In the current social media stratosphere, the idea of self-promotion is synonymous with success. It leads to individuals often eclipsing the cause, story or venture they promote, blurring the line between themselves and the services they peddle. There’s a fine line between being unassuming yet self-assured and a humble brag. The former feels no need to flex, in modern millennial terms, to prove that they’re smart or talented or wield considerable power. The latter slather a veneer of modesty over their braggadocio, one that’s easy to see through, revealing their bloated ego.
Creatives especially feel the dark pull of megalomania; countless over the years have succumbed to its sweet, doomed embrace. Coming across an individual then who refuses to be awed by their own intellect is not only refreshing, it’s downright rare and leads to constructive discourse.
Arafat Mazhar is one such storyteller who doesn’t rest on his laurels and is quick to share credit with his team and the people who’ve been involved with him in various projects, and he has plenty of those to his name. We speak to the young dynamo about success, stories and what the future holds.
Most recently in the news for his debut short film, Shehr-e-Tabassum (SeT), Mazhar and his incredible team of animators, artists, activists and researchers presented to the country its first taste of locally animated futuristic dystopia. Well received across the country with packed screenings at colleges and universities, it explored a genre that our mainstream filmmakers would never dream of touching: the state apparatus, technology and dissent.
How did the prodigious son of extremely religious parents with Jamiat affiliations turn into a crusader for arts, history and engaging with a terrifying extreme? Mazhar first deviated from his pre-ordained path as a youth passionate about music. A computer science major, he started a software consultancy at the age of 19 to bankroll his musical aspirations and to pay for a recording studio. While business was booming, Mazhar found himself deeply moved by the assassination of former governor Salman Taseer and the subsequent conversation around the blasphemy law.
He chose to engage with the topic, hoping to trace the ideological history of the ruling and its incorporation into the constitution. That led to a 400 page research paper, published and peer reviewed, which set him on a further tangent towards a research think-tank. He founded Engage, a non-profit organization focused on reforming the country’s blasphemy, and started Shehri Pakistan, a platform that produces Urdu animated and visual media on the constitution, equal citizenship and fundamental rights.
Exploring the intersection of technology and tradition, Mazhar’s aim was to find a way to have difficult conversations that polarize people without offending or distancing a large part of the audience. With a team of animators already working with him for Shehri Pakistan and more coming together to form a team, the time was ripe for Mazhar to turn to storytelling as an equalizing tool. This gave birth to Puffball Studios, the production house behind SeT and future animated projects, hopefully including a full-length feature stemming from the short film.
Another topic close to his heart, an idea that pervades through his body of work, is religion and technology. It’s also the most dangerous subject to start a dialogue on in the country’s current hyper-sensitive environment but Mazhar is deterred by how controversial the topic is. His approach, which he also applies to daily life and most importantly, the work environment he heads, is to remember that the person on the other end of the argument is human, just as you are. He believes in the twin armor of kindness and compassion, extending it in trying situations.
It is this ability of his to view the opposite side as a whole, rather than a sum of their convictions, that has allowed Mazhar to cultivate relationships with seminaries, interview jurists and write about the country’s most infamous law to date. He brings the same compassion to his office, talking about a culture where his employees know that they can call in a sick day not just for physical ailments but also for mental health.
“We don’t work 9-5 here, it’s more like a six-and-a-half-hour day. We can’t offer complete medical healthcare but the team knows that we’ll help out in whatever way we can when it comes to mental health, even paying for therapy,” he explains. Mazhar wanted to cut out all the red-tape that surrounds corporate structures and reduces employees to cogs in a machine for a model where each individual is allowed complete ownership over their work and treated like a responsible adult rather than an errant school child to be constantly surveilled.
If we had to coin one word for Mazhar and his approach to life, it would have to be radical. From stories, to work, politics and gender, he hasn’t let social, religious or cultural limitations bog him down. Some of the newer projects he’s working on are even more provocative, including a film called Swipe that manages to dissect the relationship between religion and technology and gives form to faceless fears of the future. He also plans on releasing animated histories tackling colonialism, intergenerational trauma and reparations.
In a country where subversion and subtlety are storytelling tools rarely used, storytellers like Mazhar are hard to come by but essential for the progression of the art. His egalitarian ethos, emphasis on research and knowledge from all quarters, and tech-based approach to entertainment and infotainment are charting a path to the future for the country. Hopefully though, the future isn’t as dark as his dystopian stories envision for us.