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Spotlight: Mehreen Jabbar

Mehreen Jabbar Interview QuestionsRamchand Pakistani has premiered in Karachi and Islamabad. How's the feedback been?
The feedback has been overall very encouraging and positive. People have shown very good feelings and warmth towards it. The real test remains to be seen when it's in the cinema - I can't really predict how it's going to do. I hope it does well.

What was the thing that struck you most when you saw the story for Ramchand Pakistani - that made you think: this can be shown in a Pakistani cinema?
I think sometimes the story just calls out to you. I knew this was not going to be a song-and-dance film, it's not going to be mirch masala, but it's going to be very accessible. There's a story of a family, and a family is a very universal concept. Anyone from any background can relate to that. That's what my thinking was. And because of the India-Pakistan angle and all that - in the film also it's in the background. The real story is about the relationships that these people form in their lives and they wait and they're separated.

How was your experience showing Ramchand Pakistani at the Tribeca Film Festival?
It's very interesting. It had its first showing at Tribeca, and a different bunch of people were there - a mix of South Asians and Americans. I should be sick of the film by now because I edited it, so I've seen it countless times - but I do make it a point to sit through screenings because every audience is so different. For example, some jokes people were laughing at in Tribeca, didn't get the same response in India or Pakistan. Every showing, every bunch of 200 people has a different energy to it - so you learn from that as well.

You've said earlier that you chose Nandita Das because she fit the character. Was it more that you wanted to have Indo-Pak collaboration or that she fit the bill?
Very simply, both reasons. I felt Nandita would bring the Indo-Pak collaboration. The music part of the collaboration happened after the film. The music was conceived afterwards and the songs were sung after the film had been shot. I wanted Nandita to be part of the team, especially in a team where 99 per cent of the other actors were Pakistani. I felt it would be a nice collaboration from the Indian side - she's respected and she's well known for what she does...

When Ramchand Pakistani is released, films like Love Story 2050 and Kismat Konnection will be screening alongside. What kind of people do you think will come to see the film; do you think they'll be pulled away to see Ramchand Pakistani?
I think it's very good that Indian films are being shown - I don't have a problem with that at all. I don't see why people should see Kismat Konnection and not Ramchand Pakistani; it's not one or the other. I would hope people who saw Khuda Kay Liye should go out and see this, and even people who didn't see it. I don't know if the message is coming across - you can never judge, it's a large country, you don't know what level it has reached. All of us in the media know about it, but does the common man know about it? I think that's important. I hope that people who are aware of it give it a chance and see it once. I hope that people who are of all social backgrounds, every kind of person goes and see it. It's not a typical story. It doesn't have masala but maybe people don't want masala all the time. They can go see that (an Indian film) and then see Ramchand Pakistani. The problem is that even going to see films has become expensive.

The government is always blamed for the lack of support to the film industry, but can it also be blamed for the lack of good content? What can they do to support that aspect?
There are a lot of things - no government support, no institutions that people who want to study filmmaking can go to - there are only a few classes at KU, IVSAA and BNU. There's no place where people of all backgrounds who want to study filmmaking, not just the rich or the upper middle class, can go. People who actually want to do stuff are mostly learning on the job, in TV and film. While that's excellent, you need to have some grounding of literature and the technical aspects to provide good content. The Government needs to support; they need to provide tax breaks, to treat film like an industry and not just as a hobby, sport or part time entertainment. They need to take it very seriously - the studios, cinemas, facilities - they need to help us. The private sector will develop cinemas but I think the government can really help us.

Mehreen Jabbar Interview QuestionsThe Prime Minister and Minister of Information attended Ramchand's premiere. Do you think it's a good sign that government representatives are coming to screenings?
I think it's a good sign if the arts are appreciated in any form and if the Government takes an active role just by attending film screenings - then they think maybe stuff like this can happen. If they realize that people are struggling in this fledgling film industry, there's more of a chance that they will actually do something about it. Its one thing to come to a screening, it's another thing to follow up on policy. I hope this Government will do something, it is a progressive government.

Has the family (who Ramchand Pakistani has been based on) seen the film?
The family hasn't yet. They couldn't make it to the Karachi premiere so they'll see it at the Lahore one. The child was with us throughout the shooting - it's been shot in their village, and the scene where Ramchand crosses the border is actually the same path the child took. The mother is a very simple woman, and this will probably be the first film she'll see. The child has, because he grew up watching films in jail.

Have you thought about screening this film in Tharparkar?
We haven't done it yet, but we definitely plan to: they of all people would be very interested to see the film. There are no cinemas there. The film is playing in Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas which are the closest, but cinemas in Sindh are pretty bad.

