Sonya Rehman Qureshi

One hour with
A long time furniture enthusiast, Sonya Rehman Qureshi was well-known for her show on prime time morning television at Dawn News. But then that was her public persona. Her passion for collecting antique furniture recently resulted in an exhibition of handcrafted pieces, sharing with Karachiites the importance and need for restoration and appreciation, while also displaying her skills as a miniature artist. This restoration process has resulted in creating exclusive, handcrafted pieces for her collection, Subcontinent furniture.

Rehman says her current exhibition took four years in the making, with a single piece (like the Badshahnama chest) taking five months to paint. Here she talks to the Herald about her aesthetic inspiration.

Q. How did you start restoring antique furniture?
A. I began collecting furniture when I was 12 or 13, until I ran out of room. It wasn’t until four years ago when my daughter was born that I thought of actually restoring and passing it on. I also wanted to take away the negative connotation associated with vintage furniture, and that it belongs in a junkyard. Such pieces of furniture garner more respect from me simply because they have preceded my existence and I believe it is our responsibility to make sure that these [antique pieces] pass on to the next generation.
Q. How do you select furniture to collect?
A. I am particularly fond of Burma teak and Bombay sheesham, which is also now hard to find. I gravitate towards unique quality wood and towards a piece that has a particularly unique craftsmanship. I am also careful not to pick up pieces that are in terrible condition – for instance, a chair with two arms missing – because I don’t particularly get an old feel from them. Chips and cracks, I can restore.

Q. How would you describe the process of restoration?
A. I usually just take a particular piece home and stare at it for about two weeks, trying to figure out what kind of a polish to apply, what colours to use. I don’t always get it right. I have on occasion scraped polish off after applying it but that is what I enjoy doing. It is about the creative process of figuring out how to shape an antique piece and then seeing the actual implementation of it.

Q. What inspires your restorative process?
A. I can safely say that I have a dual personality when it comes to furniture. I am attracted to a modern art deco style as well as a traditional one. It also depends on the piece, to an extent. For example, when I acquire a classic chest, I try to preserve its classic style, and finish the piece accordingly. I also minored in Miniature Painting at the National College of Arts, Lahore (NCA) and loved studying History at school; so, that too is evident in my work.

Q. Where do your craftsmen come from?
A. I have trained craftsmen working for me. In fact, I have learnt plenty about history and furniture from them. When I am looking at a newly acquired piece, they always tell me about the era it belongs to, the wood used in its making, and how it should be restored. There’s a diverse mix of artisans and skilled people, which makes the environment creative.

Q. How do you price your furniture?
A. My pieces are expensive. I am offering unique, one of a kind products. I don’t reproduce two pieces of the same design and I consider my pieces three-dimensional art. I want my customers to be proud of owning a piece and of taking care of it. It is not bargain furniture.

Pernia Qureshi

Pernia Qureshi
Delhi-based Pernia Qureshi has, in a short span of time, successfully parlayed her valuable experience in New York into a fashion career that has included styling projects, such as the film Aisha, and working independently with celebrities, namely, Sonam Kapoor. Along the way, she has highlighted her ability to fuse elements of fashion and lifestyle, as she did during a recent visit to Karachi by bringing Italian luxury accessory designer, Corto Moltedo to collaborate with Zahir Rahimtoola of Labels for a trunk show at the multi-brand store.

Qureshi, no stranger to fashion retail, is also the brains behind Pernia’s pop-up-shop, India’s only online luxury boutique, a venture she began a year and a half ago. Selling exclusively Indian designs, she explains that her “basis for opening an online boutique showcasing Indian designers was to create more awareness about Indian crafts and expose that talent globally.” Her online store stocks designs by pioneers in the Indian fashion industry, such as Abu Sandeep and Tarun Tahiliani as well as currently popular labels, Sabyasaschi, Masaba and Anamika.

Elaborating on her scouting process for new designers, she says she discovers new talent at fashion weeks, as well as through brands who take the initiative and send pictures and look books to her. “I also randomly scout talent, on the street, at weddings, and I ask people what they’re wearing or where they bought something from.”

