x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Pakistani director bridges borders

q&a The director Mehreen Jabbar's independent debut feature, Ramchand Pakistani, was the lone film from Pakistan showcased at the 2008 Dubai International Film Festival.

The director Mehreen Jabbar at the recent Dubai International Film Festival.
The director Mehreen Jabbar at the recent Dubai International Film Festival.

The director Mehreen Jabbar's independent debut feature, Ramchand Pakistani, which tells the story of a seven-year-old Hindu boy and his father who inadvertently cross into India and are jailed, was the lone film from Pakistan showcased at the 2008 Dubai International Film Festival. Jabbar is a television director from Pakistan who lives and works in New York.

It is important to tell stories such as that of Ramchand. Films like Ramchand Pakistani portray the image of a country through cinema and this is what personalises a country. The process of making Ramchand Pakistani started in January 2006, with my father, Javed Jabbar, who had recently met the father and son on whom the story is based. This happened through his work with Baanh Beli, a non-governmental organisation he established nearly 20 years ago that undertakes community development and female education in Sindh, Pakistan, where the film is located and shot. After this, he gave me a draft with the story of the film. I have a sense of what kind of subject can translate into a film and knew that this was something I wanted to work on.

The script took nearly a year to write. Filming started in 2007 and we shot for 45 days in the Thar desert, in Mirpur Khas in Sindh, and in rural Karachi. How did you mobilise financing for your film project? My father, who is the producer of the film, garnered the support of friends and family, who invested generously in the project. My mother also invested in the film. We needed to think outside the box and dream a little more, and we found several ways to get the funding together.

One film can't change anything, but it does change perception, increase knowledge and provide an opportunity for dialogue. After screenings at film festivals, I was approached by expat Pakistanis and Indians in places such as New York. They told me that they did not even know about border crossings in India and Pakistan.

One independent feature like mine annually is not enough to harness masses of talent in Pakistan. Raw talent can be developed through institutionalised support, training via film schools, and government funding, which is not enough in these trying times. But I am an optimist: we have the talent and the will to revive our film industry.

I've travelled a lot with Ramchand Pakistani. It premiered internationally at Tribeca earlier this year and has done the festival circuit in London, Cairo, Seattle and Dubai. I hope there is a market for a film like mine in the UAE. Overall, the festival experience has made me more gutsy and open to criticism. Some people criticised my film for being slow but, after all, this is a film about waiting. South Asian audiences have become impatient and got used to music and melodrama, instead of enjoying silence.

We shot on location in the Thar desert to create authenticity and capture the natural surroundings of the Hindu Dalit community who reside there. Even the clothes the actors wore belonged to real people in the community. We created an Indian jail in rural Karachi with authentic props that we got from Bhuj, Gujurat. For two weeks an Indian flag flew on the prison set!

There was a positive force and energy on the set. Many of our stars have a television background and were in a full-length feature for the first time. We worked as a team and learned from each other. Many of the roles are played by famous names on Pakistan television, including Noman Ijaz and Maria Wasti. We auditioned extensively in public schools in Sindh and found the new talent Syed Fazal Hussain as the younger Ramchand and Navaid Jabbar as the older Ramchand.

You choose to collaborate with India on your film: how was the experience? Since the story is about India and Pakistan, a collaboration of talent gave the film buzz. I loved to work with the people in India. It was great to get the best of both countries.

There is nothing controversial in the film that audiences India and Pakistan objected to. In fact, it's the kind of subject that brings two nations together.
amnaali@thenational.ae