Straight-talking, quick-tempered and hard-hitting. That’s what Iram Parveen Bilal, the film-maker behind Josh, was like when I met her. Admittedly, I was late for our interview, and I had made her wait as I traversed halfway across the city after confusing locations. Her response to that was, “I haven’t slept in a day. And I’ve spent most of the early afternoon handing out rations to kids at Khuda ki Basti.”
Quickly jumping into gear, we talk about how Iram graduated from the California Institute of Technology, one of the more renowned science universities in the world. Her life now though is a hugely different from the one she would have been leading had she stuck to a career in the natural sciences. A decent job working with some of the brightest minds in her field was assured. So what made her question what she was doing? “I wanted an instant reaction to doing something. You don’t get that in science.”
That’s when she received the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship which allowed her to travel the world. Iram returned with a whole new view of life. “I’m a people person,” she found out. But film? A few seconds of struggling with the right words and she’s resigned to simple honesty, “I’m really dramatic. Mujhe pasand hai woh dhandora machana. And I like telling stories.”
Sometimes you find people interesting enough to prod. Rare are those people who let you prod and distract them from the image of themselves they would rather let out. But to the person that is digging, nothing is more rewarding than knowing the answer just received is exactly what makes someone tick.
“Dhandora machana.” You don’t usually hear words like that from folks who have happened to chance upon the slightest taste of the world abroad. But those two words revealed something about Iram Parveen Bilal, which in our brief and only meeting yet, struck me as entirely unique: despite the red carpet appearances and pressures of being posh, and yes she is, Iram is not afraid of being real — even if it means squeezing Urdu and speaking it the way everyone who is not ashamed of the language speaks it.
I can’t say what being real is — an attitude or a trait. But it is something that is seriously lacking in the industry. Most folks you meet have long resorted to rolling their ‘R’s and name dropping to conjure up clout and credibility; so it was heartening and refreshing to be able to speak to someone who is practicing a creative craft and talk the way people actually talk in the real world.
It’s not really instant gratification lest the moral police come out with clubs.
Filmmaking is hard work and hardly instant. Ask Iram and she’ll tell you how she started making Josh years before anyone else had plans to make a film and now everyone has released their films before her. “We pitched the film to all sorts of companies and people. And there were no takers initially. It took me a year-and-a-half to raise the money just to begin making the film.”
Which brings us to the money: where is it coming from? In my recent conversations with film-makers and critics (yes, we now have critics even before the industry has ‘revived’) a lot of opinions have been thrown around about how only the big players with money in the bank or experience with music videos and advertising are making films, yet how most of the crop without either chooses to show its films to international audiences at film festivals rather than put them up in theatres here. The latter point especially won’t find many detractors.
But that really annoyed Iram. “We need money to do that (to put films up on screens) and people who say this, have no idea about the business and how tough it is right now. And also, film-makers don’t distribute films, distributors distribute films.
And they want money or some promise of it before they do that. These people need to shadow a film-maker for a day first and then talk.”
It’s obvious Iram has had to deal with a lot of comments and opinions, which to be fair, probably came from people who aren’t making films. “Aap puri duniya mein kuch banjayen, Pakistan mein nahi ban paogay. There is no camaraderie between film-makers here either. Maybe because there are fewer opportunities here.”
Her frustration is endearing and you almost want to get her something to cheer her up.
IoS: Hey now, come on, let’s be encouraging. Talk to us about Josh. What’s it about?”
Iram: Did you not read the brief?
Forgot, this one’s got a temper. But she calms down quick enough and tells me about the story. About how one person can initiate a change. “Ittehad mein azadi hai.” How apt that the tagline Iram uses for the film is the same message she would like to impart to the not so fraternal band of film-makers in the country.
Josh is Iram’s first full-length film, although she has made a number of award-winning short films in her six-year career. The film has been garnering a lot of praise from being the only Pakistani film in the past few years to be screened at the prestigious Mumbai Film Festival to being picked for the Women in Film Finishing Fund and catching a mention in Hollywood Variety. But if the rave reviews aren’t motivation enough to get you into a theatre, Iram’s honesty for her craft should be.
As Iram says, you can’t be a film-maker if you aren’t crazy.