Discussing the difference between fashionable Indian and Pakistani women, their respective fashion industries and their shared culture, Qureshi is eager to showcase Pakistani fashion labels on her online retail outlet, and to stock labels she admires, such as Sehrish Rehan, Sania Maskatiya, Élan and Bunto Kazmi. “I don’t look at Pakistan and India as being autonomous from each other regarding aesthetic processes and tradition. In my opinion, because of their love for embroidery/printing/fabric, they reflect a shared history and tradition.” Terming the divide between Indian and Pakistani designers redundant, Qureshi points out (and quite rightly) that both countries share a rich history in the arts. Also, her personal associations on both sides of the divide remain strong given that her mother is Pakistani and her father is from India.

Qureshi’s fashion career began in New York, where she relocated to, after finishing her undergraduate studies at George Washington University in Washington DC. It was during internships with Elle magazine, with fashion designer Catherine Malandrino and publishing house Condé Nast that she learnt the foundations of the fashion business.

At the end of 2011, her move to India proved to be a natural transition, she explains, as Harper’s Bazaar was just launching in India, and was looking for talent familiar with the aesthetic of the magazine. “I began working as a junior stylist, but after a few months branched out on my own, styling fashion shows, campaigns, worked on a movie (Aisha) and it just snowballed from there,” she says.

Assessing the rise of the Indian fashion industry, she comments that the country’s fast-growing talent needs time to mature. Citing a relatively chaotic fashion business atmosphere in India when it comes to structure and organisation, Qureshi, however, says the tide is turning with young foreign graduates joining the business and beginning to implement processes that will help streamline the industry. “A generational change is now emerging. There used to be just one fashion institute, National Institute of FashionTechnology, but when I returned to Delhi but now there are many more,” she explains.

On Pakistani designers gaining popularity and clients in India, she says it works to bridge lingering differences between the two countries. Citing the recently opened Pakistan Fashion Design Council store in Delhi as an example, she says “Dialogue through fashion collaboration will no doubt open one more forum to improve [bilateral] relations.”

“The images and the content keep changing but my process of working remains the same”

ollowing the accolade of being named Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year, Imran Qureshi’s third large scale exhibition this year opened atop New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in May 2013, with a title borrowed from a verse by revered Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz — “And How Many Rains Must Fall Before the Stains Are Washed Clean.” The Herald spoke to the celebrated artist about his latest exhibition, the philosophy behind his work and the road ahead.

The right approach


In the 1970s, its manifesto helped propel Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to popularity and power, firmly entrenching its slogans into the electorate’s hearts and minds. Military regimes that followed put a halt to democratic process and, along with it, sloganeering and all that comes with it. As the May election approaches and many major parties release their manifestos, aimed at swaying undecided voters, the Herald takes a closer look at how closely promises made in these manifestos reflect civil society’s concerns.

 Party manifestos are a legitimate part of the democratic process

Yes, for the most part

There is a perception that parties produce manifestos and other policy documents simply because it is a routine exercise to do so, not as a serious undertaking in explaining their positions on important issues. The chequered history of the implementation of manifestos is, indeed, a comment on their effectiveness as policy documents. The parties seem to release manifestos because they are expected to do so by the media and civil society, not because they feel that such policy documents are important. But, regardless of their importance and effectiveness, manifestos still form a part of the democratic convention of campaigning and, therefore, have to be given due respect as manifestations of a party’s programme.

In the wake of the impending election, political parties have been under pressure from civil society groups and activists to include in their manifestos proposals on pressing issues, such as transparency and fairness of the democratic and electoral process, good governance, women’s rights, minorities’ rights, freedom of expression and the right to information amongst others. The roots of the emphasis on such democratic values and principles can be traced back to the lawyers’ movement during the governance of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, in 2007, that created a new awakening within the civil society about its own power to make itself heard. The movement shifted substantial political space towards civil society members which, helped by the media, started assuming the role of a legitimate fourth pillar of the estate that could challenge the political elite, and create an impetus for political and democratic accountability. In such a scenario, manifestos have become vetting stones to measure policy proposals and agendas of political parties in terms of the aspirations and expectations of civil society. This is where the current legitimacy for manifestos and the need to put them right stem from.

Civil society has a role in policymaking
Yes, but the media must also help

It is only civil society organisations and activists who can remind political parties that, as contenders for power, they have certain social and humanitarian commitments under international laws and agreements. These may not get the parties more votes but, nevertheless, require addressing due to obligations under the United Nations charter and conventions. For instance, Pakistan is committed to protecting child rights under the United Nations covenants so any party aspiring to come into power in the country must be aware of and follow through with such commitments.

