With films like Swipe, Shehr e Tabassum, Pakistan’s Puffball Studio depicts dystopias that feel all too real
An app that mirrors mob justice. A dystopia where smiling is the only expression allowed. Pakistan’s Puffball Studio and its founder Arafat Mazhar skewer the mechanisms of intolerance and hate through their films.
By Manik Sharma
In the animated short film Shehr e Tabassum, the ‘Supreme Leader’ of a dystopian Pakistan in 2071 passes a law declaring all expressions other than smiling a crime. It’s the state’s way of manufacturing both consent and a flimsy yet persuasive image of a happy civilisation. People who refuse are deemed as traitors. The drugged, exclusionary vision of the future that the short film offers is eerily echoed by the present of many countries around the world.
Mimicking to an extent the consumerist hell of Blade Runner, Shehr e Tabassum released earlier this year on YouTube. Behind the film is Puffball Studio, a group of young creators from the country, led by Arafat Mazhar. In November, Puffball released its second film Swipe, a Black Mirror-ish reflection of the intolerance of today, through the lens of technology. In Swipe, an app basically mimics mob justice, by enabling users to have people executed via a simple swipe.
“My research has been centered around the way ideas like ghairat (honour), ishq (love) ghaddar (traitor) and tauheen (insult) have been distorted in the recent past and forcibly circumscribed to violence while at the same time, the definition for blasphemous or traitorous acts continue to broaden,” Mazhar says. Curiously, the protagonist of Swipe is a child. “I have seen so many videos of young people at rallies organised by religious activists and NGOs calling for violence against other groups, videos of children taking part in mob violence. I can’t help but think that we’re failing our children when we teach them manufactured meanings of honour and love that are devoid of any spirituality,” he adds.
Mazhar and his team created Swipe during the pandemic. The intersection of technology and culture is something the filmmaker has always been interested in. He also leads other initiatives like Engage Pakistan, a project that counters the country’s blasphemy laws with research and alternative histories. Procuring funding for all these projects can’t possibly be a cakewalk.
“Swipe and Shehr e Tabassum were both self-financed for the most part,” Mazhar explains. “What helps is that our team is very versatile: we have excellent traditional artists but also an excellent 3D and motion graphics team which means that we do premium service work for clients too. Aside from that, we also have an alternative critical histories channel called Hashiya, where we collaborate with local and international universities to create historical short films and explainers.”
Both Shehr e Tabasum and Swipe cross paths with technology, intolerance and the brutalising nature of consumerist economies. If empathy and humanism are shown the door, the natural course culture takes is the commodification of everything human — from faith to love. It’s a lesson the young protagonist of Swipe learns the hard way.
“We knew from the outset that both Shehr e Tabassum and Swipe would be unapologetically political films but I was just as set on making them a thrilling and evocative experience for viewers. So when we wanted to explore how different fundamental freedoms — to express, to protest etc. — are stifled in a hyper-surveillant and increasingly oppressive society, we used the allegory of a smile as the only expression allowed to citizens,” Mazhar says of his first film.
“Other times, the story writes itself: when we wanted to show a city hooked to an app (iFatwa) that generates allegations against citizens and gamifies extrajudicial violence, we would look to news stories around us to draw inspiration for the app cases,” he adds about Swipe. (The anecdotal stories that feature on iFatwa are reminiscent of outrage we witness every other day on this side of the border.)
Through both films, Mazhar channels a kind of activism that he promises the group will continue to work on. But with activism these days comes the risk of outing yourself to trolls and self-appointed moralists. It’s a price some have paid heavily for on both sides of the border, and perhaps around the world.
“I believe storytelling, fiction or otherwise, speaks to possibilities of greater awareness, understanding and connection between people and communities. I believe in creating art that speaks to our collective humanity, that forces us to think beyond our biases and our conditioned hate towards those who are different from us. With Swipe, there was no pretense about what we had set out to do: we aren’t claiming to change the fabric of our society or our thinking. Swipe is just a heartfelt plea to pause and reflect collectively,” Mazhar says.
Filmmaking is hard enough; such provocative, truthful and political filmmaking even more so. “For those who attack us online because they fear an agenda behind our films, I always try and respond to their anxieties which usually stem from perceived threats to tradition, religion, etc. Beyond that, there isn’t much that anyone can do. I think our viewers recognise and appreciate that though our films are uncomfortable to watch, they go beyond mere cynicism and derision,” Mazhar says, optimistic that his work will be afforded the tolerance his films paint the absence of.