The Pakistani digital sphere is known for a lot of things, but animation and dystopian future stories are not it. With Shehr-e-Tabassum, all that is about to change. An eight-minute-long, hand drawn animated film set in 2071, it features flying rickshaws, AI bots and a terrifying look at what the country’s future might hold.
Bold and subversive, the film critiques not only our current political and social environment but links policing and censorship to a surveillance framework that curbs emotions, quite literally. It features a female protagonist and chilling, robotic narratorial voice that helps set a forbidding tone despite the visible affluence and prosperity that cloaks the city.
A chaotic, neon universe that propagates joy and most importantly, smiling as the antidote to depression, oppression, terrorism and dissent, the setting of the film can be described as Orwellian. Inspired by cyberpunk classics such as Akira and Blade Runner, the story is as unsettling as sitting through a Black Mirror episode. In scope and affect, it’s at par with the Netflix animated series, Love Death and Robots. For Pakistan’s first attempt at animated dystopia, it is ground-breaking and heralds the beginning of a new digital platform to help voice civic concerns and critiques.
Showcased at the Lahore Music Meet on the second day to a packed auditorium, the screening was followed by a panel discussion moderated by the producer of the film, Rasti Farooq with Arafat Mazhar, the director and Lahore based artist, Shehzil Malik. They discussed the inspiration, ethos and accessibility of the short feature before opening the floor to questions and comments.
What was fantastic, apart from the film itself, was the varied interpretations that the audience put forth. Whether it was a female audience member who was thrilled to see the film showing a woman as the defiant hero or the student who linked student dissent and the missing persons protests to the premise of bowdlerization that the film revolves around, each audience member took away something different from the showcase denoting the richness of detail and the full-fleshed out cosmos that the movie presents.
The layers of meaning that one could read into this short animation are infinite, limited only by the audience’s understanding and political leanings. What stood out for me was the use of a female protagonist who finally breaks free of the constant policing of the state. It succinctly references the daily acts of regulating women’s behavior that is currently prevalent across our society, showing the mental anguish that can be caused by constant suppression and self-censorship. It also shows the same protagonist finally breaking free of the constraints, standing up to an establishment that it’s omnipotent and omnipresent.
While the film’s intellectual engagement can be discussed to no end, it is also important to mention the dissemination strategy that the film’s team has adopted. When aptly questioned by an audience member about making the film accessible to the mass audience, Mazhar explained that it was keeping accessibility in mind that they didn’t choose to submit the film for festivals.
“We could’ve submitted the film for international festivals but chose not to because they have a non-release clause and we didn’t want to restrict the film from being available to the very audience it was created for. We’re taking the film on tour across the country, including Quetta hopefully. We plan on showcasing Shehr-e-Tabassum in public universities and once the screenings are over, the film will be uploaded on all digital platforms and social media to ensure that it isn’t just accessible to a certain stratum of society. We made several strategic decisions based on this very concern, including keeping the narrative voice in Urdu,” he elaborated.
In a country where dissent is dangerous, non-conformity is a punishable crime and misogyny is rampant, to see a film with a strong anti-censorship message is heartening. What is even more commendable is the fact that it is a film that elevates its audience, rather than dumbing them down. In a few short minutes it transports the viewer from there here and now to a frighteningly familiar future and leaves them contemplating societal issues that we prefer sweeping under the rug.
If the televisions scripts that find their way to our screens are disheartening in their postulation then the digital sphere is where the future for the country’s story-telling lies. And if Shehr-e-Tabassum is our first public offering, then the future to behold is infinitely bright.