There’s a funny thing about social and cultural issues in modern society; actually, the debate starts with the whole idea of what it means to be modern. Dr. Cornel West, contemporary philosopher and cultural critic/activist, defines being modern as having “the courage to use one’s critical intelligence to question and challenge the prevailing authorities, powers and hierarchies of the world.” Courage, in this case, comes from a moment of awakening in which one begins to face and reflect upon the existing problems.
Talk of courage can be tricky, though, because it allows most of us the opportunity to retreat from key moments, the everyday situations that arise where any of us have the chance to, as West points out, use “our critical intelligence” to sound the alarm.
Karachi-born filmmaker Sabiha Sumar embraces this challenge head-on in her work, using film as a tool of social criticism to shine a spotlight on issues pertaining to women. With Who Will Cast the First Stone in 1988, she presented the working-class women’s protest against Islamic laws that took hold in Pakistan in the late 1970s. In 1996, she helmed the documentary Suicide Warriors about a group of guerilla-fighting women intent on securing a separate homeland for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka.
Yet, in her latest film, the narrative feature Good Morning Karachi, the social criticism inspired in me a far more personal challenge — a direct call that felt like a philosophical gut check. Her protagonist, Rafina (Amna Ilyas), is a beautiful young woman with dreams seemingly far beyond not only her station, but also the notion of societal and practical reality.
Every night she stares out her window at the billboard across the way, featuring similarly gorgeous models peddling common household products, and Rafina dares to imagine herself up there, above it all.
But down on the streets, the people rail against the idea of women uncovered in such ways. The billboards are just another sign of the corrupting influence of the West.
Rafina is removed from the stirring chaos of the streets, kept safe by her mother (Saba Pervaiz), a traditional woman struggling to maintain a sense of decorum in these changing times, which she has to do without the stabilizing presence of a husband. Rafina’s mother desires only to marry the headstrong girl off before it is too late, but Rafina doesn’t make it easy. Not only does she fantasize about becoming a model, but she also pesters her mother about working rather than making herself a presentable bride, especially for Arif (Yasir Aqueel), the son of a neighbor who obviously adores her and listens to her curious notions about independence.
A fairytale quality seeps into the narrative, so it is no surprise when Rafina catches the eye of Jamal (Atta Yaqub), an executive at the premier product and modeling agency in Karachi. The film draws a fascinating line in the sand, though, when it comes to the men in Rafina’s life at this key moment, and in the most meaningful way, Good Morning Karachi shifts from Rafina to Jamal and Arif.
Arif, despite his initial innocent longing, quickly evolves into a typical patriarchal figure. When their families negotiate an official engagement, part of the terms of the agreement place a limit on her time in the workforce. She must put aside her dreams of any career and settle for making a good home for Arif, who has vague political inclinations.
Jamal, on the other hand, is little more than a Westernized tool. He has sold his soul and now seeks to convince others, such as Rafina, to do the same. Remove your headscarf, pose and walk the catwalk seductively, take the money and the cellphone and the company car. You are better than those others, the ones with no imagination who keep their heads down and adhere to the old ways.
Courage has seemingly become the exclusive instrument of the oppressed. Isn’t it time that someone stands up and calls us all on this bullshit notion? Sumar’s film issued a challenge to me, demanding me to get off my high horse, to recognize my own cowardice in the reflection of these two male characters.
Here’s to Good Morning Karachi waking others up as well. (tt stern-enzi)