Express News Service

Making a statement appears to come naturally to Pakistani-American filmmaker Iram Parveen Bilal. Sporting images of four of Pakistan’s late women icons at the back of her gown (former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, human rights lawyer, and social activist Asma Jahangir, social activist Perween Rahman and popular social media star and women’s rights activist Qandeel Baloch), Iram was the cynosure of all eyes at the world premiere of her new feature film Wakhri (One of a Kind) at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah. It was as though the four ladies had Iram’s back.

One of the young, new-wave Pakistani filmmakers, Iram has been challenging orthodoxy, patriarchy, and gender-based discrimination through her films (Josh: Independence Through Unity was screened at the 14th Mumbai Film Festival, I’ll Meet You There was at SXSW festival but banned on its release in Pakistan) as well as on-ground activism. She also initiated Qalambaaz, a platform that provides mentorship to screenplay writers.

Wakhri is inspired by the life of 26-year-old Baloch, often described as the Kim Kardashian of Pakistan. She was murdered by her brother in 2016 for bringing disrepute to the family because of her “bold ways” that went against the “societal norms”. However, Iram’s protagonist, school teacher, and single mother Noor Malik (Faryal Mehmood), while confronting the severe challenges of becoming a viral sensation, doesn’t have to face as baleful an end as Baloch for her alter-ego and secret identity—Wakhri—getting revealed to the world. Gulshan Majeed plays her queer best friend and ally Gucchi.

A big fan of Shah Rukh Khan, Iram has in turn ingeniously inspired Bollywood. Sriram Raghavan decided to call his protagonist in Agent Vinod, played by Kareena Kapoor, by her name.
Iram spoke to CE in Jeddah. Excerpts from an expansive interview on the eve of the release of Wakhri on January 5.

What did Qandeel Baloch mean to you and women in Pakistan?
I envied Qandeel’s guts. I was in awe of her courage. One may or may not have agreed with her message or opinions, but one couldn’t deny her unapologetic chutzpah. She openly challenged the forces you don’t challenge in Pakistan and caught everyone’s attention. I think that is why her killing felt so personal. It felt like it was a signal to brave women everywhere to shut up, to be silent. In taking her down, they took a piece of us down too. I think that’s part of what made her a feminist icon. Sadly though, this also reflects what patriarchy does to pit women against other women, because I feel she became a bigger icon for women in her death than in her life. When she was alive, I witnessed a lot of women hating on her.  

How did her persona tie up with what you like to communicate through your films?
I love showcasing characters who ask “Why not” and who challenge the boxes, rules, and labels. Qandeel’s spirit was the perfect segue into showcasing not just a brave, marginalized group of characters but also the collective monster that we have created through social media, draining empathy and empowering mass rage with every faceless click and comment.

Did the Wakhri idea strike you at the time of her death? What was the approach you decided to take in fictionalizing the character?
The screenplay of Wakhri was a slow evolution. I write at least 15-20 drafts of my scripts, if not more. I couldn’t stop thinking of Qandeel after she was killed, and I had just learned about her two weeks before her death. I started to unpack why I was so troubled by it and knew that I had to make something in reaction. It was very clear right off the bat that I didn’t want to make a film that was about her life as I wasn’t interested in glorifying an honour killing on the big screen. (And might I add, I think we lost a lot of potential Western financing and European grants because of that decision.) Also, I wanted to fictionalize the character while still taking huge inspiration from who she was, so that we could tackle more than just her story. Wakhri is about so much more, and it highlights themes beyond that single story. It is an opportunity to give an even bigger tribute to Qandeel by elevating the story to important themes and topics.

The new Pakistani cinema is getting pushed by people like you who have one foot at home and one in the West…
I do agree that the quality of Pakistani cinema is being affected positively by global training and access to craft and content. It is also getting affected by the world cinema infrastructure taking more interest in the region. From grants, and festivals to streamers, there’s heightened intrigue in the stories from this region, like never before.

There’s also the impact of the democratization of cinema owing to technology, private equity financing structures, and distribution, which gives middle-class talent access to the dream of being filmmakers.

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