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
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 Rs 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 Rs 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.
As a result, big ticket Bollywood films such as Singh is Kinng and My Name is Khan, opened to full houses. Audiences applauded as the ending credits rolled at the evening show for Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, a gritty crime flick that reminded them of the city they had just escaped for the comfort of celluloid.
largest city with an estimated population of about 20 million, is rife with
crime. Muggings are common, as are cell phone robberies by gunmen on
motorcycles. When a potent mix of politically and ethnically motivated feuds is
stoked into street violence, dozens of people are killed in targeted attacks by
armed men from political parties and criminal groups. In the 1990s, when there
were several police and military led operations against criminals and political
parties implicated in the violence, Karachi would be a virtual ghost town at 10
Despite the violence, Karachi began to turn around partly because a considerable amount of money was pumped into the city during the post-9/11 years of the Pervez Musharraf regime. The city saw an uplift in terms of development projects, and low interest rates helped a burgeoning middle class get easy access to car financing and credit cards.
Entrepreneurs took a cue and capitalised on a young, urban income group that wanted to spend money—and fast. Pakistan’s most prominent coffee shop chain, Espresso, opened in 2004 as a hole-in-the-wall cafe on Karachi’s Zamzama Boulevard and inspired a dozen imitators, opening up an entire niche retail sector. Though the bubble has long burst, the heady 2000s has resulted in a more consumerist culture in Karachi, whose residents are now bigger fans of malls and multiplexes than of the traditional venues of entertainment.
But unlike the 1990s when the violence impacted the entire city, the sporadic bursts of intense violence in recent years have been largely restricted to parts of the southern and central districts. As a result, the city has become a virtual bubble. For the well-heeled with access to a car with tinted windows and a stocked kitchen, it is easy to escape the violence. Despite the weekly death tolls running into over 100 people killed in shooting sprees by armed groups, it isn’t unheard of to have concerts and plays run as scheduled.
In November 2010, as models showed off the season’s latest styles at fashion week, a massive bomb blast throughout the city as the Crime Investigation Department headquarters were attacked. Fashion week wasn’t cancelled.
Sami Shah, a columnist and stand-up comedian, once called being mugged in Karachi a “rite of passage”.
“You cannot be considered a true Karachiite if you haven’t been held up at least once,” Shah wrote, “If you have managed to avoid such an experience, then it’s probably because you are the one doing the holding up.”
Despite the usual security situation—which goes from neutral to bad to worse in a matter of minutes— people are still willing to go out and have some fun with their families and friends, which is an extremely positive development.
Despite the crime, rising inflation and political instability in the city, Karachi has somehow managed to regain a semblance of the nightlife it once had. In the 1950s and 1960s, the city played host to cabaret dancers and had several bars and nightclubs. An account of a pop concert in 1967 was described by the Associated Press as being marked with “rhythm, frenzied passion, ecstasy and exuberance”. A breathless published account of a stopover by The Beatles in Karachi featured “screaming girls” who cornered Paul McCartney, “caressed his hair and cheeks” and ripped off his shirt at the airport.
But a ban on the public consumption of alcohol and a drive to “Islamise” the country in the 1970s and 1980s put a virtual end to the boisterous nightlife of Karachi. Bollywood films smuggled in to watch on VCRs increasingly replaced all other mediums as a form of “entertainment”.
Over the years, that
has begun to change. On any given night of the week, middle and upper middle
class Karachiites have several options: attend plays and concerts, eat out at
the high-end restaurants, hole-in-the-wall eateries or roadside dhabas, sit by
the beach promenade or find a friend’s house to hang out at. Nearly every
residential neighborhood has at least one shisha café; cafés in the more
upscale areas offer both well-blended cappuccinos and a double-apple flavored
shisha. For the elite, there’s a choice of invite-only events: private parties,
fashion shows, shop openings, award shows and dinners.
Taha Durrani, a 26-year-old executive at Pfizer, is a regular at Atrium’s late night shows. “Despite the usual security situation—which goes from neutral to bad to worse in a matter of minutes— people are still willing to go out and have some fun with their families and friends, which is an extremely positive development.” For Durrani, the international food franchises that have sprung up over Karachi in the past two years—Cinnabon, Hardees and Tutti Frutti—have added to his list of options for a night out. “Most plans in Karachi revolve around food, to be honest,” he says, and even if he’s going to watch a movie or a play, the night inevitably ends at a restaurant.
Areas once renowned for their restaurants have been replaced by informal food streets, comprising a mile-long stretch of fast food and BBQ restaurants.
In Clifton, Roadside Café serves up a trussed up version of the traditional bun kebab, just two minutes away from the area’s most popular vendor—Tipu Burger. There’s nearly an Rs 100 difference between the two dishes.
Despite this, Roadside Café stands out in the area for its relatively cheap prices. While a cup of tea or coffee costs over `100 in most cafés, Roadside still serves it for half the price and offers free refills of tea. Its customers reflect a mix of Karachiites. H M Naqvi, the author of Home Boy, which won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2011, was often spotted at the café prior to his novel’s publication, a laptop cable sneaking across the floor to his seat. Supermodels gingerly pick at food amid groups of young students and teenagers sitting for hours chatting over shisha. The music selections reflect its customer base: a continuous stream of the latest releases from Coke Studio, qawwalis by Abida Parveen and Nusrat Ali Khan and 1980s pop songs by Nazia Hassan of “Aap Jaisa Koi” fame.
Sibte Sajjad, who opened Roadside Café with his partners in 2008, says that it has not just made a mark in the area, but in the city. “It’s a hangout spot. Any gora (foreigner) who is visiting, their friends bring them here.”
The reason it has that status, Sajjad says, is because of its treatment of customers. “We don’t clear out the tables the minute the bill is presented. It’s not one of the places where you dress up, eat and then ship out.”
But food and films aren’t the only option for Karachiites. While Karachi has had a long tradition of theatre, the quality of plays staged in the country stagnated in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Urdu theatre plays, which relied on a mix of ribald comedy and dance sequences, continued to thrive even though there have been consistent calls to curtail them because critics allege that they are “vulgar”.
But highbrow productions landed on the city’s cultural calendar after the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) opened up in Karachi. While its theatre company’s productions often include translations of popular English plays, it has also branched out into original productions.
According to the academy’s Zain Ahmed, it has had a “huge impact” on the theatre scene in Karachi.
“In 2008 there was no real theatre culture,” Ahmed, who manages special projects at the academy, said in an e-mail interview. “The theatre hall at the Arts Council would remain empty most of the time and would only be open for student performances by NAPA. Then in 2008 NAPA started the NAPA Repertory Theatre. In our first year we performed 6 plays for 10 nights each. Suddenly theatre was an option in the city.”