Pakistan’s port city, once a centre of cosmopolitanism, had been in cultural decline over the decades. Its theatre was shadow of its vigorous past, laws ruled out alcohol and Indian films, and a violent era saw almost unabated killings. Much of it has changed today. Some of the lost cultural space has been reclaimed, especially for the privileged classes.
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SABA IMTIAZ
ILLUSTRATION BY DEEPAK
On Saturday nights, the head waiter at Xander’s Café placates people waiting to be seated. The café doesn’t take reservations and it can take up to 20 minutes to get a coveted table on the weekend. Surreptitiously wrapped bottles of alcohol, procured from the city’s bootleggers, rest on some tables along with Chanel bags. On most days, those dining appear to have been transplanted straight out of the society pages: scions of landholding families, politicians, models, designers and media barons. The same faces are spotted again the next afternoon, sporting oversized sunglasses and taking in a selection of eggs for brunch.
Xander’s Café is the newest addition to Karachi’s roster of restaurants, coffee shops and shisha cafés. It is the current favorite of the upper echelon of society who can afford to pay up to `1,200 per head for a meal—popular dishes include mini-burgers, gourmet pizza and a prawn salad—and buy from bootleggers whose prices start at `1,800 for Absolut Vodka and Australian wine.
Halfway across town, the city’s first 3D cinema, Atrium, is showing several latest films including Bol Bachchan, The Amazing Spider-Man and Ice-Age: 4. Cocktail, the latest Bollywood release starring Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone, is fully booked throughout its opening weekend.
Atrium begins screening films at 10 a.m. and as the hours tick by, the queues increase. With boxes of caramel popcorn and plates of nachos in tow, people head into the cinema halls. There’s a bustling food court nearby which is packed after film shows.
The late night shows are among the most popular. On FourSquare.com, Cinnabon offers a special deal that is only available for users who check-in to the website after 11 p.m.
Atrium Cinema is in Saddar, one of the oldest areas of Karachi. Down the road is Cafe Subhani, among the few Iranian restaurants that have survived in the city, which serves up a mix of succulent kebabs over a bed of rice, with butter slowly melting on top. In pre-partition Karachi, Victoria buggies trundled down the streets. Today a few remain for the curious out-of-towner to take a short trip through the area, while some are hired by families in the neighborhood to take children to the old missionary-run schools. Opposite Atrium is Zainab Market, one of the city’s most popular shopping markets for western clothes.
One store stocks Zara and Mango jeans that were originally meant for export. Pashmina shawls, leather jackets and intricately embroidered cushion covers are sold year around at others. Fur traders occupy the first floor of the plaza, hawking secondhand fur coats brought in from the former Soviet states.
When Atrium opened, it had all the odds stacked against it. The area didn’t have any parking spots, it was considered “too far away” for the clientele it was targeting, and was in a decidedly “not posh” area. While the city’s older cinema district is a short drive away, few of the well-heeled families who are now regulars at Atrium ventured there because the cinemas had become seedier, mostly showed Urdu and Punjabi films, and looked run down. But the success of Atrium proved that for a quality viewing experience, people would drive to an area they may have earlier turned their noses up at.
After the import of Bollywood and Hollywood films began in earnest in 2008, the few cinemas left in the city (several were torn down to make way for shopping plazas) realised that better times were in the offing.
Nishat was one of the few cinemas that had survived the purge. To cater to the post-2008 wave of cinemagoers, it put in a new sound system, plush seats and improved security and cleanliness. Tickets are priced cheaply compared to Atrium and it has no restrictions on bringing snacks and allows children of all ages as well as single men. Traditional vendors make a killing during intermission by selling ice cream, crisps, popcorn and soft drinks in the aisles.
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