When some of the best filmmakers around the world were coming up with the likes of Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Pakistan’s 23-year-old daughter was setting out to render her home audience speechless with Nivala; her first and remarkably impressive shot at telefilm making. The film was based on a short story by the eminent Ismat Chugtai, which was bizarrely proscribed from going on air because of Indian linkage, but the initial fetter did not dispirit the incredibly ardent Mehreen Jabbar—then, and only then, of Javed Jabbar fame—who had just returned to the land of uncharted overtures from Los Angeles where she’d studied filmmaking at UCLA, and was all set to take the local visual arts scene by a storm, which she most certainly did almost instantly confirming her novelty and storytelling prowess unparalleled!
The young femme soon became famous for successfully adding a whiff of Hollywood to the painfully native stories that had been used and abused over and again on the same dreary layout, hooking the people who were slowly drifting away from the world of local television back on again.
Although she has been in business some eleven years and has delivered close to thirty remarkable shorts, serials and shows, Mehreen Jabbar is still on fire. She has cut down on quantity ever since moving to Brooklyn “for a change and to learn more,” sure, but she is still working on a number of record projects that promise to stand out and emit her signature technique that we, her faithful zealots, fell in love with on day one.
Mehreen’s directorial accomplishments have been backed by her inclusion in several prominent film festivals like The Hong Kong International Film Festival, The San Francisco Asian-American Film Festival and The Leeds Film Festival in UK, but her grandest feat remains the budding Kara Film Festival, of which she is a founding member along with Hasan Zaidi and Maheen Zia to name a couple.
Here, Mehreen and I talk about the director in her and the decade that has defined her as one of the greatest things to have happened to Pakistani television since the eighties.
Let’s face it. All industries works on ‘contacts’ even for the highly meritorious. It’s a vicious jungle out there and you were very young when you jumped in. Do you think you would have been where you are today had you not been Javed Jabbar’s daughter?
Well, when I started out with telefilms, I did about one or two a year for about 4 years and in that, the process was simple. I produced and directed the plays and our ad agency had to buy time on PTV to sell them. So there wasn’t any concept of getting favors, because in the end, we were entirely responsible for the play and PTV got a lump sum, no matter how well or badly the play did.
Then I’ve been working as a freelancer for people like Humayun Saeed, Sultana Siddiqi, Indus, GEO, etc. Right now I’m working for HUM TV.
What’s your relationship like with your dad? What was his reaction to your declaring that you wanted to follow in his footsteps and make films?
My relationship with my dad is great! He’s busy setting up a media company these days and I’m going to help him with that. He has been very supportive of my decisions, always.
How many dramas/shorts have you made/directed in the 11 years you’ve been around? I’ve done 18 telefilms, 3 TV serials, Two 13 episode series, Two 13 episode magazine shows, one 6 episode mini serial, and one short film so far. You missed Kara again this year even though you’re on the executive committee–tell me about that and your affiliation with Kara, generally, over the last 5 years. Kara was started by a group of us in 2001, and I am so happy that it’s now become one of the major events that take place in Pakistan on an annual basis. I have not been involved since I left, but spiritually I’m all there!
Do you think your work’s been influenced—to some extent at least—by the incompetence of other local directors?
I don’t think my work has been influenced by the incompetence of others at all. My shortcomings as a director are my own responsibility.
What do you think is the problem with the work that’s being produced down here? Why the obvious lack of quality?
Well, that’s a tough one. I think there could be many factors… one is the lack of emphasis on script and performances and a long standing tendency to over dramatize or over ‘glamorize’ (whatever that means) stories, and a lack of realism.
One can blame that on anything from influence by Indian TV soaps, lack of film schools, a very insular or narrow view of how to tell a story, a lack of a ‘world view’, and a desire to repeat or imitate.
I don’t want to pass judgments here, but I’m listing probable causes. Of course there must be many more.
Have you ever feared your work can get lost among local productions? If no, is that why you’re toning down on quantity?
