The Pakistani film industry in its ‘survival’ phase
Well into my interview with Afia Nathaniel, the Dukhtar movie director puts me on the spot. I am meeting her at the May Fair Hotel in London, right before the European premiere of her first film. Until now, I have had the opportunity to get in a couple of good questions, but now she has taken over.
She is wearing what appears to be a red-coloured, gold-patterned cotton kurta and black specs. She starts asking me the questions now, which is my professional nightmare come alive. The filmmaker has become the journalist.
“How many films can you count on your fingers that have female leads, independent of the men? Tell me, right now. In Pakistan?”
I give this some serious thought and realise that it’s hard. I realise that I haven’t watched enough Pakistani films in my life. For some strange reason, Shoaib Mansoor’s name is dancing around in my mind. Is it okay to say Bol now? Should I say Bol? Then I remember. Earlier this year, I had seen Josh, a film by Iram Parveen Bilal, with Aamina Sheikh in the lead. So I go for it.
“Two female leads?” counters Afia.
This feels like a rapid-fire round now. But I’m ready to brace the next level, because luckily I have also seen Sabiha Sumar’s latest, Good Morning Karachi. There are several actresses in lead roles in that film. Female characters leading from the front, if you will. But, apparently, I haven’t understood the rules of the ‘Afia Nathaniel Quiz Show’.
“(Good Morning Karachi) has not been released theatrically in Pakistan.”
Now I give up. I guess Dukhtar is a first. It’s the story of Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), a woman who flees with her young daughter Zainab (Saleha Aref), in order to avoid the girl having to marry an old tribal leader to settle a clan feud. Allah Rakhi doesn’t want her kid to have the same life as her, as she herself got married off to a man older to her when she was young. A hunt for the duo begins through the testing terrains of Pakistan’s mountainous areas and the film quickly goes from domestic social drama to thriller road movie in a matter of a few scenes.
Dukhtar is a wholly watchable film, with some decent performances by the older cast members and a truly marvellous one by the child actor Saleha Aref. Afia, who shows big promise with her debut, has chosen to tell the story in an unconventional way. This isn’t a dour, depressing tale about female oppression, but rather a film about female empowerment. Allah Rakhi and Zainab have to fend for themselves in this patriarchal society and these narrative cogs work tremendously well (granted, they are greatly aided by Mohib Mirza as a Punjabi truck driver).
Our own film critic, Rafay Mahmood, wasn’t too taken with the film. While he appreciated that ‘the director may have avoided making a Pukhtoon woman do an item number’, he found that ‘the substitute she offers is not engaging at all’. In fact, an item song, it seems, would have sped up the production of Dukhtar. According to Afia, there simply wasn’t anyone willing to spend money on a script like this.
“In Pakistan, nobody wanted to finance a film with two women in the lead, by a female filmmaker. That was always a challenge. They felt threatened. They don’t understand if the film doesn’t have an item number or a song and dance routine. It was a bit of a departure. I feel that cinema is at a very exciting stage in Pakistan, even though there aren’t many risks being taken in the industry.”
Dukhtar is a risk which has paid off for Nathaniel. It’s this year’s Academy Awards entry for Pakistan, the country’s second entry in many years. After last year’s unsuccessful Oscars bid for Zinda Bhaag, this is an interesting choice by the section committee, given that it has had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and its aesthetics cater to a global festival audience.
“What I think Dukhtar has done really different from other films is that we have broken the mould of where we can go with this film. It’s not just for Pakistan, this film has an international audience, which is why we’re so excited that we’re able to bring the dialogue out of Pakistan as well. And in a good way, you know?”
This is undoubtedly true. Films like these do stimulate debates amongst international audiences. Western viewers will always take an interest in topics like child marriages or the treatment of women in an Islamic republic. And for some strange reason, the depiction of these themes constantly irks viewers in Pakistan. The truth is too bitter a pill for some, it seems. Personally, I feel this is just an outrage for the sake of outrage, being ‘offended’ because one thinks it’s the right thing to do. But Dukhtar isn’t that kind of a film. It isn’t actively propagating a message or viewpoint.
“It’s a story. It’s the nature of the story. It’s a thriller. I mean, you have the good guys, the bad guys in any thriller. And what happens in a thriller? You fear for the good guy or the mission to fail. And that’s what it is. It’s only when you have women on the screen, you are judged by Pakistanis. You’re judged for having a female in the lead, with this issue behind. They immediately judge you as being feminist, which in Pakistan is a gaali. I mean, they don’t think about it in the sense that 50% of the population are women. It’s a right for us to have female protagonists on screen.”
And of course it is Nathaniel’s right as a filmmaker first, not as a woman, to tell the story she wants to tell. And in the way she wants to. Because only then can she achieve her real aim.
“The film is important in what it’s highlighting, not just for Pakistan but for many other countries as well. It’s topical, but I think at the same time it’s about breaking the silence and the status of a lot of things in our society and culture. I believe our film has done that, in a good way. In a society you always have the progressive side and the conservative side. And it’s important to have some kind of dialogue, even though their views may be polar opposite. But I think it’s important for any journey where change has to happen, it needs to have polar opposites on its side.”
Talking of journeys, Dukhtar was never a smooth sailing one. As aforementioned, finance was always an issue. Of course, shooting in the middle of such difficult areas like Gilgit-Baltistan, in temperatures of -13°C, was another factor which spoke against the film. There was a lot of rescheduling and rewriting, the crew had to be very open for anything. Which speaks volumes for Nathaniel’s rigour and the precision with which she commanded this ship.
“People often ask me how difficult is it to be a woman in Pakistan and I say it’s not difficult in the sense of my work. Even though I work with 40 men as the only female crew member, I never had a problem with it. I had complete freedom to work as I chose to. It’s about having the right kind of skillset and the respect and then you go from there. Gender is not so much the issue. Gender becomes the issue when you bring it into the film. There’s a distinction. There’s a difference.”
I see Nathaniel’s point but she is privileged in that sense. There are undeniable problems for women in our society. On the day I met her, Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a happy coincidence, because the film was having its European premiere on the day. And yet, the film, which has been in the making for so long, is still reflecting actual problems of society that will be present in five, 10, 20 years from now. From the looks of it. But in terms of filmmaking and cinema, Pakistan seems headed in the right direction. After a long, long time, there seems to be a sense of genuine productiveness. But mind you, Nathaniel is quick to remind us that there should be no false hopes. Pakistan is in need of this reality check and she provides it honestly.
“There’s no true revival. I will say that right now and on record. It’s only survival. There is no revival. Revival happens when you have a critical mass of content in the market. Just having one film every one year or two years is not exactly a revival.”
So, we’re still taking baby steps after all. But one can always dream. Dukhtar could well go on to an Oscar nomination and then eventual glory. I certainly wish it all the best, although the film critic inside me hears a nagging voice that other entries are better. It’s up against titles like Two Days, One Night (Belgium), Leviathan (Russia), Mommy (Canada), Winter Sleep (Turkey) or Ida (Poland). And only five make the cut.
But films shouldn’t be measured by their Oscar success. Nathaniel is already in pre-production of her ambitious next project.
“It’s a science fiction thriller. I love sci-fi. My all-time favourite is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick, he’s my favourite filmmaker of all time.”
I smile when I hear this. A Pakistani science-fiction thriller sounds intriguing and with Nathaniel in charge, it might just work. The Pakistani film industry needs her desperately, if not for a revival, then certainly for a re-invention. I hope she finds the necessary funds for her next project, which can’t possibly be a low priced affair. And if no-one is willing to finance it, Nathaniel can always include an incidental item song in space.
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