Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani tells a compelling tale of a Dalit Hindu Pakistani boy Ramchand, who falls victim to the politics around porous borders of India and Pakistan. The film based on a real incident was screened at ongoing Osian’s Cinefan festival in New Delhi, Khadeeja Arif and Bikas Mishra caught up with the young director. Excerpts from her interview:
Mehreen: I think it’s very important step that Indian films are shown in Pakistan and Pakistani films in India. There are not so many Pakistani films being shown in India as compared to the Indian films being shown in Pakistan. Lots of people are going to see Indian films in Pakistani theatres and there is some kind of revival of theatres is taking place in Pakistan and there is need to do more of it. Indian filmmakers are there and they are being appreciated and I hope some kind of collaboration between Indian and Pakisatni film industries to take place.
Bikas: Ramchand Pakistani has a cross border theme. Was this theme there in your mind or the story happened first?
Mehreen: The story happened first . My father has a an NGO in the desert, he had met the father and the son (the two characters in the film), he heard their story and then wrote a synopsis and sent me the story. I read the synopsis and it immediately attracted me. The border was a very powerful factor and the story of the family attracted me immensely, their struggle; how they got separated and got together . That’s all. I didn’t set out to do a border theme film prior to the story.
Khadeeja: Is it inevitable to have a border theme when you are talking about India-Paksitan?
I know. May be because we are still young and exploring the relations of Indian and Pakistani cinema. But a film like Khuda ke liye does not have a border theme and it’s not about India and Pakistan but it was appreciated so well in India. I am sure my next film would not be about border or India Pakistan but it will still be appreciated. It was not my conscious decision to make a film on this theme. But, there is a need to tell stories about Pakistan. There are so many stories about Pakistan which are not being heard in India. Now, with the opening of so many TV channels in Pakistan and film exchange becoming more active than before one can hope that we would know more about each other than before.
Bikas: Before getting into the production of Ramchand Pakistani, did you explore a co-production?
Mehreen: We didn’t. It was my mother first who invested in the film. Then my friends, sister and sister in law, and my friends. They saw it as a business venture. Then we also got two producers from Pakistan.
Bikas: How many producers in total?
Mehreen: 20 producers in total- all friends family and of course two other producers.
Bikas: Somehow I felt that the representation of India is centered around Bollywood, one of the characters speak typical Bumbaiya accent?
Mehreen: As I told earlier also we wanted that particular character to speak in Gujarati accent, but we didn’t have the budget to ask someone to train in Gujarati accent and Delhi accent sounded very close to Pakistan so we decided to have Mumbai accent. I would say that comes from my own exposure to Bollywood and also some friends helped me to get the character the right Bambaiya accent. I dint want it to be a Veer Zaara where everyone speaks in typical Urdu and wears jinnah cap because that’s not Pakistan, but, I would agree that accent could have been little better.
Bikas: Ramchand Pakistani refers to Bombay film industry as well?
Mehreen: Subconsciously, Yes. We used it primarily for the female cop character because she has been shown obsessed with Sridevi and Bollywood and has been watching Bollywood movies. I think Bollywood is an intrinsic part of Indian culture. Look at your TV channels they are all the time showing Bollywood films. India and Bollywood are one and you can’t have films about India without Bollywood.
Bikas: Where do you draw your influences from?
Mehreen: My influences in cinema are from Pakistni TV serials: Ankahei, Tanhiyan, Dhoop Kinare. My influences in Indian cinema are filmmakers like Mira Nayar, Shyam Benegal, Satyajit Ray and among Euorpean filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and lots of new Turkish and Inranian filmmakers.
Bikas: Were you thinking of making a Neo-realist film?
Mehreen: I wanted to make a neo-realist film and I tried little bit here. I would like to make a film like Bicycle Thieves, but it’s so difficult to shoot in streets in Pakistan unless you have a huge budget to cordon off the traffic and roads. It’s much easier to shoot on the streets of Europe and USA.
Bikas: Are there many non actors in the film?
Mehreen: Yes, the older Ramchand was not an actor. There was a Bengali and other characters, they have never acted and we picked them during audition. There was also lot of theatre /TV actor s who acted in the film.
Khadeeja: Recently a lot of Indian films have been released in Pakistan and they have been very successful there. One reason could be that Bollywood is very popular there as well. But, we have got Pakistani film like Khuda ke Liye and it got great response in India, do you see more films from Pakistan coming to India?
Mehreen: I hope that more films from Pakistan come here but for that Pakistan needs to make more films. I am happy that Khuda ke Liye did well in India and I hope my film also get the same response so that when the other films come from Pakistan people have already had good experience with films from Pakistan. Firstly, I see no reason if Indian films get released in Pakistan why can’t good Pakistani films find distributors in India. But, they have to be released at large scale and not just in big cities. Even Khuda ke liye got released in selected cities.
Khadeeja: Now since Pakistan has a democratic set up, do you believe there is a hope for the film industry?
Mehreen: I can tell you about the art scene in Pakistan, it’s booming! Lots of cultural activities take place and especially music is doing well. What needs to be improved is TV and Films. Pakistani TV channels are aping saas bhi kabhi bahoo thi, that’s bad. We are new to media freedom so there is a lot to be done. It would happen but will take some time.
Khadeeja: What kind of efforts filmmakers are making to assert their presence in Pakistan?
Mehreen: We have Kara film festival. Every year it’s growing. Last year we had Ajay Devgan and Vishal Bhardwaj coming to Pakistan with their film Omkara. So that’s at the level of festival. But there are also other venues and people are getting interested in making films and watching them.
Khadeeja: How is the experience of being a woman filmmaker in Pakistan?
Mehreen: You would be surprised to know there are some very popular women directors like Sangeeta, Sameena Peerzada who have done great work and there are lots of female directors in TV. So women are active there in the field of filmmaking and they are doing well. So as a filmmaker I had faced problems which any filmmaker would face- the problem of getting producers/infrastructure etc. The problem is that we don’t get the right image of Pakistan represented in the mainstream media. The discrimination against women is universal and we face same problems as any other woman. There are so many women in the field of cinema/television, I didn’t face any problem.
Khadeeja: Do you think that films like Khuda ke liye and more such narratives are important to deconstruct the image of Pakistan especially in the context of post 9/11.
I think it’s an important point. I think there is a need to tell more stories from Pakistan and India. We know that terrorism is a problem and people who are doing it are doing wrong. But, we should also understand the reason behind doing such act and understand the whole scenario. We should also tell the stories of normal Pakistanis who live/earn, sleep and eat like any other Indian, Hindu, Christian and who are struggling to make sense of their everyday lives.
Khaeeja and Bikas: Thank you Mehreen. Hope to see your next film soon and wish you lots of success to Ramchand Pakistani.