Hammad Khan greets me amiably at the entrance of his modest office in the British Board of Film Classification in the heart of London's Soho Square. To make a living, Khan watches and rates films, an enviable occupation, especially considering there's a film theatre in his office. His real passion, not surprisingly, is film-making, and this year he releases Slackistan, a low-budget, independent feature film set in Islamabad.
The film revolves around a group of directionless twenty-somethings, bored of their own privilege and social position. By focusing on the pretty young things of Islamabad, Khan hopes to tell a new story about Pakistan, one that doesn't reiterate the familiar narrative about suicide bombings, corruption, violence, and radical Islam. For a young man who grew up in England, the focus of his film is unexpected - or is it?
Khan moved to England when he was three years old, and continued to return to Pakistan during his teens. As an expatriate with some ties to his home country, he was confused about his identity, and remained conflicted throughout his 15-year stay in the West. "I hung around with radical-minded Pakistanis in the early 1990s, but I couldn't fit in with that crowd," recalls Khan, adding that he could not adapt to the mainstream either. And then one day Khan watched Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, an experience that changed his view on life. "I didn't realize films could do that," says an amazed Khan.
Infused with a passion for film, Khan dove right into film-making without any prior training. To date, he has completed three short films in addition to Slackistan. His latest venture was written and produced in collaboration with his wife, Shandana Ayub. The film also cast first-time actors: real-life, upper-class Islooites who essentially play themselves in the film.
As Khan screens Slackistan on the television set in his office and steps out to make me some tea, I am transported back to my hometown. The first thing I notice, other than the cast (some of the actors are known to me; after all, Islamabad's a small town) is the pace of the film. Much like Islamabad itself, the film is easy-going and slow-paced, interspersed with the occasional, intense incident. It quickly becomes apparent why the film is called Slackistan: the youngsters depicted are on the slow journey towards self-discovery -- slackers in a town known for its sedative effect.
Hasan, the protagonist of the film, played by Shahbaz Hamid Shigri, is an aspiring (yet procrastinating) film-maker. His video camera becomes an object of survival, both literally and figuratively. It can help his best friend who is deep in debt, and ultimately helps Hasan express his passion when he picks up the camera to start documenting things around him. Through Hasan's process of realisation, he is surrounded by similarly floundering friends. For example, Zara, played by Shahana Khan Khalil, is grappling with the problems typically faced by teenaged girls. Although a stereotypical role, the shot where Zara is shown taking off layers of make-up makes for a powerful metaphor.
Given the similarities between the real lives of the young actors and the characters they play in Slackistan, many of the film's scene were improvised in the moment. In a scene where Hasan's best friend, Sherry, breaks down after exhausting all avenues to repay his debt, Khan says that the actor Ali Rehman Khan actually cried. Another scene, a conversation between Hasan and his friend Saad (Osman Khalid Butt), was shot extempore. Khan explains that several dialogues in the film turned out to be different from the script, making them more natural. This helps given that most of the actors are untrained (though some, such as Khalil, are active in Islamabad's theatre scene, which comes across).
For these reasons, Khan describes the shooting of Slackistan, which took over a year, as an "organic process." Familiar with Islamabad, he got in touch with most actors over Facebook. He also did not have a huge filming budget, for he relied on the existing locations listed above and also filmed in his actors' homes.
The small world that Slackistan portrays has led to dismissals of the film (in comments on its YouTube trailer) as "elitist." Khan does not take such critiques to heart, explaining instead that, "I can represent this group better; I know it, and it's interesting to unearth the lives of those who have influence."
And although the film's tagline is, "If you think you know Pakistan, think again," Khan insists that he has not pitched his feature with a specific viewer in mind. "My wife and I just decided to make a film about a place we knew." Khan also insists the film is not a response to the current political and security situation in Pakistan: "I don't believe film should be responding to journalism. Art has different rules, it's not simply reactionary." He acknowledges, however, that there are many aspects to Pakistan, all of which cannot be covered in one film.
The bitterness of early reactions to the trailer of Slackistan suggest that the film is perceived to be reinforcing, or even celebrating, the status quo. Many Pakistanis have complained that the film does not depict the lives of the majority of Pakistanis. But Khan remains unapologetic, pointing out that the film is about slackers, and that it is not meant to be a documentary.
For those who are acquainted with the social strata it depicts, Slackistan will play like a clip out of their own lives. Others should acknowledge that the film succeeds in showing a different Pakistan, one that doesn't reinforce the vision of a country defined by bomb blasts, bearded militants, rural landscapes. Though Khan aims to remain apolitical, his film does convey the message that all boys aren't interested in being soldiers, militants, or doctors, and that all girls aren't subjugated and suppressed -- a message that's new for those who only consume run-of-the-mill stories churned out by international journalists.
For an independent, homegrown movie, Slackistan is well produced -= and it is one of a kind. Ultimately it gives an insight in to a particular section of society and documents a lifestyle that's very Pakistani, even if it isn't identified as such.