A Pakistani filmmaker with roots in Mumbai, and an Indian actor of French descent, have just finished work on a documentary that couldn’t have come at a better time.
Currently in post-production, Azmaish: Trials of Life by Sabiha Sumar and Kalki Koechlin comes at a time of fraught India-Pakistan ties, most recently as a result of the terror attack on an army camp in Uri, Kashmir, in September.
So it’s interesting, and sometimes heartening, to note the lack of political chauvinism in the conversations the two women recorded as they explored the emotional landscape on both sides of the border, talking to ordinary Indians and Pakistanis.
“The context in which we know India and Pakistan is always conflict and divide. We specifically wanted to look away from that and see the two countries just as they are,” says Koechlin.
There are times when the vignettes are unsurprising, as when an RSS sympathiser says, “We believe that India’s culture is Hindu” or, on the other side of the border, a man in a religious procession shouts, to much cheering: “If called upon in the name of Allah, we would throw our suckling infants to the ground to serve Him.”
And then there are moments that leave one hopeful. “My favourite was an interaction between two truck drivers in Mumbai, a Hindu and a Muslim,” says Sumar. They spoke about religious identity as a political ploy. ‘What does it have to do with our real lives?’ they asked. ‘How does it help, for instance, the abject poor on Mumbai’s streets.’”
Mumbai, incidentally, is a place Sumar speaks of fondly, as the birthplace of her parents.
“It’s a melting pot, just like New York. I grew up listening to stories about the city, and how it’s a source of ambitions and dreams,” she says.
Ask whether being culturally heterogeneous – her husband and business partner, S Sathananthan, is a Sri Lankan Tamil and the couple lived in Delhi for nine years with their daughter – helped her see the two countries from a more neutral vantage point, and her short answer is yes.
“A mixed background does help,” she adds. “But if Azmaish has taught me anything, it’s that the average Indian and Pakistani also understands that politics muddies the water and diverts attention from the serious issues their countries face.”
Falling into place
The idea for Azmaish... came to Sumar in 2013. “We had the election in Pakistan that year, and then there was Modi’s electoral victory in India in 2014. I wanted to capture this time in history because I believe it will shape our future,” says the filmmaker.
The idea lay dormant for a while, and then Sumar met Koechlin at the MAMI film festival in Mumbai and found her very receptive to the idea of a joint project. Koechlin travelled to Pakistan in January this year while Sumar toured India in mid-2016.
Koechlin and Sumar picked the Indian and Pakistani locations respectively. Islamabad, Karachi, Sukkur, Gothki, and Pir Jo Goth form the Pakistani backdrops; in India, it is Mumbai, Thane, New Delhi, Saharanpur, Mohali and rural Haryana.
Barring Islamabad, the Pakistani locales are all in the Sindh province. “Kalki and I wanted to get to the heart of who really calls the shots in both countries, because that’s where dominant values come from. In India, it’s the business elite or industrialists. Pakistan’s ruling elite are the feudalists,” Sumar explains. “That’s why I chose Sindh. We’d have liked Punjab too, but we couldn’t do it all in one film. The landscape of Sindh – from its mega cities to deserts – is also so diverse and dramatic.”
For Koechlin, the journey to the Sindh section of the Thar desert left an indelible mark. “It was disturbing yet moving because it was another level of poverty there,” she says. “There are villages in the middle of nowhere and no schools nearby. People walk for four hours to get water. That was a difficult experience.”
For Sumar, it was troubling to see people speak of a ‘Hindu nation’, for instance, much more freely than they ever had on previous visits to the country. “Pakistan chose to go down the route of Islamic identity, and where has it got us,” she asks. “India was once a model of secularism and something we aspired to, but look what’s happening there. I hope it learns from our example.”
Sumar and Koechlin are now in the process of raising Rs 20 lakh for post-production, via crowdfunding platform Wishberry. “We’ve raised nearly Rs 12 lakh in just three weeks, so I’m confident we’ll reach our goal before our 39 days are up,” she says.
Watch the teaser for Azmaish... here