Ramchand Pakistani has a lot of firsts associated with it - the first Pakistani film to screen at Tribeca, success at Osian, the first time a crew was allowed into an Indian jail - how does it feel to be in that position?
The first is always a good feeling, but it's the culmination of a lot of people's dreams - my mother's, my father's, mine - to make that kind of film and actually see it happen. The struggles that have happened through the process; its not easy making a film. My parents have really helped me, if it hadn't been for them; I would have got a chance much later in life - because I've wanted to make a film forever. It's their backing, and the backing of all those people who contributed, not just in terms of talent, but money - people who'd never invested in films.

Your parents invested in the film so obviously that was a source of support - but a lot of filmmakers complain about not having producers - people don't want to invest money.
Actually it's not just my parents but 19 other people who invested. So it's financed by 19 individuals - from businessmen to colleagues to friends, of both my father and mother. My mother contributed the first amount and then we have two sponsors as well. So it's actually a collective of 21 people - and that's actually the best way to make a film, probably.

So is that what you'd advocate to young filmmakers?
I would suggest firstly having a really good story and just sticking to it. It's not easy. I would hope that Ramchand Pakistani does well not just so that our investors can get their money back, because if they do, if people actually make the effort to go out to see the film, then these investors will invest in the second or third film. If you don't support your own cinema, then no one is going to support upcoming young directors.

People in Pakistani have a lot of money - but no one wants to invest in films. In India we see everyone from politicians to businessmen investing in films. Do you think there needs to a system of educating people about examples like yours?
For good cinema to come out, the Pakistani audience should not underestimate the role they also have to play in the decline and rise of Pakistani cinema. Only filmmakers and producers should not be blamed. As I said, if you go and watch Khuda Kay Liye, it becomes a success and Shoaib Mansoor can do another film. If it fails, he still has to go around looking for a producer. It's tough. Same for me, same for the third director. We're a poor and developing country, but there are still grants and other things that can be done. But you're right, there are so many corporations who spend crores of money on ice-cream and phones and they commercialize everything. I think if they spent even a fraction of that on grants, singling out filmmakers and supporting them...

You've always had very strong female characters in your plays - and Kamla and Champa (characters from the film) are in the same vein. Is this a conscious effort on your part as a Pakistani woman filmmaker?
I think it's a subconscious conscious decision. I've had both male and female screenwriters, and I've done plays with strong male characters as well. But I think it's interesting in terms of the kinds of stories you can tell about women…

Did you think about taking the film to the Oscars?
There's a committee that needs to be formed in Pakistan that sends in a nomination…that's what I know. I hope someone does it. I would love to be at the Oscars if it was nominated. But while it looked very glamorous as a child, I think the Oscars have become commercialized. I'm more focused on getting it into film festivals, because people from different countries come to see it, it gets distribution...for me that's more important than the Oscars now.

What do you see as the future for Pakistani films?
Unknown but hopeful. I have my fingers crossed. Hopefully there will be more films made after Ramchand Pakistani. In the past year and a half we've had Shoaib sahab release a film, Javed Sheikh and now me...so 3 films in that period is good, we need to sustain that growth.

What kind of challenges did you have while making this film?
There's another article on that! From finding financing and a team which had done a feature film, I think 95% had never done a feature film before... to accommodating and putting up 75 to 80 people in the back of beyond in the Thar desert, to coordinating a 45 day shoot, so we were on the go all the time. From taking care of four Americans and an Indian in the crew, having adequate bathroom facilities in the desert, dealing with an ensemble cast in the jail, the Thar conditions - everything. With all these challenges, I think everything - thankfully - turned out well. We had no major hiccups. The team was amazing, and everyone was learning on the job, we were fighting sometimes, but we didn't go one day over the schedule of shooting.

Mehreen Jabbar Interview QuestionsWhat advice would you give to young filmmakers who've seen films like Ramchand and Khuda Kay Liye, but don't know where to start from?
Keep your dreams there of making a film; but don't shy away from making short films or 40 minute TV dramas because its just about honing your skills, improving and making the mistakes that you can learn from when making a film. There are no shortcuts. That's very important - nowadays we just want to get out of bed and become a director. So learn, read a lot. Read, read, read, read. Because if you don't read, your stories are not going to have depth, and there's a limit to which you can tell stories out of experience. You either tell stories out of experience or instinct, but you need to have some kind of background.

Whats next for you?
I'm going to go back to New York, pay my rent for 6 months, hope our investors get their money back, work on a TV serial, and start thinking about the story for my next film...



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