Mehreen Jabbar is a young South Asian filmmaker, whose debut feature film Ramchand Pakistani has impressed audiences and juries around the world, receiving the FIPRESCI prize among others. Understated yet emotionally powerful, it’s an essential film about the region, evoking comparison with an earlier film by another female Pakistani filmmaker, Sabiha Sumar’s Silent Waters.
Ramchand and his family, from the village of Bhimra, are untouchable Pakistani Hindus who live on the border with India. In a fit of anger, Ramchand unknowingly crosses the border from Pakistan into India, and his father follows him there. When father and son find themselves in an Indian border prison, Ramchand gets an education of sorts, becoming more mature than if he had remained in his village.
I recently had the chance to talk to Mehreen about what it was like to make this film and about the Pakistani film scene in general.
The Rumpus: Tell us about the Pakistani art film scene. How strong is it, what are some of the leading players, and what do you think are its prospects in the immediate future?
Jabbar: Unfortunately Pakistani cinema has suffered a steep decline in the last couple of decades and currently the situation even for commercial cinema, also known as Lollywood, is dire with lesser films being made in the national and regional languages. However, due to the spread of cable TV and private channels, there has been a substantial growth of young men and women who are entering the field of media and who hopefully will form the next generation of film and TV directors/producers.
Television in Pakistan has always produced a wealth of talent in terms of actors, directors and writers and even now there is innovative and interesting work happening with regards to music videos, TV films, shorts, etc. I think the new crop of filmmakers will definitely come from there. In the last three to four years very few “independent” films have come out of Pakistan. One being Ramchand Pakistani, and the other Khuda ke Liye (In the Name of God) made by Shoaib Mansoor who has been one of the premier TV directors over the last thirty years or so. Another indie film was the slasher film called Zibah Khana (Slaughter House) directed by Omar Khan. One of Lollywood’s top directors is a man called Syed Noor who has consistently made very entertaining and engaging commercial films over the last few years. However the film industry suffers from a lack of patronage and support by the government, rampant piracy, lack of cinema halls, investors who can’t think outside the box and only a couple of universities or colleges that offer film or TV production degrees apart from short courses and private academies.
Rumpus: Is the situation better for your other South Asian counterparts?
Jabbar: Well, India has the largest film industry in the world and Iran’s film industry has historically received a lot of support from the government and has a functioning, vibrant film industry. I think Pakistan, Bangladesh, and perhaps Sri Lanka are not too well off in that department.
Rumpus: Did your long experience in television help or hinder in the making of your debut feature film? Were there ingrained methods you had to overcome to make the feature film?
Jabbar: Both I think. What helped me in my thirteen or so years of experience in TV before I made Ramchand was the discipline and the knowledge of how to shoot on location, work with actors and crew, etc. In retrospect the limitations were that TV dramas have their own language of storytelling that doesn’t necessarily transfer over too well on the big screen and I think I made some mistakes there. For example, my training in TV has been to shoot with a minimal crew, the maximum amount of scenes with not too many “gadgets” like tracks, crane, steadicam, etc., which then forced me to be efficient on set and perhaps come up with new ways to film with a static camera.
Rumpus: You’ve made television serials for a number of years. Is working so much for television simply a matter of financial constraints?
Jabbar: I work for TV because we don’t have a functioning film industry so the opportunity to make a film in Pakistan doesn’t come too often. However, I think I have managed to reach a large number of people through the television work and have been able to tell a lot of stories that I would probably not have been able to if I was only doing film. The TV serials I have done are not “soap operas” or telenovelas but rather a range of stories from drama, comedy, even thrillers. Some of the subjects covered in the series and serials have been the exploration of middle-aged love, the problems arising from a married couple living in a joint family system, abortion, impotency, friendship, love, class differences, etc.
Rumpus: Did you have trouble getting this project off its feet?
Jabbar: Making an independent film in any part of the world is no small feat and requires a lot of hard work, guts, and tears. My parents were the driving force behind the film at all times. My father approached his friends and colleagues to start looking for investment for the film and my mother was the first one who responded by making one of the first investments. Following her were nineteen people ranging from close friends and family to acquaintances who put in varying amounts of money so that this film could get made. Eventually a biscuit company and a phone company from Pakistan helped us to get the funds to complete the post-production. It was a film made by a committee and all of us are so thankful to them that they did this in a time when no one was really interested in promoting indie cinema in Pakistan. Some of our other challenges were of course managing the pre-production and production aspects of the film.
Rumpus: I believe you shot most of the film in Pakistan’s Thar desert? How much of it did you shoot it in India?
Jabbar: The entire film was shot in Pakistan. The Indian jail was partially constructed in a school in the suburbs of Karachi. My father and I took a trip to Bhuj, the city where the original father and son were kept and were given a tour of one of the jails there where cross-border prisoners are held. This was not the same jail as the one where the original pair were kept but it gave us a very good idea and we tried to replicate that in Pakistan.
Rumpus: What did you find most distinctive and seductive about the landscape in that particular region of Pakistan?
Jabbar: The scale, a sense of infinity. The raw, rugged terrain which is utterly and devastatingly beautiful as well as being relentlessly harsh and arid most of the time until it rains, after which it transforms itself into lush, rolling green fields.
Rumpus: Did you have good cooperation from the Indian government and film industry? Do you think we will see future projects with similar cooperation?
Jabbar: Both the Indian and Pakistani governments were very helpful. The Indian government facilitated our trip to Bhuj and with the visas for those of us traveling to India, while the visas for Nandita Das, Debu Mishra, our music composer, and some of our crew from the U.S. were expedited by the Pakistani government. The censor boards in both countries made only minor changes to the film and we were pretty much able to screen in India and Pakistan without much hassle. I think we must see more collaboration because there is so much that can be shared and learnt by both Pakistani and Indian artists from each other.
