24/01/2014 07:45 GMT | Updated 24/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Josh: Against the Grain (Hunger in District 131)

I often get asked what Pakistan is like. There's a lot of interest in this country, for obvious reasons: Taliban terrorizing, drones blasting, Osama lurking, law and order dissipating, Malala emerging...etc.

What does this country look like? The film Josh, touring all over the UK in ODEON cinemas this week, is one answer. I had the privilege of previewing it and speaking with Director Iram Parveen Bilal. She laughed when I told her some parts remind me of Hunger Games - except this is a true story.

2014-01-23-LandlordAssembly.png A powerful landlord controls a community who live on his land - District 131, otherwise knows as "Khuda ki Basti" (City of God). Its people toil long hours to produce wheat; their labour is a form of rent they pay the landlord. They receive a measly ration of wheat, enough to just barely survive, and most are perpetually indebted for overdue rent. Their labour will never outpace the rate at which exorbitant interest compounds and their vote is decided by the Landlord. A few leave the District to find wages. One of them is Fatima's lifelong live-in nanny: Nusrat bi.


In affluent Karachi lives Fatima, a rich Pakistani woman. With her boyfriend, she frequents celebrity parties and Pakistani haute couture shows where alcohol flows freely. Her close circle of friends includes popular faces on TV, fashion designers - many of whom are openly gay, and those on the political scene. Comfortable in her life but also strikingly odd in her surroundings, Fatima is a teacher. Her oddities include warmly greeting people whose existences are commonly overlooked - like the shopkeepers in the bazaar, the impoverished disabled roadside artist, and the drivers. She loves her nanny, Nusrat bi, and funds "Khana Ghar" (food house) her nanny's charity operation, which feeds District 131's starving 'leftover children'. The landlord's rations don't account for them.

That's what Pakistan is like - a country of immense plurality and contrast, operating in tandem but hardly intersecting. In this film you view, sense and practically smell the full range of it's largest city, Karachi.

When Nusrat bi doesn't return from a trip to District 131, Fatima crosses into the landlord's territory to investigate and finds Nusrat bi mysteriously dead. No one has any answers. Apathy, helplessness and fear are responses to her emotional outcries, from both her own and the subjects of District 131. A love triangle develops as a new friend hoping to win her affections comes to her aid, finding opportunity where her boyfriend is missing in action. Determined to find answers and to keep her nanny's memory alive, Fatima expands Khana Ghar directly challenging the landlord's powers and putting herself at great risk. Things go desperately wrong, before they get better.

In a fashion both didactic and nostalgic, the undertones of the movie call on Sufi spiritualism to revive the dying soul of a nation struggling still to gain its independence. Pakistani or not, Josh, is your passport to see Karachi, Pakistan.