My Pure Land has been chosen as the British nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars
Diff 2017: How one woman’s battle with bandits inspired a modern-day feminist western
British director Sarmad Masud was worried that the clock was ticking on his nascent film directing career. “I made the short film Two Dosas in 2014 and I was getting married. I was at that stage in my life to get a secure job, become an electrician or something, but before I did that, we thought why don’t we go to Pakistan and make a film there.”
Masud and his wife, Caroline Bailey, the film’s production designer, believed that they could make a film on a much grander scale if they shot the movie in Pakistan. On a similar budget to what My Pure Land was made, they calculated that in London they would just about be able to afford to film two people talking in a dank room.
The original idea was to reimagine James Mangold’s 1997 New York police thriller Copland in a Pakistani setting. “I thought the theme of police corruption was transferable to Pakistan and that I would get a brown Sylvester Stallone for the lead,” Masud says. However, when he searched police corruption in Pakistan on the internet, “I ended up down a wormhole. Then I came across this story about Nazo Dharejo.”
A newspaper article reported how 18-year-old Dharejo defended her family home from bandits in her village in the Sindh province after her father was imprisoned. “I spoke to the journalists who wrote the article and they put us in touch with the female warrior and her husband.”
When they spoke with the couple, they talked about the incident, one of a reported million land disputes currently occurring in Pakistan. Dharejo asked Masud if the film would be a song-and-dance movie. When Masud said no, she wondered if that meant he was making a documentary. Again Masud informed her that he had something entirely different in mind: a feminist desi western.
“Growing up, I had been to Pakistan a lot to visit family and I’d always been excited by the chaos and madness of the country, but I never knew how to use it,” Masud says. “What appealed to me was the landscape and lawlessness, which seemed to mirror the elements in a western. When you are in trouble [in other countries], you should call the police, but the police are corrupt, so you have to go and find some help from a mercenary who is usually a bad hombre. There is no comeback. So are you going to call someone or go for the guns stashed at the back of your house?”
So Masud began writing his script. “There is something exciting about making a modern-day feminist western in Pakistan,” he says.
He raised finance from relatives and friends before his agent managed to get him in front of film producer and Everton Football Club chairman Bill Kenwright, who financed the film. The next task was one of the most difficult: finding someone to play Dharejo.
Local fixers would suggest beautiful fair-skinned ladies, or hand models, but Masud told them that he was looking for someone who was a mix of Freida Pinto in Trishna and Sameena Jabeen Ahmed in Catch Me Daddy.
Eventually, he was shown a picture of a dancer from Karachi called Suhaee Abro, and from his production base in Lahore, they tried to Skype. “The connection was so bad it felt like looking at a water colour,’ Masud says. So they flew her to the production office the next day, and as soon as Abro walked in, Masud knew that his search was over.
Throughout the shoot, Masud had to battle to get the actors to perform in a style more akin to Clint Eastwood than Salman Khan. “What they have been brought up on are dramas on Pakistani television, and I told the actors it’s better to respect our audiences and try to do subtext. The actors torture you because they try to use every line as a chance to show how good they are as actors, so I kept on having to strip away dialogue.”
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The battle was worth it, because My Pure Land has been chosen as the British nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. “It seems amazing to me,” Masud says. “My wife and I both went to hospital during the shoot, my father wrote a poem that is in the film, we used a house that my grandfather built, and then I edited the film in my spare room. It’s incredible that from what we went through that it’s now being associated with
My Pure Land screens on December 8 at 9.45pm at Vox 17, Mall of the Emirates, and December 9at 6.15pm at Vox 15, Mall of the Emirates