I’ve always been a big fan of Mira Nair. She brings our culture and issues to life expertly and with ease. Mira’s vision is truly gifted and she knows how to translate it for the big screen in the most beautiful of ways. So, when I heard she was in Pakistan, I went for an informal meeting while she was looking to cast actors for The Reluctant Fundamentalist. My purpose was solely to meet her. I did not know at the time that she was in town to cast actors for her latest film, which is based on Lahore’s very own, Mohsin Hamid’s widely acclaimed novel. The book lends an interesting perspective to the times we live in and the realities we are facing. It talks honestly of the changes in attitude and equal opportunities that young Pakistanis are facing in ‘the land of dreams, America’, as well as at home.
I hadn’t expected much from this meeting professionally to be honest. When I got a call saying I had been cast, it was like a wish I hadn’t even dared imagine could come true. It felt too good to be true and for a while I even believed that it was, because between the time that I met Mira and the time I got a casting confirmation, I had learnt that I would be becoming a mother and probably wouldn’t be able to shoot according to the film’s schedule. As luck would have it, there were other delays. In the end, Kate Hudson and I were both extremely new mommies when we shot the film. It reaffirmed my belief in things happening when they’re meant to.
My work was based mostly in Delhi. I wish more scenes for the movie could have been shot in my beautiful city of Lahore as originally planned. We would arrive at base camp, which would be set up from scratch every night near the given location, for breakfast and then into our trailers for make-up and costume. Unfortunately, the difference between the film industries in Pakistan and India is vast and there is no fair comparison that I can make between shooting there and here. We have years of catching up to do. Their industry has had uninterrupted decades to evolve and grow. Whether its technology, professionalism, work ethics, punctuality or even skill, practice makes perfect. Even though they are such senior actors, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi would be on set at the crack of dawn: punctual, hardworking, well-rehearsed and ready to go. It’s all about working hard, and that too consistently. There are no shortcuts to being brilliant. The one strength Pakistan has is talent, which is why we must support it every step of the way.
The experience was very intense. Working on a major movie day in and day out, with the same people while you’re away from home is like living with a new family. You can also compare it with being at camp. It takes a while to snap out of it and get back to real life.
When it comes to the character I play in the movie — Bina — she is an essential reflection of what Lahori girls are like. Boisterous, feisty, expressive and full of spirit. It was easy to connect with her because the character, written especially for the movie, was quite close to my heart and easy to relate to. I think Bina is significant in showing global audiences a fun, progressive and independent side of Pakistani girls.
My family in the film is so similar to my own in real life that the similarity is uncanny. It is a literary, progressive and extremely cultured family. Shabana Azmi captured the Lahori ammi perfectly. She is grace personified and has presence and an aura about her. She is one of the few Indian actresses who can do justice to an Urdu role as opposed to a Hindi one. Her theatre experience and command over the Urdu language is rarely found across the border.
After working with Om Puri, I realised that he was a complete natural. I’ve seen excellent performances by him previously, but to see them on set while in the middle of a riveting scene is a great experience. Similarly, working with Riz Ahmed was a real treat. He’s got razor sharp wit and an even sharper mind and is extremely talented.
The names who were working behind the camera were very accomplished people in a league of their own. It was one of those rare experiences when you are truly surrounded by professionals who, despite being brilliant at what they do and being the best in the business, are hard-working, organised, as well as encouraging and warm.
When it comes to Mira Nair, I must say that she exudes warmth that touches all those she works with. The fact that most of her team has been with her for over 20 years is testimony of this very fact. After a harrowing all-night shoot, a day before I was coming back, she took out half an hour out of her extremely busy schedule and left a parcel of presents in my trailer for my daughter! No matter what the stress levels, no matter what the situation, I never once saw her lose her cool or focus. Being directed by Mira Nair is a dream come true. She was definitely the biggest star on set
Even if I had absolutely nothing to do with this movie, the fact that Mohsin Hamid wrote a book set in my Lahore and none other than Mira Nair made a movie out of it is unbelievable. The thought of sitting in a cinema, watching a Mira Nair movie which starts with the words “Lahore, Pakistan 2001-2011” gives me goose bumps. Surreal!
Published in The Express Tribune, May 30th, 2013.