I very much enjoyed this film showing at Bradford’s Bite the Mango festival. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting and it raised questions about how it might be categorised. It’s officially a Pakistani film. Director Mehreen Jabbar left Pakistan for UCLA and returned to work in Pakistani television. This was her first feature with a story based on a real incident that was taken up by Mehreen’s father Javed who sold the idea to his daughter. The eventual screenplay was written by Mohammad Ahmed, a well-known writer in Pakistani television.
The story focus on a Hindu family living in the Pakistani province of Sind close to the border with India. They are low-caste villagers attempting to scratch a living from the soil in a semi arid region. Ramchand, the 8 year-old boy in the family, accidentally crosses the border during a period of tension between India and Pakistan. He is held by two Indian border guards and when his father Shankar also crosses the border looking for him, he too is arrested. Father and son are then taken to a prison housing other Pakistanis similarly arrested and Champa, wife and mother, is left bewildered at home when the two don’t return. The story then follows what happens to Ramchand and Shankar in prison with inserts of life for Champa who is forced to work for the local landlord when she cannot pay her debts.
A parallel film?
If this was an Indian film, I would be tempted to call it a parallel film. I’m not sure if that is appropriate for a Pakistani production. In any case, this is not a Lollywood or Bollywood film, although the relatively simple story and the handling of scenes could I think appeal to a mainstream audience. As I watched the film, my first thoughts were how similar it seemed to much of the Iranian Cinema seen in the West (without perhaps the political and artistic sophistication of work by Kiarostami, Panahi or Makhmalbaf – though this is not to suggest that the film does not have great artistic merit) and also to aspects of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988). According to the Press Pack available for download from the official website these were indeed the influences that Mehreen Jabbar has cited.
In some ways. Jabbar has acted like diaspora filmmakers such as Nair and Deepa Mehta. Wary of the pitfalls facing a first-time feature filmmaker in Pakistan (with the local industry largely in decline in Lahore, as far as I can tell) she drew on her American contacts to provide Key Heads of Department on the shoot and cobbled together the funding for the film from individuals and independent companies in Pakistan and the US. She also approached both Pakistani and Indian government agencies because of the delicacy of the subject matter and travelled to India to ensure authenticity in the large sets that were eventually built in Pakistan to represent the Indian prison.
As with most films from the sub-continent, whether popular or parallel, the music in the film is important. This included adaptations of several Pakistani folk songs and a score involving Indian composers and playback singers with post-production in Mumbai. The songs are used as accompaniment to the visual narrative rather than as performance numbers. With an American cinematographer and a general realist approach (apart from a couple of dream sequences) the film fits the parallel category.
In one sense, the film fits the cycle of ‘line of control’ films set on the border. However, unlike the Indian films that I have seen, the political aspect of the situation is not exploited and there is no propagandist intent in the film. The Indians in the film are generally represented fairly and it is the ‘situation’ and its impact on civil and military administrations that is the villain.
More emphasis is placed on the story of Ramchand’s development through puberty. Over the course of the narrative he ages from 8 to 13 (and is (very well) played by two different young actors.
There is, of course, a ‘prison movie’ genre to consider and this is utilised in scenes dealing with the tedium of prison routines. These generic traits mean that the narrative seems familiar to the Western viewer. It also makes it more difficult to deal with the scenes back in Pakistan which seem to belong to another film. I wouldn’t agree, however, with reviewers who found that these dragged. The scenes are necessary for the realism of the story and I think that Nandita Das does an excellent job in conveying what poor Champa must have suffered.
The film seems to have been very well-received. The official website offers many reviews. Obviously these have been selected but the coverage on IMDB is also positive. The only real criticisms have come from Indians and Pakistanis complaining about the accents used by Pakistani actors playing Indians. But these seem to be contradictory in some cases. Not understanding Urdu or Hindi, I found the subtitles to be unhelpful sometimes when they weren’t held on screen long enough (and I’m a fast reader). I also missed the significance of most of the songs which weren’t translated. There were also some contrasting views on how Nandita Das handled her role. Most reviews were positive, but she has now played similar roles several times – in several languages. Her presence undoubtedly helped the film get screenings internationally. The rest of the cast were mainly experienced Pakistani TV actors.
I have seen reviews which suggest that the film is a difficult sell to popular audiences. This may well be true, but I can’t agree that it is a film filled with despair. Certainly there is a sense of despair in several scenes, but there is also plenty of fun, moments of joy and overall real hope and faith in the human spirit. I left the screening with a tear in my eye having become engaged with several ‘real’ characters. One of the highlights for me was the introduction of an intriguing character, an upper-caste young woman who is a senior officer in the prison. At first she treats Ramchand quite coldly as an ‘untouchable’, but he charms her and the two end up watching movies together on her TV set. I don’t want to give any other spoilers, so I’ll just recommend the film highly. It is available on a Region 0 DVD from various Indian suppliers.
Here’s the Urdu trailer for the film: