Thursday, October 31, 2013

Main Hoon Shahid Afridi

Pakistan's most popular sporting hero, its most sighed over actress, Islamic sentimentalism and spades of melodrama. Can you think of a more potent mix for a commercial Pakistani film? Neither could Vasay Choudry, the writer of Pakistani cinema's latest offering, Main Hoon Shahid Afridi.

Pakistani cinema, I love how the phrase feels on my tongue. I want to roll it around in my mouth to savour its newness; to enjoy the liberty of using it in casual conversation without people inching away from me like I'd suddenly declared I'm a feminist. Does anyone remember Shaan, Syed Noor and Saba Hameed ringing in the demise of Pakistani film (whatever existed of it previously) if Indian movies were allowed to be screened here? Well, I wouldn't want to be those guys right now, forced to munch on humble-popcorn while hordes of people queue up outside cinema houses, ushering in what looks very much like a re-emergence of Pakistani film.
Article Box

Article Box
When I was young, cinemas only closed down in Lahore, or existed within the dreamlike confines of my Archie comic collection; now new ones open up in upscale localities, complete with options for salty or caramel popcorn and seats that aren't tattooed with paan and chewing gum. Old establishments around Laxmi Chowk offer the same films at cheaper fares instead of barely disguised porn to stay alive.

In this context commercial viability is a crucial factor, so it is hard to blame the creators of Main Hoon Shahid Afridi for a film that often comes across as a cynically assembled formula for commercial success. What Bollywood actors are to India, cricketers (and cricketers alone) are to Pakistan, so if you are going to take the risk of financing a Pakistani film, you could do worse than have Shahid Afridi, Pakistan's biggest and most instantly recognizable star, in your title. I must confess I was expecting some kind of biopic, but if the story could be confused for somebody's life it would have to be Mohammad Asif's, not Shahid Afridi's.

Pakistani cinema, I love how the phrase feels on my tongue

Akbar Deen, played by an aging Humayun Saeed (can somebody please stop him from starring in every single project he finances?) is deeply in love with his wife (a heavily botoxed Mahnoor Baloch) and son. These minor matters, however, are not allowed to stand in the way of some Middle-Eastern nightclub prancing with a semi-clad Mathira, who, in a forgettable item number lays on the sultry like a 70s Helen on steroids. Deen's shenanigans are meant to be seen through a quaisi-kosher, boys will be boys lens in the light of his declaration that he sees his wife's image in all women he is tempted by. This is the line upon which our forgiveness for his transgression is meant to hinge; and one that nicely sets up a dream sequence within the item song for some little-black-dress action from Mahnoor Baloch. Never having met any blue-blooded male who is impervious to her appeal, casting her is another commercial coup, one that was well exploited in the movie's posters, despite Baloch being nothing more than a pretty prop (one who can't dance at that) throughout.

Why has Aitchison College, Lahore given only three players to the national team in the 66 years since Pakistan's creation?

From there onwards, the film becomes an almost direct rip-off of Chak De India with bits of Lagaan thrown in for good measure, its seeming purpose the fulfillment of Hamayun Saeed's (self-financed) dream of playing (a poor man's) Shahrukh Khan. Where Chak De India relied on the unity in diversity trope to rouse patriotic sentiment, Main Hoon Shahid Afridi seems confused about which particular aspect ofPakistaniat to exploit for maximum emotional appeal. It starts off with a lesson on religious tolerance by pitting a Talibanesque pathaan fast bowler against a church-going Christian wicket keeper, but then constantly vacillates between xenophobia and strident religiosity on one hand, and tolerance and brotherhood of all mankind, on the other.

Its strengths lie in an exploration of Pakistani class differences and cricket's ability to be the great leveler; the last grounds upon which a young Pakistani boy from a small town can still dream big dreams. While watching I was reminded of something I have often wondered: considering its state-of-the-art sporting facilities, why has Aitchison College, Lahore given only three players to the national team in the 66 years since Pakistan's creation? There is an attempt, however flawed, in Main Hoon Shahid Afridi to ponder this question of Pakistani cricketing talent emerging largely from the lower socio-economic classes. If it had stuck to that, instead of trying to be everything to everybody, it could have been a tighter and more plausible film. As it stands, it is engaging enough, and dare I say, quite decent for a Pakistani movie. That will do. For now.


