Most directors strive to dazzle us with flicks that are slick, have at least a dozen nonsensical dance routines and appeal to the general public because of their high entertainment value. Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani is none of those things essentially, but reveals instead the acumen of a prodigious storyteller whose intrinsically bold and innovative style offers a distinct alternative in an industry dominated by fanciful Daku Ranis and Gujjar Khans.
Fourteen years after her impressive debut with Nivala, a short based on a story by the indomitable Ismat Chughtai and then the acclaimed Ab Tum Ja Saktay Ho that secured her a dedicated global fan base, Mehreen remains not only an enduringly popular filmmaker, but one whose success stems from a fierce devotion to authenticity and self-reformation. It isn’t surprising that her works are invariably accoladed as definitive even as they sparkle and spark, and her first full length feature film Ramchand Pakistani is no different in its charming neo-simplistic brilliance. Shot beautifully on a top-of-the-line HD camera, the film follows a young Hindu boy and his father who accidentally cross the ill-defined border between India and Pakistan and are held captive in an Indian jail on the allegation of being spies. Separated from his mother for four long years, Ramchand blooms from a petrified little 9 year old into a shrewd teenager amidst the other inmates, most of who are also doing time on similar charges. On the other side of the border the plight of a distressed mother and wife is also portrayed brilliantly through intelligent shots, spellbinding cinematography and one powerful scene after another. The quality of acting is excellent—way ahead of anything we’ve seen in Pakistan before and the film easily qualifies as a visual treat that no one is going forget in a hurry.
If Shoaib Mansoor’s remarkable effort in Khuda Kay Liye initiated the so-called revival of Pakistani cinema, then Mehreen Jabbar’s magnum opus has made clear that Pakistani filmmakers are not just talk and can indeed do wonders if they want to.
For anyone who’s ever had any doubts about this Karachi-born, St. Joseph’s and UCLA educated director’s extraordinary directorial capabilities Ramchand Pakistani will prove to be an absolute revelation. And with the film now in theaters and audiences duly mesmerized, it’s a good thing Gen-Y was in Karachi to sit down with this young and bizarrely talented filmmaker for a quick chat about the masterpiece that’s given her competition a run for their money…
On the conception of Ramchand Pakistani
My father runs an NGO in Tharparkar desert where the incident actually took place. He came across the boy and his father sometime in 2006 and found their story quite interesting, wrote a synopsis and suggested it to me as potential film material. I instantly fell in love with it because it was so powerful and overwhelming. Soon afterwards I got Mohammed Ahmed, Sonia Rehman and Maryam Mukaty on board, all of whom I’ve worked with before…we sort of formed a small team and started working on the film and that’s how it all began.
On raising finances
The film has been financed by 19 individuals who just believed in the project and wanted to do something for our cinema. My mother was the first to put in the money, after that my father approached his friends and colleagues and a few business acquaintances. I approached a couple of my friends and everyone contributed. So basically it’s a collective, family & friends effort. Then of course there’s Wateen and Peek Freans who are our two main sponsors that came in at a very good time and gave us money when the film was finished.
On the problems faced while shooting
A lot of the shooting was done in Tharparkar desert which borders Rajasthan and Gujrat in India. The other two places we shot in were Mirpurkhas and rural Karachi. Shooting in these places was a challenge because obviously unlike the big cities they don’t have proper rest houses and basic facilities to host a crew of 75-80 people. Our production team was amazing though and with the help of so many people we didn’t go one day off schedule and whatever challenges came, we overcame them right away.
The credit for it all goes to the heads of different teams, really. Production team, cameraman team, my team…It’s all good as long as all the heads of the teams are working together, know what they want and that they have to finish in time. For most of the team it was their first feature film so we were all learning on the job as well which was great.
On Nandita Das
The reason I chose Nandita to play Champa was because I felt that she would be just right for the particular role. It’s easy working with her because we have known each other for a few years now and have even worked together on a short film before. She was quite helpful in the script stage of Ramchand Pakistani as well and I was generally very comfortable with her as she’s done similar roles playing in different areas of India where she had to wear similar clothes and all…but most importantly I think she’s a brilliant actor who’s done justice to the role.
