5 October 2013

Interview: Zinda Bhaag is a tribute to Lahori films of the '70s and '80s

The Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag is making waves, especially after it became Pakistan's first entry to the Oscars in over 50 years. Excerpts from a conversation with the director duo, Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi.

The Zinda Bhaag team is a remarkable union of Indian and Pakistani talent, from the directors to the technical crew. Did that ever create issues: logistical or political or personal?

Farjad: Far from it, one was hard-pressed to tell the Indian crew apart from the Pakistani one. The ‘Indians’ were hard-core Lahoris by the time they left. The logistical issues of visas etc. were always there, but when are they not? And if there is anything we take real pride in then it's this: that our 200-odd Pakistani cast and crew were all working on their first feature side-by-side with four committed, passionate filmmakers from across the border. And look at how far we got together!

Meenu: No Bollywood film is complete without a song by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Shafqat Amanat Ali or Atif Aslam. Most Pakistani films like Bol or Ishq-e-Khuda also do post-production work in India. So collaboration per se isn't unique to Zinda Bhaag.

Is there such a thing as Pakistani cinema, and where does Zinda Bhaag locate itself within that field? How does it feel to represent Pakistan on an international stage?

Farjad: It's slippery terrain if you try and define it too precisely. The new films coming out of Pakistan are very varied in terms of content and that is how it should be.

Meenu: We didn't set out to make a film that would represent Pakistan on an international stage. We really struggled to get prints made so as to take the film into small-town cinemas, in Sargodha, Gujranwala, Faislabad, Multan, etc, because we thought of the story as very local. But screenings abroad have made us realize how universal this story really is. A Bulgarian lady in Canada told our producer that “these boys that you showed in your film, these are the kind of boys I went to school with”!

How and why did you zero in on illegal immigration and gambling as themes?

Farjad: We had heard some real-life stories from very close friends and relatives. These stories form part of Lahori street-lore, and I believe across South Asia. We just had to put our ears to the ground and listen. We found that this urgency to do what is called the ‘dunky’ in Lahori lingo (the illegal route to Europe) is tied up with ideas of masculine honour, success, tradition. It’s also about a simple belief in what our ’70s’ films embodied so well – the system as the enemy, the system that never allows us to take ‘legitimate’ routes to success. As for gambling, it is as much part of the daily lives of young men as reading the newspaper.

Meenu: The seed of the idea was there for some time. The Let's Talk Men project [under which three other films have been made on South Asian masculinities] gave it a context and a focus in our research phase. Eventually we wanted to tell a tale of lives caught between a sense of entitlement and a foretold failure.

It's a serious subject. But the form you've chosen is visually playful, often boisterously funny. What were your sources of inspiration?

Meenu: Well, you have to be Lahori or know the culture of what is called the 'juggat' (repartee) in Lahore to get that aspect completely. It's the Lahori style of conversation.

Farjad: Our inspiration was the typical Lahori attitude which cannot resist a one-liner in the most dire of moments. In terms of form, it's a tribute to the now-collapsed Lahori film industry. We love the films of the '70s and '80s: the time Lollywood was at its peak.

Meenu: So we used flashbacks, voices in the head, a very warm colour tone, the concept of the 'shareef badmaash' through the character of Puhlwan – these are all elements from a certain era of Lollywood. Similarly for the music. We wanted situational songs, like in older films, where they were a space for expressing that which cannot be expressed in dialogue, that which needs a poetic expression. Situations of romance, suffering, existential angst, a spiritual or moral dilemma, desires, fantasy, aspirations, of mocking the rich and powerful... So Zinda Bhaag uses film songs in their most traditional form. Bagga, our music director, took this a step further and created the music through live instruments, to evoke film music from a bygone era. So all these really amazing veteran violin players, saxophone players, cello players and brass bands came together for our music. This was probably the funnest bit of making this film.

Did you always plan on having songs?

Farjad: Yes. It was a deliberate decision on our part. It was not a compulsion. There is a tendency amongst the cultural elite to have a knee-jerk rejection to this South Asian film form and view it as inferior to Hollywood or European film form. I also think it masks a class bias of low culture vs high culture – suggesting that films with songs provide mindless entertainment for the ‘masses’ as opposed to the more ‘mindful’ art cinema of the educated ‘gentry/elite’. Whether a film has songs or doesn't is a lazy way to judge the impact or truthfulness of its content. Filmmakers should feel free to choose a form that feels right for their story-telling. Our traditional stories have always been told through songs. Heer Ranjha, Sassi Punnu, this is all theatre in verse.

Meenu: We also wanted to invert the Punjabi hero of the '90s era Lollywood film- always blood-thirsty, avenging and one who absolutely never sang or danced. So not only is our hero one who is grappling with failure and dishonour, unlike the '90s Punjabi hero, but also one who can dance with abandon.

Why did you decide to use non-professionals for the central roles – the three boys, Khaldi, Taambi and Chitta? And why not for Puhlvan?

Meenu: We knew we wanted audiences to relate to the boys intimately, like they would to their nephews, cousins, friends. In the auditions we were looking for certain personalities rather than actors as such. However, Puhlvan was a character who was essentially a story-teller who had to hold the audience's attention. We knew it had to be an accomplished actor who could carry off that.

Farjad: So as soon as the words 'accomplished actor' were used, Naseer saab's name was sure to follow.

Is Puhlwan modelled on a real person? What about Rubina?

Farjad: Yes, on many real characters. His look with red henna hair symbolizes a particular kind of older man in Lahore. In the old-style concept of 'Puhlvani', a euphemism for using force, the violence was never overt. The philosophy goes that one's power must be like the wind: always felt, never seen.

Meenu: Rubina is supposed to be a 'cheetee' (leopardess) in Lahori lingo. She is ambitious, straight talking and hard-working. The character is culled from many women we met while researching in local beauty parlours.

You've both made documentary films earlier. What made you take the plunge into fiction? How would you compare your past experience to making non-fiction?

Farjad: Our documentaries occupy the liminal space between non-fiction and fiction. Both stylistically and content wise we were both always more comfortable mixing the two worlds.

Meenu: There is something similar about documentary film making and doing a PhD. There are many lessons from both which are very useful in fiction film-making. The nice thing about doing fiction features is that its so collaborative and therefore not such a lonely process as doing a doctorate.

How did your script evolve? I believe you didn't have the ending in mind when you began, and it wasn't all written in Punjabi to begin with...

Meenu: It was the first time we were writing a film script. [Bombay-based screenwriter] Urmi Juvekar, who was a lovely teacher, helped us straighten out a lot of it. We used to write many of the scenes in Urdu or English before converting to Punjabi. Many of the dialogues also came through improvisations.

The film has got great press in Pakistan. Are you planning an Indian release? 

Farjad: The film is in its second week in theatres at the moment; last night we went to a cinema and it was packed. That too, in Karachi, which is not a Punjabi-speaking audience. Pakistani responses on social media have been quite overwhelming. The ZB team couldn't have asked for more.

Meenu: Yes, we are planning an Indian release. We think this is a story which would be as easy to relate to in an Indian context, without any of it being lost (in translation). 

What next?

Meenu: We are writing two other scripts. But before that we have two documentaries to complete.

[An edited excerpt from this interview was published on Firstpost, here. And my review of Zinda Bhaag is here.]

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