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Against the Grain

Secret agent? No, filmmaker!

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INSPIRING HOPE: Bilal believes that good cinema will always bring in audiences. (Above) A still from the film

Pakistani filmmaker Iram Parveen Bilal was in the news a good six months before the premiere of her debut feature Josh (Against the Grain). That's good going by any measure. It was Agent Vinod that did it - the film may not have stirred the box-office but the intriguing three-part name got noticed when director Sriram Raghavan, Bilal's friend, used it for Kareena Kapoor's character. 

Earlier this week, Bilal stepped out of the shadows of film trivia when her film had its world premiere at the 14th Mumbai Film Festival. For the first time in five years a Pakistani feature film has been screened in the world cinema category at the festival.
Bilal, who grew up in Nigeria and Pakistan, currently divides her time between the cities of Islamabad, Karachi and Los Angeles. Her film unfolds in Karachi;a port city much like Mumbai. Fatima (played by model-actress Aamina Sheikh), a schoolteacher living the good cosmopolitan life, is jolted into action when her house help goes missing. Fatima's search for Nusrat has her encounter ugly Indian subcontinent staples such as feudalism, class and poverty.

Despite the potentially controversial subject, Bilal insists, "The Pakistani media is very open to social issues. For instance, numerous television serials address similar issues. We have no problems talking about them;it gets problematic if you try acting on things. So, no, I didn't have to be especially careful in the planning or execution of the project. "

The film is yet to be screened in Pakistan but Bilal is excited by the growing interest in the film back home. "We know we have an audience, now we just need some support from distributors to bring the film to them, " says the director who predictably made several well-travelled short films before chasing the big one.

Following the Indian premiere, Bilal hopes the film will also find its way to Indian screens that lie outside the festival's protected space but again puts it down to finding the right distributors. "It was a very encouraging and humbling experience, " she says, talking about the response in India. "A few were very nostalgic about Pakistan and Partition but that's natural in an Indo-Pak setting. Distributors have expressed interest in watching the film, so let's see. Indo-Pak are our target audiences so we are very much seeking distribution. "

Although the film's fate rests with the distributors on both sides of the border, it has been financed independently and that's a darn menacing labyrinth. "There are amazing challenges to making a film, especially in the independent arena, " says Bilal. "It is not by any means an easy career and definitely not one for everyone. There are easier careers if you want to be rich and famous. I believe being a young film-maker is a bigger challenge than being a woman film-maker because people always doubt your abilities. "

This could be the best and worst time for Pakistani cinema - where on the one hand, Josh and Mansoor Mujahid's award-winning Lamha (Seedlings) have helped Pakistani cinema be visible this year, on the other, several cinemas were torched in Karachi and Peshawar for showing un-Islamic films. Bilal says, "The cinema-torching instance was senseless and the doing of a chaotic mob. The future is what we make of it. For every incident, if we have a new film or more being made, we are fine. If we have the intent, we shall have the audiences. To quote from Phil Alden Robinson's classic Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come."

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