Wednesday, December 04, 2013

SAIFF ’13: Good Morning Karachi

Perhaps the only job Arif would allow his fiancée Rafina to take might be Prime Minister.  He is an ardent supporter of the exiled Benazir Bhutto, because her party pays him to be.  With little education or prospects, he clings to his chauvinism when Rafina finds unlikely success in the Pakistani fashion industry. Despite Bhutto’s example, Rafina will have to overcome constant opposition to pursue her modeling career in Sabiha Sumar’s Good Morning Karachi (trailer here), the centerpiece selection of this year’s South Asian International Film Festival in New York.

The very notion of a Pakistani Models Inc. sounds like a healthy step in the right direction, but Sumar and her co-writers, Malia Scotch Marmo and Samhita Arni, are not exactly overflowing with optimism.  Set in the days leading up to Bhutto’s assassination, Karachi will obviously intersect with tragedy sometime in the third act.  However, it resists the temptation to completely intertwine the fate of its characters with that of real world figures. Arguably, Bhutto’s shadow is more of a reality check than a dramatic device.

Yearning for relative independence, Rafina convinces Rosie, a close friend of the family, to find her a spot with her employer: Radiance, an exclusive beauty salon operated by a modeling agency.  Of course, Rafina will not have to labor long before her unspoiled beauty lands her in front of a camera.  As it happens, she has the perfect look for a difficult client.  Naturally, Arif feels betrayed by her success and Rafina’s mother worries about the sort of attention she might attract. She is not being unduly concerned, given the film starts in media res, as masses of Islamist protestors set fire to fashion billboards.

As fashion model melodramas go, Karachi is a pretty good one, especially considering the general state of Pakistani society.  Shrewdly, Sumar does not over venerate Rafina’s virtues.  She makes mistakes and sometimes passively accepts the easier but not necessarily best course of action.  She is human and therefore has a right to live her life as she sees fit, which she rather steadfastly does her best to do.  However, the film’s attitude towards Bhutto is much more ambivalent, clearly questioning why her administration did so little to improve the outlook for forward thinking women like Rafina.

As Rafina, Amna Ilyes commands the screen, conveying the runway ingénue’s naiveté, without coming across nauseatingly immature.  Beo Raana Zafar also adds mountains of dignity as her beloved auntie Rosie. The rest of the cast is a bit spotty, with Yasir Aqueel perhaps being the spottiest as the flyweight Arif.  Still, everybody earns some props for appearing in a film that seriously addresses gender issues in Pakistan.

Sumar’s aesthetic restraint and artistic honesty keeps Karachi on course and even keeled the whole way through, while cinematographer Claire Pijman works wonders wonders with Rafina’s lower middle class neighborhood, making it glow suggestively.  Sure, to some extent you grade on a curve to encourage a film like this, but Karachi will keep just about any viewer focused on and invested in its business on-screen.  Recommended for those interested in women’s issues and/or Middle Eastern-South Asian cinema, Good Morning Karachi screens this Friday (12/6) as the centerpiece of the 2013 SAIFF.