But civil society can convey its concerns, expectations and demands to politicians and political parties only through the media. “The media reports on policy documents prepared by civil society activists, in the hope of acquiring the support of political parties,” says Fasi Zaka, one of the main authors of the Education Emergency Pakistan, a report prepared in 2011.

But I A Rehman, senior journalist and the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), argues: “Media is not committed enough to democracy or to people’s rights. Its claim to sympathy is only skin deep.”

The Long March in Lahore that mobilised civil society into action in 2007

The Long March in Lahore that mobilised civil society into action in 2007

Do parties adhere to civil society demands when constructing their manifestos?
Yes, but only partially

Ahsan Iqbal, the deputy secretary general of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) – one of the individuals responsible for his party’s lengthy manifesto released on March 7 – explains how the document was more than a year in the making. “Consultative meetings with experts and members of civil society were held for months, before ideas and scenarios were fleshed out.”

Anis Haroon, a former chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women and now the head of the Aurat Foundation, agrees that parties are taking note of civil society’s concerns while writing their manifestos. She tells the Herald how Aurat Foundation has been consulted by different political parties for its expertise and input regarding women’s rights but she cautions that there still is a vast disconnect between political officials and civil society demands. “We have to remain vigilant and active to see through the change we are working towards,” Haroon says.

Zafarullah Khan, executive director of an Islamabad-based independent think-tank Centre for Civic Education, says the problem lies with the non-institutionalised way the manifestos are written and released. “How many parties have institutionalised the process of building and maintaining specific manifesto cells where experts are brought in to discuss and advise on issues of real concern to voters and civil society members?” he says.

Even when there is an agreement between civil society and politicians on a certain issue, there are plenty of roadblocks that prevent policy documents from entering the stage of legislation. Zahid Abdullah, the programme manager at the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives who has been working towards building a model law on the right to information, says how protecting civil rights while negotiating the parameters of the proposed law was a challenging task. “When lists of exempt, sensitive information were drawn up, our team had to convince political leaders how it should be a public right to access certain information, as per international mandates.”

Iqbal Ahmed Detho, the national manager for the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, a child rights group, also claims that efforts for mobilising support for rights-based initiatives dissipates often due to a lack of political will, rivalries within the ranks of a political party, or a simple lack of understanding regarding issues.

Khan offers a solution. He wants party manifestos to reflect the aspirations of the entire country rather than the ideals and visions of a few in the party leadership. “Manifestos need to have a consensus of opinion, rather than voicing the ideas of one or a few individuals. They should include considered views, involving debate and discussion instead of echoing a single individual’s ideological viewpoint,” he argues.

Rehman believes that manifestos as they exist today are only compilations of promises made by members of political parties in order to garner votes rather than being serious policy documents. But he expects this to change if democracy in Pakistan moves ahead unhindered. “As democracy develops, however, this process is bound to evolve.”

Political developments impede the implementation
of manifestos
True, but parties need to think ahead

Political analysts point out how Pakistan is entering into a political phase where coalition governments will be prevalent in the foreseeable future. How do the imperatives of remaining in power then force parties to amend their manifestos in accordance with coalition pressures?

Khan is of the view that manifestos become a stumbling block in such a scenario and parties, therefore, need to come together and set a common minimum agenda within which to implement their policy proposals and programmes.

Raza Rumi, director at the Jinnah Institute, a think tank in Islamabad, blames the inability of governments to implement what they have stated in their manifestos on the very nascent process of democracy in Pakistan. He refers to other military-dominated countries such as Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia which have experienced similar problems within a fledgling democratic process. “We need to give more time for democracy to develop before we can begin to start holding governments accountable for their policies,” he adds. Rumi also points out how “parties do not have internal mechanisms to track manifestos and their successes.”

Should parties invest in sectors with no immediate electoral dividends?
Yes, of course, but they generally don’t

The dividends from educating a child accrue decades later — after he or she is able to join the workforce and contribute to the economy. Even then there is no guarantee that the children of today, when they grow up, will remember and vote for the parties whose policies have benefited their educational careers.

The need for a long-term commitment to issues such as education, health, women’s rights and child protection is what holds parties back in investing political capital in them. To put it mildly, says Rehman, “those who do not count in vote banks, are of no interest to politicians.” This, he says, is the reason why women and children are voiceless. “They are not able to bring a political party into power. They, thus, remain marginalised.”

