In the age of ‘Netflix and chill’, going to an actual cinema to watch a movie has almost become an anomaly. And yet, we still spend money to sit in a room in pitch darkness with strangers just to embark on an emotional journey crafted around some more strangers. And while cheese popcorn is a great incentive to sit silently in what would otherwise be a social setting, the real beauty of cinema lies in the effortless way it can bring together people who probably don’t give a shit about each other to collectively feel something for fictional characters, relate to them and form an opinion on a common subject, despite all their differences. It’s this sentiment that Cinema 73—a community cinema in Karachi, Pakistan—is trying to capture.
When Asad Kamran—a 24-year-old Karachi-based artist and architect—first watched recent Bollywood blockbuster Gully Boy, the young cinephile was swept off his feet. Deeply impacted by the way this film highlighted the class divide in India and the struggles of a young aspiring artist being constantly questioned by his close ones, it inspired him to take ownership of some kind. He was keen to share the learnings he took away from the film with people like his driver and security guard, but the lack of inexpensive cinemas for people who didn’t belong to a higher socio-economic bracket became the first challenge. “There were only posh cinemas in town and they couldn’t afford them or feel comfortable going to them,'' he says.
Then, in February 2019, the government of Pakistan issued a ban against all Bollywood films in the country following the Pulwama attacks. In a deep-seated desire to expose people to everything Gully Boy had taught him as well as make an artistic statement against the effects of the tense situation between India and Pakistan, Kamran created Cinema 73. “I live right opposite the beach in Karachi, which happens to be by the same Arabian Sea as Bombay,” he tells VICE over a WhatsApp call, talking about how the song Doori in the film perfectly encapsulates the feeling of disparity that exists not just between Pakistanis and Indians, but also between different economic sections of the society in both countries. “In my college days in Edinburgh, most of my friends were Indian, but when you come back, people who live across the border are seen as having this hidden agenda. I find this so absurd. I think Indian films are absolutely relatable; our regions are so similar and we come from the same land, but politics is so embedded that we can’t see the message in cinema.”
Named after the block he lives on, Cinema 73 is an attempt to bridge the gap put in place by these political circumstances. The University of Edinburgh graduate, who wrote a research paper on urban spaces and artistic expression while studying for his Masters in Fine Arts degree, decided to flip his garage into a theatre open for public viewing. Inspired by a mobile cinema that operated through Karachi, Kamran set up a projector, painted the garage walls black and set up seating for about 35-40 people, opening it up to all those who simply just wanted to watch a movie. The experience, which happens every Sunday at 7.30pm, is completely free of charge and there’s even complimentary popcorn thrown in. While some people find out about the movies through the posters he puts up or his social media channels, many are passers-by who chance upon the spectacle on the street and show up out of intrigue. “We speak the same language, and Gully Boy’s rags-to-riches narrative toh humare gulliyon mein bhi hota hai (happens in our bylanes as well),” he continues, believing these commonalities can lead to larger conversations on unity, camaraderie, and a better way of life.
While critics have been quick to point out that the move to ban Bollywood entirely would affect the Pakistani film industry far more than its Indian counterpart, this isn’t the first time a political stance has taken over cultural conversations.
Films have historically been an important avenue to propagate an agenda because of a fear of losing power and influence, whether it was rigorous censorship in Europe and America during World War II or the use of the film industry to paint political leaders in a certain light in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Closer home, even India has done shit like banned Pakistani actors from acting in Bollywood, been involved in controversies over unnecessary cuts and of course, almost allowing the Narendra Modi biopic to be released amidst the ongoing Indian elections. And while war is already a scary prospect, the unsettling atmosphere created by such bans can make life even more uncomfortable. So as a citizen, it’s important to do little things that defuse the tension.
For Kamran, this meant making more films open to everyone out there—films like Pad Man, a Satyajit Ray short film and one on the rights of Pakistan’s transgender community that still face social biases. “State institutions can ban such art forms, but in our personal capacity, we should still be able to enjoy them,” he says.
But what about the dangers involved in doing so? Kamran explains that since Karachi is a cosmopolitan city riddled with diversity, people do ask a lot of questions and even point out that screening an Indian film isn’t allowed. But after a debate on why this is not just entertainment but a form of dissent, they are usually convinced to participate. “It’s all about negotiation. People ask me why, but there’s never been any hostility. Nationalism is a tricky subject to waltz with, but because people get curious, they ask questions and this leads to deeper conversations.” He also points out that since he is not making any profit from his screenings and it is done purely to gather the community together, he does not have any binding legal implications in terms of piracy on the films he screens, most of which are streamed from YouTube and Netflix.
So far, he has screened nine films, including Pakistani films and even animated Asian shorts like Bao. Some screenings also involve interactions with the directors, which lead to discussions that reveal details about his audience. At a recent screening of Shame—the story of Pakistani gang-rape survivor Mukhtaran Mai who confronted her attackers—a discussion with the director Mo Naqvi revealed that his largely urban audience also included a person who came from the same village that the film was based in. “Here, kids from the neighbourhood sit alongside the children of the maids who work in their houses, and are all united. Security guards, drivers, students and even social media marketing professionals come together just to enjoy the experience of watching a movie.” The initial cost of setting this up came to about $1000, but now that Kamran has established the foundation of this non-profit project, he is hoping to open it up to sponsors, who can sponsor a screening for PKR 3,000 ($21).
Commenting on the current political sentiments in the country, he feels that it is a layered process fuelled by both, the politicians and media, who create an image for the average citizen that may not always resonate with reality. “People are left baffled because they’re only following what they’re being fed. Most intellectuals are absolutely against war and understand the economic drain of it. They feel that if Pakistan and India extend hands of friendship, it can benefit the entire subcontinent, because there is so much more beauty in camaraderie than there is in division.”
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