Two men, Karthik and Saif, ask their best friend Anjali to step in as surrogate so they can complete their family, and what ensues – from her response to the twist in the tale – forms the core of Agency, a quirky short film by Omar Rahim. It premiered in Mumbai at the Kashish Film Festival this summer (Omar couldn’t travel for the screening due to travel restrictions) and will now be shown – alongside Pakistani features Baaji and Laal Kabootar – at the South Asian Film Festival in Chicago and DC this weekend.
With Hammad Rizvi’s Rani, Saim Sadiq’s Darling and now Omar Rahim’s Agency making way and picking up recognition, awards and accolades at international film festivals, it has to be said that Pakistan’s short films are carving a path of their own.
With Agency, Omar – best known as an actor and choreographer – steps into the multi-faceted role of writer, director and producer. The film, which revolves around a same-sex couple looking for a surrogate so that they can start a family, reflects on the evolving family dynamic of South Asian contemporary couples, which no longer fall within the conventional bracket.
“I like to think of making work that reacts to the time we’re living in,” Omar spoke to Instep about the film, from New York. “I think I have a heightened curiosity about the world around me. Living in New York I noticed that there were a lot of cross cultural couples, especially Indian and Pakistani, and then non-heterosexual couples grappling with families. It was all within my close world here. Blended families are considered close to normal but I hadn’t seen anything like this with Pakistani characters before,” he reflected upon the dynamic of the story.
Agency builds its narrative around three central characters: the thirty-something Anjali, who’s struggling with work and with relationships, and her two friends, Karthik and Saif. Karthik is the younger one, perhaps a Hyderabadi Indian and a student while Saif is suggested to be the older, good looking American Pakistani, who’s paying the bills. They want Anjali to participate in surrogacy so that they can have their own family.
Other than the LGBT+ and surrogacy angle, Agency – which one got the privilege of watching – is just as much about a young, new generation that doesn’t quite follow the conventional path but then, as time passes, questions whether they succeeded or failed. Karthik and Saif may be a couple but their relationship also comes under question in the short 20 minutes of the film. It’s interesting to see the expected turn into the unexpected.
Omar is a sensitive storyteller and he tells this story with equal levels of artistic expression and cheek. But as a short, that too one that pushes the envelope of what may or may not be acceptable to a wider audience in Pakistan, does he see this as a niche he wants to explore or a stepping stone to bigger aspirations as a filmmaker?
“The short film is a legitimate art form,” Omar replied. “My sense is that Agency can be developed into something episodic. What I’m thinking is to ideally develop it into something episodic for a web show. That would be a very exciting way of expanding it.”
Did he think about working on a feature film too?
“I had written a feature script that was set in Pakistan and it had been short listed for Sundance and Sundance in a good way is like the mafia; they give you the stamp of approval and nurture you,” he shared. “But they recommended I make a short. Something similar happened at Locarno Film Festival; they had a little lab in Karachi last year and my feature script got into that lab but even the director of that program suggested I get into a short. My script was highly rated but for a short. But this is a step towards getting into a feature film. For Agency I wanted to make something that resonated with my NY consciousness and that’s how this evolved.”
The beauty of a short is that it gives filmmakers the freedom to create something that is original, maybe a little bold and/or a little extraordinary. It can be made on a small budget and therefore puts very little stress on the filmmaker. There is no commercial gain in short films, agrees Omar. But having said that, Rani and Darling did super well as films revolving around transgirls. Agency is looking at an LGBT space.
“That’s no coincidence,” says Omar. “And that’s where the beauty of the short comes in; the beauty is that it gives us the freedom to create something that is original. We need to encourage short films because the stress that a feature film puts on everyone involved is a lot. With short films we can figure out what our voices are.”
All we’ll say is that these are stories that need to be told and these are voices that need to be heard. We need to build platforms that will make short films accessible to more people.