Rather than focusing on addressing policy and structural issues on areas such as education and health, parties instead focus on using them as a means to generate employment opportunities for their voters. “That is why Pakistan’s largest cadre of civil servants is teachers and ghost schools flourish because giving voters jobs as teachers is the most popular way for an elected politician to give back to his constituency,” says Zaka.
To rectify the situation, politics and policy have to been seen as distinct from each other, he says and adds: “Once politics and policy can be distinguished, the whole system will fall into place.”

The right approach

In the 1970s, their manifesto helped propel Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to popularity and power, firmly entrenching its slogans into the electorate’s hearts and minds. Military regimes that followed put a halt to democratic process and, along with it, sloganeering and all that comes with it. As the May election approaches and many major parties release their manifestos, aimed at swaying undecided voters, the Herald takes a closer look at how closely promises made in these manifestos reflect civil society’s concerns.

Party manifestos are a legitimate part of the democratic process

Yes, for the most part.

There is a perception that parties produce manifestos and other policy documents simply because it is a routine exercise to do so, not as a serious document in explaining their positions on important issues. The chequered history of the implementation of manifestos is, indeed, a comment on their effectiveness as policy documents. The parties seem to release manifestos because they are expected to do so by the media and civil society, not because they feel that such policy documents are important. But, regardless of their importance and effectiveness, manifestos still form a part of the democratic convention of campaigning and, therefore, have to be given due respect as documents of a party’s programme.

Interview: George Galloway

Q. You’ve enjoyed a long political life, starting as a party worker at the age of 13. What have been some of the highlights of your political career?
The first highlight was my by-election victory 11 months ago in Bradford because my enemies didn’t expect it. It was a landslide victory, and by far the biggest by-election victory in British history by a margin of 18,000 votes from nowhere after a 19-day campaign. It was truly historic, and it put me in the record books forever, I suspect. The second highlight would be my appearance in the US Senate in 2005.

Q. You mentioned earlier having some differences with the late Benazir Bhutto. Would you like to elaborate?
Yes, we argued on a lot of issues. I believe, like I have for a long time, that Pakistan has been far too close to the US. It is an unnatural relationship. You have better friends; you should look [towards the] East rather than [the] West. You should not imagine that the US has your interests at heart; it doesn’t.

Ad infinitum

In a strange notion of displacement, I have been contemplating, rather mightily, about the geographical juxtaposition I exist in, with my body here and my mind elsewhere. It could be that I yearn for a different sort of Karachi, or that as the holiday season approaches and I search failingly for festive lights, music and spirit. It could also be that the one activity, us here on this side of the planet do not get to indulge in, is simply exploring the city on foot.

On those such days, my head wanders over to the familiarity of cold concrete, the cacophony of rush-hour traffic, mostly and specifically irate taxis, the shouts and cries of adults and children alike, the throngs of pedestrians on the harangued streets, from all walks of life, making one wonder how many people remain employed in the city, New York city that is. For if they don’t, it would be understandable, no city in the world would offer a more guilt-free, activity-ridden environment to exercise and indulge one’s unemployed excesses in, a trove of treats for the senses so to speak, and yet, speaking as one who has experienced both sides of the coin, more often than not, they do, and that power-ridden, adrenaline-surged walk is in fact replete with much harrowing ambition, the mighty will to excel their pace and simply push past through the maddening crowd (both literally and figuratively), ignoring the imperative need to just slow down time, a couple of seconds, a couple of minutes, to grab a bite (whilst walking of course), but instead keep moving to meet their next appointment on time. The city is constantly in a state of flux, seldom without pulsating activity, never sedentary, never devoid of thought and movement.

Transiting from one location to another is the very nerve centre of this city. In the city of inspiration, adrenaline is rampant in the air, a quiet energy, a force you cannot explain, only experience, as uptown, midtown and downtown all convulse into one large geographical combustion of excesses and ambitions, personas and will. This maddening activity, this walk, whether through the throngs or in solitude (a rare feat unless you’re walking through the largest backyard the city has to offer, Central Park, all 840 woody acres of it) all allude to the perennial tempo of the mind, the senses and the conflicts within. On some days, it is almost a sixth sense, where when rubbing shoulders with your fellow accomplices on concrete, you almost seem to be able to discern their lives through snippets of conversation, being reminded of the shared ambitions, concerns and experiences, making the walk both visceral and poignant, and less harried reminding yourself you share the same experience essentially.

