An Indian filmmaker who curated the first Pakistan International Film Festival shares his experiences
By Harsh Narayan
How I, an Indian, became the Creative Director and Curator of the first Pakistan International Film Festival and took a delegation of Indian filmmakers over to Karachi for the event, is a story that illustrates the people’s intense desire for cross-border connections. It is also a story of the multiple hurdles that prevent us from meeting – hurdles that cannot quench our thirst to connect.
In October 2017, while in Karachi to discuss cross-border artistic collaborations with various artists and art institutions, I met Badar Ikram, head of Hum Films. He mentioned the upcoming first ever Pakistan International Film Festival in Karachi, in 2018, for which a meeting with federal Information Minister Mariyam Aurangzeb was planned in early November. He wanted me to creatively guide and curate the festival from India.
Taking it as a casual chat on the go, I didn’t pay much heed. But when Badar called me in early November after I was back in Delhi, I was astonished to learn of the scale of the festival being envisaged – along the lines of renowned international events like the Toronto International Film Festival or Sundance. This would be the Pakistan’s biggest film festival ever, organized under the aegis of the Karachi Film Society formed by reputed cultural icons of Pakistan, headed by Sultana Siddiqui, the dynamic force behind the Hum Network.
Given the tense relations between our countries, I was hesitant to accept the responsibility, a voluntary position which entailed curating the films, creatively guiding the overall execution, and coordinating Indian participation. We were going through a period of increased hostilities — cultural ties scrapped, no artistic exchanges taking place, borders erupting with news of regular firings.
But my artistic conscience was compelling me. This was an opportunity to engage the creative arts and be a therapeutic force to heal wounds and reinvigorate the idea of peaceful co-existence.
I discussed my dilemma with Manoj Shrivastava, former head of International Film Festival of India, Goa. He thoughtfully advised me to accept the offer. As a supporter of cinema as an art form, he said I should use the opportunity as a tool to de-escalate conflict, and stand by my conviction. He vowed to support me in any way he could. I agreed, thinking that perhaps the Creator chose me for this task to help improve ties through artistic collaboration.
I knew it was going to be an uphill task. Just how uphill, I was to find out.
After receiving a formal letter of engagement from Sultana Siddiqui I began the arduous task of contacting and convincing filmmakers, directors, producers and actors to participate in PIFF.
There were initially many refusals. Concerns about visiting Pakistan included security. Even some who publicly support Indo-Pak artistic collaborations stopped responding to my calls and messages. But I persisted. Then came a positive response from a most unexpected quarter: Shobu, the acclaimed producer of Bahubali showed an interest in attending the festival. He connected me to the film’s director S Rajamouli as well with both their spouses. After much deliberation, they gave the green signal.
In December, I received another positive reply from eminent screenwriter and mentor Anjum Rajabali, my screenwriting guru whose workshops I have participated in. He supported my efforts wholeheartedly. Then, one after another, positive responses started pouring in. Many eminent film personalities came on board. Some showed keen interest, but needed more time to decide.
Gauri Shinde, director of Dear Zindagi, R. Balki, director Paa and PadMan, besides Rajat Kapoor and Rajit Kapur enthusiastically came on board, though they had to pull out at the last moment due to other commitments. Subhash Kapoor, director of the Jolly LLB series came on board, as did acclaimed actor Vinay Pathak and filmmakers Onir, Nila Madhab Panda and Raajyesh Chetwal. Some not only travelled for the festival to Karachi, but also stayed on to visit Lahore.
The participation of Marathi filmmaker Nagraj Manjule lent support to my idea of representing regional Indian cinema — he agreed to attend the festival as well as screen his acclaimed film Sairat. Eminent documentary filmmakers also joined — Brahmanand Singh with his film Kagaz ki Kashti on legendary ghazal singer Jagjit Singh, Nishtha Jain with her film Gulabi Gang and V. Ramani with his latest film Santhal Family to Mill Recall, though Ramani couldn’t travel to the festival.
Although extremely occupied with editing and mixing her forthcoming film Manto, Nandita Das, a firm believer in cross-border artistic collaboration, took time out to participate. It was also wonderful to have with us the recently released Hindi Medium’s director Saket Chaudhary and writer Zeenat Lakhani, a film that had Pakistani sensation Saba Qamar in the lead role despite the heightened pressure and hate-mongering.
Getting eminent filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj on board was a major accomplishment. Although keenly interested, he had initially declined as he was to start shooting his next film in February. However I kept in touch with him through emails, calls and messages. Eventually he himself called one day to inform that the shoot had been postponed for a few months, and he could attend the festival. I was so thrilled to hear this. It felt like the universe was conspiring to help us to unite the artistic conscience of South Asia. The cherry on the cake was a confirmation from his wife, acclaimed singer Rekha Bhardwaj.
Special mention goes to Anjum Rajabali for his help in convincing many of the delegates to repose their trust in my efforts and intention. But of course, it was not all smooth sailing. Sometime in December 2017, there was sudden silence from the PIFF organisers, including Badar Ikram. They stopped communicating with me entirely — no responses to my emails, messages or phone calls.
It was a difficult situation. I had obtained so many confirmations. If the organisers turned away at this stage, it would be most embarrassing. Distressed, I stopped pursuing any more filmmakers. A month passed with great anxiety, as some of those who had confirmed were asking for details.
Finally in January, Badar Ikram called, profusely apologetic for the silence. They had been busy trying to obtain the necessary clearances. After that, it was a smooth sailing in terms of coordinating with the organizing team.
But there were more challenges in store. A few days before the festival which was to start on 29 March, a massive diplomatic row erupted between the two nations, each blaming the other for intimidating their diplomats. It was a very tough time in terms of taking decisions and keeping things on track while also keeping the delegates interested in attending the festival — some withdrawals also came during this period.
