Isma Hasan on her latest work, an animated Urdu cyberpunk film set in a dystopian Pakistan


Isma Hasan on her latest work, an animated Urdu cyberpunk film set in a dystopian Pakistan

"It's something that hasn't previously been done in the country, so there was a bit of a risk to it."

By Rituparna Som  July 10th, 2019

“Freedom of expression: a citizen’s freedom to express how they feel, as long as they remember to do it with a smile and with gratitude,” reads a tweet on the Twitter page of Shehr e Tabassum (City Of Smiles), an animated cyberpunk film on a dystopian Pakistan of 2071. Neon signs in a Japanese script-inspired Urdu typography flash against hovercraft-auto rickshaws, while an all-seeing Sauron-like ‘eye’ bathes the screen in a red gleam. It’s a world where all expressions have been criminalised, except smiling.

A still from Shehr e Tabassum

Isma Hasan, 24, the film’s creative director, has been working on the project for two years, building this dystopian world with a group of animators. Directed by Arafat Mazhar (a published researcher of religious studies) and based on an idea for a short film by Ayesha Iftikhar, Shehr e Tabassum promises a glimpse of a new Pakistan. Not only because of its premise, but also for its style— beautifully anime-like, creating a world that could stand proud next to that of films such as Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Akira (1988) or Ghost In The Shell (2017).

A character sketch in its early stages

Hasan was already part of Mazhar’s Shehri Pakistan, an Urdu animated and visual media collective that creates content on the constitution, equal citizenship and fundamental rights. “I took Shehr e Tabassum to my team at Shehri Pakistan, who were already making videos on accessible civic education through the medium of animation. That is where Isma Gul Hassan came in to the picture and I assigned her the role of creative director,” says Mazhar.

Typography designed for Shehr e Tabassum by Shumyle Haider

Ever since she was young, Hasan’s passion has been to draw everything around her. As such, with her creatively steering this project along with Iftikhar and Mazhar, she decided the way the Shehr e Tabassum world would be constructed—right from the gear worn by people in the teaser, to the design of the bots, even the overall colour palette. “To be honest, the word ‘dystopia’ is all I needed to hear to be on board,” says Hasan. “That, and the fact that it’s something that hasn’t previously been done in Pakistan, so there was a bit of risk to it.”

Isma Hasan

Hasan is practical about her expectations from Shehr e Tabassum, whose teaser has already garnered praise. “I think they [Pakistani viewers] will react to it the way people throughout history have reacted to dystopia: with either excitement or amusement, and with some level of scepticism. After all, if you create something thought-provoking and there is absolutely no criticism or negative feedback, you are probably living in a dystopia not very dissimilar from Shehr e Tabassum.”

As for what the film-makers themselves are dissenting against, they only offer: “We’d like to leave that up to the audience. We’re talking about freedom of expression, but it’s up to them to interpret the message.”