Some of my best and worst moments, whether thinking, speaking or dreaming, anguished or giddy were spent in this very activity. On days when your mind is operating at a maddening speed of light, the rest of the sights whilst walking become very much blurred. Suddenly bright yellow taxi-cabs become fuzzy little dots as they whiz past you, continuing past dusk as they render the backdrop of skyscraper lights the same quality. Conversely, the lines in the cracks on pavement are visible ever so clearly when the head is clear and the mind not conflicted.

I was not present there on 9/11, nor experienced hurricane Sandy or its aftermath, but looking at these events in retrospect and assessing from my short time there, it became abundantly clear that New Yorkers certainly do not change. As much as the hordes of tourists render them unfeeling and curt (a misnomer, as most are helpful and lovely and ever ready to guide a lost wanderer on foot), it remains clear that they still operate as one collective being, tied by the geography of the island and the grid that makes up the city. What they have in common binds them together, walking the traversed streets, visiting the same coffee bars, finding their way about through ubiquitous signs on familiar intersections. The walk taken on solely, is binding in retrospect by the very nature of these activities New Yorkers indulge in, seamlessly woven into the fabric of living in the city, its DNA, or genetic pulse, even more so than a fellow New Yorker on a sidewalk with their arm raised upright, signalling for a cab. It is whispered to them, like a secret, as they make the city their home, and on those days it’s hard not to remember Frost’s words echo through one’s head as New Yorkers really do have miles to go before they sleep.

The writer is a part of Herald’s editorial team.

The youth factor

Thousands of PTI supporters demonstrate in Islamabad in support of the Supreme Court’s contempt of court verdict against former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. AFP

Cries about change and a “tsunami” of young voters overrunning all else revive memories of a different era of political activism, calling to mind the lost fervour of the student and youth movements of the late 1960s, mobilised by the revolutionary sloganeering of Che Guevara and Mao Tse-tung. The impact of those charged days was evident in Pakistan too, with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto first riding in on the crest of youth activism in 1968-1970 and then falling victim to it in 1977.

As much as mainstream political parties in Pakistan try to revive that lost era of youth mobilisation today, their efforts appear to fall short, leaving many in the media to speculate that the so-called “youth vote” in Pakistan is more a mirage or an illusion, rather than a reality.

On paper, the youth bulge is undeniable. The latest electoral lists contain 83 million registered voters, of which 47 per cent are under 35 years of age, coming to about 40 million people. Voters falling in the 18-25 age bracket alone are a little more than 16 million — about five million more than the number of votes polled by the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the 2008 elections. The Herald looks at how this demographic development will impact the upcoming general elections.

The parties weigh in

Some political parties have aggressively campaigned to gain the attention of young voters over the last 12 months or so , with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) taking the lead. Being a relatively new addition on the political scene, it has built a more extensive ‘fan’ base in the youth-dominated sphere of cyberspace than any other party in the country by utilising avenues that others have not yet explored. With its Facebook page boasting 350,000 (and counting) “likes” and a separate youth page, the PTI is targeting these young individuals as the core focus of its election campaign. Besides public rallies, the party is also employing personalised telephone messages and videos disseminated through social media networks, all in an effort to mobilise the youth.

Muhammad Najeeb Haroon, a founding member of the PTI, confirms this when he says his party is committed to “addressing the concerns of the disillusioned youth, regardless of which background or stratum of society they come from.” Through promises of a better economic environment and increased job opportunities, the PTI aims at “providing youth with a place to voice their concerns, especially for those young adults who grew up in the tumultuous political environment of the 1990s,” he adds.

In another measure aimed at catering to the political ideals of educated, urban youth, the PTI is campaigning on a plank of openness and meritocracy. It is making its leaders declare their assets and has announced that it will give its members the final say in deciding who the party’s election candidates will be. How the party sells its ‘electable’ members such as Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Makhdoom Javed Hashmi – who have been groomed in the very political values the PTI claims to eschew – to its idealist youth electorate will be one of the greatest electoral challenges it will face on election day.

