With Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s win, Pakistanis have had their own Slumdog millionaire moment. Of course, there’s a difference between Sharmeen and AR Rahman, whom many in India had expected to win (which he did in 2009).
In Pakistan it was different, in that many Pakistanis were either too caught up with their own day-to-day issues or those who were following the Oscars were not really expecting her to win.
In fact, in the run-up to the ceremony, I, as a reporter covering the arts and culture beat in Karachi for this newspaper, spoke to several people in the film industry on Shareem Obaid-Chinoy’s candidature. Most of them thought that she wouldn’t win, though several did say that it was good that Pakistan finally had a nominee at the Oscars.
Then on the day that she won, I had to speak to various people, as part of my job, to get their reactions. And here, too, I found that quite a few of them did not unequivocally congratulate Pakistan’s first-ever Oscar winner. Some even suggested conspiracy theories.
For instance, one response was that the documentary was co-produced and had another director as well. This person also said that it wasn’t really a feature film either, as if to downplay the award’s significance. Clearly, this is not the time for petty and/or professional jealousies to be coming out and such reactions are most unfortunate. The fact of the matter is that as a Pakistani director — and just a young woman in her thirties — she has already won the highest accolade possible in film-making.
As for the conspiracy theories, there is one, used by her apparent detractors, that she received funds for some of her work from the US State Department. Even if that was factually correct, so what! That doesn’t mean that the US government would make it a point to also try and influence the Oscars jury so that a Pakistani woman wins one of the awards.
That said, can Pakistani film-makers and the country’s film industry, otherwise known by all of us as Lollywood, learn any lessons from her? On the flip side, the industry does not do well, perhaps because it suffers from serious structural problems, and perhaps the win by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy will hopefully help bring about some introspection among industry people and maybe assistance from outside parties such as the government.
Just winning the Oscar, no matter how great the achievement, doesn’t mean that things will change, or that problems of its struggling film industry will disappear. However, it does show the significance of Pakistani issues on the global scale and is proof that if our film-makers are well-equipped with the technique of film-making they can beat anyone.
This historic win should also be taken as an opportunity by schools across Pakistan to formally introduce visual arts programmes — especially film-making — in their curriculum. If this is done, and investment is made in it as a proper course of study, it could bring great benefits.
Sharmeen-Obaid Chinoy is an inspiration for people willing to pursue a career in film-making. Also, and equally importantly, the award may help change the mentality found usually in Pakistani parents who often discourage their children from pursuing a career in the arts.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2012.