MIRROR | CINEMA | CITY: KARACHI CAPRI
Althea Thauberger: The Capri Cinema Project
By Zarmeené Shah
Through a small window in a closed door, we see the world outside from within a darkened interior space. A man walks by across the street, past a shuttered healthcare shop. It is daytime and he is wearing a traditional South Asian shalwar kameez in a dusty grey. And then we are inside the cinema hall, a voluminous three-storied space with a decadent red interior and a luxurious curtain hanging across its large curved single screen. At once, one is struck by a sense of nostalgia; there is a sense that the cinema hall is from another time, and that somehow one is both in the past and present at the same time. This is not wholly untrue – the scene takes place inside the Capri Cinema, built in 1968 and located in Saddar, the historic center (the old town) of the city of Karachi, in Pakistan. It is also the subject of Althea Thauberger’s experimental documentary film project Pagal Pagal Pagal Pagal Filmy Dunya (Mad Mad Mad Mad Filmy World) (2017).
Mera pyara sheher Karachi
My dear city Karachi
Pooray Pakistan ko chalaye mera pyara sheher Karachi
The whole of Pakistan is fueled by my dear Karachi
Sari dunya ki har kaum aaye Karachi mein
All the peoples of the world come to Karachi
Aur sab ko khilaye Karachi
Everyone is fed in Karachi
Lekin kya phir bhi hai bura Karachi?
Is it still okay to blame Karachi?
Aao sub ko bataaein Karachi, ke kya tha aur kya hai Karachi
Come, now, Karachi, let’s tell everyone what was and is Karachi
Hum sub ki maa hai Karachi
Everyone’s mother is Karachi1
Paying homage to the architecture of the iconic cinema house, which signals a moment in Karachi’s modernist developments of the 1960s and 1970s, and with a cast drawn from over 100 patrons and staff members, Pagal Pagal Pagal Pagal Filmy Dunya (PPPPFD) is as much a film about the Capri Cinema and its converging communities and culture, as it is about the city of Karachi and its complex social, cultural, political and religious layers. In order to understand the multiple interconnected frameworks deployed within Thauberger’s project, it is important to establish the context of the city in which the project is located. The history of Capri Cinema is tied profoundly to the city of Karachi, and its symbols and gestures are poignant pointers towards it.
The major seaport, and the financial and economic hub of the country, Karachi is home to an estimated population of 22 million people. Pakistan’s largest urban metropolis and one of the world’s largest urban agglomerations, the city reportedly singlehandedly contributes more than a third of the country’s taxes.2 As such, since witnessing its first major migration at the time of Partition in 1947, Karachi continues, even presently, to draw a multitudinous population from across the country and beyond its borders, seeking economic opportunities in this giant industrial metropolis, a city whose map changes each year as it continues to expand and spread like an entity in and of itself.3 4 While the mega shifts in its population from the point of Partition onwards have contributed to a massive and unprecedented expansion of the city, and forever changed its demographics, Karachi’s history runs much deeper, and with it, that of Saddar.
Growing from a small fishing village to an important port settlement under Sindh’s Talpur dynasty, Kolachi (as it was then known) began trading with Muscat and the Persian Gulf in the late 1720s.5 Over time, the increasing trade activities surrounding its waters drew the attention of the British, who occupied the city as a trading post in 1839, and went on to establish the Karachi Port as a major strategic and economic asset. By 1856 Karachi was an established city with a population of 57000, and the development of the modern port had begun, with several British companies establishing offices in the city.6 It was also in 1839 that the British established the area of Saddar, as an answer to the indigenous markets in the city, and mainly for the purpose of recreation and entertainment for the British officers and their families who lived in the area. Housing the historical Empress market (amongst others), and several churches, bars, clubs, discos, cinemas, restaurants and cafes, as well as book stores and music schools, the area of Saddar became known as the city center.7 It is here that the Capri Cinema, on which Thauberger’s project focuses, is located.