Other major parties are also doing their bit to court this particular set of voters. Since coming into power in 2008, the PPP has aggressively been encouraging citizens to register with the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) and acquire Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs). The reasons are twofold: firstly, only a CNIC holder can benefit from public sector welfare schemes and bank and government loans which serve to motivate voters; secondly, without a CNIC a person can neither register as a voter nor cast a vote. The majority of new CNIC holders and voters are expected to belong to rural areas where the PPP believes itself to have a strong vote bank and where Nadra has more of a presence now than it did in the past. The majority could also be young people who need government documents for acquiring government jobs, grants, loans and other things more than the elderly do. This may point towards the PPP’s electoral strategy for the next election. The party also seems to believe that its new crop of leaders – Bilawal, Bakhtawar and Aseefa (children of Asif Ali Zardari), all in their early to mid-twenties – will be able to attract voters from their own age group in large numbers.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) has launched Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, as the young face of the party. It is also trying to appeal to students and their parents by distributing thousands of laptops among position holders in school and college examinations.

Which way will the wind blow?

While almost every political party is doing its part in attempting to attract youth voters, the job of those in the opposition or those outside the parliament is easier than those in office. Those not in power can easily target the disillusionment of a young electorate, perturbed by ever-increasing lawlessness, corruption, the energy crisis and a general mismanagement of economic affairs. Whether their efforts will result in these parties winning seats in the upcoming general election is a question different people answer differently, depending on their political affiliation.

For Raza Rumi, director of Policy and Programmes at the Jinnah Institute, an independent think tank based in Islamabad, the next election will see a rise in voter turnout and increased participation by young voters, especially in urban constituencies. Yet, he says, the effect will not be huge. It will only create a ripple, “narrowing the margins by which mainstream parties will capture seats in the parliament.”

The known unknowns

A youth vote is easy to talk about in urban constituencies with high literacy rates and easy access to computers and the Internet; it is simple in such an environment to disseminate political messages through social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. In more far-flung agricultural communities, the youth’s manifestation as a political phenomenon remains elusive. In rural areas, political parties, including the tech-savvy and slogan-heavy PTI, will rely as always on a combination of personality-driven politics and local development agendas. Given that 65 per cent of the population in Pakistan still lives in rural areas takes much wind out of the sails of youth mobilisation.

Another problem is the absence of comparable data from the past. The Election Commission of Pakistan does not collect and disseminate a break-up of polled votes on the basis of the voters’ age-group. Nobody knows how voters falling in the 18-40 age bracket, for example, have acted during polls in the last election; whether they turned up in large numbers at the polling stations or stayed at home for the most part is perhaps the best kept election secret in Pakistan. Consequently, as we do not know if youth participation was higher or lower in past election, there can be no definitive way of gauging whether it will increase or diminish in the upcoming polls.

There are no empirical studies interpreting voting patterns among youth, and no verifiable statistics concerning the possible impact of factors such as the media, peer and community groups or the political and educational environment on voter behaviour. Similarly, there is no research to understand how young people develop an allegiance to a particular political party or leader — is it because of party leadership, its policies or a combination of the two? These questions have never been studied in detail.

Whether political parties’ moves to attract young voters reflect a growing importance of youth in the national political arena is also not quite obvious. After all, in the run-up to the 2002 general election, the government of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 . The move was certainly not a result of domestic pressure from the country’s youth, instead, it came about as part of the electoral reforms Pakistan is committed to undertake because of international conventions.

The known knowns

Between 1997 and 2008, there have been 26 million new voters in Pakistan. Most, if not all, of this increase can be attributed to the fact that the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 in 2002. On paper, this suggests that there must have been a big increase in the number of young voters; yet there is no data assessing how many of these new voters went to polling stations to cast their votes in 2002 and 2008. Even if most of them did, their participation did not result in a large-scale shifting of political patterns — the beneficiaries of their votes remaining the same much-reviled dynasty-led traditional parties. Available data also suggests that voter turnout increased from 41 per cent in 2002 to 44.4 per cent in 2008, despite the fact that the PTI, the self-proclaimed party of the youth, boycotted the last polls.

