Meet inspirational filmmaker Ayesha Khan, who spent some time with us to inform us about her latest production KASHF and her film production company INDUS VALLEY PRODUCTIONS. KASHF is a film aiming to bridge the gap between American life and Pakistani upbringing; the story of this film is something each one of us can relate to. It is refreshing to see how her talent is being put to use in developing our Pakistani cinema which has for years been looked down upon because of the lack of resources or lack of talented individuals that seek to work in the industry. To learn more about Ayesha's career and what future productions her company is planning to release…
How would you introduce yourself to our readers?
I am a Pakistani-American filmmaker based in New York City, Santa Fe, NM and Lahore, Pakistan. I have just completed my first feature film called KASHF – The Lifting of the Veil, which is due to be released in Pakistan in December 2008. I also own a film production company called INDUS VALLEY PRODUCTIONS.
Tell us about your background - where you grew up, your family and education.
I was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan till age 17 at which point I received scholarships to study abroad in Canada as well as the US. The first scholarship was to the United World College for a high school degree and the second to Mount Holyoke in the US where I studied Religion and Theatre for my BA. I am a Baloch from my father's side and an Afghan on my mother's.
You studied theatre and religion, what made you decide on choosing these very diverse subjects?
My teenage years were during the Zia era in Pakistan when the country was increasingly going towards a very strict and narrow definition of Islam. As a woman, especially when the Hudood Laws were put into place, I felt it was imperative that I should study Islam in a systematic and factual manner.
The Theatre degree was in lieu of a filmmaking degree as the latter was not offered at the college except for a few courses during the year. However, the theatre degree was extremely important in learning how to direct and deal with actors. I also took filmmaking classes whenever they were offered and was making short films as early as 1993.
To study Religion and Theatre was a deliberate choice as I could see religion becoming an increasingly important factor in the modern world; and I felt at some point in the future I would be dealing with this subject matter via media production. Also, the western media was increasingly looking at the Muslim world as a threat and I felt it was necessary to have our own voice from within the community be it in film or in theatre.
You also started your own real estate firm in NY, how was that experience and why did you decide to give that up?
A degree in theatre and religion did not provide for job security in the US market. In between directing plays in NY, I was lucky to get a position in a real estate firm where I obtained my brokerage license. I soon discovered I was a natural at it and decided to open my own firm in 1998 called I.KHAN.INC. It was an incredible experience from a business point of view as the NY real estate market was cutthroat and highly competitive. However, I soon developed a niche whereby I only dealt with developers and that too right from the beginning of any project. This was something not being offered in the marketplace and I quickly began to get a lot of referrals for my business.
The idea was always to go back to filmmaking and I was lucky that the business allowed me to take time out for film courses in the winter months when business was slow. After I worked on the highly publicized Calatrava project (www.80southstreet.net), I knew I had arrived at a point where either I had to do this for the rest of my life or take the risk of going back to filmmaking. I decided to take the risk. However, I.KHAN.INC is not shut down – I still take consulting work from time to time.
Tell us about Indus Valley Productions. What is the company about and what movies and documentaries have been produced?
My company INDUS VALLEY PRODUCTIONS is dedicated to making movies not just concerning Muslims, but to deal with topics related to balance and harmony which seem to have been way laid in our ever-present quest for material satisfaction.
KASHF is our first feature length film which is completed. We have also just finished MADE IN PAKISTAN – The Most Dangerous Country in the World?, a documentary exploring this recent media branding of Pakistan.
INDUS VALLEY PRODUCTIONS' goal is to create dialogue through the movies we produce, both within the Muslim world, internationally and especially the USA. As a Pakistani-American I feel a keen sense of responsibility to pursue this line of work ever more critical in light of today's political and social environment.
Tell us about your latest venture KASHF
After Sept 11th I felt the impetus to bridge the gap between my American life and Pakistani upbringing. Thus the idea for KASHF was born. I wanted to explore in the film spirituality rather than dogma thereby showing to an international audience images other than bearded terrorists in Pakistan.
The story of KASHF revolves around a young man, Armaghan born out of a blessing his mother receives from a Sufi Pir she meets at a Mazaar when she is childless. She promises the Pir to let her son "walk the Sufi path" when he grows up. However, Armaghan is sent off to the US to live with relatives after his father's death. After 25 years, Armaghan returns to Pakistan a young man, to discover a lost culture, a mystic religion, and a family secret. A sub plot in the film is his cousin, Ali, desperate to be a movie star, seeking his calling in Lollywood in the remake of Pakistani super hit from the 70's, Maula Jat.