On the quality of Pakistani acting
I think the all Pakistani actors have done a fantastic job. In this film I’ve chosen actors I’ve never work with before…Rashid Farooqi, Maria Wasti, Noman Ejaz, Shahood Alvi, Tipu, Adarsh Ayaz, Saleem Mairaj and of course Syed Fazal Hussain who plays Ramchand….the quality of acting in Ramchand Pakistani is probably one of the best I’ve seen here and I don’t take credit for it because they’re very talented actors, all of them.
On negative criticism
In Pakistan everyone has a problem with something or the other. We’re very good at criticizing. Everyone’s a filmmaker and everyone knows how best to make a film and that’s great—everyone has their opinion, but where Pakistanis are going absolutely bananas over Indian films, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to use one Indian actor against 99 Pakistani actors. I don’t see the point in living like protected little things. Our film industry is rubbish right now and it’s about to go into a revival. I don’t see any harm in collaborating with other people to make our industry a little better. Our musicians go to India and they appreciate their work. We should also be as open to people not just from India but from anywhere in the world. The only thing I’d say to the people who have a problem with my casting Nandita is: please get a life!
On Ramchand Pakistani as a life experience
As an experience it’s been very tiring and challenging. It was overwhelming for everyone concerned especially for me and my father as the director and producer of the film. The shooting process is finished, sure, but now to get it off the ground, to screen it, to have it shown in theaters and festivals…and also hearing various reactions coming from people. The film is the biggest project I’ve ever done and it’s so close to me because I’ve almost lived with it for 3 years of my life, and now everyone has an opinion—good and bad—and that gets a little overwhelming. Television is easy, it’s different with film because people are paying money to see it and they will have an opinion about it, and it all depends on how you take it—you learn from the criticism; you appreciate the good points and you don’t agree with some. One definitely needs nerves of steel to be a film director…that’s what I know!
On receiving the Global Film Initiative Grant
We were recently awarded the Global Film Initiative Grant — an initiative to support films which promote ‘cross-cultural understanding. The grant was an affirmation to the story of the film and its screenplay. It was one of the five films selected to receive the grant this year and we are very honoured to have received it.
On film festivals and international distribution
We’re doing very well on the festival circuit. The film has already won the FIPRESCI Award from the International Federation of Film Critics. It’s been shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, USA and has been selected for viewing at the Seattle International Film Festival, USA; Osian Film Festival, New Delhi, India; Rhode Island International Film Festival, USA; and Pusan International Film Festival, South Korea.
It’s going to be released in India on 22nd August. We’re also hoping to get western distribution soon so we can take it to Europe and America.
On planning out an Oscar speech
I’m not very interested in the Oscars right now. We’re trying to formulate a committee that at least sends the film as a nomination from Pakistan, but right now at this stage all I’m really concentrating on is making good films because that’s what I want to do. If I win an award it’ll be amazing but if I don’t, I won’t be any less satisfied with my work…
On personal satisfaction
Well, I have wanted to make a feature film for as long as I can remember, so I’m very happy that I’ve finally done it! Of course one’s never completely satisfied with anything so I have my issues but I think now it’s for the public and the critiques to decide…I’m ready to move on.
On making Lollywoodesque films in the future
I wouldn’t mind making a film that has song and dances in it. It just needs to be sensible and not stupid.
Pakistan needs all kinds of cinema. If I’m making serious or not Lollywood kind of films then there’s someone else like Javed Sheikh making song and dance films. I really believe there should be all kinds of cinema and I’m open to having all kinds of filmmakers come out. We have to encourage people to make more films and fill the gaps. At this stage, Pakistan is in desperate need of all kinds of cinema and there needs to be a consistent stream of films coming out from the country in order for there to be a real revival of Pakistani cinema.
On Indian movies showing in Pakistani cinemas again
I think it’s wonderful. I believe in competition, I don’t believe in protectionism.
On her work in television and upcoming projects
Being a TV director is the easiest thing in the world so I’m getting back to TV now. I just directed a serial for Humayun Saeed and Abdullah Kadwani which will run on Geo after Eid. I’ll be doing another serial in New York, and then I’ll be looking for my next film. This year’s all about promoting Ramchand Pakistani and doing more TV.
On her involvement in Kara now
I’m just a spiritual advisor to Kara now because I live in New York and it’s a bit difficult for me to do anything living there.