Watching Zinda Bhaag, it’s easy to forget that the film is from across the border.
The tale of Khaldi, Chitta and Taambi, three Lahore friends struggling to escape their dead-end existence by getting a job – any job – abroad, could be the story of someone in Amritsar, Indore, Pune or Patna. Lahori mohallas, where shady deals are conducted under fluorescent light, look like small towns just outside your city.
And the powerless desperation that drives every dangerous shortcut? We’ve all been there.
But some Indian connections are hard to miss. There’s Naseeruddin Shah playing the small-time gangster, Pehlvan, who’s made crime his ticket out of the mess. And of the film’s two directors, Meenu Gaur is Indian, as are sound designer Vipin Bhatti, cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul and editor Shan Mohammed. Zinda Bhaag, a triumph for Pakistan at festivals, from Canada to Abu Dhabi, is a celebration for India as well.
Them or Us?
India-born Gaur explains that the film was born out of stories of close friends and family in Pakistan, where she’s lived for seven years. "These are actual tales of the boys of Lahore," says co-director Farjad Nabi. They’re actual boys of Lahore too. The directors convinced powerhouse thespian Naseeruddin Shah to train amateur locals for the three central roles to keep Zinda Bhaag’s feel intimate and unpolished. “Never mind that they weren’t trained actors," Gaur says. “Many hadn’t even had formal education. About 95 per cent of the crew were on their first feature film too."
The Other Side
Where local talent fell short, India happily stepped in. Punjabi cinematographer Nagpaul flew to Pakistan and “blended into the local milieu” says Gaur. Shan Mohammed edited the scenes filmed in Lahore from a guest house in Delhi and his home in Mumbai. “They tried to get me to come to Pakistan but it didn’t work out, so it just made sense to do it here,” he says. It worked seamlessly. “It just shows that the culture and the sensibility of the two countries are more similar than different."
Sending the film to Malaysia for post-production was similarly worry-free. “There are shades of Punjab in India and Pakistan,” says Nabi. “No one could tell they were working on a Pakistani film, and not a Bollywood one."
Producer Mazhar Zaidi describes Zinda Bhaag as a portrait of everyday Pakistan without “pigeonholing the country and its people”. That explains why it has struck a chord with people far beyond the subcontinent. “I was humbled when a Bulgarian woman met me after a screening in Toronto and said ‘the three boys in your film are like the boys I went to school with!’” says Zaidi. “For me , this totally encapsulates the global response we are getting."
With the film becoming Pakistan’s first Oscar submission in 50 years (it failed to make the shortlist though), that response has gone into overdrive. “We’ve been on a roller coaster, swerving from extreme to extreme and riding the wave of goodwill,” says Nabi. The rest of the team is similarly exhilarated – no matter which side of the border they’re from. “None of us knew this was going to be an Oscar contender when we started work on it,” Mohammed says. “We didn’t care that this was a Pakistani project, we just wanted to be true to the story.” In any case, points out Nabi: “No film in the world happens without collaboration."
The filmmakers are currently negotiating for an India release. Will Indian audiences race to theatres for Zinda Bhaag? Pakistani films in India have met with mixed reactions. Khuda Kay Liye and Ramchand Pakistani were critics’ favourites when they released here in 2008. Bol, which released in 2011, generated only a whisper of the commercial success of its home country. But Zinda Bhaag has been a festival and multiplex favourite. It’s a foreign film, indie film, Indian film, Oscar-hopeful and crowdpleaser all rolled into one. “We’ve toured Canada and the Middle East,” says Gaur. “But it’s India we’re most excited about."
Zinda Bhaag has already been screened at international film festivals in Kolkata, Goa and Kerala in 2013.
Here’s what to watch out for when it hits theatres here:
Kurri Yes Ai, Munda Set Ai: A hilariously camp take on Bollywood song and dance moves.
The unusual shortcuts to going abroad, all of which are based on true stories.
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From HT Brunch, January 5
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