So, after a short hiatus of around four years, I’ve been convinced to return to the fold people. I’ve been hiding away in Australia, doing many things, getting myself educated, doing all sorts of fun stuff! But, I’ve been kind of missing doing this to be honest. So when Troy approached me at the beginning of the year, I decided I might start doing these interviews again. Why not! So here’s my first one since 2010. The interview is with “Josh/Against the Grain” director Mrs. Iram Parveen Bilal, a delightful woman, thank god she put up with my croaky, flu ridden voice early on a tuesday morning! Enjoy!
Steve: You use your gift to fight intolerance and prejudice, which I think is absolutely incredible of someone in your position to do. How did your experiences as a documentary maker affect or inspire your narrative driven film making career?
Iram: I wasn’t really a documentary filmmaker, I had worked on them but in terms of direction I’ve always been section oriented, but I feel I gravitate towards… because making a film is so hard, it can take three to five years from conception to screen, at least for me it needs to have some sort of, not necessarily moral subject but needs to have some sort of inspiration for myself and to make something for pure entertainment without some sort of message value, is very hard for me. I think that’s why, having been brought up in a developing country and having seen the vast stark differences across the roads, it’s natural for me wanting to share stories, scenes and triumphs the western world hasn’t seen? So my life has been a bit of a balance in both the East and the West, I’ve spent half my life here, half my life there and I am still embedded in the east, my family still lives there, I spend half my time there even now. I think that’s what has driven the desire to communicate, I think that desire to communicate, alot of inevitably socio-economic issues come up in my work, so you cannot miss this subject.
Steve: So much of Josh (Against the Grain) ties the concept of hunger to the rise in crime. Why make that direct connection?
Iram: Well, it comes a lot from someone who runs a soup kitchen in real life, her motto is ‘Erase hunger to erase crime’… her belief is everyone is born a good soul and it is only poverty and necessity to feed our loved ones that drives us towards doing things that might not be considered legally lawful. I may or may not fully agree with that, but I do think a lot of that has occurred due to desperation and poverty in the world. Also because in Pakistan there is a history of feudalism, whereby a lot of resources and land is tied to poor people, and they are forced to act in terms of voting and in terms of pay, ah, in terms of not being able to stand up for justice in any small matter because they owe to these “feudals” (the recording was unclear here due to lag (skype), I believe Iram meant a higher class of people), so the concept of hunger and food and all that really ties in to how there’s a lot of oppression and so I think that’s why, for me that’s why it’s important, I mean I didn’t talk really about the vote bags, I mean there’s a couple of dialogues here and there but I really spoke about hunger, food is the basic, food is where everything begins and it is where everything will end in terms of the world, our resources are about food and water, so I wanted to directly use that as a metaphor. In some ways I felt we were doing a lot with the film, there were so many iceberg tips we were touching, but I wish we were able to go in deeper, but as a first film, I think it’s like ‘Oh am I going to be able to make another film!? Just put EVERYTHING in this one!’
Steve: As such, do you feel that the film has a hard time finding a Western audience?
Iram: You know, I think the audiences *exist* but connecting to them is hard, because as a foreign film you don’t have the resources or the marketing as a big film, to answer your question there is definitely a western audience. Infact Western audiences have resonated with this movie more than Pakistani audiences have because they are seeing this reality every day, whereas in the west, the audiences have evolved more towards indie cinema, more towards message cinema, lack of spectacle cinema, and I would say the primary audience would be western international audience. Also, there are few films from Pakistan, mostly you will find Documentaries from Pakistan, so if people are told about it they will gravitate towards it and it just won a “Best Independent Award” in Pakistan this last Sunday.
Iram: Thank you! It’s a good feeling and I think that and I just hope, whatever this award means, that it pulls peoples attention to it, and it’s nice to get a pat on the back once in a while.
Steve: With all the work you’ve put in, you obviously deserve it. You occasionally see people who simply work with movies for a job, you see people who have a passion for movies and you see others for whom they’re their life. If you understand what I mean.
Iram: I do! Its funny you say that, I saw in a fortune cookie in a restaurant recently, the message said ‘You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.’ *laughs* I don’t know what I deserve, but I am hoping reality clicks and people, for me, the biggest reward will be the maximum amount of people watching the film. It’s not a financial tie, but it’s a tie, I got into art for impact, for me it’s if my message goes as wide and as far as possible.
Steve: I do hope it’s as successful as possible for you with that positive attitude! So back on topic, did your childhood in Nigeria influence your artistic style?
Iram: Not really, because I was a very good science student, my Mom was a physicist and my Dad’s a chemistry professor, so there was a lot of science in the family. But there was a lot of Bollywood fandom in the family, so I saw a lot of films, but I had to have a crash course in Western Cinema because I had only watched Bollywood up until when I went to film school. I didn’t directly though, I think, I had seen a lot of real, variants in terms of scenery in my life, you know, I’m who would be comfortable sitting with Masai in a village, then six hours later I could be in a resort pitching to Business, I would be comfortable in all those scenarios because of my life, I have seen varying sort of, all socio-economic conditions. I think in that aspect maybe the cinematography and visual style is impacted by a huge hint of realism and a little bit of melodrama that balances it, which comes from Bollywood, and the real stark, raw experiences comes from my growing up. I mean I come from a middle class family, I grew up seeing my parents struggling, at the same time I’ve got rich political friends, so I could see the stark difference in the class, class divide is a big theme in the film and the absolute diverging of the middle class globally is a phenomenon that is near and dear to me. Someone asked me, “Every artist has an inadequacy that drives them, what is yours?” I was thinking about it and I said maybe mine was where I was raised in a country where it was all about caste you belonged to, what your Dads last name was or whatever socio-economic bubble you belonged to, it was always present in Pakistan, I was always aware I had to work an extra fifty to sixty percent to get the same, because I don’t come from riches or a lineage of artists or you know, that sort of background.
