Updated: September 26, 2021 2:44:23 pm
If Bollywood was the soundtrack of her childhood, British-Pakistani filmmaker Seemab Gul would gravitate towards Iranian cinema as an adult in the UK, “while I love Hindi films The Lunchbox and Hotel Salvation, I related to Iranian cinema a lot more sitting in London, it was closer to our culture, Pakistan embraces tragedy in its poetry, literature and art,” not “song and dance,” she says, and observes that Pakistan’s TV drama market thrives on female suffering, because the audiences are housewives. Gul made the young protagonists of her new film, Mulaqat (Sandstorm), watch Iranian films, Abbas Kiarostami’s, at the cost of boring them, but they understood and delivered.
When growing up in Karachi, she’d access to ICQ, early softwares, texting via computers. “My friend would chat with somebody who pretended to be in Russia. You never know who’s on the other side. It’s sometimes fascinating and exciting, sometimes scary,” she says, “You read about British teenagers sharing their most explicit images over the Internet. These were alarming,” says the director whose film on two teenagers and online dating, set in modern-day Karachi, was screened in the Orizzonti Corti (short film) competition at the 78th Venice International Film Festival earlier this month, and was the only South Asian presence in that category.
One walks into Mulaqat expecting biases to play out but walks out with an altered perspective on Foucauldian gaze – at school, home and in intimate relationships – that imprisons, and agency that liberates. Zara (Parizae Fatima) loves to dance in the privacy of her room, her girlfriend tells her that “good girls don’t dance obscene”, her teacher tells her to wrap her chador (head scarf) properly, because “Ghazalian theory links social stability with women’s virtue, her dress reflects her character…Woman is an arrow from the quiver of Satan.”
After Zara sends her dance video to her online male friend (Hamza Mushtaq), the guy enjoys it but finds it a little slutty, what if it gets leaked, but nothing of the sort will happen till they are friends, he says, non-threateningly. He prefers girls covered in public. It’s the question of a woman’s honour, over which the whole world except the woman concerned seems to have any control. Where did he – a teenager – learn to parrot an adult? Social indoctrination, after all.
Zara is treading a thin line between others’ expectations of her and her non-conformism. In the moments of dilemma, decision-making, and action – in the calm before the storm – she’s surrounded by darkness (power cuts) or, as is in the climax, a sandstorm – the external manifests her inner state of mind. Will the mulaqat (meeting) happen? Violence isn’t always overt or physical, emotional coercion infiltrates intimate relationships.
Gul was raised in Karachi and arrived in the UK with her diplomat father in 1994. She graduated from the London Film School in 2009, and has been struggling hard to make films. “It’s not easy to get jobs in the UK, nothing is easy, because I’m a woman of colour and an immigrant,” she says, sounding hopeful after the Venice screening.
Through her student years in London, Gul was involved in political activism, from anti-racist demonstrations to railing against wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, she’s even been arrested for it. Her short film One Day in Whitechapel (2015), about English Defence League and Islamophobia, emerged from the racism she faced in the UK. “As an immigrant, we were called all kinds of awful names at school. It was harder for the boys. My brother was beaten up. I had few avenues to succeed in a very competitive, restricted, white male-driven capitalist art world in the UK,” she says.
Seeing politics from the female perspective has a certain pull for Gul though she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into a “type”. Her “portrait film, with a circular narrative” Zahida (2018), on the firecracker eponymous taxi driver, ostensibly Pakistan’s first female cabbie, went on Al Jazeera English TV channel, the trailer garnered over 13 million views, positive reviews, and the film won an award at Seattle’s Tasveer festival. Zahida is “a local legend, who seeks acceptance,” says Gul, adding, “TV channels, producers in the UK told me nobody wants to see an older woman (Zahida Kazmi was in her 50s) on TV, which is an awful thing to say, I’d shelved the project for years,” she says.
The filmmakers’ collective Brown Girls Doc Mafia member Gul says, there’s no “concept of independent cinema in Pakistan. People work in commercials, and want to be paid in dollars. Some don’t read scripts and men aren’t used to taking instructions from a woman, but they are very hardworking,” says Gul, who was a 2019 Berlinale Talent and went to Locarno Open Doors programme.
Mulaqat “is not about who to trust, I didn’t want the boy to come across as evil because we already have that, Muslim men have been demonised in the West. I wanted to have a gentle perspective on the boy. He’s also growing up, learning. To show the impossibility of the situation in our world, which is quite restrained for young women and the possibility for their desire,” says Gul.
To quote Zahida’s dialogue, is it “a sin to be born a woman in Pakistan”? Gul says, “Conservative Islamic values seep into men’s mindset, it’s strategic, and that’s scary for the women of Pakistan. Religion is spiritual and private. In Pakistan, it’s political, and that’s scary. There have been horrific honour killings in the last few years, but femicide is practised from Africa, Middle East, South Asia and China to East Asia. It comes down to controlling women or getting rid of them at birth. It’s not just a Muslim problem, not just a patriarchal problem, and not just a Pakistan problem.”
“Things are getting better for women, slowly but surely,” she adds, “female education and better economics are key, it frees people from old values. Wearing clothes or not wearing clothes is not freedom. Freedom is of the mind, the right to make choices.”
She says, “We admire the Indian concept of educating the masses, as many children, as many girls in school as possible. That is the key to progress, that is not happening as well in Pakistan as it is in India. Things only happen when there’s economic freedom and investment,” and being a Pakistani and making a film from inside Pakistan, “I wanted to show a modern side, East meeting West… and the internet bringing this new world into the old world,” she says.
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