Rumpus: In this age of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, we expect the worst from prisons – especially one holding “unregistered” prisoners, about whom neither the Indian nor the Pakistani state cares too much. Yet you avoid sensationalism in the treatment of prisoners, which seems to me the key to the emotional impact of the film.
Jabbar: I think one of the themes of the film was to show how sometimes personal interactions can overcome prejudices and hatred towards the other. However one of the main themes of the film was also how the state and bureaucracy of both countries can damage and even destroy the lives of their innocent citizens. While there has been very harsh treatment employed on cross-border prisoners in both countries, we wanted to avoid sensationalism here for two reasons. One was that the father and son on whom the story was based did not endure torture or excessive physical maltreatment in jail. Their tragedy was the captivity itself and the uncertainty of when they would be released. Some prisoners who were with them were on the other hand sometimes beaten and tortured and a couple of characters in the film portray those exact prisoners. The second reason was that we wanted the film to screen in both India and Pakistan and because of the sensitivity of this topic we had to tread a little carefully so that the film didn’t become a victim of the respective censor boards.
Rumpus: Tell us about some of the visual choices you made in reinforcing the relative flexibility in the prison. For instance, the courtyard almost suggests an open mosque space. The arched doors of the prison, framed in sparkling white, also suggest a purity of emotion just within reach.
Jabbar: We tried to keep the layout of the prison as close to the prison we had seen for ourselves in Bhuj as well as keeping in mind where we were shooting. As I mentioned earlier, we could not film in an actual jail and neither could we afford a full-blown set, so we had to use an existing school building and build a couple of sets there and dress up the existing structures.
Rumpus: Can we say that the prison you depict is almost an ideal community in some ways, given its initial constraints? The prisoners learn from and help each other, and to the extent possible, there is compassion among the prisoners, guards, and supervisors. In that sense our initial apprehension about the fate of Ramchand and his father, when they are seized by the border guards, is quite defeated.
Jabbar: To keep an innocent man and especially a young child captive for any amount of time is a tragedy and a severe form of injustice. However, during the time that this particular pair spends in jail, they also form relationships that are dear to them and learn certain traits or things that are both useful and unforgettable. The boy becomes street smart and assumes a young thug persona because of the fact that he has grown into puberty in a jail surrounded by hundreds of men and also because of watching Bollywood films. His innocent affection for the female warden turns into something else as she is the only woman he interacts with for so many years, but despite all of this Ramchand retains his childlike vulnerability which can be seen at some crucial points in the film.
Jabbar: From the start, we knew that a large part of the film depended on who would be playing the younger Ramchand character. We conducted many auditions in schools across Sindh, where we discovered the boy who plays the older Ramchand. However Fazal Hussain, the eight-year-old, was suggested to me by a fellow director friend of mine who had worked with Fazal when he was five in a TV drama where he had a couple of scenes. I immediately sent my first AD Mohammad Ahmed who also wrote the screenplay to him and I got a text message an hour later saying, “We have found our Ramchand.”
It was sheer pleasure working with this boy. He is an instinctive yet thinking actor who took his work very seriously. We had about a two week rehearsal with the actors where everyone got comfortable with each other and we rehearsed all the major scenes and Fazal was a hit with everyone from the start. His one big demand on set was that he be given a packet of chips and coke at the end of almost every scene.
The other characters in the film range from acclaimed Indian actress Nandita Das to the very talented and accomplished TV actors from Pakistan like Rashid Farooqi who played the father and Maria Wasti who played the female warden. The other cast members were a mix between TV and theatre actors to those who had never acted before, like the boy Navaid Jabbar (no relation to me) who plays the older Ramchand.
Rumpus: The thatched huts suggest great isolation.This is reinforced by the large stones which suggest great antiquity. Yet Ramchand’s wife, like the other village women, wears brightly colored clothes, which is a tradition in that part of Pakistan. Can you talk about these visual contrasts?
Jabbar: Women in that region, like Rajasthan in India, wear these bright colors and have done so for hundreds of years. The clothes that the actresses wore in the film were actually bought from the local village women themselves. I think the use of color over the years in the women’s attire is probably to provide a contrast to the barrenness of the landscape around them.
Rumpus: The few songs that intersperse the narrative are well-chosen, brief, and subtle. Can you talk about your selection?
Jabbar: We used some very well-known Sindhi folk songs by some of Pakistan’s legendary singers like Mai Bhagi, Mohammad Jumman, and Allan Fakir because those songs are from that soil and fit magically with the story and the landscape. Together with that our music director, the fabulous Debajyoti Mishra from India, did a wonderful music score and four original songs which also play in the film briefly at certain points. From the start, I wanted two powerful voices from Pakistan and India and knew that this film would benefit greatly by having the great Shubha Mudgal contribute the voice for the new songs in it. From Pakistan, our choice was Shafqat Amanat Ali who is a very well-known and brilliant voice and has also contributed to many Indian films as a background singer for a lot of popular songs. The lyrics to the songs were done by the famous Pakistani writer and poet Anwar Maqsood.
Rumpus: In what ways did you grow as a filmmaker during the making of Ramchand Pakistani, and do you have new aspirations now? Your confidence must have grown tremendously.
Jabbar: I had an unforgettable time making this film and of course have learnt so much from it. I have had the opportunity to share it with audiences around the world and talk about it and now in retrospect to step back and see its strengths and its limitations. I think everyone involved in this film contributed one hundred percent of their effort and their passion because it was a labor of love. Films are not made that frequently in Pakistan and all of us believed in getting it finished to the best of our ability. I have to thank my parents especially without whom this dream of mine would not have been realized.