DUBAI: At the Dubai International Film Festival 2017 (DIFF), Urdu film, Meri Pak Zameen (My Pure Land) was showcased to a packed house. Directed by UK based film-maker Sarmad Masud, the film - which has currently aggregated 92% fresh ratings at review website Rotten Tomatoes, stars Suhaee Abro and Tanweer Hussain. The film was selected as the UK’s official entry to the Oscars for the Best Foreign Language Film.
As I walked into the cinema for its second screening, I noticed a standing queue for My Pure Land. The DIFF slogan ‘Film Will Find You’ seemed to be ringing true. The film had definitely found many people who’d heard about this fascinating story of Nazo Dharejo, the girl that fought off 200 bandits to save her home.
Post the screenings and Q&A sessions, I sat down with the charming Sarmad Masud who surprisingly, has a classic sense of humour and humility.
ET: Let’s start with your journey to ‘My Pure Land,’ how did the film come about?
Sarmad Masud (SM): I had to do an introduction for the screening yesterday and I spoke about how I came across the idea in 2013 and joined hands with a production company. You might laugh at what I did next – I went out and bought a chair for £73.99 because I thought, ‘I’m making a film, I need a proper chair.’
Within a month, the production company backed out and I no longer had the funds to make the film. But all I could think about was ‘Well I’ve just spent £74 on a chair…’ So I started raising the money myself. My friends and family helped of course and then Bill Kenwright came on to complete the financing.
After that, we flew out to Pakistan to shoot in a house built by my grandfather. It was just my luck that I fell sick during the film; my wife was also unwell and even Tanweer bhai (who plays Suhaee’s father in the film) fell ill.
But somehow, the film has ended up in film festivals and is now associated with the Oscars. And it all happened because of that chair!
ET: Before the release of the film, you were quite open about the many challenges you faced. Now that the film is out, how has the feedback been?
SM: It’s quite unbelievable. At the moment, I’m just trying to enjoy the moment… we went through such a strange journey.
The feedback has been amazing. ‘I was moved by the story’ – I’ve heard that a lot. People have come up to us and told us how much they love the film. A lot of expats said they’d been waiting for this film and are so proud.
But this isn’t why I did it. Sure, the kind words are definitely appreciated but I did it for Pakistan. Our nation is struggling to find its voice in the cinema. We sometimes tend to confuse our movies with Bollywood style films but we don’t have the industry or the personnel to make a film as 'good' as Bollywood. We need to find our own voice – put our own stamp on things.
I’m not saying my film is ‘it’ and my voice is ‘the voice’ – but maybe it’s a start.
ET: As a filmmaker, how do you connect with the audience?
SM: I’ve heard something about how if you read a book, immediately after you’ve finished the last page you should ask yourself if you’d want the author to be sitting in front of you? You probably wouldn’t. It’s the same with films – you probably want to digest the film first.
So, it’s strange to me that, instead of driving home with their friends or family, instead of absorbing the film, people just want to dump their questions onto me.
We had a Q&A session in Nottingham and there was a professor from the university who said, ‘Sometimes I struggle with symbolism in films and metaphors but in your film, at one point, Nazo loses her dupatta whereas the mother and sister both, keep their scarves on. I saw that as the representation of Nazo being a headstrong woman. Is that what you were trying to show?’ And I said, ‘Unfortunately, I’m not that smart. I was just worried about the continuity, so I asked them to lose the dupatta.’
The point is, people see different things in your film. They bring up things that you may not have intended. Fortunately, they’re in the position to view the film with fresh eyes for the first time whereas I am no longer in that position. For me, it’s either a learning experience or one full of regrets. Enough regrets to want to do a better job next time.
Meet Nazo Dharejo: The toughest woman in Sindh
It’s great to hear what people say – good or bad. What you have to remember though, is that when someone is asking you a question or giving you advice, they’re coming from a different context.
ET: How do you feel about the interest shown by so many Pakistanis to watch the film?
SM: I can’t wait for the film to be seen in Pakistan - the shooting was carried out in Pakistan for a reason. I think there are so many Pakistanis to whom this film would appeal to.
ET: There seems to be a cultural collusion in the film as Nazo is Sindhi and the film is set in Punjab.
SM: That’s an interesting point but I’d like to make it clear that we weren't trying to offend anybody. Nazo Dharejo herself has said she is proud of the film as a Sindhi and for all of Pakistan.
This film is for women everywhere. It’s not like we’ve whitewashed the film and cast Nicole Kidman as Nazo. This is the story of a father’s love for his daughter, which is universal. We took it out of the context of Sindh and put it in a non-specific village. We haven’t named it and there are no landmarks which indicate what time or place this story is set in.
Again, because we think this is a universal story, I believe we are not disrespecting the Sindhi culture. The word ‘waderi’ is something we have incorporated because we thought it was a really nice touch. It’s something I thought was right for the story and I feel like we’ve done justice to Nazo’s story.
'My Pure Land': A film about Pakistani women challenging patriarchy
We’ve tried to put it on a larger scale. To me, Nazo’s story wasn’t just about Sindh; it was about all of Pakistan. The fact that it took a brave, proud Sindhi woman to be a feminist figure in the country for people all over the world to see, is something for all of us to be proud of.
ET: What does the future hold for you, in terms of films?
SM: I remember we had all these actors coming in for My Pure Land’s auditions - fair-skinned wearing green lenses, which was completely wrong for our film. Maybe they’re right for another film though. It’s all relative.
I have one more film I want to make in Pakistan, currently in its very very early stages. I have another film in the UK – it’s a feel good sports film which I should actually be writing right now… The good thing is, that I’m now on the radar and people are giving me good things to read – they’re coming from really high up.
ET: What’s your forte?
SM: I identify myself as a feminist and I really do believe in social justice. However, I don’t like to take things too seriously. Us people of the film industry have a platform though - an opportunity as filmmakers to send a message that goes wider and lasts longer, and I’m aware of that responsibility. I don’t think every film I’ll be making will be a feminist film but I’ll definitely be conscious of how females are portrayed.
ET: Who has been your inspiration?
SM: It’s a hindrance for me that I have an eclectic taste. My role models are people like Danny Boyle who makes a film set in space, then makes Trainspotting and after that, he creates a film in America. That’s the kind of filmmaker I want to be.
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