Tag Archives: Pakistani Cinema

London Indian Film Festival #1: Josh (Against the Grain, Pakistan-US 2012)

Josh

Josh is the first of three screenings of films from the 2013 London Indian Film Festival to be shown ‘on tour’ at the National Media Museum in Bradford and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Screening at 6pm during Ramadan is possibly not a real test of its popular appeal and the local Urdu-speaking audience was not in evidence. For audiences more used to popular Punjabi comedies at the local multiplexes the film may not have appealed even without the difficulties created by religious observance. Josh has been described as a ‘social drama’ and that is a reasonable description of a narrative that takes in class differences, feudalism, violence by the rich towards the poor, the empowerment of women and the youth movement in Pakistani politics. ‘Popular’ themes like the relationship problems of young men and women are included somewhat lower down the priority list.

JOSH

Iram Parveen Bilal on set in Pakistan

Writer-director Iram Parveen Bilal is an American-trained filmmaker (ten years in the US) who returned to Pakistan to make this film based on important local news stories about women as both victims and forceful agents of change. One of the problems about discussing the film is that the Pakistani film industry is still in the early stages of recovery from long-term decline. My local Bradford contact, with direct experience of Pakistani film and television culture, explained to me that in her view cinema was still not really respectable amongst the Pakistani upper middle classes. Television with its long-form narratives is still dominant. This perhaps explains the presence of several women as directors in a Pakistani film industry that is not fully ‘institutionalised’ – and why the lead role in this film is played by one of the big stars of Pakistani TV, Aamina Sheikh.

Fatima (approaching from the background) and a local street artist

Fatima (approaching from the background) and a local street artist

The plot outline of Josh sees Fatima (Aamina Sheikh) as a wealthy young woman in Karachi, still living at home with her widowed father, a leading lawyer. Fatima is a teacher in an English-medium secondary school. She hasn’t married, but has a boyfriend Adil, an aspiring artist who may be about to leave for America. She has friends in the Westernised milieu of upper middle class Karachi and is introduced to Uzair, a rising politician representing the Pakistan Youth Party. Uzair is played by Aamina Sheikh’s real-life husband Mohib Mirza (also a well-known actor in Pakistan). The equilibrium of Fatima’s comfortable life is disrupted by the disappearance of her ex-nanny Nusrat, a woman who has been heavily involved in trying to alleviate the suffering of her home village community outside Karachi. When Fatima discovers what has happened to Nusrat (who she considers her ‘second mother’), she finds herself in conflict with the village landlord and his group of armed thugs. Who will help Fatima – her father,  Adil or Uzair or her other friends? Can the villagers help themselves in their struggle?

This bald outline of the plot connects Josh to Hindi social films and Indian parallel cinema. It isn’t a ‘popular film’ in the Indian sense. Although there is some use of music that might correspond to contemporary Bollywood (i.e. in a montage sequence as might be found in independent Indian films), on the whole the music is used more in a Western mode – and there are no dance sequences. In fact I was a little disappointed in the music soundtrack, a mixture of Pakistani songs and Western film scoring. Despite the presence of Pakistani star names, the film has a low budget feel. The image was soft (and appeared to be projected from a DVD or Blu-ray disc) but more of a giveaway was the uneven sound recording. In one scene involving a conversation between two people, the background sound was completely different for each of the speakers in the same location. A quick glance online reveals that Bilal as producer-director had great difficulty getting financial support together and that the film’s completion was dependent on funds from Netflix administered through The Women in Film Foundation.

Given Ms Bilal’s difficulties in raising funds – and the important nature of her social issues-based themes – I’m a little reluctant to criticise the film. I will say that I was engaged throughout and the emotion of at least one scene brought me to tears. On the downside, I didn’t enjoy some of the montages that used ‘flash editing’ – sequences comprising shots only a few frames long, producing a kind of strobe effect. I could work out what they were supposed to mean but they still irritated. Equally, I was dismayed when I learned after the screening that the lead actors were married when they created so little erotic energy on screen. The rest of the cast seemed much more ‘authentic’ – perhaps there is a clash of acting styles? Overall, I think that the film tries to do too much and in doing so loses some of its potential to move the audience.

In trying to categorise/classify the film it is worth considering Ms Bilal as a diaspora filmmaker. The film’s narrative makes only limited references to studying/working abroad, themes common to some of Mira Nair’s films (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding etc.) but there are aspects of the film that suggest American style filmmaking and several of the key technical staff work mainly in the US. It seems unfair to compare a young filmmaker with established names such as Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta – and anyway the context of filmmaking in the sub-continent has changed markedly since those directors made their first Indian films back in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. Thinking about the national identity of the film also means that a more appropriate reference point might be a Pakistani diaspora director such as Jamil Dehlavi (Jinnah 1998). We might ask why the London Indian Film Festival decided to include a Pakistani film for the first time. Personally, I’m glad they did because I got a chance to see it. A release in both India and Pakistan has been announced for the Eid festival period. I fear for the film’s reception in India and I’m not sure what to expect when it is seen in Pakistan. It has however been a festival success, first at Mumbai in October 2012 and then at various other festivals.

Iram Parveen Bilal is clearly a talent to watch and there are various ways in which to explore her background. She has a website here. The official website for the film lists many of the positive reviews. Here is the trailer from the London Indian Film Festival:

And here is a set of interviews with the filmmakers. Bilal herself describes the film as a ‘mystery thriller’:

The social issues that the film tackles are very important and the current coverage of the campaign led by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who refused to be silenced by the Taliban emphasises the auspicious timing of the film’s release. Josh didn’t start out as a feature film and it will be interesting to see if by presenting the social debates in this way they get wider coverage and more attention. Despite its flaws, it would be good if it attracted audiences in the sub-continent and in the UK. 

Ramchand Pakistani (Pakistan, 2008)

Nandita Das as Champa

Nandita Das as Champa

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.

Genre

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.

Reception

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: