Interview with Director, Iram Parveen Bilal of Josh

SS: Josh starts with a quote by Rumi. It is very poignant, tell us how you came across it and why you particularly picked it.

IPB: It is Fatima’s journey isn’t it? She’s finding her own truth. It is my journey as an independent filmmaker. It is a journey that I encourage everyone to take; to unfold their own myths, to be proactive in shaping their destiny, their reality.

SS: How did you come across the storyline? You tell us about it being inspired by Parveen Saeed’s ‘Khana Ghar;’ did you meet with her and was she involved in the writing of the film?

IPB: The storyline is original, but yes inspired by Parveen Saeed. I saw her for the first time when I was doing research on a documentary on Benazir Bhutto. She was one of the “true heroes” of ordinary Pakistan that we were trying to highlight. I did meet with her and took her permission.

She was not involved in the writing. The story is not based on her at all. It is just an inspiration in the sense that one of the characters runs a food kitchen (Khana Ghar).

SS: There is a scene in the movie where the lead actress, in a moment of despair, is idling herself by flipping channels. Each channel touches on pressing issues in Pakistan such as the 8th Amendment or shootouts in mosques. Are those topics you wish to touch upon in your future productions?

IPB: Not specifically, it is more about the era of “sad news” and no “happy news.” Sometimes we have to shut the idiot box and just go do what we have to do. Make the happy news and ignore the sad news. It is the law of entropy. Everything will devolve but we have to keep it in as much order as we can through our survival, and by “our” I mean the human race’s survival.

SS: What is your most favorite scene of the movie and why?

IPB: When Gulsher is in the graveyard and Fatima comes behind him. Also the flag scene you mentioned is my favorite. I like the silence and the visuals in the graveyard scene. There are a lot of metaphors of “looking away/turning a blind eye” that work there. I also really like the first montage sequence in the beginning of the film. It was to appease the experimental filmmaker inside me.

SS: The movie starts with poetry which is later also included in the soundtrack; tell us about that.

IPB: Most of my films start with quotes and poetry. Music is far stronger than anything visual in my opinion. The sound and meaning of words can resonate to the deepest trenches of the soul. The poetry that you are referring to is by Allama Iqbal, the guy who is charged with the dream of making Pakistan, so it is ironic that he says what he says in the opening lines.

“The passion for love is no more.
The vigor of Belief is no more.
That heart; that voice, is no more.
Prayer, fasting, sacrificing, and pilgrimage;
They all remain in practice.
But your Spirit is no more.”

 SS: In your TEDx talk, you said you think it’s essential to travel alone, to learn about new people, and in that, learn about yourself. Can you tell us about one such travel experience of yours that translated into you learning the most about yourself, and how that experience inspired you to being who you are today?

Right after college I went on a year long independent travel study grant called the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and also I left home for college when I had just turned 17. Putting yourself in varying, unfamiliar environments is a seed that crystallizes new growth. That’s the fastest way to grow. To throw yourself in the deep end. I travelled alone when I was 21 and during that year I learned to be comfortable with myself and spending time with myself which, in turn, created a certain sense of self and confidence. That helps me face the world everyday. Unless you face yourself, you can never show the world the strong unique individual that is hiding inside of you.

To me, spending time alone and in extenuating circumstances or incidents of challenge is the way to go. Travel provides those moments and also provides moments of inspiration and humility when you see how vast the world is, and you, in comparison, are just a tiny spec. It is relaxing, lifts a weight off of your shoulders. It is also comforting to know that we are all the same. I think it should be compulsory for every American college grad to take a year off and travel. Americans need a world view more than most people I know because of the important strategic position of their country and due to the relative lack of education about global issues I find Americans to have, which probably has to do with their geographical isolation.

SS: You wrote an article titled “How Caltech taught me film making” and in it explained how the tedious details of film making, the patience required to endure and the meticulous concentration with which each step is taken, were all taught to you while a student at Caltech. Was there a moment at Caltech that you recall thinking you wanted to be a filmmaker, or was it a gradual process?

I think I always wanted to be a filmmaker since I watched Yash Chopra’s Bollywood romantic fantasies, but the actual idea really crystallized gradually with each step.

IPB: I think I always wanted to be a filmmaker since I watched Yash Chopra’s Bollywood romantic fantasies, but the actual idea really crystallized gradually with each step. Specifically, when I got a grant my junior year called the Studenski for people at cross roads in their life between science and an alternate career, was when I really made the final push. I did a digital production class in Sussex, England and that’s when I realized that I could be decent at this task. That further encouraged me to apply to film school at USC, during my senior year. But really, even the summer after freshman year, I remember borrowing someone’s car and then borrowing someone else to drive it to take me to USC’s career fair and I ended up getting an internship at Warner Bros, which I couldn’t end up doing as I had to rush to Pakistan that summer. The bug was most definitely in my genes.

I recently heard that my grandfather ran away from home at 16 to go to Bombay to become an actor so most definitely it is in the Bilal family genome. I like how my father hid that from me till now! It was quite apt as he told me that when JOSH was heading to Bombay for its world premiere. It was an emotional full circle. I wish Dada was alive to see it.