I left Pakistan about three years ago, and have missed the sudden explosion of TV channels. I don’t know what the viewing patterns are now, but I think if it’s a good product, and it’s advertised, it will be watched.
You’re apparently using some Indian actors for an upcoming film? I, being a potential director myself can identify with the need to collaborate talent pools to come up with media phenomenon, but not everyone can understand that. How do justify your interracial (and it’s not even that!) cast? Does your decision confirm there’s a shortage of good Pakistani actors?
I am using Indian actors because they are the ones I found in New York! I auditioned many people, out of which only a very few could speak Urdu or Hindi, and out of that, even few could act! So, I am limited by the choices I have.
On the other hand, I have no problem working with actors from other countries… An actor is universal and should not be restricted by geographical boundaries, ever.
Speaking of cast decisions, why has every Mehreen Jabbar film/drama practically been a platform for Sania Saeed, Nadia Jamil and Yasir Nawaz to show off their goodies? They’re some of our best actors, sure, but didn’t you fear casting them in almost all your directorials was going to become one of the most obvious clichés of our industry?
I think I’ve answered this question a lot over the last ten years. Well, I love working with Nadia, Sania and Yasir and others and prefer to work in teams that understand each other. These are actors that work with integrity and are serious about what they do, and when we work together, that is a very important factor.
Now, I’ve worked with countless other actors and have learnt from them as well. I guess every director has their favorites because this is in the end a team work.
What’s the biggest problem you face while working in Pakistan? Are the men still threatened by female authority or has there been a change in attitude over the years?
The biggest problem would be, and that is anywhere one works, is to get good scripts, and good locations for shooting. Plus I love shooting outdoors and that brings with it a whole lot of issues. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that someone has been threatened by me or vice versa.
Does being a good director mean you have to play the dragon lady to get things done your way?
Not necessarily, but I cannot tolerate people who arrive habitually late on set and people who don’t take the project seriously. I am not known though to shout on set or get unhinged!
What’s the one thing you’d advise new directors out there NOT to do- ever!
Have actors not face each other when talking, and instead looking at the wall or some other place. That’s just not right.
Any film out there you selfishly wish you’d directed?
Many…Raising Victor Vargas, Maria Full of Grace, Head On, In the mood for love… !
If you could come back as any other film-maker in another life, who would you want to be?
Myself, but better.
Any local film-makers/writers you can compare your work to and we should keep on the look out for?
Since I haven’t been back, I don’t know what the new scene is, but I’ve heard there is some exciting stuff happening and some directors who watch out for. I am eagerly awaiting Saqib Malik’s and Jami’s films though.
Being a good director means being an artist—what with an eye for detail and all. What other varieties of art excite you?
Music. All forms.
Have you planned out any Oscar winning speeches yet? When, if ever, do you plan on going Hollywood?
I have always dreamed of Hollywood, but right now I really just want to make a very good film without that sort of pressure.
Tell me about your upcoming projects.
I’m working on a series for HUM TV, which will be 13 different stories. I am directing about 6 of them, the rest by other directors here.
When will we have seen the absolute best of Mehreen Jabbar
Hopefully sooner rather than later.
Have you considered trying your skills at music video making?
Not yet. It’s an unknown territory…I would love to do it, but I’ll have very stiff competition!
You’re one of the very few high profile eligible Pakistani bachelorettes out there. Got any plans?
I’d rather not say!
Any film you’ve seen so many times you fear you can recall each and every dialogue without error?
Not really, but I’ve seen some many times. And my memory’s not that great so I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to.
What’s the freakiest thing you’ve ever done to someone?
In school, a group of us decided to put dead lizards on the feet of our geography teacher while she was conducting class. Of course, she didn’t notice anything or react, and our sick joke fell flat! (Not very proud of that one…)
What’s the freakiest thing someone has done to you?
Hmmm….can’t recall anything, really.
What helps you relax after a hard days work?
A good conversation.
How do you indulge yourself?
Watching a film at the theatre, or having salad in the city while reading the local newspaper. Simple stuff.