iOS app Android app More

Shirin Sadeghi

Shirin Sadeghi

Posted: March 25, 2010 04:54 PM

She's a bulked-up, blow-dried behemoth of a woman.

Blood oozes down her face onto her pure white shalwar kameez and purse. "O Beghairata!" She spews through her clenched teeth as she points an AK-47 in your face. "Hey shameless ones!"

Anjuman is a fierce-to-the-bone Pakistani warrior, and her image is splattered on a t-shirt that sells for about $10 at a cove of gore that doesn't exactly line up with your typical image of Pakistan: a B-movie horror ice-cream parlor.

The Hotspot Cafe has a cult following in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi -- three of the biggest metropolitan areas in Pakistan. It's a sight to behold for weary travelers and locals alike as one step into the cafe literally transports you into a fantastical space that has nothing to do with the world outside and everything to do with one man's obsession with a peculiar brand of horror film.

For Omar Ali Khan, the proprietor of the Hotspot chain, Freddy Krueger and Chucky are child's play -- his fascination is with the melodramatic technicolor fury of a good ol' fashioned Lollywood Fright Fest.

Yes, not only does Pakistan have its own Punjabi Hollywood in the cultural capital of Lahore, but Lollywood has churned out a remarkable number of highly stylized kalashnikov-packed gore films where anything goes, with Pakistani clothes.

Inside the cafes the walls are crammed from floor to ceiling with a barrage of Lollywood horror film posters intermixed with their Hollywood cousins. The music is an eclectic but clearly informed melange of peculiar American classics and the menu covers a range of delights that put most ice cream parlors to shame. Khan and his brother Ali, a professor of anthropology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, started the parlor chain "from home with just a freezer and a couple buckets," according to Khan.

The son of a diplomat, he was born when his father was stationed in Britain and bounced around different countries until his family returned to Pakistan later in his childhood. But a terrifying experience watching The Wizard of Oz abroad haunted him upon his return home. "The Wicked Witch of the West completely changed my world," he says, and he "became obsessed with nasty evil witches and goblins."

In Pakistan, the young boy who devoured Western ghost stories discovered another frightening character to add to the list: the burqa person. "The ghost in those stories was always with a white sheet over its head, so from a child's point of view, it was equated with that." He says he remembers "being taken aback a little bit" by the sight of a burqa. "I just found it scary in a way."

Decades later, Khan, a film studies graduate of Emerson College in Boston, took that childhood fear of burqas to the big screen with his 2007 debut film, the popular ZibahKhana which literally translates to "slaughterhouse". The central goblin was the Burqa Man and it terrified yet hit home for his local audience.

"The Burqa Man thing, it's all related to the old horror movies, Norman Bates and all that," Khan elaborates. Bates, like the Burqa Man, dressed in women's clothing as part of his reign of terror. The character came out of Khan's fascination with late 70's slasher movies.

"Most of them used to have the killer not visible and he had a mask on of some sort or another. When I wrote Zibahkhana I wanted to do that kind of thing but in a local Pakistani setting," he says. "The only mask I could think of was the burqa and it fit the role perfectly."

Ever the hands-on horror fan, Khan himself wore a burqa during the making of the movie "just to see how uncomfortable it would be." Laughing, he says it was "awful, the worst thing. It was incredibly hot -- you can't breathe under this thing, and it's completely stifling."

Here, Khan reveals another little token of his past: a discarded attempt at following in his father's footsteps in diplomacy. In a refreshingly honest evaluation of his popular film character, Khan says that he wasn't out to make a religious or political statement but to embody one of his childhood fears.

"I feel that men should be forced to wear burqas if women are forced to.

Ultimately, the HotSpot cafes with their technicolor posters on fluorescent yellow walls, their menu of tasty delights, and quirky but distinctly Pakistani atmosphere are an embodiment of Khan himself: worldly and gently provocative capsules for the appreciation and preservation of a specific element of popular culture.

"There's a lot of copycatting going on in Pakistan these days, but I think that because Hotspot and we are so strange, people can't quite replicate us in particular," Khan says. "It's quite gratifying."



 

Follow Shirin Sadeghi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ShirinSadeghi