CITY ART

How a projector mounted on an autorickshaw is bringing migrant communities together in Karachi

'Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema' turns the walls that keep migrants out into silver screens.

Pink LED lights, neon heart stickers and a projector on its roof – an autorickshaw ran through the lanes of Ibrahim Hyderi, a poor neighbourhood in Karachi. As the residents settled down for a screening, the evening was full of excitement.

The grainy movies screened on an empty wall were windows into the daily lives of its audience: the low-income illegal immigrants in the city. The plots included candid logs of how a woman spent Sundays (with her boring husband), a group trying to find the right scale to sing a song together, impromptu mushairas of Urdu poetry, small skits planned with great ambition. Occasionally, there was a solo meditation on nature or politics.

The rickshaw, a theatre-on-wheels, screened short films shot by the locals on their cell phones.

A screening at Ibrahim Hyderi.
A screening at Ibrahim Hyderi.

The public art project, Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema, was created to break the limited boundaries of art galleries, spaces which cater to elite classes and architectures which divide cities like Karachi by class, ethnicity and gender.

“Each film gave a sense of a city within a city,” said Yaminay Nasir Chaudhri, who first began the mobile cinema project in 2012.

Chaudhri studied architecture at Cornell University and then completed an MFA in combined media studio arts from the State University of New York at Albany. She began the mobile cinema as a response to the number of walls that she saw being erected in Karachi at public spaces like parks and beaches. These walls, hedges, barbed wires are a means to privatise space, a metaphor of separation and segregation which influenced the project.

Play
Mera Karachi Cinema in Ibrahim Hyderi.

The walls that serve as the projection screen for the cinema, are the walls of the people living in Ibrahim Haidery, built by the undocumented Bengali and Burmese Rohingya migrants in Karachi. The projections were a way to dematerialise the notion of walls.

Play
Short films made by schoolchildren in Lyari.

In 2012, Chaudhri and other filmmakers and artists began to enter local neighbourhoods and form “tentative collectives” – a phrase that Chaudhri favours even when describing her own six-year-old collective, because of the political fluidity it implies. (Chaudhri’s team, the Tentative Collective. is called the Aarzi group in Urdu).

Play
A compilation of short films shot by Baloch and Pakhtun photographers.

Each collective then worked with a diverse range of people to help them create amateur films with their mobile phones. Researchers, students, teachers, housewives, children, drivers, porters, photographers and fishermen – all from different parts of the city – dived into the project.

Chaudhri said she was deeply influenced by the idea of invisible cities, proposed by the writer Italo Calvino, when she thought up her mobile cinema project.

A screening at Seaview Waterfront.
A screening at Seaview Waterfront.

“The films are unfamiliar and outside the narratives of the city and public spaces, in the way we are used to seeing them.”

The Tentative Collective often chooses screening spots that are far removed from the face of global Karachi, the city that architects and urban planners envision.

“Some sites were literally peripheral like Ibrahim Hydari on the eastern coast, or Seaview beach on the southern coast,” she said.

To do a comparative study, Mera Karachi Cinema engaged with the upper class residents of Defence Housing Society.
To do a comparative study, Mera Karachi Cinema engaged with the upper class residents of Defence Housing Society.

When choosing a screening spot, the Tentative Collective must address other concerns too – the privacy of women and children, for instance. “Women don’t normally occupy the street in the same way as men do in many parts of the city,” Chaudhri said. “So we thought about ways of screening at smaller scales inside people’s homes which also had ‘public’ spaces for meeting.”

At Lyari, one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Karachi, the Tentative Collective took a different approach, interacting only with the children. The area which is notorious in the Pakistani press for being a high-crime neighbourhood, turned out to be filled with talented young filmmakers – some of whom were between the ages of eight to 12.

Play
The making of the rickshaw.

“Our events were a kind of break from the everyday, and that break primed unusual conversations,” Chaudhri recalled. The children were taught the concept of video storytelling at school, and built their stories over three months. Over the period of planning their films, Chaudhari said the team saw even the quietest children present unique and sensitive ideas, which helped them become more confident in classrooms and their homes. In contrast, any time that the Tentative Collective has tried to take Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema to posher neighbourhoods, people have been reluctant to participate.

“We wanted to use everyday tools and aesthetics in a different way, as a metaphor to playfully re-imagine everyday things that we take for granted,” she said. “For instance, how could a vehicle also be seen as a cinema, a phone also a medium to make art?”

The Collective’s most important screening to date, took place in 2014 when the projector suddenly stopped working at the Seaview Waterfront, a beach to the south of Karachi, where about 50 members of the audience had already arrived. One of the filmmakers from the Collective began to improvise with a poem, an audience member jumped in and sang a song badly out of tune.

“There was a full moon, we were projecting video on a giant concrete ship on the beach,” Chaudhri recalled. “It was surreal. These events were fuelled by a communal energy.”

