Mehreen Jabbar, not an unknown figure in the Pakistani entertainment industry, is a storyteller at heart. Currently living in between New York and Pakistan, this film-maker has to her credit over 10 years of experience in the local industry, a certificate in Film, Television and Video from the University of Southern California, a series of independent and made-for-television films some of which have also been shown in various film festivals around the world and is one of the original founding members of the KaraFilm Festival. Her work is often recognised as being based on the lives and dilemmas of the ordinary Pakistani woman, and she is often quoted as having a fresh, original style of film-making. With all of that safely tucked under her belt, it made sense that this bundle of talent would eventually release her own full-length feature film — or at least attempt to.
Written and produced by her father, Javed Jabbar, Ramchand Pakistani, expected to be released sometime early next year, is Mehreen’s first full-length feature film. What’s more is that the film has already been generating a buzz, locally and internationally, several months prior to its release. Images caught up with the new-wave film-maker in an exclusive heart-to-heart on Ramchand Pakistani and more.
“Well, I have wanted to make a feature film for as long as I remember wanting to hold a camera, so it’s been a while. Over the years, I dappled with a couple of stories and ideas but as you know it takes some effort putting together a feature, no matter where you are,” she says about delving into making a feature film.
“My father had mentioned to me that he had a story based on real-life events that he thought would make a compelling feature. On one of my visits to Pakistan last year, he gave me the synopsis of the story. I loved it from the moment I read it and from then on it’s been a non-stop process of having this film come together.”
Continuing she said, “Mohammad Ahmed came on board last year in May and the script-writing process started. As the executive producer of Ramchand Pakistani, my dad went and raised money for the venture from some very unexpected sources. I think for the first time in our history, a film has been financed by a group of people who just believe in the project and in cinema, and have donated various amounts to get it made. It is so tough to get individuals who are not from the industry to believe in cinema again that I’m indebted and grateful to all of them who actually did.”
Ramchand Pakistani is based on the real-life story of a Pakistani Hindu boy who accidentally strays across the border and he, along with his father, are put behind bars after being labelled as spies. The film reflects the emotional turmoil the wife-mother goes through and is a depiction of what families living near the Pakistan-India border continue to go through, especially when tensions between the two countries are running high.
Mehreen’s film also features a set of collaborations between Indian and Pakistani artistes. The soundtrack composed by Indian composer Debojyoti Mishra is a collaboration between India’s Shobha Mudgal and our very own Shafqat Amanat Ali. The lead role of the mother is played by well-known Indian actress Nandita Das of Fire (1996) and Earth (1998) fame.
“I’ve worked with Nandita before on a short film and I’ve known her for some years. I felt that she would be just right for the particular role and wanted to work with her,” said Mehreen about the cast. “We were very clear though that the rest of the cast would be from Pakistan and so the film features many prominent Pakistani actors such as Rashid Farooqi, Noman Ijaz, Maria Wasti, Shahood Alvi, Tipu, Adarsh Ayaz, Saleem Mairaj, and of course the our little star, Syed Fazal Hussain who plays Ramchand. Our production crew is also a mix. The director of photography is Sofian Khan, who I’ve worked with in New York.
“We developed a great connection working on TV films over there and I felt that we would be on the same page with this film since we share similar tastes in film. Our chief gaffer, sound engineer and HD technician are also from NY. Apart from that, the rest of the 65-plus crew are all Pakistanis — from the associate producer, the assistant directors, the production managers, the lighting crew, etc. I think it was an incredible experience for everyone involved. It was gruelling and challenging, but at the same time there was always an undercurrent of excitement that made us look forward to every day.”
The story about the selection of the music composer goes something like this: Mehreen wanted the soundtrack composed by whoever had done the outstanding solo, Mathura Nagarpati Kahe Tum, from the Indian film Raincoat. “I found that music so haunting, I could think of no other music director other than Mishra,” says Mehreen. “I was a big fan of the song which has been sung by Shobha Mudgal. So I got in touch with the composer and his enthusiasm for the Ramchand Pakistani project from day one told me that he was the right man for the job. I think he’s done a wonderful job with it because he understood the tone of the film. We recorded the vocals of the two songs in Karachi at Rohail (Hyatt)’s studio.”
With an eye for detail and in an attempt to stay completely true to the story, some of locations at which it was shot were also where the original incident took place. “We shot in Nagarparkar and Islamkot, which are in Tharparkar, close to the Indian border. Also, the boy and his father hail from the village Bhimra in Nagarparkar where we shot a couple of scenes.”
However, working in the open wild wasn’t easy as Mehreen said that “it was very tough, no doubt about that: just the logistics of hosting and caring for 75 people in the middle of nowhere, where very few amenities, let alone roads, exist was in itself a feat for the production dept, but I think it all came together very well because everyone worked as a team. One of the blessings of working there was that there was no cellphone coverage.”
Relating an amusing anecdote about shooting on-location she said, “We built two bathrooms in a truck that were used by all the cast and crew and the facility travelled with us wherever we went. There was an ‘American’ and an ‘Indian’ toilet to cover both preferences and it had a name I can’t divulge!”
Ramchand Pakistani has recently been awarded the Global Film Initiative (GFI) Grant — an initiative to support films which promote ‘cross-cultural understanding’ and which consist of some of the best in global cinema. It was one of the five films selected to receive the grant this year. “The GFI grant was an affirmation to the story of the film and its screenplay and we are very honoured to receive it. I think we found out about it during or right after filming had stopped,” recalls Mehreen. “The film will first do its festival rounds over the course of the year and eventually we are hoping for an international release.”
About her own plans, she says that “making a feature takes a lot out of everyone concerned. Ideally, of course, I would love to work on the next feature immediately because I can’t wait to put into use what I’ve learnt from this one. I will continue to work in TV till the dream of the second one materializes. However, I do plan to start working on a script right away.”
Having worked in the local entertainment industry for a considerable period of time, one couldn’t help but wonder whether the current state of the Pakistan film industry had anything to do with her decision of going into the realm of film-making? “The current state of the Pakistan film industry has been the same as far back as I can remember, if not, it’s much worse now. I don’t know if that played a part in my desire to make a film. I think a film is more a storyteller’s dream and the obvious next step from TV,” she says.
With the tag as “Two nations poised for war. One family torn apart,” Ramchand Pakistani examines the repercussions that political relations between two countries have on the common man. With characters in the film speaking in both Urdu and Hindi, the fact that the film is also a collaborative effort by individuals from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds, is testament to the unifying spirit that Ramchand Pakistani is hoping to evoke, from a perspective that otherwise hasn’t received much attention from individuals working in the local or global entertainment industry.
– Photos by Kohi Marri