing, but what I got out of it was that he was basically trying to warn us that that day was not a good day to come. I remember at that point our production manager saying, "No no, we'll go, we'll take our guns" and I was like "What guns? We have no guns." But he was getting all macho about it. So we ended up not going there and shooting it somewhere else. I don't think these things could have been replicated in any other sort of experience.

Prerana: There are some politically sensitive things that the film touches on, representations of people that aren't often seen. What were the things that you were hoping to portray, outside of sheer visibility?

Hasan: It was not meant to be a sensational thing at all. Well, perhaps a little bit. Sensational not for the sake of being sensational, but because this was meant to be showing this entire world that existed in Karachi, and that we were familiar with, but which didn't have any representation in the visual medium and which a lot of the audience were not familiar with. The reasons were basically the same reasons that the main character Waleed has for not being familiar with them, which is: the city has expanded so much.

In Karachi, for various reasons, there is no definite city center anymore. People have moved out; it's become suburbanized to some extent. So you can have people existing in one part of the city -- and especially definitely among the elite because they don't even need to go beyond a certain set routine -- you can have them existing without knowing this other reality also exists. They'll read about it in the papers, they'll read about people being killed. Everyone knows that the number of drug users in Pakistan after the Afghan war really skyrocketed, but it's not necessary that people will come across it.

The film was definitely trying to show all this. It's an improbable film in its narrative structure, but it's not an impossible film. It's not a film that is removed from reality. By showing these things, we were actually celebrating the entire diversity of Karachi, because for us, the only person who's actually really out of it and who's being made fun of is the protagonist. The others, they exist in their reality, and in many of the parts, there's a human side to them which exists beyond a caricature of what they are and what they represent, whether it's bandits or prostitutes or drug users, but there's another side to them. They are also human beings who exist within that structure and within that system.

Prerana: Say something about the aesthetics of the film. What were you thinking, how did you want people to experience it visually?

Hasan: I wanted to have the city as the backdrop. The city should be the backdrop for whatever scenes we're shooting, and if it's representing a reality which might be unsavory, at the same time it's also representing a city which we love. Sometimes -- I don't know how to explain it -- but that love comes through in visuals as well.

Comments

it would be nice if i could actually view the interview...
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