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Against the tide

Mehreen Jabbar

Mehreen Jabbar   | Photo Credit: 15dmcMEhreen

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Directors Aparna Sen and Mehreen Jabbar on the value of cultural exchange between India and Pakistan

It has taken more than 35 years for Aparna Sen to attempt her first Hindi film. Based on Badal Sircar’s popular play, Saari Raat is made for Zeal for Unity, a unique peace initiative by the Zee network , which aims to bring together creative thought leaders from India and Pakistan. As a part of this initiative, 12 filmmakers from India and Pakistan are coming together for the very first time to showcase their work on a single platform and facilitate an apolitical exchange environment to strive for peace and harmony. “It is just a matter of chance. I wanted to make Hindi films in the past but somehow things didn’t work out. I don’t have it in me to wait for stars. They would often say yes to a project in principle but when it came to the crunch they would expect me to run after them.”

Sen says she wanted to make a film on Sircar’s play on man-woman relationship for a long time and when Zee offered the opportunity to make it in Hindi she couldn’t say no. It is about a husband and wife caught in a dilapidated house on a rainy day where they come across a mysterious old man who takes them on a self-realisation journey. “It is not a metaphor for Indo-Pakistan relations. It has poetic portions which have been brilliantly translated by Javed Akhtar.” Sen says she has worked closely on the production design of the film to create the haunting effect of the house where you don’t get to know till the end whether the old man is for real or a figment of imagination of the woman.

Sen’s films are known for strong female protagonists and here her daughter Konkona Sen is playing the lead role of a woman who is not understood by her husband. She reminds that it has not always been the case. Of course, one remembers Yugant, where the female character shows shades of grey and moral failings. “Many times in our attempt to champion the cause of women we forget that women have the right to go wrong,” Sen avers. “And I don’t believe in messages.” In the last couple of years the media has reported extensively on the changing face of woman in Hindi cinema when directors like Sen have been painting realistic female characters for a long time. “These days there are very few avenues to showcase what has been done in the past. Earlier there was Indian Panorama but now that is also losing its glory. Plus, my films are made for a kind of audience which doesn’t believe in formula. The changes that we are seeing now are because of the bridging of art and mainstream cinema.”

Sen’s films capture human relationships but most of them have a strong political backdrop. “I am politically aware and that’s why I have backed this initiative. Governments may be at loggerheads but people want to talk and connect.” She tweeted in favour of Shah Rukh Khan when Sadhvi Prachi hounded him on the social media. “If she has the right to criticize him, I have the right to defend him. This is what tolerance of thought is all about. I also strongly feel that Aamir Khan is being unnecessarily targeted.” Perhaps it is this awareness that makes her connect with the audience at the age of 70. “Do you want me to retire? I still have a lot of say.” We are all ears.

View from the other side

Mehreen Jabbar, who is still remembered for her poignant tale of Ramchand Pakistani, calls it is a historic imitative. Her film Lala Begum is about two estranged sisters who meet after two decades. “I guess if I need to find a metaphor this was it. But I was not looking for it,” says Mehreen. “It is an original story by Mohammed Ahmed who wrote Ramchand Pakistani as well. Set in the ’70s, it is about two sisters (played Marina Khan of Dhoop Kinare fame and Humayun Saeed), who parted ways over personal issues which they never confronted. It is about two people coming to terms with the past and trying to move forward.” It indeed seems like India-Pakistan situation where the nations keep sulking without confronting each other. “It is a very character driven film and I have to really stretch myself to call it metaphoric. I guess now that I think about it I can say this but it was never written with that angle,” reflects Mehreen.

In the current atmosphere of hostility the civil society, once again, seems to be on the back foot.

“We have to keep taking steps forward even if we have to take a few steps back sometimes. Cultural exchange is the only way to understand each other.”

A view is that Pakistan’s film fraternity doesn’t respond enough to embrace Indian talent. “I don’t think so,” retorts Mehreen. “Om Puri is working in a Pakistani film. In the past Naseeruddin Shah and Kirron Kher have worked. Nandita Das worked in my film. You have to understand that our film industry has been stagnant. It is only in the last couple of years that it has become alive and we are finally making films in a big way. This will lead to more opportunities and more exchanges,” maintains Mehreen, adding her film has music by Vishal Bhardwaj.

She has a counter argument. “Indian films are being shown in Pakistan in a big way. I don’t see Pakistani films being shown in India. People go out to watch all major Bollywood films in Pakistan and watch Star Plus at home. I am glad that ‘Zindagi’ introduced our dramas to India. Otherwise, I believe common Indian audience were completely unaware of the cultural scene in Pakistan. In fact, I feel Pakistanis know more about India than Indians know about Pakistan.”

With the explosion of the media industry in Pakistan, Mehreen says, there is no dearth of talent. “There were technical issues but with the rising demand now post production houses have opened. Sound is still an issue but I feel in the next couple of years that will be sorted out as well.”

Concerned about the rise of extremist forces in both the countries, Mehreen reminds of the episode when Fawad and Mahira Khan had to face the wrath of the right wing forces. These extremist voices exist everywhere, including the U.S. The minute you give voice to such people, even in if they are in the minority; it leads to disruption of process. Currently, I do see there is a rise of right wing forces. That’s why I feel such exchanges should go on. On the surface it might appear that nothing has changed but in the long run things do change,” says Mehreen who grew up on the diet of innocent romance of Raj Kapoor-Nargis films. “There is no innocence left in this world.” True.

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 3:17:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/against-the-tide/article8234512.ece

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