Shehr-e-Tabassum gives Pakistan’s bleak future a neon makeover

Anything that starts with a pill in one hand is bound to take you on a rollercoaster ride. The case for Pakistan’s first cyberpunk movie, Shehr-e-Tabassum (City of Smiles) is no different.

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The animated short film, which is filmed in Urdu, takes you on a trip to a futuristic panopticon-like Pakistan with flying rickshaws (reminiscent of artist Omar Gilani’s work), Tokyo-esque neon signboards with quirky references to Lahore shops (Kal-Fatah was my favourite), and an Eye of the Sauron bot which issues instructions to people. It’s a world where only one emotion is allowed to exist: happiness.

Flying bots and headgears, known as Hassmukh, ensure that people stay happy at all times. Labourers who are lifting heavy material are issued warnings for not looking ‘happy’ while working. The headgears, which illuminate people’s faces and clothes, are placed around the throat to show the symbolic choking of the people.

Shehr-e-Tabassum gives Pakistan’s bleak future a neon makeoverPhoto: Shehr-e-Tabassum

A pill, known as Smileton, is available to ‘help’ people feel happy. Friends recommend it to one another and the government capitalises on the idea by launching Smileton syrup for the babies. Those who can’t afford health care keep telling themselves ‘sab theek ho jayega’ [everything will be okay] as they plaster a smile on their faces.

Arafat Mazhar, the writer and director, has created a universe rooted in reality. A civil war in 2038 leads to the state passing a draconian law with the aim to eliminate depression, terrorism, and cruelty. Humans must smile to show their loyalty to Ameer-e-Mumlikat or face the consequences: death penalty in this case.

The team has to be given credit for the extensive backstory, of which we only get a glimpse in the movie.

A dystopian future in which an autocratic figure wants to regulate the people and their behaviour is not a new concept. We have seen/read it before in George Orwells’s 1981, Christian Bale-starrer Equilibrium, Gattaca, to name a few but the refreshing bit is seeing it in a Pakistani context.

Unlike 1984 where the authoritative regime is obsessed with controlling people’s thoughts, here the focus is on appearances. For all its colour and neon lighting, Shehr-e-Tabassum depicts a story about the bleak and grim realities of urban development. In just nine minutes, it infuses your mind with commentaries on class, mental health, censorship, development, capitalism, and violence. It is a lot to take in one watch, and people will be able to absorb it better after watching it again.

The talented Shumyle Haider has to be given props for his amazing work with the typography. The movie has been produced by Puffball Studio. Rasti Farooq is the co-producer and co-writer and Haseeb Rehman the lead animator.

The makers are currently holding movie screenings in different cities and they will upload it on YouTube by February end.

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