Slackistan’s much awaited world premiere took place in London in early October 2010 as part of the Raindance Film Festival. The audience although overwhelmingly Pakistani, was an interesting mix of young and old. And of course in truly Pakistani style started later than it was scheduled to be.
Slackistan had been in the media limelight since late 2009 — the Guardian writes: “Indeed, the strap line for the film is: “Think you know Pakistan. Think again.” While it sounds like it ought to be part of a tourist campaign, it points to a country that is rarely explored in modern cinema, TV or literature.” The BBC Asian Network (Radio) says thatSlackistan is “already getting a cult following online” notwithstanding that it is not to be released until later this year. The Huffington Post carried a feature on it in January 2010. With all this hype it was impossible to not go and see the film.
‘Slackistan’ is Khan’s first home-grown feature film and draws its inspiration from American director and producer Richard Linklater’s 1991 debut ‘Slacker’, one of the differences being that Generation Y has been replaced by the hyper-connected Generation F (the Facebook Generation). The characters in ‘Slackistan’ are slackers and Khan’s definition of a slacker is of 20 somethings ‘stuck in the waiting room of life’. Somebody whose profession consists of procrastination; essentially, looking busy doing nothing. The film is set in the sleepy capital city of Pakistan, Islamabad, which is portrayed as a metropolis with a rural soul. The cast are amateurs, familiar faces to those who grew up in Islamabad. They are the faces we have seen at school, social gatherings and, most pertinently, ‘slacking’ time away at Hotspot, Rendezvous or partying as shown in the film. It is perhaps the familiarity with acting their daily lives, which makes the audience forget that the actors have no experience of acting.
The film has an organic form, flitting easily from one scene to another. In fact it has an almost conversationalist feel which probably arises from acting out the reality of the lives of the actors. Khan is to be credited with teasing out the complexities and paradoxes of the lives of the Pakistani elite. He captures the easy mistrust between the have and have-nots, the limits of cultural exports personified through fashion, the dizzying party and drinking culture, the materialistic instinct to carry the latest mobile phone and wear the latest designer item. He also touches on the paradox of the design of the city that segregates its rich and its poor through geographical confinement (the poor live on the margins of the sectors that make up Islamabad. Their living spaces co-exist on the fringes so that they can continue to provide essential home-help, gardening and cleaning services needed in elite homes). Lurking in the background is the threat of religious extremism and terrorism, which the characters in the film laugh and joke about as if it were a footnote. In one way it shows a society that has come to difficult terms of existing with the uncertainty of violence, but on another it denotes the disconnect that elite inhabitants of the city experience compared to the rest of the country. Khan’s intimate understanding of the city and its young elite comes through his proximity to both. Khan has lived in both Pakistan and abroad allowing him the space to create Slackistan from the perspectives of both a spectator and participant.
The characters are an eclectic mix and taken together they are accurate representations of a group of friends. There is the one from a troubled family (Zara), the materialist (Shehryar), the troublemaker (Mani) and the loyal and more thoughtful (Hasan, Aisha and Saad). Khan’s proximity of experience of growing up in the city is evident throughout the film in the choice of characters and shooting. The film will have a resonating familiarity for those who have grown up in or visited Islamabad.
Ultimately, Slackistan is about the universality of the experience of angst ridden 20-somethings trying to get to grips with real life. It is also a celebration of local and young talent with amateur Pakistani actors and a soundtrack that is homegrown. The film ends on an optimistic note but left me wondering whether the relation between Slackistan and slackers is really mutable or whether it is good for there to be an uplifting note. I leave you to watch it and figure out for yourself…
The Q & A that followed the premiere was interesting although irksome in some places with criticisms on the title (why isn’t it Slackabad?), or why did Khan make a film about the elite when they aren’t representative of the culture and why did he make Hasan (an aspiring filmmaker) turn back? It is indicative of the challenges faced by the Pakistani creative industry, which has come to share the burden of ‘accurate representation’ of a country much maligned in the media. As an audience most Pakistanis are yet to come to terms with the fact that art and journalism cannot and should not be subject to the same rigours. Whilst the latter is about accuracy and independence the former is about creativity and letting the imagination take hold.