The Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag (Run For Your Life) is part of the Showcase selection at The Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year. Co-directed by Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi and produced by Mazhar Zaidi, this story of three young men trying to escape the reality of their everyday lives has pulled at heartstrings at home and abroad, becoming the first Pakistani film to be nominated at the Academy Awards in more than 50 years.
“Young people want to transform their lives overnight and look for shortcuts,” says Nabi. “This story is of every other family in South Asia and beyond.
“The film is essentially about grappling with failure in times when all of us seemed gripped in the tentacles of some crazy idea of ‘success’,” adds Gaur. “I think this film will resonate with people from all over the world.”
We spoke with the two directors about what went into the making of this film.
How did the idea for Zinda Bhaag take seed?
Nabi: Whenever we heard anecdotes of illegal immigration, we found them so compelling that we felt it as a film in our bones right from the start. Meenu and I form an organic writing team, and once you’ve done the writing together the rest comes more easily. Our producer Mazhar Zaidi and I go back a long way too.
Gaur: Zinda Bhaag was a natural culmination of many of our ideas. The three of us wanted to do a film on Lahore as a city. We wanted to capture its essence for screen. The humour, the characters, the neighbourhoods, the subculture … it is all so visceral that it could only come through in a film such as this.
The casting for any project is so important. How did you select the people that play the main roles?
Gaur: The decision to cast non-actors had been one of our earliest ones. In the auditions, we were looking for certain personalities.
Nabi: We had a casting process in which we held auditions for boys and girls with literally no acting experience. This was followed by a two-month long workshop. The final stage was a week-long acting workshop with Naseeruddin Shah, who is perhaps the best teacher around.
Gaur: Puhlvan (Naseeruddin Shah) was a character who was essentially a storyteller and we knew it had to be an accomplished actor who could carry off the kind of storytelling device we were trying to deploy in the film.
Having Naseeruddin Shah in your project is a huge deal. How did you convince him to be part of it?
Gaur: We wanted someone who could carry the role of Puhlvan, an extremely subtle and difficult role. It was a character that was endearing yet with shades of a villain. Someone who was feared but never really used force. Farjad and me were very keen on Naseeruddin Shah.
Nabi: However, being first-time filmmakers, we didn’t know how to approach him. Mazhar sent him some of the script and left a message on his answering machine and that was that. He read the few scenes we had sent him and called back to say he’d love to read the rest of the script. We were ecstatic. He is a one of the greatest actors, not just because of his past roles, but because he is constantly on the lookout for something new. In this search, he does not discriminate between established and first-time filmmakers.
What were some of the biggest hurdles that you faced while working on this project?
Nabi: We are a very small-budget film, even by Pakistani standards. Also, the infrastructure of filmmaking has crumbled in the past decades. The combination was deadly, but we pulled through with the help of an extremely dedicated and passionate crew.
Gaur: Most of our crew was on their first film. I think it’s the love and drive of our crew that really made Zinda Bhaag happen.
What was your biggest triumph?
Gaur: A film has to always be seen as a whole and not a sum of its parts. There is an organic way in which every bit fits together. So the triumph has to be about all of it.
Nabi: To see that Zinda Bhaag clicked with audiences in exactly the way we had hoped for has been one of the greatest achievements.
Breaking the geopolitical mould
Meenu Gaur, who holds of a PhD in film and media studies from the University of London, previously directed an award-winning documentary Paradise on a River of Hell.
“For once, here’s a film that does not reduce Pakistan to its geopolitics,” says Gaur about Zinda Bhaag. “It doesn’t fall into the stereotypical traps of a film from Pakistan. It’s neither exotic nor filled with terror - just the everyday comic and tragic stuff lives are made of here. I think this makes it a special film both for local and foreign audiences.”
A movie that will make you laugh and cry
Farjad Nabi has directed several award-winning documentaries including Nusrat has Left the Building ... But When? and No One Believes the Professor. Other notable works from him include The Final Touch, a documentary on the Lahore film industry’s last poster artist, and Aaj ka Beejal, a musical documentary on Sindh for BBC Urdu.
“When Zinda Bhaag won at its world premiere at the Mosaic Misaff festival in Toronto, in the citation for best film, the jury wrote that it was a film that ‘made you laugh and cry’, which many people find an apt description,” says Nabi. “If you look at other names in the Best Foreign Language film category [at the Academy Awards] you see names like Wong Kar-Wai who are legends of our time. One can’t ask for more.”
• Zinda Bhaag (Run For Your Life) screens on Saturday at 6.30pm in Marina Mall’s Vox 5 and on October 29 at 3.45pm in Vox 1.
• For updates and news from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, go to thenational.ae/adff