The screening, their largest yet, was attended by Baloch and Pakhtun photographers, a Hindu research assistant along with Sindhi, Siraiki people among other ethnicities. The audience soon grew to over 300. By the end of the film, a pair of visitors presented the Collective with a plate of barfi bought from a vendors’ cart on the beach.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

From Indian pizzas in San Francisco to bhangra competitions in Boston

A guide to the Indian heart of these American cities.

The United States of America has for long been more than a tourist destination for Indians. With Indians making up the second largest immigrant group in the USA, North American cities have a lot to offer to the travel weary Indian tourist. There are umpteen reasons for an Indian to visit vibrant education and cultural hubs like Boston and San Francisco. But if you don’t have a well-adjusted cousin to guide you through the well-kept Indian secrets, this guide to the Indian heart of Boston and San Francisco should suffice for when you crave your fix.

Boston

If you aren’t easily spooked, Boston is the best place to be at in October due to its proximity to Salem. You can visit the Salem Witch Village to learn about present-day wiccans and authentic witchcraft, or attend séances and Halloween parades with ghosts, ghouls and other frightening creatures giving you a true glimpse of America during Halloween. But the macabre spirit soon gives way to a dazzling array of Christmas lighting for the next two months. The famed big Christmas trees are accompanied by festive celebrations and traditions. Don’t miss The Nutcracker, the sugar-laced Christmas adventure.

While it upholds its traditions, Boston is a highly inclusive and experimental university town. It welcomes scores of Indian students every year. Its inclusiveness can be gauged from the fact that Berklee College of Music released a well-received cover of AR Rahman’s Jiya Jale. The group, called the Berklee Indian Ensemble, creates compositions inspired by Indian musical styles like the Carnatic thillana and qawwali.

Boston’s Bollywood craze is quite widespread beyond the campuses too. Apple Cinemas in Cambridge and Regal Fenway Cinemas in Fenway can be your weekly fix as they screen all the major upcoming Bollywood movies. Boston tends to be the fighting ground for South Asian Showdowns in which teams from all over the North-Eastern coast gather for Bollywood-themed dance offs. The Bhangra competitions, especially, are held with the same energy and vigour as back home and are open to locals and tourists alike. If nothing else, there are always Bollywood flash mob projects you can take part in to feel proudly desi in a foreign land.

While travellers love to experiment with food, most Indian travellers will agree that they need their spice fix in the middle of any foreign trip. In that respect, Boston has enough to satisfy cravings for Indian food. North Indian cuisine is popular and widely available, but delicious South Indian fare can also be found at Udupi Bhavan. At Punjab Palace, you can dig into a typical North Indian meal while catching a Bollywood flick on one of their TVs. Head to Barbecue International for cross-continental fusion experiments, like fire-roasted Punjabi-style wings with mint and chilli sauce.

Boston is prominent on the radar of Indian parents scouting for universities abroad and the admission season especially sees a lot of prospective students and parents looking for campus tours and visits. To plan your visit, click here.

San Francisco

San Francisco is an art lover’s delight. The admission-free Trolley Dances, performed in October, focus on engaging with the communities via site-specific choreographies that reflect the city’s cultural diversity. Literature lovers can experience a Dickensian Christmas and a Victorian holiday party at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a month-long gala affair starting in November.

As an Indian, you’ll be spoilt for choice in San Francisco, especially with regards to food. San Francisco’s sizeable Indian population, for example, has several aces hidden up its sleeve. Take this video by Eater, which claims that the ‘Indian’ pizza at Zante’s Restaurant is the city’s best kept secret that needs outing. Desi citizens of San Francisco are big on culinary innovation, as is evident from the popularity of the food truck Curry Up Now. With a vibrant menu featuring Itsy Bitsy Naan Bits and Bunty Burrito and more, it’s not hard to see why it is a favourite among locals. Sunnyvale, with its large concentration of Indians also has quirky food on offer. If you wish to sample Veer Zaara Pizza, Dabangg Pizza or Agneepath Pizza, head to Tasty Subs & Pizza.

There are several Indian temples in Sunnyvale, Fremont and San Jose that also act as effective community spaces for gatherings. Apart from cultural events, they even hold free-for-all feasts that you can attend. A little-known haven of peace is the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. Their Anjaneya World Cafe serves delicious mango lassi; the beverage is a big hit among the local population.

If you’re looking for an Indian movie fix during your travels, the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival’s theme this year is Bollywood and Beyond. Indian film enthusiasts are in for a treat with indie projects, art-house classics, documentaries and other notable films from the subcontinent being screened.

San Francisco’s autumn has been described as ‘Indian summer’ by the locals and is another good season to consider while planning a trip. The weather lends more vigour to an already vibrant cultural scene. To plan your trip, click here.

An Indian traveller is indeed spoilt for choice in Boston and San Francisco as an Indian fix is usually available just around the corner. Offering connectivity to both these cities, Lufthansa too provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its India-bound flights and flights departing from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.