Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 August 2019

In praise of Pinky Memsaab: Pakistan film offers look at less-seen facets of Dubai life

The movie offers a welcome break from those that use the city as shorthand for glitz and glamour

A still from ‘Pinky Memsaab’, which stars Dubai model Kiran Malik, right, and Hajra Yamin who plays her maid. Courtesy Omer Alvie
A still from ‘Pinky Memsaab’, which stars Dubai model Kiran Malik, right, and Hajra Yamin who plays her maid. Courtesy Omer Alvie

The newest Dubai-produced Pakistani indie, Pinky Memsaab, offers a refreshing take on both films shot in Dubai, and on the often fraught relationship between India and neighbouring Pakistan.

It offers a welcome break from typical visiting shoots that seek to use the city as a shorthand for glitz and glamour, all sweeping shots of the Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab, and high society gatherings. Instead, director Shazia Ali Khan offers a look at some of the less-seen facets of Dubai life – the hustle and bustle of Bur Dubai, and the ebb and flow of people by the Creek are the take-aways here, perhaps in part because Ali Khan is herself a long-term Dubai resident, and the central characters include not only the socialite “memsaab,” or madame, of the title, played by Dubai model Kiran Malik, but also her maid and driver (Hajra Yamin and Sunny Hinduja). The awe here comes not from the grandeur of the Burj Khalifa, but the terror of newly arrived maid Pinky finding herself lost in Bur Dubai’s alleyways.

It’s not only the films approach to Dubai itself that takes a break from the norm. Its cast is largely Pakistani, or Pakistani expat, but in Hinduja, who gives the film’s stand-out performance as driver Santosh, we find a rising star of Indian cinema amid his neighbours. The crew, too, was a mix of both Pakistani and Indian professionals, as well as a smattering of crew from the United Kingdom and Russia, something you simply wouldn’t find in home-produced Indian or Pakistani cinema.

Behind the scenes on the Pinky Memsaab set. Photo credit Omer Alvie
Behind the scenes on the 'Pinky Memsaab' set. Courtesy Omer Alvie

The cultural significance of this is not lost on Hinduja, who was unable to attend the Pakistani premiere due to complicated visa restrictions on Indians visiting Pakistan: “I’d definitely go there if I had the opportunity, but I couldn’t on this occasion. For me, in art, film, all this politics, it doesn’t matter which country you are from. It shouldn’t matter anyway. I certainly felt no tensions on set, these tensions are just hype for people with vested interests. The Pakistani press have given the film great reviews, whether I was there or not, and I don’t want to praise myself, but that’s really positive.”

Hinduja’s co-star Yamin agrees: “We were all just actors. There was a lot of love and passion involved and it really wasn’t an issue where anyone was from,” she says. “It was a really culturally diverse cast and crew, and that was great for me because no one knew anything about each other at the outset, and I think we all really learnt a lot from each other. It’s a real shame that I can’t film in India for political reasons, and vice versa. That is a shame, and this film just shows that these things don’t need to be an issue.”

Yamin is an established theatre and TV actor in her homeland, and is, by all accounts, something of a cultured city girl, so I ask how she went about getting into the role of a wide-eyed rural girl making the journey to Dubai: “I actually went and lived in the village where my character is from for a few days to help get into character,” she reveals. “I gave it a very theatrical approach because I’m a theatre actress. I also had a lot of people helping me with dialect. That was maybe the hardest thing for me, getting the Punjabi dialect correct, but I had plenty of help among the rest of the cast and crew.”

Yamin admits that the Pakistani indie cinema scene is still small, but she sees hope in the many positive reviews it has already attracted in the Pakistani press: “Some people don’t get it, and we have had some mixed reviews,” she admits. “But I’d say 70 to 80 per cent of reviews have been really positive, and that’s really promising.”

For Hinduja, the very fact that the film has released in cinemas, both here and in Pakistan, is a cause for celebration: “I’m really excited about the cinema release,” he says. “I’ve done two or three films in India recently, and you find you need the same budget as it costs to make the film just to get it released and to publicise it. These producers didn’t have that budget, and time passes and the film becomes a bit old and compromised and you miss your window.”

It’s perhaps surprising to hear Hinduja, whose previous roles have included the title role in the Oscar-tipped Ballad of Rostom, get so excited about a low-budget, Dubai indie, but the actor says he approaches every film in the same way, regardless of budgets: “For me, as an actor, I approach every film as if it’s my first,” he says. “I don’t approach it according to the level or budget of the film, I just give it my best, forget my past and approach it like ‘this is the film’ and I hope that’s what you see on the screen. It was quite a small production, but we had what we needed. A lot of locations were inside the house, and you don’t need a huge crew, as long as they’re all aligned on the same page, and that’s what we had. Everyone was equally passionate and excited. I think it could become a great benchmark for other filmmakers to show you can do this in Dubai, just go ahead and make a film.”

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