Herald Exclusive: In conversation with Jamil Dehlavi

Published July 25, 2014
Jamil Dehlavi
Jamil Dehlavi
Jamil Dehlavi (left) with interviewer Hasan Zaidi (right) at the Kara Film Festival in 2006
Jamil Dehlavi (left) with interviewer Hasan Zaidi (right) at the Kara Film Festival in 2006
A still from Dehlavi's Immaculate Conception
A still from Dehlavi's Immaculate Conception

Jamil Dehlavi is one of Pakistan’s most enigmatic filmmakers. Among the most celebrated of Pakistani filmmakers abroad, he is virtually unknown in Pakistan except amongst real cinephiles. His films have garnered awards at various festivals internationally but have been rarely seen in Pakistan.

His film The Blood of Hussain was banned by General Zia’s regime, which considered it anti-military and thus anti-Pakistan, but he was also backed by the Pakistan establishment to direct the biopic of the country’s founder, Jinnah, which garnered its own share of controversy. He has lived in London for most of his life but is now helping establish a film department at the newly set-up Habib University in Karachi.

Notoriously private and reluctant to grant interviews, he agreed to sit down for a chat about his work, the state of filmmaking and his hopes for his Pakistani cinema with filmmaker, journalist and KaraFilm Festival director Hasan Zaidi for The Herald.

The following are excerpts from the conversation.

Hasan Zaidi: Let’s begin with what would probably be the first question that Pakistanis would have for you…Most Pakistanis know only your film Jinnah. Some cinephiles might know a couple of others like The Blood of Hussain or Immaculate Conception, even though those too are difficult to find here whereas you’ve directed, by my reckoning, at least eight feature films. So why are you known only by one film here? And why are your other films unknown in Pakistan?

Jamil Dehlavi: They’re unknown in Pakistan because they haven’t been released here except on pirated videos. My films are a bit too explicit and hardhitting to pass the censor.

HZ: Right, but there’s a huge amount of cinema available that has not been released officially in Pakistan, thanks to piracy. But even in the piracy market, your films are not so easily accessible…

JD: Well, Immaculate Conception is available, so is Infinite Justice, These films are for a niche market, your average guy in the street isn’t interested in my films. The Blood of Hussain was banned here. Immaculate Conception I didn’t even try to release in Pakistan because I knew it was a non-starter. What else… Towers of Silence is a very abstract film, only a real film buff would watch it.

HZ: Do you consider yourself a Pakistani filmmaker? And I don’t mean it in the sense of whether you have a Pakistani passport of course but more in terms of what makes a filmmaker, or any artist for that matter, become identified with a particular country… Or do you consider yourself an outsider?

JD: Of course I consider myself a Pakistani filmmaker but at the same time I’m capable of making films anywhere. I’ve made many films which have nothing to do with Pakistan and, you know, tomorrow if you gave me Batman 4 to direct, if you gave me that kind of budget, I’d make it. But I do identify with Pakistan, I come from here. And although I’m half-French and I’ve lived in England for a number of years, I would never think of myself as British. This where I feel most at home.

HZ: You’ve chosen to live and have lived most of your life abroad and you’ve also made a career as a filmmaker abroad. What brings you back? What is the motivation?

"I'm a glutton for punishment" - Jamil Dehlavi

JD: I’m a glutton for punishment! [Laughs] I’ve been coming back to Pakistan over the years. During Zia’s regime I lived in exile for ten years and settled in England. With the advent of Channel 4 Television, opportunities came up for me there but as soon as Benazir’s government was elected, I came straight back to make Immaculate Conception. The next opportunity I got to spend time here was when I made Jinnah. Then came Infinite Justice a segment of which I shot here. And when Habib University made me an offer which was quite unexpected…

HZ: An offer you couldn’t refuse…

JD: [Laughs] Well, yes…

HZ: Hopefully no horses were involved…

JD: I never thought I would ever join an academic institution but when the offer came it seemed like an intriguing idea, creating a film department at a new university. So I accepted and here I am.

