On the afternoon of March 13, 2013, architect and social activist Perween Rahman was on her way home from work in Orangi Town, a sprawling slum in Karachi’s northwest. When her car approached a flyover in a neighbourhood called Banaras, four masked men attacked her with automatic weapons. Rahman died before she could reach a hospital.
Why would someone kill a human being who had dedicated her life to assisting the poor, who believed that there was a solution to all our civic problems and who believed in taking the first step towards finding that solution? Three years after her death, there is still no answer to this question. Even the identity of her murderers remains unknown. A deep silence – and a sense of frustration – has descended upon her colleagues, friends and family as far as the reasons and the circumstances of her killing are concerned. The focus of their conversations, instead, has shifted to Rahman herself — to celebrating her life and to promoting the work that she had devoted her life to. Perween Rahman: The Rebel Optimist also does just that.
The documentary meticulously puts together her life through archival footage, director Mahera Omar’s own interviews with her, photographs and oral testimonies of more than half a dozen people whose lives she had touched, directly or indirectly, while living and working in Karachi. It brings out the warmth that defined Rahman’s personal relationships with her siblings and her long-time associates. It simultaneously also highlights her contribution as the director of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) in improving the lives of the poorest of the poor in Karachi.
The film opens with Anwar Rashid, Rahman’s best friend and colleague, travelling to Orangi in a car escorted by the police as an ominous reminder of the dangers she faced during her work. He is one of the main narrators in the documentary as is Rahman’s sister Aquila Ismail who is also its co-producer.
“Someone has got to do something,” she is shown in the documentary as saying. That Rahman became that “someone” without seeking any recognition or reward for herself is what the documentary seeks to convey.
After meeting Rahman for the first time back in the 1980s, Rashid admits, he thought she would not manage to stick around for too long: she could barely speak a coherent sentence in Urdu and had never ventured out into the streets of Karachi except for her thesis work in Quaidabad neighbourhood. He was also not sure if she had social skills required to deal with people – hobbled by misery and frustrated by their lack of resources – who could be sometimes blunt and abusive. But the rebel and the optimist that she was, she proved him wrong. She took on all these challenges and came up with solutions to deal with each of them. For one, she mapped out every lane in Orangi in her diary so that she could navigate the neighbourhood if and when not accompanied by Rashid.
As Rahman developed a sanitation programme for the utterly chaotic neighbourhoods of Orangi from the scratch, she also took it upon herself to map out rural settlements across Karachi. She believed that the authorities would not pay much attention to an area if its presence was not documented. The poor living in unmapped areas, she rightly feared, also risked losing their land to mega development projects – such as roads and flyovers – and posh residential and commercial schemes.
These were, however, just two of the multiple interests and concerns that occupied the protagonist of Perween Rahman: The Rebel Optimist throughout her life. The documentary, in fact, records everything that her life revolved around — from her love for the sea and the beach to her worries about environmental pollution and climate change, and from her focus on the issue of water theft in Karachi to her efforts for the relief and rehabilitation of flood victims.
Many in the non-government sector in Karachi believe Rahman was targeted for her work on land use in and around the city and for her opposition to illegal water hydrants that steal water from the poor. The police claim she was killed by the Taliban who were reportedly incensed by her work for the economic independence of women. Omar stays away from making any conjecture, let alone launch her own investigation into Rahman’s assassination.
As the title of the documentary suggests, the director instead focuses on finding out the sources for Rahman’s rebellion against social, cultural and economic straitjackets that keep people mired in poverty and squalor, and those for her optimistic belief that there can be solutions to these problems. “Someone has got to do something,” she is shown in the documentary as saying. That Rahman became that “someone” without seeking any recognition or reward for herself is what the documentary seeks to convey and it manages to achieve its objective quite successfully.
Omar refuses to raise the pitch and alter the tone even when these transitions involved such dramatic events as migration from Bangladesh to Pakistan at an early age and her daily commute – initially without a car – from the posh comfort of her home to the sewage strewn streets of Orangi.
The strength of Perween Rahman: The Rebel Optimist lies in its linear, no-frills attached narrative. It does not judge, let alone dramatise and sensationalise. No spectacular background score, no fancy camera work, no play with light and shade here. The documentary actually understates its contents – including Rahman’s murder mentioned in passing a few times and never shown through bullets flying and blood spilling. That, perhaps, is because of the subject matter: Rahman was nowhere close to being a flamboyant person; more of a recluse, she went about casually and silently doing the very unglamorous work of providing sanitation facilities to slum dwellers. The documentary, therefore, avoids idolising her personality and romanticising her work. Rahman is not shown to be a larger-than-life character trying to achieve miracles. It, instead, successfully suggests how a regular individual can achieve a lot by sheer focus and determination.
The film also highlights – though in deliberately subdued tones – Rahman’s humaneness: her eagerness to learn, her love for nature and animals and her close relationship with everyone in her life – from her brothers and sister to those who worked with or under her. She is shown as a careless school girl who matured fast and achieved top grades in university. From showing glimpses into her childhood and retelling anecdotes from her school days to recording her early travails as an activist separated from the place and the people she chose to work for by language and class barriers, the documentary portrays Rahman’s life as a series of effortless transitions. Omar refuses to raise the pitch and alter the tone even when these transitions involved such dramatic events as migration from Bangladesh to Pakistan at an early age and her daily commute – initially without a car – from the posh comfort of her home to the sewage strewn streets of Orangi. The result is a subtle portrayal that appeals to the mind rather than the heart of the audience.
Ultimately, Omar's film manages to capture something else: she conveys as if her subject is still present amid people talking about her life and work in the documentary — that is, until her absence starts becoming painfully obvious through poignant reminisces by her family, friends and coworkers. This quiet intensity binds the documentary and Rahman together.