In a season of generals flexing muscles, ceasefire violations and rising tensions between India and Pakistan, the shooting of a celebratory film on the life of a young 'Pakhiwas' (gypsy) girl Riffat is going on at Kamalia - a small town in the Toba Tek Singh district in Pakistan Punjab province - from September 1.
The out-of-the-box civil society initiative led by Chandigarh-bred Shumita Didi, involving creative inputs from both sides, has been supported by crowd-funding. Artistes, writers, friends and well-wishers from both countries as well as the diaspora have come forward to chip in Rs 500 to Rs 10,000. It is a warm response beyond borders to this people-to-people initiative.
"On a visit to Harappa in June, I had a chance meeting with a group of 'Pakhiwasis'.I struck a special chord with young Riffat, who was about to get married, and her elder sister Shazia who sang lovely songs. I took their pictures and video clips which were appreciated by friends in India," says Shumita, who has been involved in the cross-border cultural activity through the group 'Sanjhe Rang Punjab De'.
Having completed her assignment of being an associate producer for Sudhir Mishra's film 'Aur Devdas', she was planning to return to Mumbai for more work when it struck her that she could document Riffat's wedding for 'Blue Owl Produktions' - a production house set up by her in collaboration with Pakistani poet and television producer Ikram Basra.
The chirpy Riffat had invited Shumita to her wedding in the third week of September. "I don't have parents. Why don't you come and be my 'ammi'(mother) at my wedding!" she told Shumita.
So instead of Mumbai, Shumita landed in Lahore where she roped in young filmmaker Danyal Rasheed, sound expert Shehryar Khan, consultant Amen Jaffar and others for the project. Their caravan moved to the lesser-known Kamalia town that can only boast of being the birthplace of Brijmohan Lall Munjal of the Hero Motocorp fame.
The crew came across the gypsies, who were staying in makeshift tents set up close to a canal. The shooting for a 40-minute documentary 'Riffat, the Pakhiwas Girl' started soon after.
Recounting his experience, Shehryar says: "When Danyal first approached me for the project, I had no clue about what course of action we would follow. However, my experience here was amazing and it left me creatively enriched."
Reportedly, there are around 10 million gypsies in Pakistan living a scattered life and are part of a vulnerable and disadvantaged group that is often the target of prejudice. "The film will focus on Riffat and her sister Shaziya who sings exceptionally well. Pakhiwas women as artisans play a major role in sustaining their families," says Shumita. "They are the poorest of the poor living a very hard life. The children are without education and the men folk is addicted to narcotics. Yet their zest for life is remarkable and this is aptly visible in their cheerful persona and celebratory songs. Theirs is a world within our world that needs to be probed," adds Danyal.
The final round of shooting will be held during the wedding on September 19. "I had around Rs 50,000 kept aside for a rent deposit that I pumped into the project. However, I soon realised that a modest trousseau of string cots, utensils and some clothes along with a meal for 50 persons alone would cost that much. Money was also required for renting a car, buying fuel, memory cards, batteries and many other things. I sent out messages and contributions started pouring in. So far we have collected nearly $1,900," says Shumita. A sack of rice and a pair of silver ear-rings have also been gifted to us, she adds.
And what does Riffat have to say about the buzz around her? "She is ecstatic. She tells me that when I first clicked her picture at Harappa she knew I was up to something. She also introduces me as her 'ammi' from India," says Shumita.