A Pakistani take on mental health, identity and isolation

Stray Dogs Come Out at Night
Stray Dogs Come Out at Night



PAKISTANI short film Stray Dogs Come Out At Night has been playing at prestigious film festivals around the world and continues that impressive run at this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

The powerful drama about a young migrant coming to terms with a devastating illness is playing in competition at the festival until October 18 and the week-long screening coincides with World Mental Health Awareness Day on October 10. The film covers the themes, including sexual and mental health.

Eastern Eye caught up with the film’s director Hamza Bangash and executive producer Mina Husain to find out more about a movie everyone is talking about this year.

Tell us about the short film…
Hamza: Through this film I wanted to tell a story of desperation. I had to go back into my personal experiences of moving to Karachi, of that feeling of isolation, smallness and being another body in a migrant city. The film’s form captures the vastness of the urban sprawl, seen through the point of view of a sensitive young roadside masseur grappling with an illness that he cannot come to terms with. It also speaks to the intersection of capitalism and sexuality.

Tell us more about the film’s themes…
Hamza: Pakistan, as a hyper-masculine and sexually-repressed society, that exploits the bodies of its young population. Set in the subculture of street masseurs, who are visible on every corner past sunset, the film speaks to the human cost of feeding secret desires. Like a documentary approach, the process began with research and outreach with community members and learning from their experiences. Although fiction, the film is inspired by the stories I heard. It is part coming-of-age, a simmering reflection, and a revolt against toxic masculinity.

What made you want to produce the short film?
Mina: After the success of our first film Dia (2018), we were motivated to keep making movies about important social issues and the mental health of those affected by them. While working in Karachi, I became aware of the challenges faced by young people that have migrated from villages in Pakistan to big cities. Though this story is unique to Pakistan, the feelings of loneliness, isolation and entrapment are universal across cultures. I hope this film helps people reflect on their own vulnerabilities and evoke empathy towards those facing different circumstances.

Hamza Bangash

What inspired the interesting film title?
Hamza: Stray dogs run the streets of Karachi late at night. They come out from corners, sit in the middle of the road, are happy and carefree. We do not have a culture that cares for animals. Many feel dogs are against Islam in Pakistan, but this is our cultural feeling and not so in other Islamic cultures where animals are well cared for. So, for the last few years, there has been an extermination campaign by authorities. They spray poison on roads, so if a dog eats a piece of discarded food, it dies. The bodies are picked up in the morning. Among the dogs, the only other people you see late at night are maalishwalas (young roadside masseurs/sex workers). They sit by the roadside, clinking oil bottles, waiting to be picked up. The title came from my observations. The dogs and young men, both discarded by society, both routinely abused. Stray dogs – they only have the night

What was the biggest challenge of getting this film made?
Hamza: Due to the taboo nature of the subject matter, casting this film was extremely challenging. We reached out to hundreds of actors, and got extremely lucky with Mohammad Ali Hashmi and Adnan Shah Tipu. Hashmi is an up-and-coming theatre actor, and a true cinephile. His dedication to the role and courage really makes the film what it is. Tipu is a local legend, and for him to come on board really gave me faith in this project.

How do you feel about the film being in competition at BFI London Film Festival (LFF)?
Mina: We were over the moon when we found out. Hamza and I decided to submit to LFF on a whim and didn’t think we’d have this opportunity! I live and work in London, and feel that many of the themes in Stray Dogs Come Out At Night may resonate with multicultural population here in the UK. I’m so excited to share it on such a prestigious platform with such a wide audience.

How do you feel about the acclaim this movie has received at film festivals?
Hamza: I don’t think any of us could have expected such immense critical and festival acclaim. This is a small film, made on a tiny budget, shot over a 48-hour period. The success it’s had on the festival tour is more than we could have imagined. It’s so heart-warming to see audiences across the world connect and resonate with its message.

What key messages do you want people to take away from this film?
Hamza: To feel empathy. I believe the essence of the human experience is the same. Waves of uncertainty, doubt, loneliness and desperation are universal. Hopefully, by watching Stray Dogs Come Out at Night, by living with a community that is marginalised, the audience is brought into the fold and see the characters as not so different from themselves. This film touches on mental health.

Mina Husain

How important is that right now?
Mina: Extremely important, particularly in the backdrop of Covid-19. 2020 has been challenging and sadly, we’re seeing the effects of this on our mental health. We have already seen a rise in mental health problems, and this situation is likely to result in an increase in suicides and escapism through substance misuse. It’s the time now more than ever to look after ourselves, to lean on each other and seek support from professionals, if necessary.

Will you be making more films together?
Mina: Yes! We work well together as a team and have so much fun in the process. We have an upcoming short film, which we are excited to share early next year and are working on developing a feature film set here in the UK.

Do you think films have the power to make a change?
Mina: Definitely. Film is arguably the most influential art form of our high-tech generation. Not only a source of entertainment, they represent society, educate us and inspire us. Films can shape opinions, and therefore, our attitudes and behaviour. Because of this, we believe that we have a responsibility to portray our characters accurately, and drive a strong social message to make a positive change.

Why should we watch the film?
Hamza: To see a side of Pakistan that is rarely explored, to question your own prejudices and to visit a beautiful winter beach in Karachi.

Stray Dogs Come Out At Night premieres in competition at 64th BFI London Film Festival from 7-18. 

Watch Stray Dogs and all short films for free on BFI Player during the Festival. 



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