The 2013 Pakistani film Josh: Independence Through Unity opens with the line “do not be satisfied with the stories that come before you. Unfold your own myth” from the Persian poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi.
In an interview with APF, Josh’s film director Iram Parveen Bilal discusses the challenges faced by ordinary Pakistanis in unfolding their own stories.
Although Bilal is hopeful about the fresh talent in Pakistan’s film scene, Bilal identifies three obstacles plaguing broader Pakistani society: 1) Talibanization, 2) feudalism, and 2) low female employment. The appearance of these three challenges has ripple effects on the film industry she works in, she notes.
“Extremism has been left off from the War on Terror. It is interfering with normal life and it has been hitting quite close to home for a lot of us,” Bilal says. “In terms of our political front, the mixing of feudalism and politics has been quite a factor in the rising corruption,” she says. “This has maybe led to the inefficiency of our economy, which has then led to poverty.”
Additionally, Bilal notes that the under-participation of females in the workforce is a major issue dogging Pakistan today, and is inextricably linked to the underperformance of the national GDP. “Most of our women are not contributing to the workforce. I think [half] of Pakistan is sitting at home, which is good — there are homemakers,” Bilal says. “But I also feel like these minds can actively contribute toward the GDP of the country.”
Last year, the International Labor Organization (ILO) reported Pakistan’s female labor market participation as one of the lowest in the world. With a female literacy rate of 61.5 percent for women aged 15-24, women face chronic underemployment due to a lack of formal credentials. The agricultural sector employed three-quarters of all Pakistani women from 2010-2011, ILO reports.
Seeds of change
Josh is an example of a socially-conscious film that interrogates the difficult questions of the day. Fatima, the protagonist, battles a feudal system to search for clues about her nanny’s disappearance. The idea sprang from a previous project Bilal was involved in about Benazir Bhutto. During the documentary project, her team researched the ordinary heroes of Pakistan. Parveen Shah, whose story the film is loosely based around, emerged as an inspiring woman that didn’t make the film’s final cut. Bilal describes her as saying “give me a fist full of flour and I’ll do the rest.”
The film’s protagonist, Fatima, is cast with cynicism when she attempts to inspire positive change in her community. Bilal says it’s vital to show the external resistance, and despite that, go ahead with choices.
“Create change,” Bilal says. “That’s what all these organizations around us like the American Pakistan Foundation are about — these are people who are all trying to embark change. People like Parveen Shah or Fatima in the film – they are trying not to live in the status quo, but make a difference in other people’s lives.”
Bilal is particularly critical of citizens who circumvent choices through apathy. “Everyone tells you “oh, let it be. It’s not your problem,” Bilal says. “That moment when you decide something becomes your problem—it indirectly affects you or your existence, or even if it doesn’t, you feel for others—that is the moment you will embark on that seed of change.”
Bilal believes that arts play a critical role in overcoming cynicism. A stake in the status quo is necessary to improving the society. “Even if an artist is just showing a mirror to society, that creates questioning,” Bilal says. “When you choose to express, you choose not to necessarily remain in a dormant state, so of course that is going to challenge cynicism.”
Evolution of Pakistani cinema
The cynicism toward change is rooted in Pakistan’s political history, but new trends underscore the potential ahead. “If you look back to Partition,” she says, “I would definitely say we’ve devolved.” She sees an efflorescence of energy toward reviving Pakistani cinema, but notes that it requires a sustained effort to materialize.
“If you look back toward the 50s and 60s, we have devolved. The Zia years have put us back with this wave of considering filmmaking a taboo and a sin.” She notes that the tumultuous period not only doomed new film releases, but also prevented fresh talent from entering the industry.
“That is why our industry is a bit paralyzed,” Bilal says. She tempers this attitude by noting the role of digital technology in attracting newcomers, who are more comfortable experimenting and releasing films. “Now, new kids are coming from the grassroots level because of digital technology and the ease of making films,” she says.
Bilal sees this is a critical moment for the industry, and hopes to capitalize on the momentum to start building up and reclaiming Pakistan’s cinematic heritage, which harkens back to a pre-Partition tradition dating back to 100 years, overlapping with India’s own rich cinematic heritage. “We were part of the same land, so we essentially celebrated the same cinema,” she says.
The future of film in Pakistan
For Bilal, the most significant part of filmmaking is acquiring a better appreciation for human characters and emotions. “Just the act of writing, directing, and creating stories and characters and dramas helps me understand human emotions better,” she says. “It helps me stay vulnerable to my environment. Every day of my life I feel like I’m more visceral and open to the stimuli around me because I’m a filmmaker and artist, because I keep that part of me fresh and open.”
Though filmmaking is growing as a career option for young Pakistanis, Bilal advises industry newcomers to ensure their true objective is being a filmmaker, rather than accruing wealth or celebrity. “If you’re doing it for fame and money, there are a lot of way easier professions to earn that,” she warns. “This is a very, very testing profession. You have to have thick skin. Nobody is going to come and tell you ‘Oh, direct this, write this.’ It doesn’t work that way. If you know you want to do it, create your opportunities, be proactive, don’t complain, go out and make your movies.”
Bilal notes that the onus falls on each filmmaker to design their own career trajectory. Today’s filmmakers wear several hats—from video shooters to businesswomen. And contemporary filmmaking requires entrepreneurial skills, given the surplus of talent. “Whether it’s short films on your cellphone or just writing and making short small films and practicing, we are all trying to figure it out.”
Despite the challenges, Bilal encourages independent filmmakers from South Asia to seek opportunities. “I think that you should not wait for people to give you permission to do something as an independent filmmaker. You should go out and make your own reality. I feel that it’s important to empower yourself, be proactive, and unfold your own realities in life.”