April Issue 2008

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | People | Q & A | Published 16 years ago

“Filming in Thar was the best part of the whole experience”

– Mehreen Jabbar

The director’s bug bit Mehreen Jabbar way back in her school days. She would round up her friends and put together eighties-inspired music videos and short skits filmed with a wobbly hand-held camera. Coming from a home in which film-making was appreciated and encouraged (her father Javed Jabbar is one of the pioneers of advertising in Pakistan and the director of Beyond the Last Mountain, Pakistan’s only English language film which, unfortunately, sank without a trace), she dabbled in advertising, but knew where her heart lay. She would scout out, and watch, obscure foreign films, lap up Bergman and other classics and even delved into old Indian films. Inspired by film-makers like Bergman, Vittorio de Sica and Mira Nair, she left for the US to complete a diploma in film-making and then returned to Pakistan to join television. After a long stint doing teleplays, Mehreen returned to her first love in 2007, when she started filming for Ramchand Pakistani. Today, she is doing her country proud by taking the film to the Tribecca Film Festival in New York, where it will premiere. Of the 2,500 entries, Mehreen’s Ramchand Pakistani is one of the 12 films short-listed for the competition category. In fact, this is the first ever Pakistani film to be nominated for a prestigious international film festival.

In between preparing for Tribecca as well as the film’s local release and working on a new serial for TV, Mehreen spoke to Newsline about her experiences while filming Ramchand Pakistani, the state of film-making in Pakistan and her future ambitions…

mehreen-jabbar-apr08Q: How did you come across the story of Ramchand Pakistani, which is based on a real-life incident?

A: Actually, my father, who has been working in the Thar region for a long time with his NGO Baanh Beli, came across this story and he wrote it down and sent it to me. It was not the kind of theme I would have normally picked up for my first film, since my sensibilities are more urbane and women-oriented. But when I read the story about a boy who wanders across the border by mistake and is taken prisoner, I loved it.

I dislike categorising films as arty or commercial, but this is not your usual Pakistani film. Nevertheless, it is a human interest story which, I hope, will have appeal across the board at home. It is a layered, quiet but very compelling story of a mother and child. And although the subject is very serious, it is not depressing. The theme is very relevant since, even today, there are hundreds of prisoners languishing in jails on both sides of the Pakistan-India border.

One of the biggest challenges was to find a child actor to play the pivotal role. I interviewed scores of children in Karachi and in other cities in Sindh without any luck. Finally, my friend Yasir Nawaz Baloch told me about a boy in Karachi who had some acting experience, and I sent my scriptwriter Mohammad Ahmed to go and meet him. His name is Syed Fazil Hussain and he blew us away. I think everyone will be amazed by him.

Q: The film seems to be something of a collaborative effort. Your leading actress is Nandita Das from India, while some of your crew was American.

A: We had four Americans on the crew. I have worked a lot with one of them while shooting plays in the US, and he introduced me to the rest. Nandita and I had spoken earlier about wanting to work together at some point and I think she was perfectly suited to this role, both physically and otherwise. She read the script, liked it and actually helped with the development of her own character a lot. Although she does a lot of alternative Indian cinema, even by those standards this was a very low budget film for her. But she was wonderful to work with and kept saying that being in Pakistan didn’t feel any different from being in India. Incidentally, the film was also edited in India. I did the first edit but then it was given to someone who is actually Shyam Benegal’s editor. He helped tremendously with the structuring and tightening of the film.

Q: The film’s music director is also Indian. Why borrow so much creative talent from across the border?

A: The music has been done by Debu Mishra, who did the soundtrack for films like Raincoat and Chokher Bali, and the songs are rendered by Shafqat Amanat Ali and Shobha Mudgal. I thought the combination of these two powerful voices would be tremendous. Then the lyrics are by Anwar Maqsood, so there is a collaboration.

All the Indians that I approached were extremely cooperative. In fact, once Debu Mishra came to Pakistan, he was so awed and stunned by this country that he would pursue me more than I did him. You know, people say they want to work with India but then resent it when you do. Seventy-five per cent of my film is Pakistani, why must we focus on the 25%. Indian films have been banned in Pakistan for the last 30 years and our movie houses are falling down. Now, at least, because of Indian films people are going back to the theatres and we can invest in them. Also, a film like Khuda Ke Liye did so well while Indian films were running [in Pakistani cinema houses]. So there’s nothing wrong with some healthy competition.

mehreen-jabbar-2-apr08Q: What challenges did you have to face while filming?

A: Well, for one, it was difficult to get permission to shoot in Thar because the area is near the Indian border and I had an Indian and four Americans on my team. Then the logistics of filming in Thar were huge. Imagine transporting 75 people to a location 15 hours by road from Karachi in the most underdeveloped region of the country. My associate producer Mariam Mukati, who is a very brave woman, made several trips to Thar and worked out all the arrangements for putting up so many people in the middle of nowhere. Hundreds of tents were erected, catering organised, we even had water tanks brought in by the local trucks, called kekras, and had toilets built. On the part of the foreigners, it definitely needed a spirit of adventure to travel to a desert in Pakistan and put up with the discomforts. All of them had upset stomachs and all of us lost weight, had hoarse throats and became very brown. But everyone says that filming in Thar was the best part of the whole experience. Getting up with the sun, setting out on long drives in the desert to the locations, and then returning at twilight… Thar was magical.

Q: So how did Tribecca happen?

A: I sent the film through some friends to be shown to Mira Nair, who is one of the reasons why I am a director today. She liked it enough to let me use her name to endorse the film in the ads and also gave us a list of festivals to which we should apply.

Festivals are important because we don’t have the budgets to market our films internationally. The festival circuit is a world unto itself and I am just learning about it. It is a very competitive market and every good film does not get noticed. You have to have a very thick skin as a director. You have to be very resilient and ready for rejection. One of the programmers from Cannes really liked Ramchand Pakistani but Cannes gives its reply in April. This put me in a real quandary, but since Tribecca was already in hand, I accepted it (a film can only premiere in one festival). Also, it will be great to premiere in New York where I have lived and worked and have so many friends.

Q: When do Pakistani audiences get to see the film?

A: Geo has agreed to distribute the film for us. Once it returns from the festival, which is in April, it will soon be screened in Pakistan.

Q: What’s on the cards after Ramchand Pakistani?

A: If I could, I would only concentrate on making films. Maybe I would choose a more light-hearted, more commercial venture next time. But I am currently shooting a serial for television. It is a love triangle starring Humayun Saeed, but the treatment is different and I hope it will stand out.

Q: You have worked in television since 1993. TV has become very lucrative but there has not been a corresponding improvement in quality. And why is every second drama shot abroad?

A: Well, it is quite difficult to get actors to give dates at home; it is easier to get them to go abroad. This is definitely the day of the actor. Also, we are more restricted in Pakistan. Abroad one can do more outdoor shoots — on the street or in a café. But yes, drama has deteriorated because we are obsessed with Indian TV.

Unfortunately, we are not being inspired by the good work being done in India or even by our own history of drama. It is crass TV now. We have wonderful actors. If you give them the right project and exposure, they can deliver. But quality is compromised by what the producer or the channel wants. I also have a big beef with what channels and advertisers are doing to drama. They do not respect what they are showing and will cut a scene in the middle to show ads. Then they have slots of 15 or 20 minutes of advertising during plays which infuriates audiences. There are many ways to regulate such issues like they do abroad. If only we could curtail our greed and become united

Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.