There is an argument to be made that when the state or government fails to provide any kind of moral, social or political direction and support for its people then traditionally institutions like the media and film in particular are able to respond to crises, concerns and anxieties in both an allegorical and populist way. However, for all the suppression, be it religious and social, that has permeated Pakistani society for a number of decades now it is difficult to account for the consistent failure of film makers to act upon such misgivings in a constructive way. Personally, in times of political and social failure, it is the responsibility of a nation’s film industry to try and demonstrate on screen, the problems and inequalities that are evident in society. Yet no such aspiration or didactic impulse has really ever existed in Pakistani cinema. Perhaps it is to do with the reality that an orthodox religious fervour affects all walks of life in such a way that images are regarded somewhat suspiciously and possibly associated with an out dated, decadent view of a corrupted western society. But this argument seems invalid and even absurd when one looks to Iran after Khomeini swept to power as the Islamic revolution not only helped purify cinema but paved the way for a new Iranian cinema based on neo realist principles.
Many continue to refer to Pakistan as a new nation yet this seems like an awkward scapegoat for the poor economic support and creative discouragement expressed by a government to indigenous film makers, many of whom have constantly been forced to work in the television industry. With such a young population, it is surprising that the youth are not been actively encouraged to engage with film as a career choice, but the steady decline of cinemas in Pakistan over the last ten years is alarming and makes for grim analysis of the current dire state of an industry in desperate need of a proper support structure including funding, film courses and an adequate means of implementing some kind of nationwide film education programme. Karachi which is located in the province of Sindh has never shied away from tackling social taboos and unlike the feudalism of Punjab, the emergence of an intellectual middle class has meant a far greater level of involvement with theatre, television and cinema. However, it is not solely Karachi that has continued to offer a pluralistic vision of what might be possible if the government was to get behind artists, Lahore’s intellectual circles have also had success with television drama, taking on a broad range of social issues in a very melodramatic format. Prior to the partition of India, Lahore was an influential and important city for South Asian cinema, offering a home to established film studios. Unfortunately, the partition forced many key writers, technicians and film makers to leave Lahore and settle in Mumbai.
Even today, Karachi does not really see itself as part of Pakistan, the on going rivalry with Punjab and Lahore in particular has seen some politicians criticise the westernised, outward looking middle class of Karachi as ideologically dubious. Pakistan’s only internationally recognised film festival, The Kara Film Festival, takes place annually in Karachi. A recent development and established in 2001, the festival tends to show a broad range of films from mainstream Hollywood blockbusters to more specialised world cinema films. This year, ‘Firaaq’ (Separation), the directorial debut of Nandita Das which focuses on the recent communal riots in Gujarat, India, walked away with the top prize.
Actress and campaigner of women’s rights, Nandita Das has been very supportive of the Pakistani film industry and her presence in a film like ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ was instrumental in attracting an audience and the attention of film festivals. Before I move on to have a closer look at the possible significance of a film like ‘Ramchand Pakistani’, it may be useful to mention that for a long time, Pakistani cinema was dominated by the ‘dacoit’ (bandit) genre, and that during the 1980s, the presence of the country’s two biggest film stars, Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi, besieged the box office with a traditional brand of rural identity that appealed to a wide section of the population. In the BFI’s contemporary survey of South Asian Cinema, the Pakistani journalist, Sajid Iqbal underlines the cultural significance of Pakistani cinema’s most successful film:
‘But the best was yet to come two years later with the release of Punjabi film Maula Jat featuring violent hero Sultan Rahi. The running period of this movie at cinema halls was so long that people simply lost track. This was undoubtedly the most successful film ever made in Pakistan. The typical axe (called gandasa in Punjabi and Hindi) held high by the character Maula Jat is an accepted symbol of violent protest against the cruel military regime by the poor masses. It established Sultan Rahi as the most successful film personality of Pakistan’
‘Pakistani Cinema’ by Sajid Iqbal, July 2007, BFI
For all its iconic status, ‘Maula Jat’ (1979) is a poorly directed film that features some wonderfully over the top performances. It is a very violent film and borrows heavily from the western genre but the exploitative tone maintained throughout what is a meandering narrative transforms ‘Maula Jat’ into a film that is defined by a populist appeal rather than its unsatisfactory technical achievements. The lack of investment in the latest cameras, film stock and lighting has also played a crucial part in preventing Pakistani cinema from achieving some acceptable degree of technical competence. The stark reality is that the vast majority of films produced by the Pakistani film industry have been of a relatively poor quality, both in terms of aesthetics and storytelling. Audiences have always had to turn to television drama in Pakistan for some kind of commentary on the country’s social and political problems.
Ramchand Pakistani’ is the directorial debut of Mehreen Jabbar, somebody who is better known in her home country for the many popular series she has directed for television. It is not surprising that Mehreen Jabbar’s formal training and background is television based as Pakistan has yet to establish some kind of accredited film institute where directors, writers and cinematographers can learn to specialise in a specific area. She has benefited enormously from the support provided by her father, Javed Jabbar, who is a well known television producer and film maker, having directed in 1976, ‘Beyond the last Mountain’, Pakistan’s first English language film. Mehreen Jabbar’s studied Film and Television at the University of California before returning to Pakistan to enter the television industry. The press kit for the film says that she is currently based in New York. This is interesting as it places her alongside other South Asian diaspora women film makers like Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta who have also used cinema as a platform to address the unfair treatment and discrimination faced by women in contemporary society.
