Interview: Reconnecting to his roots

Updated October 27, 2013


In a world of cinema today where the lines between alternative and mainstream cinema are blurred, Dehlavi sees himself somewhere in the middle.

Famous London-based Pakistani independent filmmaker, Jamil Dehlavi, is back in Pakistan to give what he can to the country. He is “emotionally attached to Karachi” where he finds his roots; but there has been a cost that the filmmaker has had to pay for his love for Pakistan.

Dehlavi has joined the Habib University, due to start admissions in Karachi next fall, and will be teaching filmmaking at the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. His decision to return is a combination of his desire to return to the place where he has his childhood memories and the sense of contribution,” he said.

Dehlavi had to flee the country back in the early 80s when his controversial film, Blood of Hussain, caused him a lot of trouble, especially during Ziaul Haq’s time. “My passport was confiscated by the government. I was stuck here for two years while the film was sitting at a film laboratory in England. Luckily I had sent it there. I then got fed up with waiting and tried to negotiate with the government. Finally I was able to leave.”

As he looks through the bay window of his 10th-floor apartment at the tranquil sea meeting the clear blue skies on a bright morning, the contemplative look on his face complements the salt and pepper beard reflecting years of experience and reflection.

“I belong here. I spent some formative years here as a child. I have lived here during the time when there was a lot of nationalism in Pakistan. We were fed on it, and we were proud of the country. And that’s what brings me back,” he says.

Dehlavi’s passion to make films was not in conformity with what his parents wanted for him. “I [initially] studied law but then I decided to leave it; as it was due to parental pressure that I studied it. That is something seen often in Pakistan.”

The education system in England, which is also aped in Pakistan, Dehlavi explains, is completely different from the American one. “You specialise much too early. Besides, I think the purpose of a liberal arts education is that you get a very broad education, and then it gives you an opportunity to discover what you want to do,” he says.

While his historical film, Jinnah, received much applause (and some criticism) in Pakistan when it was shown in local theatres, Dehlavi felt that there were some misleading media reports about his contribution to the film.

“We never quite finished the shooting of Jinnah. We had to work with the footage we had. There was a whole strand in the film, a rather surreal strand, where Mr Jinnah goes forward in time and meets several modern Muslim leaders like Saddam Hussain, Qaddafi, etc. We weren’t able to shoot because we ran out of money and the Pakistani government reneged on a promise to invest in the film. So we had to leave that out.

”[However], what was edited in the end was done to my satisfaction because I personally controlled that department.”

The character played by Shashi Kapoor also had to be truncated which is why it didn’t fit well in the film, he stated.

In a world of cinema today where the lines between alternative and mainstream cinema are blurred, Dehlavi sees himself somewhere in the middle. “The market has changed tremendously. [Making] independent films, unless they have stars, is very difficult from the point of view of distribution. I’ve just finished a film (Seven Lucky Gods) with some wonderful English actors and a young Albanian actor. But it’s very difficult to find distributors for it. It’ll happen but I have to hunt for it.”

Had he asked George Clooney to act, it would have been accepted straight away, he says. “The first question asked [by the distributor] is ‘who’s in it?’. That wasn’t the case 30 years ago. The films that I made then would never be financed today. Impossible. Nobody would touch them,” he says.

“People ask me why I don’t make commercial films. It’s not that simple. But then if tomorrow Hollywood knocks on my door and says here’s a hundred million dollars to make a film, I’d grab the opportunity,” smiles Dehlavi.

Should there be some mainstream elements in even an ‘alternative’ film?

“Filmmakers need an audience. They can’t just be making films for themselves. But it’s a fine balance. I make the films that I want to make. I’ve always done that. I’m actually not thinking of an audience; that’s being a little selfish, which I think many filmmakers are unless they are commercially-oriented. I think my films have made a point, and people have seen and appreciated them. They haven’t been commercial block busters.

That’s not what I do and I don’t think I ever will, unless somebody gives me a lot of money (to make a commercial film). Then I may compromise,” he laughs.

Dehlavi doesn’t consider filmmaking an entirely fulfilling experience. “Every film that I made has been difficult because, one, you have to raise the money, then you have to get the actors together, the locations, etc. You have time strictures and you are working with a limited budget. Once the film is shot and edited, you see the flaws that the audience may not see. So [for me] it’s not a happy experience. [But then] you’ve got to be driven and dedicated to make a film.”

Dehlavi has been out of touch with the Pakistani cinema but he sees lots of young (Pakistani) filmmakers and he sees a lot of potential. “I saw the film Zinda Bhaag the other day and it was very interesting to see young filmmakers making independent films.”

There has been a rise in the number of films produced in Pakistan but they’re mostly being shown in multiplexes, especially in Karachi where last year some low-cost cinema halls were burned down.

“It’s the distributors who need to make cinemas all over the country which are not as grand as these multiplexes. There’s a huge market out there and they’ll make a lot more money doing that. But it’s not the filmmaker who can really play a part. The filmmaker is at the bottom of the chain. He’s [usually] the last person to be paid anything.”