January Issue 2015

By | Arts & Culture | People | Profile | Published 10 years ago

“Agar aap cinema ko bandar ka khel hi samajhtey rahengey toh woh bhi aap ko chavanni phenkney waala hi samajhta rahega,” the late Indian actor Farooq Sheikh was once quoted as saying. Going against the tide and popular opinion, one director in Pakistan set out to change how audiences think about mainstream cinema. Unfortunately for him, the plan “backfired.”

Starting with problems with acrimonious distributors to facing ridicule at its premiere, Jami’s co-directed film — O21 — seemed doomed even before its official release, and then saw an early exit from theatres. So it’s not a surprise that the director’s idealism seems to have worn out significantly. Bitter may be too strong a word, but there is certainly a weariness that comes across. It shows in the nonchalant shrugs when talking about his past successes or in the more obvious comments about the “Bollywood crowd.” All this, despite being one of the most successful and respected directors in the country, with his imprint on many of the commercials and music videos we’ve seen on TV in the past 15 years.

I met Jami at his home on 26th street. His work-space is a creative den: Antique cameras belonging to his father rest on the shelves, his daughter’s electric guitar on the couch, a projector screen and books on everything from Iqbal to Madhubala. On the wall are Soviet-era film posters, Bruce Lee and James Dean photographs. Throughout the interview, he keeps making references to other films (“The audience was expecting Transformers, but got Inception instead”) and filmmakers (“Kurosawa is a god”). At 42, Jami retains a boyish quest for authenticity and originality — in life and art.

Going back to his early days, Jami says, “I was the worst student. I used to fail in everything. So my parents sent me off to the US to study at the Art College Center of Design in Pasadena. It was here that I learnt feature filmmaking. I returned to Pakistan in 1997, and began writing and making music videos.”

The first video he did was ‘Rakh Aas’ for Karavan, “a tribute to Pearl Jam’s ‘Jeremy,’ about a sociopathic kid.” But the bigger break he received was with Najam Sheraz’s ‘Pal Do Pal.’ Even then, you could see Jami’s real interest lay in story-telling, mostly about people on the fringe, troubled men and women or those who rebelled against convention. Starring Iraj Manzoor, ‘Pal Do Pal’ portrayed a jilted lover getting her revenge by — literally — ripping her lover’s heart out. It got censored by the authorities, and made Jami a household name. “My name went from Jamshed Mahmood to Jami overnight. I became someone. And then it just went downhill,” he says.

Downhill? Wasn’t this the period when he made a series of music videos that made waves, including Strings’ ‘Anjaane’?

“Music videos were a great launching pad, but launching into what? Cinema was dead.”

Speaking of his first feature film, Jami says, “I have nothing against genuine criticism. O21 isn’t a perfect film, I know that. But I had something different in mind. It was a film about gritty characters; they’re not good people, but we like them. The only ‘hero’ is Abdullah, played by Ayub Khoso. Everyone else is guns for hire. I wanted to make a film like Heat — I loved DeNiro’s character — and then to put it into the spy-film genre, with Sky Fall as my benchmark. The film and all the events surrounding it have completely changed me. I feel I’m much more aggressive now! For me, my film is my baby. Now if my baby goes out into the world and other people start slapping it around, I can’t just shut up about it.”

Does he feel he over-estimated the audience?

He hesitates a bit before responding. “I think I may have been too naive. I felt that if I gave a good film, that would be enough. I didn’t realise that the Bollywood-format was so ingrained.”

Jami is currently working on Downward Dog, a black and white film-noir. “It’s like David Lynch in Pakistan. It’s even more out there, so I don’t think I’ll release it for a local audience.”

He’s more optimistic about his other film, Moor, which is “in good hands.” Set in Balochistan, the film is centred around corruption in the railways. “We are all shocked when incidents like the Peshawar school tragedy occur, but we don’t look at the decades of decay that precede it,” he says. Moor is based on facts: the consequences of the government trucking system taking over transportation in the mid-80s. “From Bostan to Zhob, the trains stopped running and these areas became ghost towns. Ex-station masters were forced into poverty. You’ll find people without shoes on their feet who speak fluent English. It’s shocking, and nobody is talking about it.” Additionally, the film is about women taking charge when men crumble under pressure. “This is a male-dominated society, and it’s a society failing in every way. People are arguing about how to deal with militants. I feel it’s best to let the mothers of their victims make the decisions. They will decide in the purest way.”

This profile was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue,

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.