Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema: Projection, Perception & Public Space

by Ms. Yaminay Chaudhri, Artist & Founder ‘Tentative Collective’ and Dr. Nausheen H. Anwar, Research Fellow, Asian Urbanisms, ARI

Since February 2013, using a rickshaw powered projector Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema has been projecting cell phone videos in the neighborhoods in which they are made. These are different neighborhoods located across Karachi’s Central, South and Malir Districts. With an estimated population of 21 million, Karachi is a melting pot of diasporas and multiple ethnicities and one of Asia’s fastest growing cities. Produced in response to the prompt “Home: What did you do last Sunday?” the videos provide snapshots into life in the city. The video projection events transform expectations of everyday private and public space, and create new zones for collectivity and conviviality. This work has traveled to various residential neighborhoods and most recently in and around the old railway or Cantt Station that was built during British colonial rule. Multiple visits to each place generate new insights into the ephemeral identities of the various actors and the subjective spaces they inhabit. We are interested in creating a means by which individuals can wrest this city’s narratives from the homogenizing gaze of mass media, destabilizing stereotypes and unpacking assumptions along the way.

Our exploration is complicated by the gendered nature of public space, by the parameters of permeability and penetrability, and by the amplification of desire in the presence of vernacular mobile technology. By responding to the above and more, we wonder if this journey might lead to alternative perceptions of the city; revelations about invisible public space; and new ways of examining the power dynamics between seeing and showing. We take a cue from the philosopher John Dewey (Art as Experience, 1934):

“Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living. Under conditions of resistance and conflict, aspects and elements of the self and the world that are implicated in this interaction qualify experience with emotions and ideas so that conscious intent emerges. Oftentimes, however, the experience had is inchoate. Things are experienced but not in such a way that they are composed into an experience. There is distraction and dispersion; what we observe and what we think, what we desire and what we get, are at odds with each other. We put our hands to the plow and turn back; we start and then we stop, not because the experience has reached the end for the sake of which it was initiated but because of extraneous interruptions or of inner lethargy.”

With this introduction by John Dewey, let us enter the experience of two screenings: First one held in Ali Akbar Shah Goth, a low-income settlement situated near Karachi’s shoreline and comprising Bengali and Burmese-Rohingya migrants whose livelihood is tied to the export-oriented fishing industry; Second one held in an upscale locale known as the Defence Housing Society where the videos were projected at a popular café, the T2F. Our navigations in Ali Akbar Shah goth were facilitated by Zebunissah, a muhajir migrant and long-time resident of this neighborhood. She has joined our project as a community leader.

Screening #1.

Our rickshaw puttered and sped off from a suburb by the sea,
equipped with machines,
and us in the back.
It was bright still.
We cruised through the broad, paved boulevard.
Khayaban-e-Ittehad.
February sea breeze,
open views, exhilaration.
Turned towards in-coming traffic to get onto the Korangi Creek flyover.
swarms of motorcycles, vans and buses
at the Korangi Crossing.
Disorder.
Stabilized vibrating cameras, made them discreet.
Passed a zoo, kites images of Altaf Hussain in his forties.
We turned right, after a cricket ground.
The road ended in a ditch.
Followed traffic wrong way.
Pressed on the railings.
Put down the cameras.
Took another right onto the narrow street which goes to the Fish Market.
Slowed down just before the big cricket ground.
Landed in front of a small empty
plot marked by mobile phone shops,
trash heap,
and an empty flag post with a concrete base.
Surrounded by eyes now.
dead fish.
Burning plastic.
Sewage.
I held my breath.
We stopped.

Zeb was waiting for us near the flag post in her burqa. She climbed on. We asked her for permission to film, we usually leave the DSLR cameras at home. Zeb grabbed the camera to shoot for a while.

