Three Pakistani filmmakers tell us how reels of celluloid can pull conflicted countries together, and how Bollywood is perceived across the border
Like the last three kilometres of a 21k, or the final leg of a road trip, for most of us the journey to Pakistan seems so near, yet so far.
But for Sabiha Sumar, Khalid Ahmed and Shahbaz Sumar, three filmmakers from Pakistan, the distance between the two countries is just a reel of celluloid away.
They were in India recently for the Jagran Film Festival, where their films, under the Zeal for Unity banner, a festival of short films by Indian and Pakistani directors, were screened.
All three have a deep connection with India: Sabiha lived in Delhi for 10 years when her researcher husband was based here (“We were renting, so I’ve seen everything from Vasant Kunj to New Friends Colony”). She recalls how she shot the award-winning Khamosh Pani with Kirron Kher at the height of a conflict between the two countries, when flights to Pakistan had been halted, and they’d have to take a circuitous route to shoot in Pakistan.
Khalid is originally from Patna (he’s Imtiaz Ali’s uncle), and is best known this side of the border for Talkhiyaan, an adaptation of The God of Small Things. Shahbaz’s mother is from Amritsar and father from Mumbai. “Ultimately, we’re all Indian – we all have a 5,000-year-old civilisation in common,” he says, with the flourish of someone who has been in the ad-film world.
It’s a mid-morning vibe, the kind you feel when you’re on holiday and you’re just done with breakfast. They bring their coffee to the poolside, the steam from the cups adding to the mugginess of the day. They chat about what they did the night before, and what their plans are for today. I punctuate their flow of conversation with questions, and they take up each other’s train of thought.
In a conversation about everything, they talk about political scars being soothed through film exchange, talent and skill sharing, of power to the people. They want more Fawads and more Shah Rukhs, and we do too.
Do you believe film or cultural ambassadors can bring the kind of change that politicians cannot?
Khalid: Such exchanges bring the two people closer, and politics has the power to block that process. We should continue to work in the opposite direction. That is what we can do, and we must.
Sabiha: Because it’s a mass medium, because it’s very powerful, because it does impact the way we think, it’s very important that our films are shown here, yours are shown there.
Shahbaz: Films like Bajrangi Bhaijaan had a massive impact in Pakistan—the number of people who went to see it, who cried when they watched it…
In Pakistan, how does Bollywood play both the hero and the villain?
Khalid: There have been occasional voices demanding a ban on Bollywood films, on the ground that our films are not shown across the border. On the other hand, there is an overwhelming vote and appreciation for it. One argument for Bollywood is that it has revived cinema-going habits in people. People had this doubt — myself included — when our films are released side-by-side with Bollywood films, we would not be able to draw an audience, but interestingly and happily, that has not been the case.
Shahbaz: We don’t usually ban films outright unless it’s propaganda — just toeing that American line of war on terror. If we made a damning film about Dalits in India, you wouldn’t like it. And they wouldn’t play it. There are issues that are avoided, just for the image of the country. India is very good at that. We’re not very good at that. We made films to damn our own country and our image abroad.
What part of Bollywood do you like the most?
Shahbaz: The talent and the evolution of filmmaking that’s happened. The encouragement, money, training, schools — the whole system that creates artists. It’s now rivalling Iran and Turkey in terms of good films.
Sabiha: India decided to come out with its vision. Just like Hollywood tells its American dream, India decided to tell the secular dream through Bollywood: Amar, Akbar, Anthony and many other films that bring the three major faiths together.
How would you describe the new wave in Bollywood?
Khalid: Films in the mainstream, yet not typical Bollywood films. These are the films popular in Pakistan too — films that capture more than just a story, like 3 Idiots, Taare Zameen Par, Masaan, Piku, Dil Dhadakne Do. What a brilliant film Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. was. I loved Shuddh Desi Romance — it was delightful, meaningful.
Shahbaz: People are also seeing blockbuster films. The 200-crore market is also going crazy. Indians want to see themselves in those American roles — that big style of film-making. Akshay Kumar is now like the FBI agent!
How important are gossip and affairs to promote a film?
Shahbaz: Affairs are good, but scandals are even better! Scandals are controversial. They’re vicious, but that sells tickets. People love to see couples together. Fans who are in love with big stars idolise them and want to see them together. But our gossip is not at the same level as yours!
Sabiha: Gossip is a sense of power. But negative publicity is also good — it’s publicity. We follow Hollywood, and Bollywood, as well as our own gossip, so gossip sells.
Khalid: People say and do outrageous things as a tool to draw attention. Kehte hain na: “Badnaam agar honge to kya naam na hoga?”
Shahbaz: I don’t think it’s always a PR exercise though.
If you were to make a Bollywood film, what would it be about?
Sabiha: I have been wanting to do something on Helen for years and years. I think she is such an icon, a feminist.
Khalid: A subversive romantic film. Since we are talking about a wish list: a film about the Muslim aristocracy of Bihar, the same lingo, the atmosphere. They have not been depicted like the Lucknow and Hyderabadi aristocracy has been. Bihar is interestingly placed between UP and Bengal, so it has influences from both, but has a distinct identity. And I come from there.
Shahbaz: A sprawling biopic, like one on Osho. A mega, million-dollar movie that can make people cringe and get them interested at the same time. Or something on a film-maker: Satyajit Ray or Guru Dutt. Those haven’t been done.
For Bollywood actors, Hollywood is the ultimate destination. What is it for Pakistani actors?
Shahbaz: (with a laugh) Bollywood!
Sabiha: No, no. I spoke to Fawad, and he said Hollywood.
Shahbaz: The ultimate is Hollywood, but the mid-point is Bollywood.
Khalid: The road to Hollywood goes through Bollywood.
Shahbaz: There are a lot of partnerships now with all the studios in the US.
Sabiha: Everyone, wherever they are, is looking for a better and better market. So I wouldn’t see it as our actors wanting to use Bollywood as a stepping stone. An artist seeks better ground to work in.
The writer is director, health initiatives, Blue Pen Media. Previously, she has been editor of Child magazine and a senior editor at Reader’s Digest and Prevention
From HT Brunch, August 28, 2016
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