March Issue 2015

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 5 years ago

Hammad Khan’s second feature film, Anima State, is a wondrous potpourri of dreams and other things about Pakistan and its people. The country’s past and present are the main elements at play here, juxtaposed in such an unflinching way, that they make for some audaciously thrilling sequences.

Though the title is explained right at the beginning (anima is “the part of the psyche that is directed inward and in touch with the subconscious”), the film could just as well have been called ‘Animated State,’ given the way Pakistanis as a people behave most of the time. Or have behaved in the past. But then both these things are intertwined here, such as the scene of a contemporary man, in a contemporary living room, watching the final of the ’92 Cricket World Cup.

In its best moments, the film reminded me of Guy Maddin’s work. The Canadian director likes to recreate the style of silent films and Khan seems to be recreating something as well, but it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly, given that Pakistani cinema doesn’t have a distinct style to call its own. Perhaps with Anima State, Khan is stylistically nodding to a time gone by, albeit with the digital equipment he has at his disposal. It’s a weird marriage of form and content, but it’s beguiling.

In any case, it’s a clear departure from his debut feature, Slackistan. In a sly set-piece early on in Anima State, the cast of Slackistan gets assassinated by our main character. Six actors getting bumped off like this is very meta, but it’s also very funny. And the humour doesn’t stop there. When the same main character (calling him a hero might be a stretch) murders a police officer for not taking the aforementioned crime seriously, we get the prayer for the dead, ‘Inna Lillahe Wa Inna Ilaihi Rajeoon,’ presented across the screen.

Later, when our protagonist orders some ‘brain masala’ at an eatery, the waiter turns out to be a wife-beater, re-telling and trying to justify his actions. To be fair, the guy did order ‘brain masala’ and must listen to whatever the waiter has to say. Khan is big on symbolism. Every sequence is a launch- pad for a myriad interpretations. Malika Zafar plays four versions of women in Anima State — a beggar, the beaten wife, a TV producer and even a seductress.

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The main character (played with surprising restraint by Uns Mufti), who is guiding us through the entire narrative, has his visage fully bandaged. We do not see his face properly for more than half of the film. He comes to rest at a cinema projection booth and that appears to be the only place where he is at peace. In the cinema, political speeches are interspersed with over-the-top scenes from Pakistani films, implying perhaps that film and politics cannot be separated in this country.

But, what is the film really about? I have seen it twice now and I haven’t figured it out completely. That is not to say that there is no plot, or that the film is too avant-garde. It’s actually better this way, the fact that Khan avoids spoon-feeding his audience. When our main character decides to kill himself on national television, an anchor is quick to jump at this golden opportunity. What great ratings this will bring! Guns are great for ratings! Later on, in a sort-of parallel world (which Khan chooses to shoot in black and white and which appears to be more truthful than the coloured portions), our main character gets reprimanded for carrying not a gun, but a camera. The desensitised society sadly wouldn’t have it any other way and it is ideas like these with which Khan subtly makes it feel relevant.

At its heart, Anima State is a simple reckoning with the state of affairs in Pakistan, be they political or social. It also has some important things to say about the state of the youth, particularly the digital natives who spend most of their time on keyboards. Inevitably, the film is also about the state of the media in Pakistan — but all this is done in a playful, not scornful, way, making it all the more effective.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.

Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany