When Omar Rahim signed on to play the lead in debuting director Rubaiyat Hossain’s trenchant and controversial film Meherjaan, he had little idea that he was onto something big. The film hasn’t just given him the opportunity to share screen space with prolific actors like Jaya Bachchan and Victor Banerjee, but has brought him to a point where he finds himself mature enough to crave a relationship with history that’s not mediated with vested interest, and ask honest questions like “What really happened?” and “What has brought us here?”
Meherjaan is a very brave, bold movie, in a very quiet way. Set against the horrific backdrop of the 1971 War of Independence where a young Bengali woman falls in love with an East Pakistani soldier, the film has opened up complex dialogue which has historically polarized people and forced them to retreat into defensive positions. It’s opened up the absolute bloody clot of history, which was the experience of ‘71, in a way that is poignant yet very sophisticated.
Which is why it’s a shame the film hasn’t been screened publically in Pakistan yet. “I’m keen to see how Pakistanis react to the film.” Omar says, explaining that, “the film is actually humane to the Pakistani position. It portrays, through the character I play, a Pakistani in the ‘71 period that exhibits compassion, humanity, softness and unwillingness to perpetrate crimes which are justified by the state.”
Here, Libas catches up with the young and talented Omar on one of his quick trips to Karachi to talk about the film, his role as a soldier torn between duty and love, his larger-than-life co-stars, and also what he’s planning to add next to his already impressive portfolio of works…
Even though you were born long after the 1971 war, tell me what exactly it is about the conflict that’s always resonated with you and eventually led you to do a film like Meherjaan?
Yes, although my education has been outside Pakistan, I’ve always been interested in and read about our past and history from a distance. I was lucky enough to get to go to Dhaka Museum while visiting my father in the late 90s when he ran a consultancy there and it was shocking, really. The museum had these horrific, gruesome images of killing fields with body parts thrown in. The scale of that conflict and human toll was a revelation to me and I’m still haunted by it. The museum has also got an exhibit that estimates the number of people killed as well as the number of women who were dishonored during the war, along with the number of war children born from the women who were raped and kept in captivity by the authorities of the time. I actually remember how after visiting the museum, whenever I would walk down the bazaar and see someone who racially seemed more West Pakistani than Bengali; I would have this weird feeling of guilt. I felt a very strong emotion in Dhaka during that trip and it’s actually kind of funny how after all these years fate brought Meherjaan and I together.
So how did you find yourself getting involved in the project?
I had choreographed Zeb and Haniya’s first and only music video, and Haniya introduced me to her Bengali friend Rubaiyat Hossain, who’d done her BA in Women Studies from Smith College, and was busy casting for the film. Rubaiyat had a very particular point of view on the conflict, and was only interested in looking at it from the perspective of women. She’d researched some stories that were somewhat unpopular within the dominant Bangladeshi narrative of the liberation war. Anyway, she sent me a treatment and I found the story quite compelling; it involved me playing a Pakistani soldier who falls in love with a Bangladeshi girl within the context of the war. Like I mentioned earlier, there was a deep resonance, something about the war had haunted me for a while, so I said yes to the project.
In your opinion, has Rubaiyat Hossain proven to be as capable a director & film writer as she is a scholar? How well did you enjoy working with her on the film?
As Meherjaan was Rubaiyat’s first film, there were occasional wrinkles in the production process, but Rubaiyat’s breadth and depth of understanding of her subject and passion for story-telling more than made up for any minor inconveniences. I enjoyed working with Rubaiyat because she saw Meherjaan as more than a film — more like an intervention. The core team consisted of South Asians born after 1971 who were attempting to confront the ghosts of the 1971 war and inspire a sincere and broad-spectrum dialogue through the populistic medium of cinema. She invited me to join her on a mission that I believed in. And even though it was initially a small project on a very important theme by someone who’d never made a film before, it snowballed into something bigger, and luckily we’ve done quite well with it.
What was the best and worst thing about working with silver screen giants like Jaya Bachchan and Victor Banerjee?
It has been a great honor to have had my first major film role opposite film icons such as Jaya Bachchan and Victor Banerjee. Nothing spurs growth more than working with others who know more than you and I consider myself hugely lucky to have had this experience. On the down side, what could be more intimidating than to see yourself on the same screen as two of the most seasoned actors in the world?
And ironically, you never got a chance to meet and shoot with either of them?
Yes, I was never on set with Jaya Bachan at the same time, so I never met her even though here character falls in love with mine. I have a pivotal scene with Victor Bannerjee where I make the case for my character. On screen we’re in the same room, but we were shot months apart. This is just some of the funny stuff that happens behind the scene, and it happens more often than people think. I was flown back six times to Dhaka because it’s difficult to schedule with senior actors like Banerjee and Bachchan. So I didn’t have a scene with either of them. Jaya Bachchan is the older counterpart so it was easier, but we cheated with Banerjee, and hopefully you won’t be able to tell!
Could you recount a couple of fun, memorable incidents from the set?
We were shooting a romantic sequence in a lily pond. My character and his paramour Meherjaan were taking in the beauty of the Bangladeshi landscape on a private boat ride. I insisted that I knew how to row a boat (It seemed straightforward enough!) but I ended up being so clumsy that I led the canoe straight into rather than next to every delicate blossom in the pond, ruining almost every take and denuding the pond of flowers, reducing the location to what looked like a sad, soupy swamp. Moral of the story: Just because something looks easy, doesn’t mean that it is, Omar!
The film has been very well received in India (Critic’s choice award at Jaipur and screening at the international Indian film festival in Goa) but it’s been banned in Bangladesh and Pakistan. How has that discouraged you and the rest of the team? How do you plan to make it available to the masses in both the countries like it should and was originally intended to be?
Technically Meherjaan has not been banned anywhere. It was withdrawn from commercial theaters in Bangladesh after pressure was exerted upon the distributor by some powerful lobbies. That said, the film had been approved by the Bangladeshi censor board. As for Pakistan, we have not approached the censor board officially, opting rather to screen the film at small academic venues such as the Karachi Literature Festival and The Second Floor. In the event that a distributor expresses interest in screening Meherjaan commercially, that company would submit the film for censor board approval in Pakistan. We are hopeful that Meherjaan will screen commercially all over South Asia so as to reach the maximum number of people with its message of love in a time of war. The official DVD release will follow soon thereafter.
So what exactly is it about the film that has upset a large number of conformist religious and political groups?
There are a lot of things in the film that people have demurred. There’s a character who’s raped off-screen, and she retains a sense of power and sexuality even after that. The Bangladeshi state has given those dishonored women a kind of prestige but also marginalized them for this shameful bit of history. This character was not ashamed though, and that bothers people. Meherjaan portrayed the Maoist and Mukti Bahini; she showed them having certain desires which were more complex than just pure good or pure evil. She nuances those narratives, which people found sacrilegious. And to top it all off, the heart wrenching romantic story of unfulfilled love between a defected Pakistani soldier and a young Bangladeshi woman has also been hard to accept, apparently. The film’s billboards were defaced and human chains were formed to protest. We’ve won many awards but the film was disowned by Bangladesh, and I feel that’s why it’s very important to screen it in Pakistan.
While working on the project during its initial stages, did you have any idea that it would go on to become such a big project with an even bigger message? Did you the rest of the cast and the filmmaker ever worry that you were addressing a very sensitive issue and that it wouldn’t go down well with the people of the countries?
I accepted the role of Wasim Khan on the basis of a one-page synopsis by an untested Director and no stars attached because I believed in the story. Victor Banerjee joined after another senior Bangladeshi actor withdrew from the project and to this day I still don’t quite understand how Rubaiyat managed to get the notoriously picky Jaya Bachchan on board! I think Rubaiyat and her team dreamed big and their sincerity, passion and commitment was so infectious that even Victor Banerjee and Jaya Bachchan couldn’t refuse the project.
I think we were all aware of the import of the project and the responsibility we bore as storytellers but none of us anticipated the controversy that followed the release of our film in Bangladesh. While most narratives of the 1971 war focus on violence and bloodshed, Meherjaan’s story challenged entrenched prejudices by presenting scenarios in which love and compassion coexist in an environment torn asunder by war. Our message seemed to be well-received by the general public — Meherjaan was sold out for two months in Dhaka at the time of its withdrawal. The film’s removal from distribution is therefore particularly galling and tragic. While Meherjaan has gotten rave reviews and awards all over the world in the last year, the film has not yet been released commercially beyond the week or so of screening in Bangladesh. One hopes that the added publicity will ironically end up helping us find distribution so that meaningful independent cinema can be seen as not only academically/diplomatically important, but also commercially viable.
What’s your take on Pakistan’s overall responsiveness to the complex and sensitive subject of the ’71 war?
I personally feel that Pakistan has not dealt with the 1971 war in a comprehensive way. Our textbooks tend to either gloss over the conflict or reduce it to the status of a proxy war with India. While I have had many fascinating and vulnerable conversations about the 1971 war and related themes with individuals in Pakistan, as a nation we have a ways to go. We owe it to Bangladesh and its citizens and even to ourselves to reconcile with a more complete understanding of our tumultuous history.
How effectively do you think has the movie been in addressing the skeletons in our closet?
Meherjaan manages to illustrate a pivotal and complex moment in history — one that some have tried to rewrite, others have tried to forget, and most of us never had much access to. It manages to educate while it engages, potentially delivering important messages to mass audiences. Its sensitive and multi-faceted handling of the delicate subject matter allows all South Asians to deepen our understanding without either retreating to defensive positions or losing our dignity. I think Meherjaan has the potential to help us reconcile with the past and even shed light on some of our current imbroglios, thereby helping us chart a more stable and prosperous future course for the region.
The love story — is it based on an actual account or has it been fictionalized?
The film is fictional, but a great deal of research went into the writing.
How challenging was it for you, as a first time actor, to work on a project that involved three languages and back and forth flash backs and flash forwards?
The movie is set in contemporary Dhaka where they speak in Bengali and English. It flashes back, in Bangla, and the character I play is in Urdu. At that time, there were language riots in East Pakistan, because their population was huge and they wanted to make Bangla the second official language even though most of them could read, speak and understand Urdu. My character, a javaan from the Baloch Regiment, wouldn’t know Bangla, and that’s why having three languages within the scope of the plotline seemed natural.
What was most challenging for me was the fact that I’d often get my dialogue moments before we opened camera for the scene which was not something I was used to. In most acting assignments in the US, the script is locked from beforehand and actors are able to spend more time digesting and experimenting with the dialogue delivery. Since I played a Pakistani runaway, I was only required to recite dialogue in Urdu, which spared me from the considerable challenge of learning Bangla. Film, unlike theater, is almost always shot out of sequence, so I was prepared to jump forwards and backwards in the narrative, although we ended up shooting in a fairly sequential manner.
And has working on the film helped you overcome what you’ve been haunted by since that fateful trip to Dhaka Museum?
I had this pang in my heart, I felt that as a Pakistani I had inherited a certain complicity of the injustices of 71, and I don’t know if I feel redeemed of that. I stand by my choice and my action to be involved in such a project, because I believe it’s important to raise subjects like these. Even for people of Pakistani origin, with all my frustration and rage, I have a deep respect and love for my own cultural history, not just natural history but longer term regional history. As a Pakistani diaspora person, it was a huge privilege for me to play a Pakistani in that conflict who exhibits humanity.
Do you think Pakistan is ready for a renaissance of the film industry?
I think we are on the brink of a film revolution in Pakistan. I think three factors have spurred on what will likely be seen by future generations as the beginning of a Pakistani cinema renaissance. Firstly, technological advances have made the tools of filmmaking much more affordable and accessible. Secondly, the liberalization and growth of the media industry over the past ten years has attracted new, fresh talent to the industry and this crop of educated creatives is motivated to tell stories through cinema. And finally, as the geopolitical situation in the region plunges into murkier and murkier territory, Pakistanis have started to own their identity with greater passion and commitment, wanting to assert their own points of view rather than be projected upon by the lens of self-interested and occasionally hostile outsiders.
I think path-breaking films like Khuda ke Liye have demonstrated that given the right kind of story and support, a Pakistani film can be a commercial success apart from being a critical success. I think we’re on a path towards making some very exciting work, and I’m equally excited about these projects that are now on post-production. Some of them are Pakistani, some of them are collaborations and whatnot, but with such a focus on Pakistan for a variety of reasons, geopolitical and strategic, I think there’s a lot of curiosity about Pakistanis and life here. Narratives which deviate from those military and political themes. It’s an exciting time. The government has also now recommended that every mall have a multiplex, so now we’re getting some concrete commitment from the government that this is an important industry. I sense there’s a lot of creative dynamism and this process will be gradual, as it should. I definitely think Pakistani cinema is going to get stronger and stronger.
What are you working on now? Any other movie offers?
I have been getting offers for some independent films in India but have not currently signed any of them. I am also exploring acting opportunities in the United States. Other than that, I have written a feature film set in the media industry of contemporary Pakistan that I hope to bring to the screen in the next two years.