Through 14 minutes of hand-drawn images against a haunting original score, Swipe displays the contradictions of modern Pakistan.
Swipe right for Wajib-ul-Qatl; swipe left for Maafi. Death sentences are now crowdsourced. ‘Crimes’ range from draping dupattas a little too far below the collarbones to failing to forward whatsapp messages under the influence of the devil. Punishment for religious transgressions is no longer the sole purview of the hereafter; it is also subject to mob-justice in the here and now. Through 14 minutes of hand-drawn images against a haunting original score, Swipe displays the contradictions of modern Pakistan.
Arafat Mazhar calls his new genre of filmmaking Cyber Khilafat, where the anxieties of religion, modernity, and technology collide. Instead of creating a whole new world, Swipe teeters in the twilight zone between fiction and reality. This week alone, we’ve seen three men sentenced to death for cyber blasphemy; two ran ‘atheist’ facebook pages and one was a university professor whose lecture was uploaded online. We’ve also had to bear witness to another religiously motivated attack on the Hazara Shia minority, as 11 miners were kidnapped by Islamic State militants and their executions filmed and posted online.
In Swipe, talk show host Tania interviews a furious cleric and an irreverent activist, getting their views on iFatwa, the app that hands its users the gavel. An ‘Ajr board’ tracks points, ranking each player and naming the highest scorers ‘Ghazis’. The cleric is incensed, insisting that declaring someone Wajib-ul-Qatl should be at the discretion of specialists like himself. His opponent retorts that the democratization of religious death sentences will reveal the irrelevance of clerics.
The film then cuts to a middle class home with everyone’s mattresses in the same room, and the sound of a creaking fan and Ainak Wala Jin in the background. Our protagonist, Jugnu, a young school-boy, checks iFatwa the moment he wakes up in the morning. Jugnu’s mother, between washing dishes, hits him on the head for constantly using his phone. His father pleads with the landlord over the phone to postpone eviction.
Transfixed, Jugnu stares into the eyes of each of the accused, reading and rereading their transgressions, while swiping left. His younger sister interrupts him, begging to borrow his bright pink watch. ‘Promise kharaab nahiin karoon gi.’ Jugnu gives her the watch with that reluctant indulgence of an older sibling, as her eyes light up. As he walks through the market to school, everything feels familiar, and yet not. iFatwa may not be real, but this world is. The raairi waalay hawking their wares, the idle gossip about women’s clothing, even the posters on the walls cause a moment of deja-vu. There is the voluptuous woman in a red dress holding up a phone featuring iFatwa, urging people ‘banain ghairat ke muhafiz’. It seems oddly reminiscent of a 2015 ad featuring a Bollywood actress, commissioned by one of Pakistan’s largest telecommunication companies, that had been splashed across Urdu newspapers, resulting in an uproar over its ‘indecency.’ Raffitied on the walls of this fictional world is a list of books banned under the Tahaffuz e Bunyad e Islam bill. The Tahaffuz e Bunyad e Islam Bill, however, is far from fictional. The 2020 bill gives DGPR the authority to “visit and inspect any printing press, publication house, book store and confiscate any book, before or after printing.”
Jugnu’s screen lights up; another player has been named a ‘Ghazi.’ He starts swiping right. A woman who wore too much perfume in the market? Wajib-ul-Qatl. A Man who rejected ajwa dates? Wajib-ul-Qatl. Jugnu furiously swipes right, even on those whom he had previously granted clemency, unthinkingly and quickly.
After a multitude of right swipes, he pauses, horrified at who he swiped right on, and then races home to bear witness to the consequences of his desire to become a Ghazi. Amidst Ahmed Faraz’s powerful words and Mazhar’s haunting composition, ‘Mat qatl karo awazon ko,’ Jugnu watches a frenzied mob destroy his own home. In the burning ruins, he sees a once precious bright pink watch, now broken.
Swipe is a blurred and distorted mirror, but those who look closely may well recognize pieces of themselves. The film brilliantly incorporates the politics of religion, testament to the depth of Mazhar’s scholarship, and shows us how easily we have turned something meant to be a beautiful expression of love and devotion into a weapon. One of the most striking parts of the film is, to borrow from Hannah Arendt, the ‘banality of evil.’ Those who condemn their fellow citizens to death are normal people going about their everyday lives - shopkeepers and fruit sellers, students and tv anchors, people like you and I.
Swipe’s ‘thought-defying’ society discourages anyone to think for themselves, bearing an uncanny resemblance to our own. In the crowded marketplace, we can hear a woman haggling with a vegetable seller. ‘If you don’t give me a good price,’ she says, ‘I will swipe right on you.’
As the dust settles on charred family photographs, scattered in the streets, there is an eerie sense of loss as we are forced to come to terms with our reality. A clip from 2019 shows children between the ages of 4 and 10 gleefully chanting chilling slogans as they hang an Aasia bibi doll.
This film is important, not only because it tells the story of who we could become, but who we already are. The final song asks us, ‘Yeh kaun hain jo izzat pe maar daaltay hain, jo aman ke qaatil hain? Khuda ke naam pe nikalay hain, dehshat pehlaatay hain. Inhe dekh ke chup jo behtay hain, Yeh main hoon, yeh tum ho, yeh hum hai.’
Swipe is bold for more than just its aesthetics, and the risks are not lost on the creators. Tellingly, in the final credits, each one is swiped right.
The writer is an academic and teaches politics. She sporadically tweets @sabsekhush and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org