SS: You said in your article that Frank Capra was your idol. What movies have inspired you into film making?

IPB: In the sense that he is a Caltech grad and then one of Hollywood’s most respected icons. It is quite tough to traverse from the cutting edge of science to the cutting edge of entertainment and he did that. So I salute him.

That’s a tough one. I have a list of films. Anything from “The Namesake” to “Frida” to “Trainspotting” to “City of God” to “Full Metal Jacket.” I bounce all over the map.

SS: Would you say Pakistani cinema has evolved or devolved over the years? Where do you see yourself in the grand scheme of how cinema will progress in Pakistan?

IPB: Devolved, definitely. However we are in the process of trying to build it back up. We were a part of the great Indian cinema history. I celebrated 100 years of cinema since we were one country 67 years back. India is miles ahead and sometimes I shudder to think what partition did to art in Pakistan and what the Zia years further did to set it back.

I have been toiling hard to try and create a more international face of Pakistani cinema. From initiating the first ever Oscar committee that Pakistan has seen in 50 years to now a few co-production treaties that I am trying to set up, my ultimate goal is to just create momentum.

For a science geek who could have been a doctor or engineer and given back to her motherland that way, it was imperative for me to make JOSH in Pakistan since it was my first feature and to do it with an entirely Pakistani cast and crew. We trained media students and crew. Hardly anyone on set had ever worked on a film before and that was our way of giving back. My crew went on to work on “Zinda Bhaag,” “Chambaili,” and “Main Hoon Shahid Afridi.” It feels great to know that they are working away.

So I want to facilitate respect and growth for cinema. That’s my ultimate goal.

SS: What do you think is the role of Pakistani cinema in bettering the state of its society? Do you think directors such as Shoaib Mansoor, who are trying to make more socially aware films, have any impact on the thought process of Pakistani’s and of foreigners viewing Pakistani films?

IPB: I think a dialogue in the arts and literature, not just cinema is essential. No society can build itself just on the merit of science and tech. Both arts and sciences need to be taken in balance ahead. It is the development of the right and left side of the brain. That’s how you get fully developed individuals that then make the fabric of an innovative society.

I salute Shoaib sahib. What he can do, no one else in Pakistan can in my opinion; he brings message-driven films that entertain the masses. I think they do have an impact.

JOSH has been a forerunner and in most cases the only Pakistani film that the West has seen in a lot of festivals and avenues and we are changing thoughts in terms of providing a more 3D view of Pakistan, and making it less of a CNN or Fox News caricature.

Once you can put a human face to Pakistan, you can start more humanistic approach and foreign policy. I hope.

SS: What other contemporaries of yours do you look up to?

IPB: I have a vast community of filmmakers that I look up to from India, Pakistan and the US. We are all rising together and it is very exciting to see that.

SS: In an interview with the Times of India, you described JOSH as “a story about a group of friends, a murder mystery actually… It is about friendship and hope…” Now that this movie has released and you’ve had the opportunity to get some feedback, what have the audiences told you it was about to them?

IPB: It varies. From a depiction of Pakistan, a 100 minute trip to Karachi, to about class divide, hope, despair, depression, poverty, romance. All of it.

SS: You also told Times of India that because not many films get made in Pakistan, it could be a tough task; but since you were telling a sweet story you hoped it wouldn’t be too difficult to break through. Did that prove the case? What hurdles did you face in the process and do you think any of them would’ve proved easier if you were a man?

IPB: There is always a certain ease in terms of “proving yourself” if you are a man. But there are also benefits of being a woman. We are pretty emotionally connected to our stories, so I don’t really like to get into the obvious that it’s a man’s world.

There were tons of hurdles in terms of security, budget, lack of experience but it was also sweet because it was a special project for everyone. They put their heart and soul in it. I think sometimes my age more than my gender gets in the way of people trusting me. But thankfully, they are all happy and trusting of future projects, so I am hoping most of the proving myself is behind me. It will continue as the challenges will grow, but I hope in a more mature and intellectual manner.

SS: Are you planning your next film? What is it going to be about?

IPB: I have a TV series that I am pitching in the UK and two features in development, but I can’t talk much about them till they are ready. I do have a short, DHO DALA that is intended to hit the fall film festival circuit.

SS: Consider you’re speaking to a young group of aspiring Pakistani film makers; what would you tell them? And specifically, what would you say to the girls in the audience?

IPB: I would say, don’t get into this field until you’re absolutely sure you want to do it. Get in for the right reasons. Fame and money is a lot easier elsewhere. Realize that when you have worked the hardest, you have to go on and work harder. I would tell the girls to get up and solve their problems themselves. They need to own and grab their opportunities and not wait for anyone to give hand them to them. You will be your best champions. Also, please girls, stop pulling each other’s legs. When you make it, let’s be supportive of one another. There is enough of the pie for all to share.

* Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the American Pakistan Foundation