You studied dance and body movement intensily, to see if it had a basis in religion, society, tradition or whatnot, how do you try to bring your field of knowledge to your profession?
Film? Oh definitely. I have a film called ‘Forbidden steps’ currently in development that is about the taboo of dance in Islam, it’s gotten a lot of attention at Film Independent, Sundance and all that, and I think that with all the personal reflection and time that’s gone into that, I’m very passionate about dance and sometimes the camera movement and the music and imagery in my films have a little experimental thing going on, so yes for sure.
Steve: Do you find it makes it a lot more personal for you when you do that?
Iram: Oh definitely, most definitely.
Steve: Most of the feature films shot in Pakistan are in Urdu, was there ever a consideration to shoot this movie in English?
Iram: No, because a lot of the characters are village characters and it wouldn’t be authentic and I wanted to use a Pakistani cast and film it in Pakistan. I don’t know about you but I was drawn out of Slumdog when the kids all started speaking English with a British accent and to me authenticity is very important, so city characters speak English when hanging out in Cafes, but then Urdu is spoken, and that does hurt the market in terms of foreign language and subtitles but I think it’s more important to have a more authentic and original film.
Steve: I think with larger budget movies it always perplexed me, larger budget movies eschewed accents, like Valkyrie, where all the germans speak in British or American accents.
Iram: I think because it’s the driving force of the film, are you making it for authenticity, or are you calculating potential box office dollars? You reverse engineer it and make sure the money is intact, so then it’s not about, it’s not the intention of the film, it’s about the money.
Steve: I agree one hundred percent. So what spurred the title difference? Against the Grain feels more natural, but there are a number of references and online viewers who seem to prefer Josh.
Iram: I don’t know, I wanted to have an English title as well so people could recognise it? It’s funny because Josh is spelt like the English word ‘Josh’, (Side note: In Urdu, the word is pronounced ‘J-owe-sh’ as opposed to the straight forward English J-osh) I didn’t want to have a name in Urdu that people couldn’t remember. ‘Against the Grain’ is also a dual thing because the people in the movie are revolting against the Landlord for wheat, so it has an interesting meaning. So I chose to have more than one.
Steve: It is a nice title, it has a nice duality to it. How difficult is it to be a foreign female director working inside the International Film Community?
Iram: It is tough, it’s interesting, I just contributed a chapter to Celluloid Ceiling, which is a book that is just coming out, it’s being featured on a panel at Cannes this week. There’s so many glass ceilings, one of them I mean is being a woman, I mean you don’t get the budgets you deserve. So yes there’s always that but I think that Im so focused on specific subject matters that I’m able to just reason with private fans and investors and audiences that I have, at the moment you’re small enough to not threaten the bigger films, but the moment you are and want something bigger, that’s when the opposition comes out and at the moment I’m ok, but yes there’s definitely that extra, I always have to always work extra hard to prove myself. It never feels like it’s enough, there’s extra work to always do.
A big thank you to Iram Parveen Bilal and her people for allowing us to speak to her about Josh/Against the Grain, it was truly a delight to get to know more about foreign cinema and the aspiring and accomplished directors who bring it into our lives here in the West. I wish her the best of luck with this and all future projects!
ABOUT THE FILM:
The Award-Winning Drama, With an Ensemble Cast of Leading Pakistani Stars, Arrives on Virgil Films DVD and Digital Streaming on May 6, 2014
“Needs to be seen by Western audiences.” – Mitchell Block, INDIEWIRE
Virgil Films today announced the DVD release of JOSH, a powerful new drama about the desperate search for a missing woman. The film, also known by its English-language title AGAINST THE GRAIN, will be available on May 6, 2014, with an SRP of $19.99. On the same date it will also be available on iTunes, Netflix and other digital delivery systems.
Writer-director Iram Parveen Bilal’s JOSH centers on Fatima (Aamina Sheikh), a beautiful, committed schoolteacher living the high life in cosmopolitan Karachi, Pakistan. Fatima seems to have it all, but her comfortable life is suddenly shaken when her nanny, Nusrat Bi (Nyla Jafri), inexplicably disappears. Though friends and family beg her not to ask too many questions and rock the boat, Fatima bravely embarks on a search for her beloved nanny, a woman she has come to look upon as her own mother.
It’s a journey that will lead Fatima to a dangerous truth in Nusrat’s village, a sealed world marked by unyielding class divisions, crushing poverty, sexual inequality and a social system locked in the distant past. Will the trials and tribulations deter Fatima’s resolve? Will the quest strain Fatima’s already complicated romantic relationship? JOSH is an unforgettable and moving look at a beautiful land being pulled into the future while fighting to break free from the past. It is the story of the biggest challenge to Pakistan’s still reigning feudalism: the country’s youth.
Starring alongside Aamina Sheikh is Mohib Mirza; they are a real-life Pakistani power couple, hugely popular on television and in the culture at large.
See you next time people, hope you enjoy.