From left to right, Dr Maria Rashid talks to Dr Humera Iqbal, Jawad Sharif, Tahera Hasan and Shahid Shah in the panel discussion.—Photo by writer
From left to right, Dr Maria Rashid talks to Dr Humera Iqbal, Jawad Sharif, Tahera Hasan and Shahid Shah in the panel discussion.—Photo by writer

KARACHI: Bhashaili, a film throwing light on the very important issue of Pakistani Bengalis facing problems around citizenship and statelessness, was screened at the Indus Valley School (IVS) of Art and Architecture.

The film is a part of an ongoing exhibition Kaghazi Kashtiyan: The Pakistani Bengali Story’, which opened at IVS last week to continue till May 26.

Bhashaili, which means ‘adrift’ in the Bangla language, is a 58.46 min duration documentary, directed and produced by Jawad Shaif in collaboration with Dr Humera Iqbal, Syeda Kashmala and Dr Anushay Malik.

It is based on research by Dr Iqbal, Dr Malik, Dr Maria Rashid and Arooj Aurangzeb about Pakistani Bengalis, who remain stateless aliens in the country of their birth even after the passage of four generations because of inconsiderate policies.

Bhashaili is about Pakistani Bengalis who remain stateless aliens in the country of their birth even after four generations

The film takes you through the bustling megacity of Karachi, which is home to a community with deep connections to the sea, the Pakistani Bengalis. It follows the everyday stories of young and old Pakistani Bengalis as they chase their dreams, find love, stand up for injustices, and face despair around their lack of recognition in Pakistan.

Shahid Shah is a bright and charismatic young man in his twenties who just got married to the love of his life Zehra. He has overcome many hurdles, having his identity card blocked and spending years dealing with discrimination. Despite the odds stacked against him, he has set up an online fish delivery business, which takes him across affluent and poor Karachi neighbourhoods in his quest to deliver fresh fish to clients.

There is also Qazi Nasir Ahmad Nizami, known to all as Muna Bhai, who is immeasurably proud of his heritage and often finds himself in the Nazrul Academy, a crumbling library in a government building. There is Advocate Farzana making her way to court as she explains the complexities around citizenship and ID cards in Pakistan.

There are also the teenage sister gymnasts of Machhar Colony, Sonya and Anwara, whose father, a former fisherman, has struggled to get an ID card all his life and wants nothing more than his girls to thrive. The family works hard to send them to Imkaan Welfare Organisation’s Khel School where they study and have also found a passion for gymnastics.

Encouraged by Tahera Hasan, the founder and director of Imkaan, the girls have won many local gymnastics championships. But their being stateless has come in the way of their progress. They cannot compete internationally.

Later, a panel discussion moderated by Dr Maria Rashid, one of the researchers of the study ‘Partition of Identity: An Exploration of Belonging in Pakistani Bengalis, 1971 — present’, introduced to the audience the faces in the documentary and also behind it.

Dr Iqbal, the chief researcher, said that as academics they research, write papers and books but not everyone reads the dry research they produce. “The idea for this documentary came from our wanting to spread the message. The film was very important to our project,” she said.

“The issue of identity is not fair. We needed people to engage and connect to it,” she added.

Jawad Sharif, the director and producer of Bhashaili, said that meeting some of the people in the documentary, especially Nazrul Islam made him cry. “I wanted to make a very human story while capturing the soul of the issue. These subjects really motivate us. I feel so blessed to know these people, who are living this film,” he said.

Shahid Shah, the young Bengali just starting out his life and career while carrying the burden of three earlier generations, said that he is the fourth generation Pakistani Bengali glad to see their age-old issue being highlighted through the film.

Tahera Hasan, a lawyer and founder/director of the Imkaan Welfare Organisation said that the film was a brilliant piece of work. “Someone like me working on the ground was at first worried about it hurting anyone’s feelings. I also believe that the message was important but not at the cost of hurting the children and their families. But it is done very sensitively,” she said.

Pointing out another issue of drug addiction also shown in the film, she said that drug addiction is also an important component of all this identity crisis. “You cannot go to a drug rehabilitation centre to get help if you don’t have a CNIC,” she said, adding that this was another serious impact of having no identity in this country.

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2023

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