A scene from director Arafat Mazhar’s Shehr-e-Tabassum
A scene from director Arafat Mazhar’s Shehr-e-Tabassum

Adults (native speakers) read approximately 300 words per minute when reading for enjoyment. This means that you could watch about one-fourth of the animated short Shehr-e-Tabassum in the time it would take you to read this review. All this is to illustrate that a nine-minute-long film is a pretty small commitment in terms of time; and a commitment this reviewer recommends you make.

Besides, let’s face it — most of you will press pause when the credits start rolling at the 7.30 minute mark. But others might feel compelled to keep watching and take a mental note of the individuals behind Shehr-e-Tabassum. After all, the hand-painted film is a unique feat in Pakistan, where such meticulously created and executed passion projects are few and far between. Clearly, the immense talent behind the short is going places.

In today’s world, where we are constantly surrounded by screens and have endless choices, all ‘content’ has to fight for eyeballs. Even a nine-minute film has to be pitched to the potential audience. While it may be nerve-wracking for content creators, there is also something wonderfully democratic about it.

But Shehr-e-Tabassum is set in a future that appears to be very different (at least at first). In this Pakistan, citizens are surrounded by an even larger sea of screens, but they do not seem to have a whole lot of choices. The dystopian film is set in 2071 — a future where Pakistan has had no reported instances of terrorism or violent crime in over three decades. The cost for this peace: “the systematic subjugation of human emotion.” In this world, it is mandatory for every citizen to keep smiling.

Meticulously created and executed passion projects such as the hand-painted Shehr-e-Tabassum are few and far between in Pakistan

The mood of the film is set from the get-go thanks to an ominous background score and a point-of-view shot. We see this futuristic world from the perspective of our protagonist — someone who is clearly unhappy but still smiling. We can see that everyone around her is smiling too, but something is clearly not right. Lots of cameras and screens are keeping a close eye on the citizens. And an announcement is being made from loudspeakers, “Aik achhe shehri ki pehchaan — muskurahat aur wafadari [A smile and loyalty are the identifiers of a good citizen].”

The film leaves things open-ended enough that audiences can attach multiple meanings to the world the filmmakers have created. But most obviously, it talks about surveillance, free expression and choice. Shehr-e-Tabassum is one of the many films and artworks that remind one of George Orwell’s novel 1984. Orwell’s masterpiece, that introduced the term ‘Big Brother’ to the pop culture lexicon, also looked at a dystopian future. Similarly, it told the story of a land where the state narrative is carefully created and controlled, and the people who refuse to conform to the state’s version become ‘unpersons’ — disappearing and leaving no evidence of ever having existed.

Upon closer inspection, the world we live in also reminds one of 1984 and the future depicted in Shehr-e-Tabassum. Like the ‘unpersons’, those questioning the powers that be in present-day Pakistan also go on to become missing persons. What one can and cannot say is also heavily policed. Drawing a comparison, the film’s director Arafat Mazhar tweeted, “...the short film we made is timely considering the outrageous instruments of control and policing we saw on Zindagi Tamasha”. Mazhar’s tweet was meant to lend support to Sarmad Khoosat’s forthcoming film, the future of which remains unclear after its release was put on hold following protests by the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan.

Mazhar is perhaps best known for his research on Pakistan’s blasphemy law. It is no surprise that a man who raises questions about such a contentious law feels strongly about free speech and choice. While Shehr-e-Tabassum shows a future where people are literally not allowed to freely express themselves, it is a clear comment on where things are headed. Interestingly, in the short this policing is presented to the people as progress. In that the film is also about propaganda.

Shehr-e-Tabassum is an immersive experience and the POV is a great device to make the audience part of the action. Mazhar’s team has also paid great attention to detail. For example, in one video message, the crescent and the star on a Pakistani flag become a smiling face. The script and dialogue delivery are also well done.

All this leaves the audience hooked and with much to think about. It also leaves us wanting more. One hopes that Shehr-e-Tabassum will be developed into a feature-length film, but this seems like a tall order. Making an animated feature requires a considerable amount of money and expertise, which are rare commodities in Pakistan. Just the fact that a short film like this has come out of the country and is available online for free are worth celebrating. While the film shows a bleak future and is not necessarily a joyful viewing experience, the mere existence of such a project may make you smile.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 8th, 2020