Good Morning Karachi is cleaved in two. The action of the film is conducted in both Urdu and English, and the separation is nearly discrete. English is coded as the language of progress, civility, luxury; it’s the language spoken by the elites, the beautiful people. Rafina, the lead character, quite literally sees learning English as an entree into a world more comfortable than her own. Alternately, Urdu is the language of the hoi polloi; it’s the language Pakistani mores are parsed in, and the only people we see speaking it are poorer people and older people. Director Sabiha Sumar lays the ground for an interesting interrogation of traditional Pakistan and the ways that culture has been set (or is often seen to be set) in opposition to a Western hegemony.
Good Morning Karachi is full of these little kernels of ideas. Throughout the film, Sumar lays the ground for arguments about the propagation of ideas via advertising, Islam and the national politics of Pakistan, intellectual colonization, modesty and beauty, et al. There is, however, much too much going on for Sumar to devote the requisite time to any one, and they all trail off without much development.
The plot itself is quite simple, and its particular beats will be predictable to anyone who’s seen more than a few independent films before. Rafina is a young woman whose mother won’t allow her to work. A family friend is able to change Rafina’s mother’s mind, and Rafina is discovered as a model. That is, in a nutshell, the film’s first half. Sumar’s unassuming camera takes as its subject a young impoverished woman who is struggling to acquire the tools to make her life better, more meaningful. There isn’t much attention paid to striking compositions, but the direction isn’t any less (or more) middling than most “indie” films. The film could benefit from paying closer attention to its actors’ faces as they emote, but Amna Illyas’ performance as Rafina is subtle and moving. It’s not a revelation by any means, but you easily buy her naivety, her stumbling through unfamiliar spaces. Rafina is a role that forces Illyas’ into cloying too often, but she handles herself well.
The film’s premise is familiar, but for a Western audience, there is something worthwhile in seeing the younger generation of Pakistan yearn for a different life; the desire is universal, but the details of that desire and the particular things holding Rafina back are, quite literally, foreign to most Americans. For example, Rafina loves a man who she thinks supports her desire to work, but when their marriage is arranged, she finds otherwise. He is swayed into a religious-based political ideology, and this brings him into conflict with Rafina. Accessible underlying themes, and the details of them, simply because the film arises out of a different context than most audiences would be familiar with, are original-seeming. There is always some inherent value in consuming culture that functions differently than art you’re used to. Add to this the tacit construction of hierarchy that you have with the stratified use of English and Urdu, and Samar lays the groundwork for a compelling film.
Aesthetically, the work is still stuck in that indie cinema vein that privileges weird ideas about writing and plot, and there is nothing particularly compelling about Good Morning Karachi’s compositions, camerawork, or editing. It looks of a part with other Sundance Institute grant recipients–not bad per se, just not particularly good either. This would be less of a problem if the film’s script was at a higher level, but unfortunately it’s not.
Before Sumar is able to explore any of the topics she addresses in the first half of the film, Good Morning Karachi shifts its focus. Arif, Rafina’s beau, is accused of planting bombs around the city; he is summarily arrested tortured. Rosie Khala, Arif’s mom and the woman responsible for getting Rafina work, is similarly beaten when Arif is arrested. The aftermath of her beating forces Rafina to reevaluate her life and her priorities, and the movie moves from a Cinderella story to one about success and fame–the nature of it, the struggle for it, the way it comes into conflict with the life or values that preceded it. This interrogation lasts all of fifteen minutes, though, and the film shifts again. This time it becomes more prominently about the internal politics of Pakistan, and a sub-plot about Arif’s political sect that has been running in the background (mostly through audio snippets) comes to a head. A candidate for Prime Minister is killed in an explosion, and, for visual exposition, Sumar intersperses raw news footage of a building on fire. The whole conclusion lasts about ten minutes, and it does wrap up a thread the film had been vaguely pawing at for the whole film, but it does so haphazardly and without consequence. It’s the penultimate scene, but it delivers on something that is, for all intents and purposes, so divorced from Rafina’s life and her story that it seems like a scene from a completely separate movie.
The film ends on a happy note for Rafina. She is a successful model and she provides a new life for her family. After Arif burns down her billboard, she launches…an advertising campaign (it’s never quite clear) featuring an old picture of Rosie Khala lifting a burqa off her face. Rafina is interviewed about it on a talk show, and she offers platitudes about loving yourself and sharing your love. While the idea of manipulating through advertising the commodification of social well-being by advertising is an interesting idea, Sumar doesn’t leave herself enough room to dig into it; that talk show interview is the film’s last scene, and after, Sumar cuts to a still crane shot of a red car driving down busy Karachi streets. It drives, it drives, it drives, and then cut to black.
It’s unclear how we’re intended to interpret the ending, but, like everything else in the film, it’s unsatisfying if interesting.
Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer who currently serves as a regular contributor to the Comics Panel at the AV Club. His work has also been featured at Playboy, Paste, The Comics Alternative and more. Essays of his have been included as backmatter in issues of Shutter from Image Comics, and he can be found as sheahisself on both Twitter and Tumblr.