The gali gets narrower.
A crowd started appearing.
No confusion.
Just a buzz. We were led towards the selected wall.
The ground of the gali was soft and bumpy,
raised where it met the boundary of each
house that defined it’s edges.
The boundaries were concrete
punctured by doors and windows
separating spaces of intimate activities from the gali.
Our purple lights seeped into interiors through
crevices in the facade. Eyes peered back at us.
The boundary became chaotic, permeable,
and blurred.

As the rickshaw docked in the Thekedar’s gali, we noticed that the whole vehicle was tilted to one side.

The crevices in ­the gali delivered bodies, pick axes, a shovel and within seconds men began to level a patch of ground so we could flatten. The projector was pulled out.

A frenzy of wiring and connections
facilitated by a hundred eyes. Light.
Light hit the surface of the concrete-
the boundary-
the wall-
the exterior-
one edge of the gali.
And created an ephemeral window of moving images of everyday life
—in an ‘everyday’ space.
We were submerged.
Chatter.
Clapping.
Cheers.
Recognition of faces on the wall.
Zeb’s familiar voice on the microphone.
A kid fighting.
An arm hooking his collar from above, pulling him out of
the thick jumble of bodies.
Concentration.
Electricity.
I can smell the sweat of the man standing next to me.
He is suspended with the projection.

Encores.

Screening #2.

Hurried loading, nervous drive to boulevard.
June heat. Humid, still air.
Red qameez, less sweaty without burqa.
Khayaban-e-Ittehad.
Slow left turn onto commercial street.
Naala. barb-Q chicken.
Expensive fruit.
Men.
We wait for a Hilux,
Slip into a smaller commercial gali.
Apartment blocks with balconies.
Corrugated metal facades and boundary walls with bougainvillea.
Men.
An opening. A vacant lot with three media vans and several Honda Cities.
A heated argument. Someone helped us empty the lot.
Loud music filters into the lot every time a lady gets dropped off by the entrance of the mela.
It’s air conditioned inside. We are waiting with our lights turned on.
The ground is soft and bumpy.
Wait for our cue. The crowd gathers. Cops drive by in a big mobile van. Guns hanging out.
We turn off the lights.
Lights on again. Farhad and Talha work the deck projector and laptop.
The promo rings through the neighborhood and videos begin.
Teenagers are taking pictures with the rickshaw. Someone wants a ride.

A man starts measuring our trunk and announces that he is doing something just like this- but at a bigger scale.

It sounds like people are having much more fun inside.

Zeb arrives with NoorAmeen Farooq, Poleecha and a friend. We hug. The girls are not wearing their burqas today.

They huddle around the rickshaw.
Too shy to introduce themselves to the audience.

People seem divided. Pulled apart into groups and layers by class. The ladies and mela team are close to the entrance of T2f. Our friends stand close to us. Noor Ameen refuses to leave the rickshaw. His video plays.

The fight scene seems to go on too long.
The tailors and drivers are standing together in an outer ring.
Cheering for Farooq.

Someone says, “what’s the theme? I think the videos need to be shorter, with more special effects”.

Our work is complicated by the fact that defining the ‘everyday’ is very important to analyzing the effect we have on transforming it. But how does one define the everyday?

If we do it quantitatively we run the risk of oversimplifying our subjects. Defining it qualitatively varies from narrator to narrator and gali to gali, and runs the risk of exoticising the experience. Hence as unwilling representatives, we cannot simply list a series of actions and personal observations (as above) but must also include the tricky description of the collective experience. How do we do that? Can we claim authority when we say that a convivial sensory experience was felt so strongly that it was

mutual-
palpable-
transformative to the group

All we can do by writing and speaking here is to recreate a projection for you- an audience many times removed

Using our bias, you will construct your own opinion of what we are doing based on this presentation of

edits,
intonation,
and minutia.

In fact, the more obscure our description of what we are doing the better. Because any attempt at description takes away the blur and multiplicity of the projected experience—and the ambiguity of its perceptions.

This project was made possible by numerous donations from individuals, and organizations including a grant from the Asia Research Institute, National University Singapore.

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