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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

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