The experiences Armaghan's character undergoes specifically relate to initiation on to the Sufi path and are based on true stories that have very generously been passed on to me by real people. The journey on the path almost always starts with the Murshid/Master appearing to the apprentice and issuing an invitation to find him. Ultimately, it is up to the Apprentice to continue the journey marked by an increasing blurring of the physical and spiritual dimensions and reassessing on the way, his or her own limited beliefs.
Our first song and music video from the soundtrack of KASHF called KHAYAL has just been released on Pakistani TV and it has also been playing on BBC Asian Network, as well as Sunrise Radio UK.
Who have you cast in the movie and what location have you chosen to film it at?
The cast is mainly newcomers to a "New Cinema in Pakistan". Almost everyone with the exception of Rasheed Naz is a non-professional actor i.e. they have never acted for the screen although some have acted in theatre.
Bilal Zaman, the lead as Armaghan has never acted before in his life – he has tremendous potential. Ali Tariq as Ali, has done theatrical productions with Ajoka, but never acted on screen. He has done an incredible job in the role and has already become a memorable character for American audiences who have seen him.
Rasheed Naz, whom I consider an icon for Pakistanis, plays the role of the 'Sufi Pir'. This is the first acting role for Hina Khan and Shireen Zahid as Armaghan and Ali's mothers – they were great to work with. Afifa Nawazish has a very important part in KASHF – this is her first role. Haseeb Khan as Ali's Lollywood director brought improvisation to a classic level in the film. And Saad Azhar as Armaghan's friend brings his flawless acting from many a TV serial airing on channels in Pakistan.
KASHF was shot entirely in Lahore, all over the city – Mall Road, Cantt, and various Mazaars such as Data Saab, Mian Mir Saab, Shah Jamal etc. It is a picture postcard Lahore as one reviewer commented…
What are the challenges that one faces while making a movie, especially in Pakistan?
Equipment and infrastructure. We had to purchase all our equipment from the States which really put a dent in our budget (most productions rent equipment but we could not get insurance from the US). The authorities in the beginning were not helpful with the permissions and visas for the crew. They insisted we were in an American production and demanded to see a copy of the script which I found very bizarre. Also, there is a lingering stigma attached to films in Pakistan and we found it very hard to cast for actors. It is okay to be on television but not in films due to I guess, the state of Lollywood. It is a miracle we actually shot the film in 28 days. However, editing took at least 3 months more than we expected due to the constant electricity problems in the country.
When is the movie scheduled to be released?
KASHF Inshallah is releasing nationwide in Pakistan on Dec 15th 2008. We have also been accepted into a major US film festival and will be doing the festival rounds. We are looking at release dates in India right after its release in Pakistan.
What other projects are you working on?
My next film is LA BOHEME, an adaptation of the opera set in Pakistan which will be shot in both India and Pakistan and is a co-production with a French company. Zara Adams (the new Bond girl) is attached as the lead for LA BOHEME and we are in conversation with a major Bollywood star for the male lead. LA BOHEME for me is the quintessential love story universal in its theme which translates remarkably well to a Pakistani setting.
I also have a powerful political thriller called THE INTERLOPER, set in Phoenix, Arizona that is in development. It is based on a book, which was optioned by Indus Valley five years ago, and I am the co-author of the screenplay. We are actively meeting with financiers and distributors right now as it is an extremely high concept movie. We are looking at Hollywood stars for casting and are in the midst of locking locations – we will be announcing the project as soon as we have signed our deals.
MADE IN PAKISTAN: The Most Dangerous Country in the World? was produced with director Nasir Khan, and is currently being submitted to film festivals.
What message would you like to give to the readers of Telepk?
I feel a country which does not have a national cinema will most likely lose its own cultural identity. It is imperative for us to develop a cinema which tells our stories and shows our people on screen. The power of this medium cannot be underestimated in terms of thought, debate, identity or even just entertainment.
I would hope Telepk readers come out in droves for all films coming out in Pakistan and recommending them not just to the Pakistani community but anyone they come in contact with to give us as wide an audience as possible. They can start by joining our group Indus Valley Productions on facebook and helping to spread the word on KASHF!