Published in The Friday Times (August 30 - September 5th, 2013)

Vege Delight

Bari Eid (Eid-ul-Adha just doesn’t roll down us old timers’ tongues quite as smoothly) cannot hold a candle to the breezy, bangle-full joys of the Chhoti. Less mithaai, no Eidee (that being a good or bad thing depending on whether you are on the giving or receiving end) and an overdose of animals bleating pitiably from all intersections of my otherwise violence-free neighbourhood don’t exactly goad me to go celebrating in the streets.
Plus, I am that rare breed of Lahori – a non-meat eater. Having ‘converted’ just 6 months ago though, I doubt I have yet been officially anointed to the smug upper crust of humanitarian do-gooders to make a self-righteous lecture on the benefits of not killing animals permissible. So I’ll lure you with food instead.
The author at a vegetarian restaurant in Brighton
The author at a vegetarian restaurant in Brighton
Now that you are stuffed up to the tip of your food canals with the brains and guts of a variety of slaughtered animals it might be a good idea to scale back with some healthy vegetarian meals, which contrary to popular belief can be located in Pakistan with a little bit of effort, at least in the bigger cities.
The idea of vegetarianism can come across as a bit self-important
One of the difficulties of choosing a vegetarian meal here is that most times chicken isn’t even considered a form of meat. Try ordering a vegetarian dish and waiters and restaurant managers will attempt to pass off anything with chicken and bits of vegetable thrown in for colour as ‘vegetarian’. Admittedly, in a country where human life is cheaper than poultry the idea of vegetarianism can come across as a bit self-important. Most reactions move somewhat along the lines of George Orwell’s indictment of vegetarians, who in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) called vegetarianism an affront to decent people and the obsession of the ‘food crank… out of touch with common humanity’. It was, he thought, a symptom of the hijacking of the socialist cause by ‘every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, pacifist, and feminist in England’.
Hmm…don’t think Orwell and I would have got along ragingly.
Margherita pizza
Margherita pizza
Luckily, (for those who rely on famous people quotes for arriving at ideological decisions), George Bernard Shaw made an equally strong statement in favour of vegetarianism a few decades before Orwell, one that sits well with ‘food cranks’ like me. When asked in 1898 why he was a vegetarian, Shaw gave a typically outspoken answer:
“Oh, come! That boot is on the other leg. Why should you call me to account for eating decently? If I battened on the scorched corpses of animals, you might well ask me why I did that.”
“My will contains directions for my funeral, which will be followed, not by mourning coaches, but by herds of oxen, sheep, swine, flocks of poultry, and a small travelling aquarium of live fish, all wearing white scarves in honor of the man who perished rather than eat his fellow-creatures. It will be, with the single exception of Noah’s Ark, the most remarkable thing of the kind yet seen.”
Vegetarian version of the Korean Bibimbap can now be enjoyed in Lahore
Vegetarian version of the Korean Bibimbap can now be enjoyed in Lahore
Even if your wish to engage with non-meat dishes has nothing to do with sparing other living beings from harm, you could choose to spend meat-free days, weeks or even months for a number of good reasons, ranging from the environmental, an attempt to detox your body from hormones and chemicals often found in meats, to simply getting away from the constant heaviness of meat-abundant food.
Eating out:
The roadside dhaaba:
Nihaaripaaemaghaz and takaa tak might be the immediate images the idea of Lahori food conjures up, but there are certain non-meat dishes too that are an intrinsic part of its food culture. No lazy Lahori Sunday is complete without halwa puri or chanay kulchay. Ironically, the best I have ever had outside of the old city are from a place in Cantt called Zakir Tikka.
Since turning vegetarian I have become a troublesome dinner companion; friends have to be mindful of vegetarian options on the menu before choosing a restaurant. Over the course of time, however, I have learnt that one can wangle a vegetarian dish or two out of most establishments, though not all these dishes or restaurants are made equal.

Lahore’s Andaaz restaurant serves some of the best vegetarian dishes in the city
Lahore’s Andaaz restaurant serves some of the best vegetarian dishes in the city
The best daals and sabzis are found at roadside dhaabaas. It’s hard to vouch for the quality of the cooking oil or the hygienic conditions under which they are cooked, but purely in terms of taste, none of the high-end eateries can come close to the daal and karak tandoori roti combination of the local dhaaba, that too at dirt-cheap prices.
Online entrepreneurs:
Ghar ki Murghi:
Interestingly, one of the very few people in the food business in Lahore who provide serious vegetarian options are an up and coming online food service Ghar ki Murghi. Operating largely off their Facebook page, these young entrepreneurs are catering to a niche market most big restaurants don’t really consider worth their while. With a jazzy menu offering ‘Toofani Tamaatar ka Cut’ and ‘Maskhari Mirchi Saalan’ to the newly introduced ‘Lajawaab Lasagne’ with a vegetarian option, Ghar ki Murghi is expanding the Lahori food connoisseur’s taste buds to include a variety of flavours that can be just as satisfying as meat.
Halwa puri - a staple Lahori breakfast
Halwa puri – a staple Lahori breakfast
Simple Dimple:
In the same vein, Karachi based food service Simple Dimple offers a tofu option for almost everything on their menu, something sadly missing from even the most high end restaurants in Lahore.
High end restaurants:
The first time I was introduced to paneer tikka was in a Dubai food court: I returned from the ladies room to find my staunchly vegetarian friend cheerily tucking into what looked very much like a full plate of chicken tikka. The texture and taste was so ‘realistic’ I couldn’t tell for several minutes that it was in fact made of cottage cheese; hence my vexation at never having been able to find an equivalent in Lahore. The only two places in Lahore that serve paneer tikka are Mirchi and Andaaz. The one at Mirchi doesn’t deserve to be called by that name, but like everything else at Andaaz, their paneer tikka is rich and succulent.
Andaaz is the only restaurant in Lahore that has a full menu of vegetarian dishes, possibly because of tourists who can be found more readily around the Badshahi Mosque than anywhere else in the city. Besides the paneer tikaa, their daal makhni is a treat.
BBQ Tonight:
The Gulberg branch of BBQ Tonight serves the best Paalak Paneer this side of the Ravi, and a Hummus of just the right consistency and taste, something that cannot be said for any other I have had outside of the Middle-East.
Here and there:
Several restaurants have one or two vegetarian dishes on the menu that make them worth a visit. The new Korean restaurant in Lahore, Udon House serves a delicious vegetarian Bipimbap and a decent vegetarian soup, though it doesn’t have any equivalent of the fried bean curd served by the Korean in Karachi. You can find fresh vegetarian sushi at Fujiyama and the same at Sakura as well as a great (though small serving) of a tofu appetizer on skewers (with a very difficult name I always fail to recall).
There is CafĂ© Upstairs’ mushrooms-in-white-sauce appetizer and stuffed green peppers, margherita and vegetarian pizzas at most pizza joints, Fatburger’s vegetarian burger (the only vegetarian burger in Lahore I know of), Polo Lounge’s divine Summer Salad, Salt ‘n ‘ Pepper’s trusty old assorted salad, Dampukht’s vegetable biryani (with the crunchy goodness of cashew and hints of sweetness from kishmish) and of course desserts anywhere, most of which contain no meat content.
Sabeen Mahmud of T2F
Sabeen Mahmud of T2F
Oftentimes people give up on vegetarianism as a lifestyle option for the lack of support amongst friends and family. I draw great sustenance from fellow ‘grass-eaters’, one of whom is Sabeen Mahmud, founder of T2F, a space for intellectual discourse in Karachi. Sabeen says:
“I became a committed vegetarian on 6th September 2011 right after burying my kitten, Tetris. I made a decision to choose compassion over killing. I started thinking about my food choices and realized that what I choose to eat is intrinsically linked with my ethics and world view. By not buying meat and chicken, I have also withdrawn financial support from the ecosystem of animal cruelty.
My favorite vegetarian eating out options in Karachi include Mirchi’s chaats, Cool Inn’s dosa, BOT’s aaloo paratha, Tipu Burger’s daal bun kabab, Spicez’s vegetarian Sindhi biryani, and T2F’s vegetable panini.”
So if you’re in either Karachi or Lahore, get out there and try something new.

