From Lyari to Mumbai: A creative cross-border collaboration

From Lyari to Mumbai: A creative cross-border collaboration
Lyari Notes: song of hope and resilience

Vaishnavi Sundar

Meet Maheen Zia and Miriam Chandy, the Indo-Pak filmmakers of the documentary ‘Lyari Notes’ featuring a rock musician and his girl students in Karachi

“It has been my dream to eliminate borders and bridge the world with meaningful art forms that go beyond the realms of cultural and political differences”, writes Vaishnavi Sundar, an independent filmmaker, actor, screenwriter and activist from Chennai, who founded Women Making Films to create an online community of women filmmakers.

Her interview with a pair of filmmakers from Pakistan and India, Maheen Zia and Miriam Chandy, about their documentary Lyari Notes, contributes meaningfully towards that goal. Vashnavi interacted in person with Miriam in Chennai, and over social media with Karachi-based Maheen.

The Lyari Notes website notes that through the lives of rock musician Hamza Jafri and his music students, the film provides an insight into how ordinary people find voice in a country “where self-expression and music is often drowned out by cycles of violence”.

The collaboration also advances “a new political discourse through music. Lyari Notes is a project about melting boundaries…in spirit as well as how the film is being made”.

Rocking it with a guitar mime

Vaishnavi Sundar’s interview reveals that when Miriam initially conceptualised the film, initially as The Guitar School, she wanted to collaborate with a filmmaker based in Pakistan. She immediately thought of Maheen, with whom she had once worked over ten years ago while making a film for the National Geographic Channel on how a robotic substitute was being created to replace the use of children in camel races in the Middle East.

Miriam wanted to film child jockeys being repatriated to their home countries, including Pakistan. Many would be returning to a home they had never known as they had been kidnapped or sold very young.

Looking for a local filmmaker to bring nuance to the film, she found Maheen on an online database. Besides, given the hostilities between India and Pakistan, Miriam knew she would have difficulty being able to do any long-term filming in the country. Maheen ended up filming a “small but extremely soulful part” of the documentary.

A still from the film

A still from the film

Lyari Notes entailed three years of Maheen filming in Karachi and sending the clips via the Internet to Miriam who put it together in Mumbai. Its current form as Lyari Notes developed through Maheen’s involvement.

The cross-border collaboration had its challenges, including poor internet connectivity. For Maheen, it was hard to how the film was shaping up. She had to trust many of Miriam’s decisions including a strong political narrative and milestones that she would have preferred to underplay.

The two met in person for the first time in the Netherlands, at the International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam (IDFA) Summer School in 2013. They were already communicating regularly by then, including face-to-face via Skype and other media. Their chats gave Miriam a glimpse into Maheen’s world as an animal rescuer — Maheen is one of the founders of the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). “There was inevitably a cat curled up near the computer or a dog asking to be fed”.

Because of a flight delay Maheen arrived a day late at the workshop in Amsterdam. “By then the other participants had heard the backstory and were amazed how two people who had never met were making a film together as well as most curious about how we would take to each other”. Their meeting was a “big dramatic moment” for the workshop participants.

Miriam and Maheen in Amsterdam

The workshop environment provided them time and space to engage with the creative process more meaningfully. Miriam credits IDFA for providing this environment, enabling the filmmakers to take the “tough decisions that are finally taken when one engages person to person”.

It was after this meeting that they renamed the film `Lyari notes’ and decided to focus equally on the four girl protagonists and their world, and the odds they faced to attend music school.

“This was an important creative decision to make and Maheen’s understanding of Karachi and Lyari gave me the confidence to trust the film would have rich layers of meaning because it was rooted in this context”, says Miriam.

“Art has the capacity to soften hearts. Hard hearts make war”

About the political polarisation that is increasingly visible everywhere, “The politics of our time forces us to take positions with very little middle ground so much so even between family and friends there is no longer such a thing as a ‘friendly discussion’,” says Miriam. “More and more it is a chest-thumping jingoism that is becoming evident and the educated, rational middle class have abandoned their role as critics and reduced their role to being cheerleaders”.

Maheen terms as “irresponsible and short sighted” the political divides that India and Pakistan perpetuate with their continual bans on each other’s films and other media.

On the question of whether art has any space to bring the world together, she observes, “Art has the capacity to soften hearts. Hard hearts make war”.

Miriam agrees, adding that art builds bridges. “The most powerful art has been created in turbulent times”, she says, noting that art speaks “through, poetry and truth to challenge the status quo”.

“Art is a great truth presented in a poetic way that connects with an audience to build bridges when all else has broken down”, she adds.

About the position of women pursuing the arts, Maheen notes the increasing number of women in media in Pakistan now, “contrary to what people may expect”.

Miriam says she was always drawn to the works of women whether it was literature or films. “My favourite books were ‘Mill on the Floss’ and ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’. Both I thought were written by men when I read it, but discovered later they were the work of women who sometimes had to take a pseudonym to write or be respected. I think women in the arts are very often women in touch with their inner core… and they are blessed.”

The film has been screened in Karachi, including at Lyari for the people involved who found it a moving experience. It has also been screened to appreciative audiences at several locations in Pakistan and India, including at film festivals and educational institutes.

The filmmakers agree that the future of both countries rests in the hands of today’s children.

Maheen tells Vaishnavi Sundar she has mentored students at a creative workshop organised by the Youth Initiative for Peace in Karachi with about a dozen children each from India and Pakistan.

The Indian children, she recalls, “came with some trepidation and a lot of trust and it was really wonderful to see the fast friendships and the wonderful work they produced together, including a short film. Such dialogue and sharing must continue, to provide a counter-narrative”.

Children, adds Miriam, “can only have other narratives if they are exposed to wider perspectives. They are the future of our countries and I believe it is their right and our duty to provide a rich spectrum of opinion so they can make informed and probably diverse choices”.

This creative cross-border collaboration shows what is possible when there is a will. It would be nice if our governments found the will to remove the visa restrictions that prevent people from meeting.

— Beena Sarwar

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