Film Screening: "Made in Pakistan"
On October 21, 2007, the cover of Newsweek declared Pakistan "the most dangerous country in the world." Many Pakistanis at the time found this characterization inaccurate and offensive, and railed against what they perceived as a harmful Western media stereotype.
One Pakistani, Ayesha Khan, decided to respond by producing a film. Her original intention was to humanize Pakistan by chronicling the lives of ordinary Pakistanis, and to dispel the assumption that the country was a hotbed of violence and instability. Khan and director Nasir Khan settled on four people from the city of Lahore, and made plans to begin filming.
However, soon after filming began, President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency, a seminal moment that launched Pakistan into a long period of instability and violence that has continued—and intensified—up to the present day. Undeterred, the filmmakers and cast members decided to push on with the film project. So what began as a plan to counter misperceptions about Pakistan turned into an effort to portray—through Pakistani eyes—how the country's worsening security situation affects the everyday lives of its people. The Newsweek cover was prophetic, conceded Ayesha Khan, speaking at a December 15 Asia Program event marking the Washington, DC premiere of the film. "Made in Pakistan" takes place during the last two months of 2007, a period that featured, among other destabilizing events, the state of emergency, widespread street demonstrations, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and suicide bombings in Lahore. The film, Khan said, depicts "the beginning of a slide into chaos."
"Made in Pakistan"—which opened in Pakistani theaters in July—follows the four characters as they each focus on a prime professional objective. Waleed, an attorney, is involved in the lawyer's movement to restore the Supreme Court justices deposed by Musharraf. Mohsin, an aspiring politician, is campaigning for his father, a legislator from the then-ruling political party who is running for reelection. Rabia, a journalist, is trying to keep her financially struggling magazine afloat. And Tara, an events planner, is organizing a fashion show.
The film captures the determination with which each person pursues his or her goal—Waleed's attempt to meet with a chief leader of the lawyer's movement, who is under house arrest; Mohsin's visits to Lahore's slums to garner votes; Rabia's desperate search for advertising revenue; and Tara's frantic last-minute preparations for her show. Yet the film also highlights their responses to the country's rising militancy, which range from hope that the situation will improve to deep concern. Toward the film's conclusion, Waleed gazes over at the still-bloody site of a recent suicide bombing. He notes presciently how the country's violence used to feel so far away, yet is now drawing closer and closer—"a frightening thought."
During the post-screening discussion, several audience members asked Khan why she chose a cast—all educated and relatively affluent members of Lahore's middle class—that represents such a small part of Pakistan, an impoverished, largely rural nation. Khan responded that since few Pakistanis are willing to have their lives filmed, she had to choose from a very small pool of potential cast members. Additionally, as independent filmmakers, she and Nasir Khan did not have the resources or funding to travel around the country seeking four possibly more representative characters. Furthermore, she insisted that Pakistan's urban middle class deserves attention, arguing that "the biggest U.S. policy mistake" on Pakistan is its frequent disregard for this cohort. Washington is "losing" the Pakistani middle class, she warned, and if the likes of Rabia and Tara become anti-American, then the United States will find itself facing even greater difficulties in Pakistan.
By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program