The forgotten filmmaker

It may be difficult to get Dehlavi to talk but once he opens up, he is a treasure trove of knowledge and inspiration.

Jibran Khan September 09, 2012

‘Can you recommend any good Pakistani film-makers?’

This is the first question I am asked whenever I have a discussion with foreign film-makers and it always leaves me rather bewildered.

Pakistan has a rich film-making history and yet it somehow lacks good film-makers. The truth is that while Lollywood may have entertained audiences back in the ‘60s and ‘70s; it never brought anything new to the table. While India had the Indian New Wave, also known as parallel cinema — an alternative to mainstream Bollywood cinema — Pakistan was still building itself as a coherent nation and failed to produce film-makers who truly understood the art.

But there is one film-maker who I believe is an exception to the rule, a true exponent of the art whom we can proudly claim as our own. And his name is Jamil Dehlavi.

While his name might not sound familiar to many, you might recognise it from the biopic Jinnah. Dehlavi’s films feature an erratic yet daring depiction of Pakistan, its people and its culture which continually strike a chord with his admirers and critics.

As an aspiring film-maker myself, I count Dehlavi as one of my major influences, and have frequently tried (and failed) to get in touch with him. Dehlavi is, after all, famous for both his desire to keep a low profile and his reluctance to be interviewed.

But persistence pays off in the end and, after a brief email interaction with him, I finally received an invitation to a private screening of Jinnah at the Atrium Cinema in Karachi. I reached there as fast as I could and, after an interval of 14 years, saw the film once again on the big screen. Prior to the screening, Dehlavi announced that he plans to re-release Jinnah in theatres and hopefully project the film in a new light.

After the screening, I managed to have a brief chat with Dehlavi, in the hope that he would agree to a formal meeting and an interview. His modesty is evident in his speech and he invited me to his house in Karachi over the weekend. It almost felt surreal to finally have a chance to interview the man, who is arguably Pakistan’s first independent film-maker.

On the day of the interview, I tried to contain my excitement as I entered Dehlavi’s house, it was not every day that one gets the opportunity to talk about film-making with the great Jamil Dehlavi himself. We took our seats in the living room, which was meticulously decorated with paintings, antique furniture and porcelain ornaments.

Dehlavi began the interview by talking about his childhood; born to a Pakistani diplomat and a French mother, he grew up between Europe and Pakistan and was exposed to European cinema at a very early age. Even though he currently lives in London, Dehlavi has always been emotionally connected to Pakistan and says that the country has “always brought him back to make films”.

Dehlavi graduated with a Masters in Jurisprudence from Oxford University and was subsequently called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn but never practised law, choosing instead to study film directing at Columbia University in New York.

In 1974, he directed his first feature length film, Towers of Silence, a story of a Pakistani boy’s experiences and obsession with death and the Zoroastrian rituals of purification and regeneration. It was an autobiographical film and a labour of love for Dehlavi. Shot under very difficult conditions, it served as his apprenticeship.

A few years later, Dehlavi wrote and directed his magnum opus, The Blood of Hussain, a fictional account of a military dictatorship and the revolutionary movement against it. Salman Peerzada played a double role in the film; one as the conservative diplomat who has conveniently sided himself with the new military regime and the other as the revolutionary, who stands by his moral values and is the champion of the oppressed. As implied by the title, the film is a modern interpretation of the story of the martyred Imam Hussain (RA), and his status as a man who stood up for what he believed in despite the odds being stacked against him. “I wanted to transpose this tragic incident to a modern context,” says Dehlavi.

A fortnight after filming was completed, almost as if life was imitating art, General Ziaul Haq overthrew the government and imposed martial law. The film was banned and the government tried confiscating it, but luckily the negative had already been sent to a film lab in United Kingdom and was safe. Soon after, Dehlavi managed to evade the clutches of Zia’s minions and escaped to the UK through Afghanistan. Even though it has been more than 30 years since its release, he still feels that the film will have difficulty getting past Pakistani censors today.

Dehlavi continued to make feature length films abroad ranging from Born of Fire, a thriller about a flutist who travels to the wilds of Turkey to engage in a musical battle with a supernatural being, to Immaculate Conception, a mystical drama about a childless English-American couple who visit a fertility shrine in Karachi with tragic results.

To celebrate Pakistan’s 50th anniversary, Dehlavi was brought in to direct Jinnah, a historical biopic on the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. According to Dehlavi, the financiers wanted him to produce an ‘idolised’ version of Jinnah while he wanted to portray the Quaid’s human side. Still, even with all the restrictions, he got his way in the end. Unfortunately, due to lack of effort from the financiers, the film’s promotion was badly handled and failed to exploit its true potential. After much struggle, Dehlavi has finally acquired the rights to the film and now aims to market it with the care and attention that it deserves.

I asked him if, after the difficulties he had with Jinnah, he had any plans to direct a feature length film in Pakistan again, and he replied that he was working on a script and looking for a financier.

After Jinnah, Dehlavi abandoned shooting on film and moved on to digital filmmaking. “It’s cost effective, easier to handle, doesn’t require a large crew and it is quite evident that in the near future, digital will take over film,” he says, “It’s perfect for my particular style of film-making.”

Infinite Justice was the first film he shot digitally. It was the story of a Jewish American journalist who is held for ransom by Muslim fundamentalists demanding the release of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. If the plot seems familiar, it’s because it was inspired by kidnapping and death of Daniel Pearl. The film met with mixed reviews; some praising it for its daring portrayal of characters while others criticised it for its “middling production values”.

Regardless of the difficulties and criticism he has faced, Dehlavi continues to make films. His most recent film, Seven Lucky Gods, is a psychological thriller about an illegal immigrant from Albania who infiltrates the lives of a group of Londoners with devastating consequences. It is currently in post-production and is set to release later this year.

Before I left, I asked if he had some advice for aspiring Pakistani film-makers like me. Dehlavi replied that young film-makers need to take advantage of the internet as it is becoming a powerful distribution tool. He stated that with the advent of multiplexes, young film-makers can now put pressure on distributors to show their films. “We need to keep on making films and since filmmaking is not as expensive as it was during my youth I would advise people to explore society and comment on it through film. The key is to never stop making films.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 9th, 2012.


Knotty | 9 years ago | Reply

His soul is Pakistani. He breathes Pakistan. His stories and characters are based on his native land. He could have westernised his films but he chose what his heart dictates. . Jamil Dehlvi is a true Pakistani, more Pakistani than many Pakistani youngsters who watch MTV, wear D & G and eat western food in big cities of Pakistan.

gp65 | 9 years ago | Reply

So this is a filmmaker whose primary influences were European movies, who lives in Europe and was educated in UK and US. His movies cannot get a release in Pakistan. YEt he is a Pakistani filmmaker?

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