“Look how one story leads to another” is a punchline of Pahlwan, the wisecracking baddie of the Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag (2013). His rapt listeners are what the academics would call ‘subaltern’ lower-middle class young men living in congested city quarters frequenting snooker bars, gambling dens, and alcohol-fused barbeque parties on the rooftops. They seem omnipresent, occupying every nook and cranny of the non-elite areas of Lahore. Among them are Khaldi, Taambi and Chitta, three friends whose journeys highlight the various dimensions of illegal immigration or ‘dunki’ practice in the country. The film – a Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi co-direction – was part of a UN-affiliated project titled “Let’s Talk Men” which aimed to understand and prevent gender-based violence in Pakistan.
Like the three protagonists of Zinda Bhaag, Shahida Raza too had a silly moniker. Her teammates called her Chintu – due to the shape of her eyes. Since the news of her drowning alongside at least 64 others off the coast of Steccato di Cutro in Italy was confirmed last week (26th February), Shahida – donning a green coat and a gray scarf in an official headshot for Pakistan Hockey circulating on new sites – has become the tragic face of Pakistan’s socio-economic crises. It is not the extent of her desperation, though, that has disturbed Pakistanis, for in a country going through its worst economic downturn in decades where hyperinflation has tripled the price of basic food items in days, many are eyeing distant lands and the promise of stability they offer. But that a woman, a former hockey and soccer player couldn’t find a way forward here, and resorted to ‘dunki’ – that laid bare the harrowing despair of the ‘promising’ Pakistani youth right now.
Raza doesn’t fit the profile of a typical dunki-taking migrant from Pakistan. True, she belonged to the Shia Hazara community – a persecuted minority group in Balochistan – and according to friends, sought refugee status in Italy. But what led her to undertake the perilous dunki route of Iran-Turkey-Italy was the financial impasse. Just like the leads of Zinda Bhaag, who are hemmed in by the allure of dunki and the rags-to-riches story it guarantees, Shahida too saw many members of her local Hazara community successfully moving to Australia. But she didn’t have enough funds to take that way out and instead took the arduously long path to Turkey via Iran in October last year. It was from Turkey that the 29-year-old single mother would take the ill-fated vessel towards Italy, which would crash into a sea cliff, minutes away from her final destination.
At the end of a hockey match against Singapore, Shahida excitedly repeated, “I am not tired, I can play another tournament starting now!” But money and passion both dwindled. In 2019, then PM Imran Khan ordered to divert all funding of all departmental sports towards regional teams. Shahida lost her years-long sponsorship
Unlike Shahida, the leads of Zinda Bhaag match the profile of quintessential dunki-takers. There is Khaldi (Khurram Patras) a lowly electrician who, after failed attempts to legitly travel to the UK (education, sponsorship visa) descends into madness in an all-consuming quest to break out of the country. Europe turns into an unattainable beloved for him, that will lead any seeker toward certain death.
His friend Taambi (Zohaib Asghar) is a waiter at Imperial Punjab Club, who defeatedly shreds carrots as the upper-class elites discuss “liberal fascism” and Chaucer. The sequence also features a song, a riff off Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge.” Written by novelist Muhammad Hanif, the lyrics are sung by servers including Taambi, calling not for an end to despotism but for a social transformation needed in the present era, to end the absorption of subaltern voices by the bourgeois culture represented by members of the club. Unfortunately, Taambi suffocates to death and ends up as yet another nameless, voiceless tragedy on a dunki towards Greece.
The (few) women of Zinda Bhaag don’t or can’t have the neoliberal escapist fantasies which are shown to be reserved for entitled and ennui-ridden male youth. The women are either well-meaning but manipulative mothers, like Khaldi’s mother, dependent on their sons to uplift the household, or are entrepreneurial, like Rubina (Amna Ilyas), whose law-breaking is restricted to making hyperbolic marketing pitches to sell her home-made soap. It is the men, according to Zinda Bhaag, who, fuelled by consumerist aspirations, take fatal chances to get out. It is the men who feel stuck in an increasingly unequal and apathetic society. It is the men who are pressured to uplift entire households out of a hand-to-mouth existence. And, it is the men, with their inflaming carnal and material desires, who dare to escape from their lowly environments into foreign realms they imagine to be brimming with prosperity.
But ten years on, the social dynamics of dunki-taking have changed. Stories like Shahida’s should not surprise Pakistanis. A hockey player since 2007, Shahida Raza transitioned to soccer, playing for Balochistan United WFC. Both sports proved to be a source of livelihood for her. But there was passion too. At the end of a hockey match against Singapore, Shahida excitedly repeated, “I am not tired, I can play another tournament starting now!” But money and passion both dwindled. In 2019, then Prime Minister Imran Khan ordered to divert all funding of all departmental sports towards strengthening regional teams. Shahida, meanwhile, lost her years-long sponsorship with WAPDA and later with Pakistan Army, where she used to play in the departments’ hockey teams. The final straw came when she became a divorcee. The super energetic Chintoo was now “heartbroken all the time” according to a close friend.
That’s where Shahida’s arc coincides with the men of Zinda Bhaag. The economic deprivation has no gender boundaries, it was natural that Shahida, as a breadwinner of her all-female household, found herself in that enervating zone of crises and possibility like Khaldi and Taambi did in Zinda Bhaag.
”Dunki is a matter of life and death.” exhorted Pahlwan (Naseeuddin Shah) in an early scene to his horde of young male disciples, valorising the practice as some kind of a gamble that only manly men take. Just like that, an unsuccessful dunki strips away the cultivated manhood of these men, as exemplified by Chitta (Salman Ahmed Khan), who takes a dunki to Germany only to be jailed and deported after two years. “Here people think anyone who goes through dunki should either send cash or come home as a dead body,” Chitta confesses.
Shahida Raza’s mother and three sisters wait for her dead body to return from Calabria to her home in Marriabad on the outskirts of Quetta. Raza’s Odyssean march has ended, leaving a searing portrait of female despondency in Pakistan in its wake.
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