The air is brimming with energy and excitement at Bodhicitta Works’ cosy headquarters in Karachi. Everyone, from the assistant director to the producers, it seems, is basking in the glory attributed to their film Lamha (Seedlings) being selected to be screened at the New York City International Film Festival this month. That the film is one out of 20 chosen to be screened in their entirety at the festival, out of 2,000 initial entries and 178 shortlisted ones, justifies the enthusiasm.
“It’s a huge honour and we still wonder how we managed to produce this film,” says producer Meher Jaffri. Summer Nicks, an Australian child-actor-turned-scriptwriter, singer/songwriter and film-maker who wrote the screenplay, is also co-producer, agrees this is an unexpected achievement.
The venture began after a chance meeting between Nicks and Jaffri when she sought his help for a documentary she was working on. This led to them talking about their respective film interests and several screenplays that Nicks had already written but had not yet materialised due to lack of funding and various other reasons. Together, they brainstormed ways to bring to fruition a script he was working on; then brought on board director Mansoor Mujahid (who also directed Lamha), and the three collaborated to produce a concept trailer for the sci-fi thriller titled Kolachi. The trailer since then has gone viral on the Internet. “Lamha was born out of Kolachi, so to speak,” laughs Jaffri at the serendipity of it all.
As the two began approaching investors and distributors locally (and getting the “don’t call us, we’ll call you”), their luck began to turn when an Australian company (Ice Animations) showed interest in Kolachi, partnering with them to seek international distribution and funding for the film. Because the film’s scope and budget was far greater than planned, they decided to file it away until adequate funding was available.
“We wanted to do it the right way and that would take some time so we decided to go ahead with a smaller-budget film that Summer had penned in the meantime,” explains Jaffri. With no name, no money, but big ambitions, the two set out to begin the whole Kolachi process over again, raising the money and discovering acting and musical talents in the country — and so was born Lamha.
The two would meet diligently after having quit their respective jobs (Jaffri worked at the Acumen Fund and Nicks was at MTV/Indus TV) to try to figure out how to start breaking down the script in order to make some semblance of a budget to “let us know what kind of beast we were dealing with,” says Jaffri. “The idea was to do as much due diligence as we could because we were wading into unfamiliar territory and in an industry that could barely be called that. I knew that no investor in Pakistan would be looking at film as a viable investment vehicle, nor had a film like this been made inPakistan, so we were smack in the middle of ‘market creation’ territory.” A daunting task, no doubt, but the two were determined.
Normally film-makers with a longer pre-production process find themselves in various degrees of comfort during and after production, having all their ducks in a row. But here, their sense of unpreparedness came as a great respite. “We were blown away during auditions by Aamina [Sheikh] and Mohib [Mirza],” Jaffri says. “It was a breath of fresh air when these veteran actors asked to read [the script] for us. The integrity and sincerity with which they approached the whole film reinvigorated us. It was them who gave us the final push we needed to consider making this as a feature film rather than as a telefilm, as initially proposed,” they explain.
How have people responded to the success of the film? “The feedback has been overwhelming although we received a bit of flak from people who resented the fact that we weren’t releasing the film in Pakistan first,” continues Jaffri. She says they will release the film here if they manage to attract a distributor. In any case “the movie is not necessarily Pakistan-centric; it’s a human story,” says Nicks. He therefore believes “there is no reason for it not to be appreciated locally as well as internationally.”
When asked about the state of the film industry in Pakistan, Jaffri argues that people should talk, blog and write more about it, demanding that local films be screened so the industry gains momentum. “A lot of people told us that Pakistanis won’t understand or enjoy a film like Lamha. While I understand the need for every business to monetise its ventures, there is nothing to be gained by dumbing down our audiences, and certainly there is no creativity in that. The challenge is how to create avenues for different genres of Pakistani film,” she says.
What genre would Lamha fall into then, I ask Nicks, whose simple response is parallel or art-house cinema, contributing to their funding dilemmas followed by distribution problems. Alternative cinema has such huge scope here yet little support, they lament.
What happened to those glorious yesteryears we experienced with the Pakistani film industry, I ask. “We are unfortunate to have disappeared into oblivion after our golden era,” Jaffri explains. “General Ziaul Haq created such a dark hole in terms of creativity. He shut down cinemas, all social spaces, coffee shops, artists’ communes and essentially took away peoples’ imaginations, places to think, exchange ideas and conduct dialogue,” Nicks continues. For young film-makers like Jaffri and her crew, he says, “it’s really like starting all over again, reinventing the wheel if you must, but in a different direction”. Not to say that there is nothing to learn from the past. “It is important we remember our history even while moving on,” adds Jaffri.
While talking to the duo about the challenges they faced in producing and financing the film, it becomes apparent that it is their determination that distinguishes them from many other local film-makers who might have wrapped up the project daunted by the difficulties. Talent aside, it took a whole lot of perseverance, knocking on doors and hustling to get attention for a project that should have had industry veterans and sponsors interested in the first place. “Every country in the world fosters and subsidises its film industry, so why can’t Pakistan?” asks Jaffri. She points to how film industries in other less-developed countries are pushing forth and thriving. “[Look at] Iranian cinema for one; Afghan cinema [also] has a film body supporting it.”
She also argues that both the public and private sectors should come together to support young film-makers. “The support should come from the media industry. It is unfortunate to see support mainly concentrated on mainstream cinema, but I suppose that’s how commerce works,” she continues. Nicks, however, insists that demands for support are not all about money. “It’s about creating platforms, creating momentum in the industry.” It certainly hurts the industry when talent like Ali Zafar goes to India and Usman Riaz travels to London to work, laments Jaffri.
Paradoxically, she is also optimistic about the future of films in Pakistan. “We have brilliant young talent beginning their careers; we have Ali Kapadia, Bilal Lashari, Humayun Saeed, and it is admirable that these artists are pushing through just for their love of the craft, without any training and grant funding,” she says.
With a thriving Indian film industry attracting global attention, one can scarcely ignore how Pakistan’s nascent industry compares with a fully grown industry next door. Jaffri feels that both industries share the same heritage so should not lose that common tradition and instead learn from history. A thought-provoking parting note on collaboration leaving us with much to ponder over.