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Films with Pakistani milieu are being shot in India

India is often chosen to shoot movies set in Pakistan because of a better film infrastructure. Security is also a major consideration.

world Updated: Sep 17, 2017 08:13 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
A scene from Iram Haq’s What Will People Say, which was set in Pakistan but filmed in India. The movie had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
A scene from Iram Haq’s What Will People Say, which was set in Pakistan but filmed in India. The movie had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.(Courtesy TIFF)

While planning for Indian director Hansal Mehta’s latest project, Omerta, large sections of which are set in Pakistan, the matter of filming in that country was never considered seriously.

“I don’t think we would have returned. We would all have been heads if we had shot in Pakistan,” Mehta deadpanned in the course of an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where the movie had its world premiere.

Omerta deals with Pakistani-origin terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was born in England and is connected to major terror events around the world, including 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks, and the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. Sheikh was finally arrested by Pakistani authorities for Pearl’s killing and remains incarcerated after being sentenced to death.

Given Mehta’s Indian background and a script that points fingers at Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency conspiring with Sheikh, there was little reason to believe their decision to film in Indian locations was misplaced. So, places such as Mumbai, Patiala and Lonavala became on-screen substitutes for cities such as Karachi, Lahore or Rawalpindi, and other sites identified as in Pakistan.

Curiously enough, Omerta wasn’t the only film at the 2017 iteration of TIFF to have Pakistan at the heart of the screenplay while being shot in India.

A scene from Iram Haq’s What Will People Say, which was set in Pakistan but filmed in India. The movie had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Courtesy TIFF)

Norwegian-Pakistani filmaker Iram Haq’s What Will People Say had a significant section set in an unidentified town in Pakistan’s Punjab province. But that was shot entirely in the cities of Udaipur and Ajmer in Rajasthan.

As Haq said, “I didn’t feel it was the place I would film this movie and also the industry is so well (developed) in India, so I wanted to shoot in India.”

Both these instance point to a trend in international productions that look at Pakistan-based stories because of their dramatic potential. But even as the narratives are set there, the sets end up in India.

Haq collaborated with Mumbai-based Sikhya Entertainment for the shoot in India. Founded by producer Guneet Monga, this isn’t the first time Sikhya has transposed Pakistan into India.

It was also among the producers for the 2104 movie Tigers, directed by Academy Award-winning Bosnian Danis Tanovic, which again recreated parts of Pakistan in India. The reason given by the producers was that India’s film infrastructure simply worked for the project.

That’s one reason, but as Mehta referred to, security is a major consideration.

When Indian-American director Mira Nair was making the film version of Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s bestselling novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, she spent four days filming exteriors in Karachi but bypassed the country for the majority of the shoot.

A scene from Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was set in Pakistan but shot in India. (Courtesy TIFF)

She was candid about this choice during an interview in 2014, the year it first screened: “We couldn’t get insurance to bring actors over (to Pakistan). Delhi is a sister to Lahore in many deep architectural ways.”

In Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, much of the action is set in Pakistan, including the climactic scenes of the killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad. That township, though, was recreated in Manimajra Fort of Chandigarh, with the city playing Lahore and Jordanian capital Amman replacing Islamabad.

This phenomenon may have started with Angelina Jolie’s A Mighty Heart, based on the abduction and killing of Daniel Pearl. Its director Michael Winterbottom had filmed in Pakistan earlier, and even shot a fair amount in Karachi, before security considerations caused the production to shift to Mumbai and Pune.

Since then, international projects mostly haven’t even attempted to risk setting up units in Pakistan, even as the terror-related security environment in that country has gone south.

A Mighty Heart was about the widow of Daniel Pearl. He appears as a character in Mehta’s Omerta, since Sheikh was convicted for having brutally beheading the American after kidnapping him. And Mehta’s allusion to just being heads was a nod to that horrific atrocity.