Showgirls of Pakistan is a compelling, haunting, and sometimes amusing documentary that takes us behind the curtains into the world of three Pakistani mujra dancers. It is directed, produced, and written by a local filmmaker, Saad Khan, who was determined to show a side of the country rarely under the spotlight.

Afreen Khan, Uzma Khan and Reema Jaan are the entertainers headlining the show. Each woman is a fierce survivor, determined to use her body as she sees fit. Afreen is a skillful mujra dancer who uses her craft to treat her adulating fans to some breathtaking moves. She is the most charismatic of the three, armed with a captivating smile and a fearless attitude. She also smokes with the panache of a ’60s Hollywood star.

Unfortunately, she dances on an increasingly precarious platform, with more performers harassed, beaten, kidnapped, shot or murdered every day. We watch in fascination as she regularly fights threats, rumours, and draconian censorship laws. But for a woman who can confidently French kiss a snake, the reptiles in the city seem like easy foes.

There is also Uzma Khan, a seemingly quiet entertainer who embraced the profession after her husband’s family forced her to leave him and her child. We meet Uzma through Imran, a showgirl manager who is surprisingly open about his profession.

Showgirls of Pakistan is a powerful documentary that deserves all the plaudits it receives

Uzma is determined to travel to Dubai to generate a greater income with Imran’s help. However, the relationship sours when Uzma accuses Imran of using her to smuggle drugs. Shockingly, Imran tries to put a hit on her, of sorts. But Uzma fights back unexpectedly. Imran lovingly calls the dancer ‘Uzi’, and she might as well be a submachine gun, the way she rips into him for using her as a pawn.

Finally, there is Reema Jaan, a transgender woman coming to terms with a rapidly changing society. Once a popular dancer, Reema is less comfortable with performing now because of the more hostile atmosphere. With Reema, we get a glimpse at the surprising network that operates behind the scenes of the transgender community.

Saad Khan uses conventional video cameras, drone shots, and loads of mobile phone footage to tell the story. The various shots are stitched together by art director and editor Joey Chriqui. The duo makes an excellent team, using shots from classic Lollywood cinema, to give hilarious context to many of the scenes. Additionally, they don’t portray the stars of Showgirls of Pakistan as victims. Not for a second.

You’ll also marvel at how social media empowers these women and other entertainers on the fringes of Pakistani society. Social media also gave Saad Khan a wealth of media to work with. While it must have been incredibly challenging to decide what footage to include in Showgirls of Pakistan, my only criticism is that the documentary could have been shorter, without negatively impacting the narrative. Nitpicks aside, Showgirls of Pakistan is a powerful documentary that deserves all the plaudits it receives.

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 25th, 2021

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