South Asia Colloquium Presents: Kamran Asdar Ali

Thursday, September 25, 2014 - 11:45am

Van Pelt Library, Class of '55 Room (2nd Floor)

“Karachi and 1960s Cinema: Cultural Wounds and the Production of Sameness”

Kamran Asdar Ali

Department of Anthropology

University of Texas - Austin

Abstract: In 1958, General Ayub Khan’s military regime came into power Pakistan. It was clear to the Ayub regime that despite the banner of Muslim nationalism the pivotal cultural question was that of national integration. Where during the first decades Pakistan’s creation issues related to infrastructure development, settlement of refugee populations and national security concerned the new state, there simultaneously, the debates on questions related to the trauma of Partition, of Urdu as the national language and the major question of Islam’s role in political life was as much a part of the state’s internal discussions. In order to “tame” and “harness” particularistic identities of various ethnic and linguistic groups, a cultural leadership — artists, poets, writers, journalists, film producers — was recruited (the formation of the National Press Trust and the Pakistan Writer’s Guild were attempts to bring in the intelligentsia to support the cultural policies of the regime).

One medium that provided the avenue for this cultural work during the Ayub era was the development of the Pakistani cinema in the 1960s. An urban oriented and modern narrative started being portrayed, especially in the new Karachi-based cinema. The paper concentrate on a particular film, Behen Bhai (tr. Sister and Brother, 1968), to show how Muslim nationalism becomes linked to modern urban life in this era of developmental politics. The movie can be understood as an attempt to address the question of national cohesion at a particular juncture of the nation’s history. It is a story of loss and redemption within the framework of the nation and its various fragments. In this paper, what interests me is the coming together of all characters in the large city (Karachi), the most cosmopolitan space in post-Partition Pakistan. I argue that the film in its image and narrative structure represents the possibilities of a tranquil Karachi of the 1960s, where an emergent post-Partition mostly ‘mohajir’ middle class considers the “pleasure” of co-existence with other ethnicities. Such a remembering of Karachi entails the overcoming cultural and ethnic difference (and production of sameness). This of course remains a class specific memory mostly shared by an elite that had investment in the politics of Muslim nationalism (now reconfigured as Islam, Urdu and urban living) linked to a modernist state during the early years of Pakistan’s existence. Behen Bhai, I would argue, remains one of the aesthetic repositories of such memories from the period.