A subtly subversive story

Shot in Pakistan and edited in India, the narrative is about two girls, one from Mumbai and one from Karachi, who are passionate about music.

December 07, 2015 07:54 am | Updated March 24, 2016 02:21 pm IST - MUMBAI:

Not very long ago, across the border grew a tale of music, subtle subversion and gentle defiance, incubated by two people crazy about making films. It was a good thing they were crazy or Lyari Notes may never have been made.

Working across volatile borders that made transfer of data and funds tough, Miriam Chandy Menacherry from Mumbai and Maheen Zia of Karachi made this touching, coming-of-age documentary film. The film is set in Lyari, a violent neighbourhood Karachi, notorious for its gangs and armed conflict.

What kept the filmmakers going was the belief that this film is about music that transcends boundaries. And would help create a new and refreshing dialogue between the people of their two countries. Maheen shot the film in Karachi and Miriam edited rushes in Mumbai. Lyari Notes premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November.

The directors say, was well received. It was also nominated for an award at the festival.

Every week, Aqsa and her three friends go on a ride from their home in Lyari to the Music, Art and Dance School started by Pakistani rock star Hamza Jaffri and his wife Nida Butt. The lessons are free, but their parents first need to learn to let go; some of them thought music was sinful under Islamic law. Despite the spectre and the reality of violence around them, and the conservatism they are engulfed by, these girls go to music school week after week, and the camera follows them.

Inspired by the subversive music being made in Pakistan (available on YouTube), Miriam thought it might be a good idea for a film, and she spoke of that bizarre idea to a pal with whom she had worked earlier. For Maheen that bizarre project was equally appealing, she found Lyari and Jaffri, and the story was right there.

Well, not quite. It wrote itself, and rewrote itself many times over.

Miriam says, “ In terms of structure, story telling, there were many elements. We were very keen to use music videos that are raw and edgy, and are very nearly political lampoons.” They were going to go with Jaffri as the central character, the pivot, but the girls wrote themselves in.

“There are these four girls, best friends, who find their own voice at a time of escalating violence - that is a soft angle. It was a delicate balancing act, and between Indian and Pakistan, for over three years, we’d shoot and edit and go back and forth until it worked itself out.”

As the lenswoman, Maheen feels, the single biggest challenge was to carry something over a length of time. “As they are growing up, from little girls to pre-teens, there has been such a transformation, that I had to constantly negotiate with them to continue to let me be part of their story. With long projects like this, you have to believe that it will reach a conclusion and keep going.”

Practical difficulties

But then, co-ordinating across hostile nations called for a bit of that as well, and then, a heavy dose of optimism, doggedness, a dash of out-of-the-box thinking. There were practical difficulties that cropped up, the Line of Control kept coming out of the blue often to drive a spoke in the wheel. For instance, hassles in sharing the IDFA Bertha Fund between India and Pakistan, cropped up, threatening nearly the continuity of the project. Maheen explains,

“Eventually it was crowdfunding that got us out of that sticky patch. We managed to raise over 11,000 Euros from about 100 donors, who were more than just family and friends.”

While the shorter version of the 70 -minute film will be shown on Al Jazeera this month, Maheen hopes to show it to the girls, and their mates at the music school, on the big screen in Karachi. Miriam, whose documentary on the rat catchers of Mumbai, Rat Race earlier won an award at Cannes, is optimistic about its showing in Indian cinemas.

But for the moment, for the two film makers, it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. The roller coaster has stopped for pause at its peak; for them, the ride’s just beginning. And hopefully for the brave young girls of Lyari too.

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