When 20-year-old Rafina talks family friend Rosie khala into getting her a job at Radiance, Karachi’s most popular salon, she thinks it’s her ticket to success. She knows she has a brief window of opportunity to try and rise above her circumstances. It’s only a matter of time before her mother passes on the financial burden of a stay-at-home daughter by getting her married off.
While she’ll rate no better than an illiterate cretin if forced to scavenge for love amongst her own kind, she knows her waif looks embody the urban ideal splashed across billboards in Karachi. She often talks to the Card Girl on the billboard facing her bedroom window, confiding secrets and sharing hopes. The Card Girl offers Rafina a tantalizing glimpse into the city's high society that she craves to be a part of.
At Radiance, Rafina experiences the fragmented structure of an evolving culture. Her work in the upmarket salon and her life in lower middle class Shah Faisal Colony together form a revealing microcosm of modern Pakistani society. Wealthy clients chain smoke imported cigarettes and gossip idly about the latest sex scandal, enduring bikini waxes, and speculating incest, while in the rest of the country, women from lower classes face a more open struggle with issues of honor, propriety, and whether the worth of a woman is tied to her head or to her body.
The contradictions endemic to Pakistan are visually represented by the cityscape of Karachi itself, where both Al Qaeda and Ecstasy maintain a presence, and Rafina’s bus rides to and from work take her past billboards urging prayers and encouraging conspicuous consumerism with equal abandon.
As Rafina climbs up the social ladder, she meets three men—Arif, Adil, and Fahad. Arif, a trade unionist, belongs to the world she is determined to leave behind. Adil, an upper class industrialist with feudal roots, brings her face to face with the raw edge of elitism. Their connection is physical rather than mental; the fact that they hardly talk to each other works to her advantage because Adil wouldn’t have been interested if he had received an earful of her vernacular accent.
Fahad, an advertising executive, rescues Rafina from the leper treatment meted out to her in social situations by choosing her as the new face for his high-budget, high profile advertising campaign. Her relationship with Fahad develops as rapidly as her career as a TV starlet.
As Rafina competes to succeed, the Card Girl seems to acquire some of Rafina’s humanism. One day as Rafina drives home in her new car she sees the Card Girl billboard in flames, and she knows something in her has died with the Card Girl.
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