SOAS University of London

Centre for the Study of Pakistan

Karachi and 1960s Cinema: Cultural Wounds and the Production of Sameness

Kamran Ali
Dr Kamran Asdar Ali

Date: 6 May 2014Time: 6:00 PM

Finishes: 6 May 2014Time: 8:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: Khalili Lecture Theatre

Type of Event: Annual Lecture


In 1958, General Ayub Khan’s military regime came into power in Pakistan. It was clear to the Ayub regime that despite the banner of Muslim nationalism the pivotal cultural question was that of national integration. In Pakistan’s first decades, the state was concerned with issues related to infrastructure development, settlement of refugee populations, and national security. At the same time, though, questions related to the trauma of partition, of Urdu as the national language, and the major question of Islam’s role in political life were just as much a part of the state’s internal discussions and debates.In order to “tame” and “harness” particularistic identities of various ethnic and linguistic groups, a cultural leadership — artists, poets, writers, journalists, film producers — was recruited (the formation of the National Press Trust and the Pakistan Writer’s Guild were attempts to bring in the intelligentsia to support the cultural policies of the regime).

One medium that provided the avenue for this cultural work during the Ayub era was the development of the Pakistani cinema in the 1960s. An urban-oriented and modern narrative started being portrayed, especially in the new Karachi-based cinema. This paper concentrates on a particular film, Behen Bhai (tr. Sister and Brother, 1968), to show how Muslim nationalism becomes linked to modern urban life in this era of developmentalist politics. This movie can be understood as an attempt to address the question of national cohesion at a particular juncture of the nation’s history. It is a story of loss and redemption within the framework of the nation and its various fragments. My research interest lies in the coming together of all characters in Karachi, the most cosmopolitan space in post-partition Pakistan.The modern city, as it emerged in the West in the late 19th century (Vienna, Paris, Berlin), was characterized as a space of opportunity and emancipation. In Pakistan too by the 1960s, this modern space, the city, is considered a milieu of freedom, individuality, civic rights and democracy--albeit of the controlled type. It is contrasted with the rural, which remains the space of tradition, feudal oppression and superstition. The urban, in a teleological cultural ethos of progress, becomes the dream of becoming modern in the Pakistan of the 1960s with its promise of ‘emancipated’ lifestyles and bourgeois pleasures (cars, night life, marriage by choice). Hence, I argue that the film in its image and narrative structure represents the possibilities of a tranquil Karachi of the 1960s, where an emergent post-partition mostly ‘mohajir’ middle class considers the “pleasure” of co-existence with other ethnicities. Such a remembering of Karachi entails the overcoming cultural and ethnic difference (and production of sameness). This of course remains a class specific memory mostly shared by an elite that had investment in the politics of Muslim nationalism (now reconfigured as Islam, Urdu and urban living) linked to a modernist state during the early years of Pakistan’s existence. Behen Bhai, I would argue, remains one of the aesthetic repositories of such memories from the period.


Kamran Asdar Ali is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author of Planning the Family in Egypt: New Bodies, New Selves (UT Press, 2002). Along with Martina Rieker he guest edited Urban Margins: Envisioning the Contemporary Global South (Social Text 95), and has also co-edited Gendering Urban Space (Palgrave 2008) and Comparing Cities: Middle East and South Asia (OUP 2009). He has published articles on issues of health and gender in Egypt as well as on  Pakistan’s popular culture, labour history, urban politics and gender issues. He has recently also submitted a book manuscript on the history of the Pakistani left, tentatively titled, Surkh Salam (Red Greetings), to an academic publisher for review.

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