Published in The Friday Times (18th to 24th October, 2013)

Karachi - Our Stories in Our Words

When I first received a copy of Karachi - Our Stories in Our Words I was tempted to compare it favorably to another book of a similar nature, the Bapsi Sidhwa-edited Lahore: Beloved City, whose dull, dim cover Karachi's vibrant and abstract counterpart instantly trumped. Unfortunately the most interest I could muster in this book began and ended at its cover.

"Edited" by Maniza Naqvi (a term I assume is used loosely by OUP, since the book is riddled with innumerable typos starting with the Editor's Note itself), Karachi doesn't seem to have benefitted from much editing. The Editor's Note tells us that the stories contained therein were a result of a competition announced in tandem with the Karachi Literature Festival. Hundreds of stories were received out of which the 99 included in this book were deemed printworthy. Giving credit where it's due, if this is the standard of the stories eventually published, going through all of them must have been no mean task. A pat on the back of the editors who read them all! Unfortunately, none of these foot soldiers are credited, and neither are the translators of stories from Sindhi and Urdu. Did Maniza Naqvi do all this by herself? The book doesn't say.

Violent death is persistently used for effect

Article Box

Article Box
This book's dearth of big- name contributors had me favorably disposed but my optimism lasted only until the first five stories, which proved that "youth", rather than heralding freshness of vision and inventive zeal had been used here as a cover for amateurish storytelling. All the writers seemed bent on ticking the litany of what they assumed were grave and important Karachi subjects, poverty being the great favourite, unceasingly dealt with in the pious, moralizing tone of those who have never really experienced it firsthand. The poor in these stories struggle on in their righteous, unfailingly moral ways, ceaselessly guilt-tripping all the rest of us for our comfortable, shallow lives that can never soar to the heights of piety that are the sole purview of those at the receiving end of the evil rich. Such black and white depictions are found on almost every page of this book, motivated no doubt by some desire to improve society through moralistic messages better suited to social activism than literature.

The book's dearth of "big" name contributors had me favorably disposed

Another pet theme is bomb blasts and shootings, none of the writers seem to have any nuanced insights into the geneses or outcomes of terrorist acts. The depictions here are the work of febrile imaginations assuming an artificial empathy with subject matter they are no closer to than the average TV viewer halfway across the country. Nary a nuanced character one can relate to or be moved by. Violent death is persistently used for effect or to lend some perceived shock value to a story's conclusion. Within the course of two pages (the average length of most of these stories) we meet a character, get choked by depictions of her absolute goodness, after which she gets shot in a freak accident meant to leave us blubbering in our reading chairs. The only tears they produced in me were at the thought of all these people now being legitimately able to claim they are published writers.

The poor in these stories struggle on in their righteous, unfailingly moral ways

Thank goodness then for Soofia Ishaque's story The Reprieve: No Bikini But Plenty of Attitude, the only standout story in the collection, and one that manages to avoid the ham-handedness and juvenility of the rest. A simple narration of a day out on the beach, it successfully captures the contrasting social and economic currents that make Karachi so complex and dynamic without beating us over the head with those themes. Here gunpoint robbery is treated with none of the melodramatic histrionics of the other stories, but with a quiet nod to the nonchalance engendered by repeated exposure to mugging and theft, and the desperate abandonment in the pursuit of fun only those from a repressed, violent society can truly appreciate. Other half-decent efforts included Rumana Husain's The Victoria Waala, Fiza Hasan's Tea or Coffee? and Asma Siddiqui's Pearl. Certain passages from a few other stories resonated here and there but were often marred by the writer's inability to use them for the larger benefit of the story.

Another strange aspect of this book is that it shifts mid-way from fictional stories to personal narratives without any warning, which leaves the classification of this book as a collection of short stories in doubt. Overall, Karachi: Our Stories in Our Words would have benefitted from cutting its length by half and showcasing a higher standard of writing instead of cramming the book with page after page of mediocrity, the kind my teaching instincts tell me would fail even to score an A in a good high school English class.


Published in The Friday Times (June 14th - 20th, 2013)