In Rebel Optimist, documentary filmmaker Mahera Omar has pieced together the portrait of a singular champion of Karachi, Perween Rahman.
“You can’t even say she was one in a million; I feel she was one in a billion,” Omar said of Rahman, whose efforts to better the lives of the people of Orangi were cut short by a target killing that claimed her life in March 2013.
Rahman served as Joint Director of the Orangi Pilot Project, and eventually became the director of OPP – Research and Training Institute in 1988. She took it upon herself to counter the government’s extreme neglect of the area by empowering its residents to build the systems they need with the resources they had.
Rahman’s work extended from sustainable sanitation projects to land and water supply mapping, low-cost housing to youth training programmes and took her all over Karachi, and later into parts of Sindh. In the process, she uncovered the secrets of the land and water mafia – and became a threat.
In a haunting moment in the documentary, Rahman’s sister, author Aquila Ismail, quotes her as downplaying the risks to her life thus: “Oh, nobody knows who I am.” Two days later, Rahman was shot while returning home from the OPP office.
“She was aware of the danger she was in,” said Omar when asked of her impression of Rahman. “Their office had been attacked before. After she did her water research, someone quotes her as saying ‘If I publish it, I’ll be killed.’” At a recent screening of the film, a close companion confirmed that on February 22, 2013, Perween said, “I know I’ll be killed, but I’ll be killed happily.”
In drawing her portrait, Rebel Optimist has in some ways tried to unravel the makings of this martyr, whose pro-poor bias stemmed from her own experience of eviction as a young girl in Dhaka during the 1971 war.
Rahman’s family came to Pakistan from Dhaka with nothing, but later in life, she enjoyed privileges, such as a good education at St Joseph’s Convent and Dawood University of Engineering and Technology. An excellent student, she initially joined a top architectural firm but “ran away after a few weeks”, says her sister Aquila. She then joined the OPP and “never looked back”.
The film captures the essence of Perween Rahman with the help of the memories of those close to her. A school friend relates her nonconformist streak at the convent, when she would liberally decorate her uniform with stickers. Her brother, Anis, recalls Rahman saving him from the thrashing of a gardener after he caught stealing strands of tamarind. Her friend and lawyer, Faisal Siddiqui, remembers her zest for life, calling her “a hopeless romantic” and “an irrational optimist”. Her best friend, Anwar Rashid, who joined OPP on the same day as her, admitted thinking that the young, fashionable girl who could barely speak in Urdu wouldn’t last very long at their workplace.
They collectively paint a picture of Rahman as a ray of positivity in a place as dismal as Orangi Town.
Mahera Omar fills in some more history with the interviews she conducted of Rahman for an earlier documentary, City By The Sea, and archival footage of the OPP. Family photographs and a tour of her bedroom by her housekeeper, who still keeps it the way it is, complete the portrait.
The effort to document Perween’s story was a risk-laden endeavour in itself.
Omar said the film took two years to make partly because Orangi wasn’t the easiest of places to visit regularly. “The director of the OPP had been recently targeted, a grenade was thrown on his car,” Omar said. “The entire office had shifted to Sharae Faisal, and a lot of their mapping work specifically in Gadap had been stopped. There were times when we were told not to come, to come only once a week, to come in different vehicles so we would be safe. But a few of the times I would be sent in Perween’s car with the same driver.”
Omar and editor Talha Ahmed, who also shot parts of the film, were held hostage while filming a water hydrant outside Orangi. “Eventually, they let us go with a cup of tea,” she said.
This article first appeared on Dawn.