The lowest point was when Islamabad called Pakistan’s High Commissioner back from New Delhi for consultation and retained him. Visas between our countries always come at the last minute, no matter how much in advance one has applied but with no visible sign of diplomatic row ending, I felt sure we weren’t going to attend PIFF.
But Badar Ikram kept me motivated — they were still trying their best for the visas. Our perseverance paid off finally and two days before the festival, they got clearances for 16 out of the 40 confirmed Indian participants. I took a chance and approached Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi with all the applications.
To their credit, the Pakistan High Commission not only moved swiftly but also granted visas to eight invitees, beyond the 16 clearances received. Their cooperation was particularly gracious considering the sensitivity of the situation. The High Commissioner and his staff took a personal interest in facilitating us, and stamped the visas within one day. All except 10 young filmmakers from our delegation got their visas. Those who didn’t were very disappointed, because everyone had been looking forward to this for the past two months.
Our journey commenced as planned on 29 March. The Bombay-Karachi air-travel takes one hour on a direct flight. But we had to undertake an 8-hour journey via Dubai, because there was no direct flight , due to lack of passengers.
Still, attending the festival was an incredible experience. The Indian contingent, 20-strong, was the largest delegation of filmmakers from abroad. The others were from USA, Bahrain, Iran, and Italy – one from each country.
Love and Cake
On the inaugural day we attended the premiere of one of Pakistan’s best directed films in recent times, Cake. The Indian delegates admired the script, direction and performances of actors in the film. Everyday there were multiple panel discussions, simultaneous film screenings at four festival venues, and interactions with filmmakers. Every evening there were gala dinners, hosted by festival supporters, attended by the who’s who of Pakistan’s show biz, like Mahira Khan, Ali Zafar, Sanam Saeed, Asim Raza among others. Eminent producer/exhibitor Nadeem Mandviwala graciously came to meet us, as did ace industrialist Amin Hashwani. Filmmaker Asim Raza took us over to his house at 2 am one night. The Governor of Sindh and his gracious wife hosted us for a special lunch reception at their official residence.
Meeting actors, filmmakers, and producers and film supporters helped us to understand and experience Pakistan and its film industry better. Our interactions have motivated filmmakers from India and Pakistan to plan for greater collaborations in the space of cinema and arts.
South Asia Film Federation
I proposed the idea of setting up a South Asia Film Federation — a platform to facilitate filmmakers, actors, producers in the region to communicate, exchange ideas, plan collaborations, joint productions, line-production, distribution and screenings and organize workshops for film students and provide them a platform to seek work in each other’s countries. Everyone supported my idea, and authorised me to work further on it.
The warmth of Pakistan’s film fraternity and people in general towards us was mesmerizing. At one-point Subhash Kapoor of Jolly LLB commented, “If there is any country in the world where one gets respect for just being an Indian, then that country is Pakistan. In other countries, you may get respect for your individual achievements, but in Pakistan you are respected just for being an Indian.” Everyone in the Indian delegation agreed.
Vinay Pathak said he “didn’t have enough luggage to carry the unprecedented love showered by Pakistanis to India.”
I took some of the Indian filmmakers to visit Lahore after the festival. We toured the Walled City and visited the prestigious National College of Arts and interacted with students. Yusuf Salahuddin, grandson of Pakistan’s national poet Allama Iqbal, hosted us or dinner at his elegant haveli in the Walled City, and lovingly served us homemade delights. Producer Rashid Khawaja, besides having us over to his residence for dinner, also took us around the city.
From among many pleasant encounters, one stands out. During a gala night in Karachi, I noticed some beautiful bracelets a gentleman was wearing. When I admired them, he promptly took off one and gave it to me. I refused, saying that appreciating something doesn’t mean I want it, but he refused to listen to me. He insisted on putting it on my wrist then took a selfie with me. I was overwhelmed with the love of this stranger. There are many such stories, experienced by each of the Indian delegates.
With the first ever Pakistan International Film Festival over, we wish Pakistani film industry all success. The country has some of the brightest talents imaginable. Resuming film cooperation between artistes across the border will benefit audiences on both sides, providing them access to better content.
Arts and literature know no political or geographical boundaries, particularly when there is not much cultural difference. This is all the more relevant when the medium we are discussing is a composite art, with an audio-visual appeal and large projection.
Pakistani and Indian audiences have strikingly similar tastes when it comes to cinema, music and literature. Pakistanis love Indian films, while Indians love Pakistani television dramas. I remember the 1980s when new episodes of dramas like Bakra Kisto Par would be smuggled-in on VHS tapes.
It is sad that we have hardly any real cross-border collaboration or films or TV drama co-productions, despite appreciating each other’s artists. We need to stop blaming the authorities of either country for imposing impediments and look within, each do what we can as artistes to break this impasse. The onus lies upon us, the creators of the content, to engage with talent regardless of borders and barriers.
A side benefit of this would be to instil a sense of hope, compassion and peace. Such collaborations are in our national and human interest.
So now I am planning to hold a Pakistani Film Festival in Delhi under my non-profit SAFACH (South Asia Forum for Art & Creative Heritage) to showcase some of the best films produced in Pakistan in the past couple of years. I plan to invite Pakistani filmmakers for the festival, put in an honest effort and hope the authorities will go upon merit and allow it to happen.
Let the audience, even if limited, experience cinema from the other side.
Harsh Narayan is a Delhi based filmmaker supporting cinematic and artistic collaborations in South Asia, a firm believer in igniting the spark of peace through the arts. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @harshnarayan; Facebook: @Harsh.Filmmaker.