HZ: As a filmmaker…you continue to make films… does it take you away from your primary calling?

JD: You know the thing about making feature films is that it’s an expensive medium. There’s quite a lot of dead time between projects. And one of my regrets is that I didn’t have a second profession to fill that time. You always think there’s money around the corner and the next film is about to happen and then a year or two slips by and it hasn’t happened. I don’t intend to become an academic for the rest of my life. And I’d like to make another film in Pakistan, which hopefully I can fit into my university schedule. I could even involve my students in it.

HZ: You know I was watching some of your earlier films and in at least two of them, Towers of Silence and Immaculate Conception, I was struck by this imagery of the giant sea turtle coming to lay its eggs on a long forgotten shore. And I wondered, do you identify yourself with the turtle?

JD: [Laughs] Towers of Silence is quite surrealistic, people who watch it will inevitably interpret the imagery in their own way… It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, whether I identify with the turtle…[Laughs] This film has been given so many interpretations… There’s a guy in Iran who even wrote a whole thesis on it.

HZ: [Laughs] No, I wasn’t actually interpreting it within the film, I was just struck by the similar sequences in the two films. You know, turtles are fascinating in how they keep returning to the same shores after having travelled thousands of miles away… But staying with the issue of identity, I’ve often felt that despite world cinema becoming more globalized, more accessible because of technology – the internet etc etc – there is a form of cinematic apartheid that exists in which filmmakers from the South, or the so-called Third World, are often only allowed a certain niche in world cinema. The kind of films from the Third World that will find distribution or garner critical acclaim are the ones that focus on how different these countries or societies are from the West and films that focus on normal human emotions, relationships for example, are considered too similar to Western films to find international attention. As an expatriate Pakistani filmmaker, do you feel that is true?

JD: You know the market has changed a lot. When I first started, a film like The Blood of Hussain got a lot more exposure than the films I’m making today. The art cinema market seems to have disappeared completely. There is a market for niche films, for foreign films, but it’s a small market really. The majority of people want to see American cinema, action films. The language of cinema has also changed, everything is so much faster. My son, he sometimes watches these older films but even at the age of 24, they’re much too slow for him. So I don’t know, does that answer your question?

HZ: A bit. But actually what I was asking you is if you ever feel, or felt, that there’s a certain kind of film you have to make to find distribution. I don’t mean in terms of fast-paced, that’s a separate issue altogether, but in terms of content. For example if you make a film set in Pakistan, that it has to be about the hot button topics of the day in the West or something that is sensational…

JD: Yeah, all the foreign films set here seem to be about terrorism because it’s a topical subject. Those are the films that get financed in the West, films like Zero Dark Thirty. What’s also happening is that cast is becoming terribly important. Without a known cast, even sales agents will say they can’t sell it. Who’s in it, that’s the first question they ask you. You know 30 or 40 years ago, that wasn’t the case. Off-beat films and art films had a market. It’s all gone.

HZ: So whereas technology has made things more accessible, it’s also homogenized a lot of world cinema?

JD: Yeah, there are also too many films, there’s a glut of films in the market.

HZ: Well in terms of stars, you could have a star who is really well-known in Pakistan, someone like Shaan, but not so well known even in India...

JD: Yes, and completely unknown internationally. That’s not going to sell your film abroad, Pakistan is a very small market. In America who’s interested in Shaan?

HZ: I’ve read all your bios, how you studied law and were called to the bar but you decided to go into filmmaking. Why?