Bring in the vagaries of the first-past-the-post voting system that Pakistan adheres to, where elections are not necessarily won by the contender receiving the most amount of votes, and you have in front of you a clear electoral challenge. Mudassar Rizvi, who heads the Free and Fair Election Network, a conglomerate of civil society organisations working on elections in Pakistan, highlights the highly erratic nature of the system. “The 2008 election saw the PPP gather close to 11 million votes and acquire 95 National Assembly seats [out of a total of 272 general seats]. The PMLN came second with 72 seats, though its vote tally was close to seven million. The Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ) came third with 41 seats, even when it received about one million more votes than the PMLN did,” he explains. A similar trend can be seen in the case of the 2002 general election when the PPP received 7.6 million votes and captured only 64 seats, and the PMLQ, which received 7.5 million votes acquired 92 seats. Simply put, even if a party polls all the youth vote cast across Pakistan in the coming election, it may not end up sweeping the polls because, as the statistics suggest, winning a large number of parliamentary seats is not quite the same as getting a high number of votes.

Secondly, Rizvi argues, “one constituency’s electoral behaviour remains independent of another constituency’s behaviour, thereby making it futile to make any political projections and generalisations [and predict] outcomes.”

The road ahead

And so the question presents itself — can a young electorate significantly shift electoral momentum in the direction of change that certain political parties contend as being the demand of Pakistani youth? Can voters in the 18-40 age bracket change the face of Pakistan and Pakistani politics?

Answering these questions in the affirmative may seem too idealistic, given past voting statistics, or the lack thereof. Whether a need and impetus for change are real, or whether political parties are talking about the youth and pandering to its presumed demands merely as a new unexplored angle to win the next election can only be answered after the voters have given their verdict.

What is already becoming clear, however, is that the youth vote cannot be seen as a monolith: it has to be understood and analysed within the confines of constituency politics, as well as other contextual ingredients such as literacy, location and the socio-economic environment. By no means can it be considered an indivisible factor that can determine the result of an election on its own. Rumi, for this reason, rules out a path-breaking poll result in 2013 and advises caution in evaluating the impact of the momentum that youth awareness and participation in the political process may create. “The emergence of the youth vote as a swing vote is still far from being [the agent of] change,” he says.

The youth factor

On paper, the youth bulge is undeniable. The latest electoral lists contain 83 million registered voters, of which 47 per cent are under 35 years of age, coming to about 40 million people. Voters falling in the 18-25 age bracket alone are a little more than 16 million — about five million more than the number of votes polled by the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the 2008 elections. The Herald looks at how this demographic development will impact the upcoming general elections.

Moment of success

Co-producers Meher Jaffri and Summer Nicks. Photo by Malika Abbas/White Star

Co-producers Meher Jaffri and Summer Nicks. Photo by Malika Abbas/White Star

The air is brimming with energy and excitement at Bodhicitta Works’ cosy headquarters in Karachi. Everyone, from the assistant director to the producers, it seems, is basking in the glory attributed to their film Lamha (Seedlings) being selected to be screened at the New York City International Film Festival this month. That the film is one out of 20 chosen to be screened in their entirety at the festival, out of 2,000 initial entries and 178 shortlisted ones, justifies the enthusiasm.

“It’s a huge honour and we still wonder how we managed to produce this film,” says producer Meher Jaffri. Summer Nicks, an Australian child-actor-turned-scriptwriter, singer/songwriter and film-maker who wrote the screenplay, is also co-producer, agrees this is an unexpected achievement.

The venture began after a chance meeting between Nicks and Jaffri when she sought his help for a documentary she was working on. This led to them talking about their respective film interests and several screenplays that Nicks had already written but had not yet materialised due to lack of funding and various other reasons. Together, they brainstormed ways to bring to fruition a script he was working on; then brought on board director Mansoor Mujahid (who also directed Lamha), and the three collaborated to produce a concept trailer for the sci-fi thriller titled Kolachi. The trailer since then has gone viral on the Internet. “Lamha was born out of Kolachi, so to speak,” laughs Jaffri at the serendipity of it all.

As the two began approaching investors and distributors locally (and getting the “don’t call us, we’ll call you”), their luck began to turn when an Australian company (Ice Animations) showed interest in Kolachi, partnering with them to seek international distribution and funding for the film. Because the film’s scope and budget was far greater than planned, they decided to file it away until adequate funding was available.

“We wanted to do it the right way and that would take some time so we decided to go ahead with a smaller-budget film that Summer had penned in the meantime,” explains Jaffri. With no name, no money, but big ambitions, the two set out to begin the whole Kolachi process over again, raising the money and discovering acting and musical talents in the country — and so was born Lamha.

