Mumbai Film Festival Preview | Good Morning Karachi

A beautician dreams of walking the ramp in Pakistani director Sabiha Sumar’s latest movie


A still from ‘Good Morning Karachi’
A still from ‘Good Morning Karachi’

The Film India Worldwide (FIW) section at the Mumbai Film Festival, curated by Uma D’Cunha, screens movies that have been made in an Indian idiom and explore the concerns of the subcontinent either directly or indirectly. Of the six films that will be shown from various countries this year, including Nepal and Spain, is Good Morning Karachi by Sabiha Sumar, the Pakistani director of documentaries, and the Partition-themed Khamosh Pani. Sumar spent a decade in India before returning to Karachi in 2008. Good Morning Karachi is the story of a working-class beautician (played by Amna Ilyas) whose dreams of becoming a model lead to clashes with her mother and her betrothed. Good Morning Karachi, which is also known as Rafina after the name of the lead character, is far more upbeat about Karachi’s prospects than the newspaper headlines would have us believe. Sumar tells us why. Edited excerpts from an email interview.

You have turned over issues concerning the place of women in Pakistan in your films and documentaries. Does ‘Good Morning Karachi’ go over new territory, in the sense that it looks at contemporary Karachi?

Director Sabiha Sumar
My films have always been, willy-nilly at times even, about women. For example, in my most recent documentary Dinner with the President (2007), the absence of women throughout the film—as I went about interviewing politicians, religious leaders and scholars—made me inevitably the only woman in the film. This was, for me, a very conscious feminist act which recognized that politics was really a man’s domain in Pakistan. My other documentaries and films have looked more directly at the question of women’s status in Pakistan.

Rafina, in my film Good Morning Karachi, is a particular product of the rapidly growing fashion and media industry in Pakistan. The film is novel in that sense as it presents the new face of urban Pakistan. And through this context the film explores the new dreams, wants and aspirations of these young women, who have risen up in society almost by necessity.

What does the film say about Karachi and Pakistan? You look at the problems affecting your country, but you are also optimistic about change. From where will the change come, you think?

Cinema will push this change. Looking at the opening of cinema in this country, the advent of new cinema screens and the rising production of films, we can be quite certain that it will continue to ensure the continued growth of the middle class. And I am hopeful that people will turn from jihad to become, for example, a film heroine. It has provided options for the people, given them new hope.

The Karachi you see in the film is a city that is constantly in flux, changing rapidly day by day. It has always had the potential to be that sort of city. It is a city driven by ambition, comparable to cities such as Mumbai or New York, and cinema, fashion and media might be the much needed breakthrough for the city to achieve this potential. I wanted to show a Pakistan where ordinary women and men fell in love and struggled to succeed. Most of all the film is a reminder to dream big.

The movie is based on Shandana Minhas’ novella ‘Rafina’. The device of a beautician allows us to travel into the elite bubbles of Karachi. Did you also base the movie on a real person?

Yes, the film is based on many real women and men. The opening of the media and fashion industry created many glamourous jobs for young people in Pakistan. And the lack of a proper industry or presence of infrastructure meant that they took over and made their own innovations. This gave the chance for them to come out and prove themselves. Shandana Minhas’ novella Rafina looks at this environment through a young woman’s eyes. Her story is the story of countless number of men and women we see in our cities.

How challenging was it to shoot ‘Good Morning Karachi’ on location?

I was working with a Dutch camera and sound crew and a Pakistan cast and crew, where most of them had never even been on a film set before. So we trained them on the job. It’s always difficult to put a film together here as though we have talent we do not have the infrastructure for film-making. We had 12-hour working day shoots, which were at times derailed by bomb blasts and strikes. And that was in a way useful as the reality of the film was unfolding around us as we shot the film.

I worked with Amna Ilyas for nearly three months as she had never faced the camera before. Once she was comfortable, I invited co-actors for rehearsals and we worked as a team to incorporate their interpretations to their characters in the film.

What made you decide to cast Ilyas?

Amna Ilyas plays the female lead
I always like to work with a new person as that is more challenging. And she really fit her part. She herself is from a humble background and when I discovered her she was still struggling to make it as a model. There was a hunger inside her to be out there. She was ambitious and there was an honesty and sincerity about her that I really liked. She promised me that she would think, talk and sleep Rafina. And she did just that.

The movie suggests that the fashion and beauty industries could provide empowerment—don’t these industries also trap and exploit women?

While in the West and some other Asian countries, the fashion industry has exploited women, in Pakistan it is a different reality. In most of these industries men dominate the market and control the money. But in Pakistan, the fashion industry is controlled by women. It gave them not only economic independence, but since it was a fledgling when it started they could mould it the way it suited them. In Pakistan, fashion grew organically and was a product of the spontaneous opening up of the media industry. Women gave up low-paying jobs as secretaries to become high-paid models, television hosts, media personnel and writers. And to get opportunities they didn’t have to do any favours, if you were talented you got in.

Good Morning Karachi will be shown on 22 October at 6pm at Screen 3, BIG Metro, and on 23 October 23 at 5.45pm at Screen 3, Cinemax Versova, Mumbai. Click here for details.

Goopy Gawaiiya Bagha Bajaiiya

10.15am, 19 October, Screen 3, BIG Metro and 20 October, Screen 4, Cinemax Versova.

Wild Berries (Kaphal)

3pm, 21 October, Screen 3, BIG Metro and 5.45pm 22 October, Cinemax Versova.

Powerless

5.30pm, 21 October, BIG Metro and 8.15pm, 22 October, Cinemax Versova.

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