When I met Sharmeen before she won her Oscar last year, something she said stuck out from all of her responses to my questions: about how as a nation we didn’t celebrate other people’s successes. “Who are our heroes?” she had asked rhetorically.
A few weeks after that, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy became Pakistan’s first Oscar winner, an exceptional feat that catapulted her to national fame and prestige — and many a name dropping session.
But last week when I met with her again, Sharmeen repeated the same question she had voiced before she won the award. “Who are our heroes?” she said. Why are they all dead or cricketers?”
Of course Sharmeen wasn’t trying to make this conversation about her achievement in some indirect way. When I told her that the Oscars in 2012 was probably the biggest thing that happened to the country since the World Cup in 1992, she laughed and accepted the appreciation with grace — fishing for compliments was not her intent.
Earlier this year, her documentary Humaira: The Dream Catcher, about Humaira Bachal, the 25-year-old activist and founder of the Dream Model Street School, was screened at Sound of Change Live in London, a concert event organised by Gucci’s Chime for Change foundation. There, both Sharmeen and Humaira mingled with some of the world’s biggest celebrities, and while hanging out with Madonna was something that Sharmeen mentioned as being “an experience” what she counts as more noteworthy was getting to speak about women’s education and empowerment on stage — and Madonna pledging to fund part of the building of Humaira’s school in Karachi.
Sharmeen and I talked about how many deserved to be acknowledged and celebrated but we didn’t recognise until it was too late. “My films used to be about issues. Now they are about the people that confront those issues. There needs to be no hopelessness.” It can hardly be stressed that Sharmeen is convinced about the ability of films as a tool for change. In fact, she was recently invited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to join them as a Participating Member for “exceptional contributions to theatrical motion pictures.” Talk to her about film and she’ll tell you all about how the medium is the perfect way to get a story out there, to get people talking and do something.
And she’s all about getting people to have difficult conversations. Saving Face for instance, had a few criticisms levelled at it, something Sharmeen not only acknowledges but says was very expected. “My films have made people from Canada to Saudi Arabia uncomfortable, it’s my job. I’m a film-maker. I evoke responses.” The fact is that Saving Face is what finally got acid violence on the front page, along with how female lawmakers in Pakistan worked to enact legislation against it in the Parliament and how doctors here worked tirelessly to give back to their country. “The world didn’t know that too was happening in Pakistan.”
And then she dropped the bomb.
“We applied to the Academy to have our own standing committee to shortlist films for the Best Foreign Language category from 2014. And it was approved.”
If the words didn’t register the first time, read again: films made in Pakistan will be eligible to compete in the Best Foreign Language Award category at the Oscars because the country will now have its own committee to shortlist and nominate films. Film-makers will submit their entries to the committee (which will comprise seven members including Sharmeen, Samina Peerzada, Rahat Kazmi, Framji Minwalla, Mehreen Jabbar and two others). A formal announcement has already been made.
It took a number of times for Sharmeen to repeat what she was saying for me to understand. But when I did, I realised that this was about as colossal as news could get for a film industry that is trying to push back from the brink. And just talking about it got us excited. “We need to open cinemas. We need to get inspired. People need to be trained. We need to get people excited about this. This is the first time we’ll have a committee since the 1950s.”
For a nation of storytellers, the news should come like a dose of steroids. This will be the first year that at least half a dozen local films are aiming for public release in theatres — knowing that their film might be nominated for the biggest awards in the business will encourage a whole crop of aspiring film-makers to try their luck with the camera. “When the ball starts rolling, it’s hard to stop it. This is a very vibrant generation. And they have the medium and an opportunity to express themselves now and tell their stories.”
Once the initial euphoria subsided, Sharmeen came in with a statement so booming she should have had a pulpit. “We lost our orchestras. The violinist didn’t teach his son his craft because he thought his son wouldn’t be able to get a job with it. But 10 years from now we will have an industry. Because it is no longer taboo to act, direct or produce films. And now, our films will be reaching international audiences.”
So is Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the messiah that the film industry has been waiting for? “I don’t know but my gosh, I’m only 34, I’m just getting started!” If she hadn’t inspired a whole mob of people to pick up their cameras last year, she is certainly turning out to be an enabler now. It’s a blessing, she says, to be able to, quoting a certain line Uncle Ben once told a young Peter Parker in the Spider Man comic books.
Now we’ll have some new heroes.