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Stories from Pakistan: How a Lyari boy made his way to become a globally celebrated film-maker

Iraj Rashid

Writer and learner. Making an effort to build a better self and better world while I'm here.

(3 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

The people of Lyari can be best described in Adam Levine’s words when he says, ‘Are we all lost stars, trying to light up the dark’.

A town plagued by gang wars, political violence and shady activities, the talent hidden underneath its roofs is often neglected. While the rest of Karachi ‘carefully’ isolates this area as an unsafe place, there are people in Lyari who struggle to get their voice heard over the sound of blaring headlines which only talk about its shortcomings.

Budding sportsmen, struggling teachers, and shadowed artists. These people make a huge chunk of this town. Their struggle is not just about the city’s violence or peace, it is also about keeping their identities intact while portraying their talents, without being walked over for merely belonging to a place called Lyari.

Moving past the stereotype, in an effort to find a voice, we came across Haseeb Halai. A living breathing example of how your hard work can take you places. A filmmaker by chance, who made his way through the ‘Lyari tag’, fancy city life, and the Pakistani border, purely through his work.

Sitting across the two of us, amateur writers, he warned us of how he was an amateur at giving interviews. There, we reassured him, we were more nervous about taking them, and we let this be a conversation.

A cricket fanatic in school, Haseeb played the game passionately. He saved up to get himself a bat which was quickly detained by his elder brother. He regularly went to practice every Friday and Sunday until he made it to the under 14 cricket team. However, under pressure to pursue his studies and make a better living, he had to quit. And if you’ve ever played a sport, you’d know that never winning is bearable, quitting isn’t. The other side of the story wasn’t too gloomy.

In the beginning my family didn’t allow me to go to the academy alone, my grandmother used to accompany me on Fridays and my sister used to accompany me on Sundays (she used to study for her intermediate and I used to play)”

He starts with telling us about how he literally stumbled across the program of Media Studies in university.

“My intermediate was with commerce and I was always good at numbers so I wanted to continue with it therefore I thought BBA will be the best choice, plus I had a business mindset. And I wanted to relate myself with the corporate world. I never regret not getting into BBA.”

A mediocre degree, according to most brown parents, he was reprimanded at failing to make it to the business program of IoBM which is among the top ten business schools in Pakistan. Fate has its ways of throwing you into your life’s purpose, and so it loaded Haseeb’s admission interview with media-related questions as if the university had already seen the filmmaker in him. Sounds very much like Harry Potter doesn’t it?

My elder brother is my guardian, I had a lot of pressure from home and I was even scolded at the result because they thought I didn’t study well, I couldn’t get into IBA(another prestigious business school).”

University started with a quite surprising program and Haseeb struggled to accept it. The degree was new, the courses were unique, and then there was the challenge of fitting in amid elites who backtracked at the sound of Lyari.

“First year at university was the hardest due to the peer pressure, my now-very-good-friends used to call me ‘Lyari boy’ back then, so I had a tag stuck on me. I only had one friend, low self-esteem, and hardly any confidence. I used to shiver while presenting because I couldn’t speak good English.”

As they say, a diamond is just a piece of coal that does well under pressure, Haseeb started working himself into that diamond and stood out well. He scored high in his production courses and long gone was the plan to switch to a business degree.

Muje shuru mein bura lagta tha when people used to call me Lyari boy lekin I talked to my teacher and my brother. They told me that this tag ‘Lyari boy’ is not a weakness, it is a positive sign. Jab mein yahan se wahan ja sakta hun toh ye achievement hai na meri ki wo log jo Defence se arahay hain wo bhi yahi kam kar rahe hain.”

(Initially, I felt really bad about being called a Lyari boy but talking to my teach and my brother made me realise that it wasn’t really a weakness, it was in fact, a strength. If I can make it here all the way from Lyari then it is an achievement that I am at the same level as the rest of my fellows, who come from posh areas and privileged backgrounds.)

First semester, I had a lot of pressure on me but I managed to do well in my courses and I never switched. My teacher’s feedback always inspired me to continue, I started liking it, there was a course of photography in which I had different assignments, and I was better at it from a lot of other people. We had a chance to exhibit our pictures, and much to my surprise, I got good feedback.”

It was not long before the filmmaker in him charged up and through passion and self-study, he was delivering brilliant work. So much so, that people, from being area sceptics, started to look forward to his thesis. They had expected something amazing and that is exactly what happened. Haseeb’s team won the best thesis award.

“I remember I had a videography course and there was no assignment but I had an idea in my mind and I had 1000 rupees at that time. I went to the grocery store bought good colourful vegetables and went to the kitchen, took some stuff from there and made a video with white background that presented food in slow motion. I showed it to my teacher and my friends and got a lot of appreciation.”

Then Korea called. The goblet of fire at IoBM decided to give Haseeb a chance to play in Asia’s largest film festival in Korea. He was shortlisted for an exchange program and another surprise hit him, only this time it was nicer.

Haseeb spent days practicing to wake up without having his mother to shrug him and another challenge was to speak fluent English. He watched 28 films in 10 days and met the legend Anurag Kashyap (yes, the Indian big shot ya’ll want to meet)

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He stares out the window of the 13th floor building, glory shining in his eyes as he shares his family’s reaction of how proud they were.

Mera bhai bhi bahar ja chuka tha toh it was a tradition I was repeating ke mein bhi bahar ja raha hun. They supported me a lot. Family ki taraf se mujhe hamesha support mila hai.

(My brother had also travelled abroad so I was following his tradition. The family always supported.)

Curious about his Korean experience, we urged him to tell us more about his days spent over there. Haseeb was impressed at how professionally they worked. He also told us how he was homesick and he did not leave the hostel for 15 days straight.

“Best thing about such programs is that you get to learn about yourself. When you live with your family, you always have someone to fall back on. Here, it’s just you who genuinely cares about you.”

When asked about his inspiration and what pushed him further, Haseeb mentioned how his elder brother is his role model.

My brother is my inspiration. He has worked hard right from the beginning –  by being a food hawker, setting up a bicycle shop, selling pan. He changed himself through education and is now a teacher at Sir Syed University.”

Haseeb also shared with us what inspired him to develop a story about this boy who lived in interior Sindh (his thesis). He told us that movies like Moor, Immortal, and a couple of others gave him the idea for this film. He currently has some documentaries lined up which will be released soon and he also mentioned that he plans to make a documentary about the life of ‘truck drivers’ – from Khunjerab Pass to Karachi, but due to the lack of availability of resources and the problems associated with it, he still hasn’t been successful at it.

Despite the hindrances, Haseeb plans to work full time in Pakistan. However, he thinks there is no harm in going abroad and learning to be better at what he does.

Recently, one of his documentaries won the best documentary award in Ziauddin Film Festival. This one is about Lyari. Haseeb followed three people over there and covered their stories ( a photographer, an actor, a musician). It’s called ‘Lyari Successors’

When asked if Haseeb was working on any projects in Lyari which were, in any way, benefitting the town or giving back to the people- he told us about vocational trainings and skill development programs that are currently under way and have been quite successful at bringing out new talent.

Haseeb recently got a chance to cover Pakistan Super League at Dubai and a Festival called Gulfood, which is the largest food festival in the world.

As Haseeb’s story neared its end, we could only sigh and wonder at how much more Lyari has to offer to this city. Looking out the window, at the wide landscape of Karachi, we could not help but think about how many souls and stars waited out there, trying to light up the dark.

Edited by Khujista Zehra

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(3 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)