Documenting any aspect of Pakistan or Pakistanis without having it reduced to a narrative about bombs, target killings and extremist ideologies is a challenge most storytellers face regularly. Pakistanis living against a constant backdrop of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks continues to be an unfortunate reality, but very few manage to grasp the nuanced beauty in the stories of those who continue to live and do what they love despite that.
Capturing the rich mix of nostalgia, dedication and frustration of a small group of Pakistani classical musicians struggling to survive and find an audience for their craft in a country that has completely shifted axis in the past two decades is perhaps the greatest triumph of Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and film-maker Andy Schocken’s new documentary Song of Lahore. The film documents the journey of a group of forgotten violinists, tabla, sitar and flute players from Sachal Studios in Lahore — a small recording haven for neglected artists — to a concert at Lincoln Center in New York in collaboration with Wynton Marsalis’ group.
Founded by Izzat Majeed in 2004, Sachal Studios released several classical albums but it was the release of an experimental album combining South Asian melodies with jazz that earned them a spot on the international landscape in 2011. The first half of the documentary contextualises the challenges the musicians are up against at home. It familiarises the viewer with the creeping Shariah that stifled all forms of art in Pakistan in the wake of Zia’s Islamisation policies, a dying film industry, increasing intolerance and a younger generation that is completely out of sync with the craft of their forefathers. While the historical and cultural backstories are just long enough to put the situation in perspective without getting monotonous, a little more attention could have been paid to introducing and familiarising the viewer with the nuances of classical music, given that some of the instruments and melodies featured in the documentary might be completely foreign to someone who does not belong to this part of the world.
The latter half of the film, however, is flawless. The film-makers managed to capture all the right moments; from the moment the group arrives in New York to their rehearsals with Marsalis’ band and ultimately the final performance on the day of the concert. The nervousness of performing on a global platform, the tension and communication barriers as the two vastly different bands try to come together and create something unique and the raw richness of the final product keeps the viewer engaged throughout. At the risk of being a spoiler, the music in the final act is worth a special mention. It is a testimony to how people from different parts of the world, who have nothing in common on a superficial level, can bond over a passion for creating good music. Regardless of whether you are a fan of jazz or classical music, Song of Lahore is bound to leave you with a rhythm in your step and a warm, fuzzy feeling in your heart.
Sarah Munir is a freelance multimedia journalist. She tweets @SarahMunir1
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 6th, 2015.