‘Ramchand Pakistani’ is derived from a true story concerning the accidental crossing of the Pakistan-Indian border during a period (June 2002) of extreme, war-like tension between the two countries by two members of a Pakistani Hindu family belonging to the ‘untouchable’ (Dalit) caste, and the extraordinary consequences of this unintended action upon the lives of a woman, a man, and their son.
It’s not hard to see why an actress like Nandita Das would naturally gravitate towards a story that explores an unreported and often hidden part of society, the untouchable caste. The film also questions what it means to be a woman in such a feudal, suspicious and patriarchal way of life. When her husband and son accidentally cross the border into India, they are captured and illegally detained in a prison. With no word of their capture, Champa (Nandita Das) fears the worst and is forced to pay off her husband’s debts. Lonely and isolated, Champa starts to form a relationship with Abdullah (Noman Ijaz), a villager who is eager to help her find her husband and son. The villagers misinterpret the idea of companionship for something much more taboo. Mehreen Jabbar uses the idea of separation to explore how prejudices exist in all facets of Indian and Pakistani society, not just village life.
Champa’s isolated position in the later half of the film represents her as somebody struggling to maintain her dignity in the face of regressive attitudes harboured by those around her. When Ramchand (brilliantly played by Fazal Hussain) accidentally crosses the Indo-Pak border, it happens without any kind of real emphasis, it is merely a boy taking a stroll across a patch of land. Yet this child does not see the lines that have been drawn up, separating and dividing humanity, to Ramchand, borders are invisible. The father/husband, Shankar (Rashid Farooqui), is benign as his son when it comes to the intense rivalry that exists between Pakistan and India. Jabbar seems to suggesting that to a lot of people, living in the rural areas and in villages, they are oblivious to such tensions.
After Shankar and Ramchand are captured and imprisoned, the film maintains audience interest by focusing on the details of prison life and also using Ramchand as a means of tackling the outspoken prejudices and racism that exists within Indian society. The roles portrayed by Nandita Das exudes a sympathy with the plight of those who are continually oppressed within Indian society today including the repression and discrimination faced by the Muslim minority in cities like Mumbai and Gujarat. Though this is not solely a film told through the eyes of a child, by focusing on the father/son relationship, it does offer an acknowledgement of the enduring and influential quality of De Sica’s masterful ‘Bicycle Thieves’.
So what is it that makes ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ such a unique and special film? The press pack on the official website offers a valuable insight into some of the ‘special aspects’ of the film:
1. This is possibly the first film post-1971 (after the loss of East Pakistan) in which the central characters of a Pakistani film are Pakistani Hindus.
4. This is the first full-length feature film for cinema directed by a young Pakistani woman director, Mehreen Jabbar. Her work reflects a deep concern for the individual identity, rights and empowerment of women.
6. While the film is indigenous to Pakistan, it also represents a rare example of creative and constructive co-operation between Pakistan and India on a non-official level. With the consent of the Government of Pakistan, one of India’s reputed actresses Nandita Das has played a lead role in the film as a Pakistani Hindu woman. One of India’s leading music directors, Debajyoti Mishra, has composed the background music and 4 background songs, 3 of which also feature the voice of one of the leading Indian woman singers, Ms Shubha Mudgal. A widely acknowledged Indian film editor, Aseem Sinha has also co-edited the film with the Director.
It is true that many of these aspects are new to Pakistani cinema and perhaps the most revealing fact is that this oppositional attempt to create a new kind of cinema has come from the most repressed section of Pakistani society, women. I would go as far as to say that ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ is a rarity and is part of a handful of Pakistani art films (‘Khamosh Pani’ / Silent Waters, 2003) to have been made recently in the country since its creation in 1948. ‘Khamosh Pani’ was also directed by a Pakistani female director and it too is very critical of how women are treated and discriminated against.
The other aspect that makes this film stand apart from the traditional Pakistani musical melodrama is the technical achievements. Beautifully shot using HD cameras and on location (Thar Desert), the film benefits greatly from the invaluable contributions made by experienced veterans from the Indian film industry like Debajyoti Mishra (Ritapurno Ghosh’s regular composer) and editor, Aseem Sinha (editor on many of Shyam Bengal’s films). In this context, the film is a strong example of a genuinely artistic and mutually beneficial co-production between India and Pakistan. ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ continues to make its way around the different film festivals, attracting a lot of critical acclaim. It was shown at the London Film Festival in October, 2008. Once again, like Sivan’s new film, ‘Tahaan’, I am not sure entirely sure if Jabbar’s film will be able to find distribution in the UK, but this should not stop audiences from seeking out what is a rare example of a Pakistani art film that one hopes will inspire a new generation of film makers in Karachi and Lahore.