Following the withdrawal of the British, the Saddar area would slowly but profoundly change due to social, political and religious demographic shifts in the city, and slowly transform from a multi-class neighborhood to what it is now, i.e. a bustling, noisy, overcrowded area with major retail markets and transport terminals, but (significantly) now mainly catering only to the lower and lower middle classes (which constitute a majority population of the city). As such, today Capri Cinema prides itself on being “the best maintained single screen general audience cinema in Pakistan,” a reference perhaps to the contemporary digital movie theaters burgeoning across other areas of the city (and the country’s other urban centers), many of them located in malls and frequented by the ‘elite’ class of the city.8
As Saddar transformed through the decades, and the bars and clubs, and other entertainment spots across the area slowly disappeared, the rich culture around the cinemas only grew in the coming years, not least in the form of the hand painted billboards that would contribute to a strong visual culture in the city. While this would eventually fall victim to the realities of technology and economics, with all billboards, advertisements and signage now designed and printed digitally, political and religious ideologies were perhaps more to blame for the disappearance of much of the culture around cinemas in Karachi. Architect, urban planner and theorist Arif Hasan speaks of Karachi’s hugely popular cinema culture through the 1950s to the 1980s, with 136 cinemas in the city in 1977 – a number that would dwindle to 35 by 2012.9 Pakistan’s tumultuous political climate, specifically the decade-long dictatorial regime of General Zia ul Haq from 1977 to his death in 1988, is largely responsible for this decline. With Islamisation as the “centerpiece of his administration” General Zia would go on to enforce strict censorship policies, to which all filmmakers (and cultural agents from across the disciplines of art, music, dance, theater, cinema, etc.) in the country were forced to comply.10 Hundreds of cinemas were forced (by this climate) to close down during this period, however Capri, along with some of the other major cinema houses in the city, managed to survive. It is ironic then, having endured the regime of the man most often identified as “responsible for turning Pakistan into a global center for political Islam,” that the cinema would almost be destroyed in 2012 amidst angry protests condemning what was considered a blasphemous YouTube short film.11
Located on Karachi’s busy M.A. Jinnah Road, Capri sat amongst a cluster of the city’s older cinema houses that were set ablaze in September 2012, one amongst eight other cinemas in Pakistan, five in Karachi alone. Capri’s neighbors, the historic Prince and Nishat cinemas, were completely destroyed. Capri suffered extensive damage, but was able to recoup, rebuild and restore, and reopened its doors in a remarkably short time (credited to the tenacity of its dedicated owners) on 21st December 2012, with an upgrade to its equipment and facilities, as well as its security protocols. Capri’s history then, and with it the city’s, are important factors in being able to understand the poignancy of Thauberger’s film. At its core, PPPPFD is not simply a portrait of the cinema, but in fact of the city itself: wounded and scarred, but glorious in its resilience, complexity, and spirit.
Thauberger’s project presents itself as a classic mise en abyme: shot within the cinema, with a cast comprised of patrons, staff and management, PPPPFD was publicly screened for the first time in Capri Cinema’s own theater as part of the inaugural Karachi Biennale, and with a diverse audience that included its cast and crew, amongst others; “a film about the filming of an event at a cinema, filmed and screened in that actual cinema.”12 The audience find themselves to be located precisely within the mirror of the film that they are watching, implicated within the layers of its discourse, which further mirror the space of the cinema, and then again of the city in which the cinema (and thus the audience) is situated.
What happens to the work as it moves and travels, crossing from this city in which its narrative finds itself so deeply embedded, into other less specific spaces? Is the viewing of the work (in Karachi, and more specifically in the Capri Cinema) part of the production and reception of meaning within it, able to deploy and destabilize all of the above dialogues and critiques? As the geography of its screening (and thereby its audience) shifts, how does the work in itself move and shift, speaking different languages at different times, and across different spaces? Perhaps it is the city itself, in the complexity of its layers, its socio-political discourses, and in those who occupy it, that these questions come to rest.
Perhaps cities are always specific and simultaneously global, able to generate discourses that resonate far beyond their borders and boundaries. In an age of unprecedented shifts and movements, can we then today come to look idea of the city as a site of encounter and exchange, able to produce, generate and hold within it, discourses that extend well beyond its geographies and borders, transcending notions of nation and nationality, and thus creating a space that is simultaneously convergent and divergent, transnational and trans-local? Despite the inherent specificities of each city, particularly in looking at the development and production of urban space in South Asia, the modern city of the global South presents us with a space that can be envisioned as one node amongst a network of sites where processes of conflict and negotiation are enacted, and the modes through which the production of urban space occurs, particularly in the context of social, cultural, political and economic relations, are lived, questioned and challenged every day. These are not unlike the ways in which relations of power and control, of engagement and community are imagined and evinced in multiple sites across the world today.