The two would meet diligently after having quit their respective jobs (Jaffri worked at the Acumen Fund and Nicks was at MTV/Indus TV) to try to figure out how to start breaking down the script in order to make some semblance of a budget to “let us know what kind of beast we were dealing with,” says Jaffri. “The idea was to do as much due diligence as we could because we were wading into unfamiliar territory and in an industry that could barely be called that. I knew that no investor in Pakistan would be looking at film as a viable investment vehicle, nor had a film like this been made inPakistan, so we were smack in the middle of ‘market creation’ territory.” A daunting task, no doubt, but the two were determined.

Normally film-makers with a longer pre-production process find themselves in various degrees of comfort during and after production, having all their ducks in a row. But here, their sense of unpreparedness came as a great respite. “We were blown away during auditions by Aamina [Sheikh] and Mohib [Mirza],” Jaffri says. “It was a breath of fresh air when these veteran actors asked to read [the script] for us. The integrity and sincerity with which they approached the whole film reinvigorated us. It was them who gave us the final push we needed to consider making this as a feature film rather than as a telefilm, as initially proposed,” they explain.

How have people responded to the success of the film? “The feedback has been overwhelming although we received a bit of flak from people who resented the fact that we weren’t releasing the film in Pakistan first,” continues Jaffri. She says they will release the film here if they manage to attract a distributor. In any case “the movie is not necessarily Pakistan-centric; it’s a human story,” says Nicks. He therefore believes “there is no reason for it not to be appreciated locally as well as internationally.”

When asked about the state of the film industry in Pakistan, Jaffri argues that people should talk, blog and write more about it, demanding that local films be screened so the industry gains momentum. “A lot of people told us that Pakistanis won’t understand or enjoy a film like Lamha. While I understand the need for every business to monetise its ventures, there is nothing to be gained by dumbing down our audiences, and certainly there is no creativity in that. The challenge is how to create avenues for different genres of Pakistani film,” she says.

What genre would Lamha fall into then, I ask Nicks, whose simple response is parallel or art-house cinema, contributing to their funding dilemmas followed by distribution problems. Alternative cinema has such huge scope here yet little support, they lament.

What happened to those glorious yesteryears we experienced with the Pakistani film industry, I ask. “We are unfortunate to have disappeared into oblivion after our golden era,” Jaffri explains. “General Ziaul Haq created such a dark hole in terms of creativity. He shut down cinemas, all social spaces, coffee shops, artists’ communes and essentially took away peoples’ imaginations, places to think, exchange ideas and conduct dialogue,” Nicks continues. For young film-makers like Jaffri and her crew, he says, “it’s really like starting all over again, reinventing the wheel if you must, but in a different direction”. Not to say that there is nothing to learn from the past. “It is important we remember our history even while moving on,” adds Jaffri.

While talking to the duo about the challenges they faced in producing and financing the film, it becomes apparent that it is their determination that distinguishes them from many other local film-makers who might have wrapped up the project daunted by the difficulties. Talent aside, it took a whole lot of perseverance, knocking on doors and hustling to get attention for a project that should have had industry veterans and sponsors interested in the first place. “Every country in the world fosters and subsidises its film industry, so why can’t Pakistan?” asks Jaffri. She points to how film industries in other less-developed countries are pushing forth and thriving. “[Look at] Iranian cinema for one; Afghan cinema [also] has a film body supporting it.”

She also argues that both the public and private sectors should come together to support young film-makers. “The support should come from the media industry. It is unfortunate to see support mainly concentrated on mainstream cinema, but I suppose that’s how commerce works,” she continues. Nicks, however, insists that demands for support are not all about money. “It’s about creating platforms, creating momentum in the industry.” It certainly hurts the industry when talent like Ali Zafar goes to India and Usman Riaz travels to London to work, laments Jaffri.

Paradoxically, she is also optimistic about the future of films in Pakistan. “We have brilliant young talent beginning their careers; we have Ali Kapadia, Bilal Lashari, Humayun Saeed, and it is admirable that these artists are pushing through just for their love of the craft, without any training and grant funding,” she says.

With a thriving Indian film industry attracting global attention, one can scarcely ignore how Pakistan’s nascent industry compares with a fully grown industry next door. Jaffri feels that both industries share the same heritage so should not lose that common tradition and instead learn from history. A thought-provoking parting note on collaboration leaving us with much to ponder over.