In this way, and precisely through its movement then, Thauberger’s project deploys a new set of critical questions through its spaces of collaboration and community, intersection and exchange. In a globalized age of disenfranchisement and dislocation, it raises critical questions of public space and public access, of security and rights, of politics, ecology and economy, and distinctly of our relationship to and within it. In this, it leaves the space of the specific, and moves into a larger global discourse, carrying with it the traces of each, and containing within its narratives, the truth of those that contribute to its dialogues. Acting as the mirror that it deploys, it brings to us an increasingly important expanded frame of global contexts, helping us to step both inside and outside of ourselves, to forge linkages across nations and geographies, to reframe our issues, narratives and histories, and to challenge our own perspectives with regards to our past and present moments.
Pagal Pagal Pagal Pagal Filmy Dunya
Produced by Althea Thauberger
Curated by Kimberly Phillips
Assisted by Julia Lamare
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax
Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver
Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge
Karachi Biennale; Shanitha Kachan and Gerald Sheff; Ann and Harry Malcomson; Carol Weinbaum; Carlos Yep
Please note, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver is hosting a conversation with Althea Thauberger, Zarmeené Shah, Zehra Nawab and Kimberley Phillips on July 24th, 2020. See below for details.
Zarmeené Shah is an academic, and an independent curator and writer currently based in Karachi, Pakistan. Focusing on global contemporary art with specialist knowledge of the Global South, Shah’s research-based practice investigates ideas of power and control, geography and territory, rights and access. Amongst other large-scale projects, she has served as curator-at-large of the inaugural Karachi Biennale (KB17). She is currently Associate Professor and Head of the Liberal Arts program at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture.
Althea Thauberger is an artist, filmmaker and educator contributing to experimental practices in social documentary. Her projects are produced, in situ responsive processes involving collaborative research and production. The final works — films, videos, audio recordings and photographs — are reflections on local histories and sociopolitical power dynamics, including ones involved in the production process itself. Over the last ten years, she has produced projects in such diverse spaces as the Capri Cinema in Karachi, the archives of the former Still Image Division of the National Film Board of Canada; the Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital in Prague; the Haskell Opera House on the Quebec/ Vermont border; and the former Rikard Benčič Factory in Rijeka, Croatia. Over the last two years, Thauberger has presented solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver, the Art Gallery of Southern Alberta in Lethbridge, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
- Poem by Ali Raza, as performed in Althea Thauberger’s Pagal Pagal Pagal Pagal Filmy Dunya (Mad Mad Mad Mad Filmy World), HD video, 30 min, 2017
- S. Akbar Zaidi, Issues in Pakistan’s Economy: A Political Economy Perspective, Oxford University Press, 1999
- The partition of British India (also commonly referred to as the Partition) refers to the independence of the two nations of India and Pakistan from the British Empire in 1947, and thereby the creation of two independent nation states, the former based on a Hindu majority, and the latter a Muslim majority population. The Partition is also known as one of the ‘greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction.’ (Dalrymple, 2015)
- Arif Hasan, ‘Emerging Urbanization Trends: The case of Karachi’, ref. number C-37319-PAK-1, working paper for the International Growth Center, London School of Economics, London UK, May 2016
- Deneb Sumbul, ‘A Brief History of Karachi’, Newsline magazine Pakistan, web edition, September 2016, https://newslinemagazine.com/magazine/brief-history-karachi/, retrieved 03 Dec. 2018
- Arif Hasan, ‘The Housing Imperative’, first published in Dawn (Dawn Group of Newspapers Pakistan), 20 June 2011, published and archived on the website of Arif Hasan 16 June 2011, http://arifhasan.org/articles/karachi-the-housing-imperative, retrieved 16 July 2017
- Arif Hasan, ‘The Future of Karachi’s Saddar’, published as a special report in Dawn, EOS, 06 Jan. 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1455851, last accessed 18 Nov. 2019
- ‘About us’, Capri Cinema website, Capri Corporation Pvt. Ltd, copyright 1968–2019 https://capricinema.com.pk/about-us/, last accessed 20 Nov. 2019
- Arif Hasan and Nurjehan Mawaz Khan, ‘Karachi’s Cinema Culture: 1950 – 1980’, published and archived on the website of Arif Hasan, 10 Sept. 2012, http://arifhasan.org/culture/karachi-ch/karachi-cinema-culture/karachis-cinema-culture-1950-1980, last accessed 20 Nov. 2019
- Owen Bennett Jones, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 16–7
- Husain Ḥaqqānī, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005, p. 131
- Althea Thauberger, ‘About’, Karachi Capri, blog hosted on WordPress, 2017 https://karachicapri.wordpress.com/about/, last accessed 22 Nov. 2019