JD: I actually wanted to paint. That’s where all my strengths lay. When I told my father, he said painting was not a profession. It’s something you do in your spare time. I needed a respectable profession. And what was considered respectable at that time? To be a lawyer…

HZ: Lawyer, doctor, engineer, CSS…

JD: Exactly. I was put under a great deal of pressure to study law at Oxford. Both my father and brother had been there and suddenly it became the lion I had to kill to prove my manhood. All those years, I would have much preferred to be in an art school. I was living in cities like Rome and Paris where my father was posted. They had wonderful art schools where I would have thrived. After I was called to the Bar, I decided to do my own thing. I’d always been fascinated by film as it combined all the arts. I left for New York where I gained admission to the film school at Columbia University, and then never looked back.

HZ: You never thought about going into painting again? Do you still paint?

JD: I’ve been wanting to for years but I think I’ve got a bit of a block. I keep putting it off. I think painting and photography are merging to some extent and I’ll probably end up doing mixed media. I do feel I’ve been left behind. If I’d continued painting I’d have huge body of work. It’s always been such a hassle raising money to make films…

HZ: I tell my painter friends and my writer friends that I really envy them sometimes. Film involves so much money and so much collaboration. With painting or writing, at least as far as creating the work itself, you can be completely shut off and do it by yourself…

JD: Yes, I think it would have suited me better, because I’m a very private person…although I do have another side to my personality, I can be quite dogged, a terrier, once I decide to do something.

HZ: Do you think the idea of the auteur, the independent director with a vision, that that idea is dying?

JD: Ah, is it dying?... I suppose it’s not as strong as it was before…I mean, when was this term invented? In the 60s?…and now you don’t really hear of auteur filmmakers.

HZ: In fact most of the ‘auteurs’ that we know now who are still working are from the ‘70s, whether you think in terms of Scorsese or Almodovar or Terrence Malick or Coppola who doesn’t make many films any more…If I had to put you on the spot, which of course I am, and ask you what themes interest you as a storyteller, would you be able to identify those for me?

JD: Not really, it varies from film to film. I don’t repeat the same theme over and over again. If there is an issue that I feel strongly about, I’ll take it up, develop it and run with it.

HZ: I should say I usually hate this deconstructionist line because more often than not it’s in the questioner’s mind rather than in the filmmaker’s but one of the things I keep thinking of when I see your films is the idea of the outsider. Whether it’s in Towers of Silence, where in fact both the protagonists could be outsiders, to The Blood of Hussain with a political outsider… Born of Fire I haven’t seen yet, but in Immaculate Conception where it’s an interaction between outsiders, whether it’s the goras who have come to Pakistan or the hijras as social outsiders. Let’s leave Jinnah aside though that could also be possibly classified as that. Then you have Infinite Justice with again outsiders, a white journalist in Pakistan and a radicalized British-Pakistani entering unfamiliar territory. Godforsaken I haven’t seen also but then you have Seven Lucky Gods with the Albanian immigrant in England…

Christoper Lee as Jinnah in the Dehlavi-directed movie on the founder of Pakistan
Christoper Lee as Jinnah in the Dehlavi-directed movie on the founder of Pakistan

JD: It’s a fair comment but I’ve never really thought about it in that way…

HZ: Which would you say is your most personal film?

JD: Towers of Silence.

HZ: That’s kind of like the first book, where everyone assumes it’s an autobiographical story…

JD: It is kind of autobiographical but in an abstract form. I was exorcising my demons. I kill my father in it. [Laughs] And yet I dedicate the film to him.

HZ: Now, The Blood of Hussain, I’ve always been intrigued by the claim that it was finished before Zia-ul-Haq came into power. There are so many elements of the imagery and even dialogue that I couldn’t believe it was done before and not added on after…

JD: No, it was shot before Zia came into power. In fact my problems began during the Bhutto Government. Just after the shooting was completed, someone sent my script to the authorities. My passport was impounded and I was accused of subversive activities. Shortly after that the coup took place and I went from the frying pan into the fire. I was stuck here for two years. Then I managed to get out of the country and edited my film in London.

HZ: And these charges never affected your father’s career, your brother’s career?

JD: My father died shortly before I started shooting the film so it didn’t affect him. My brother was in the Foreign Service and was very well respected, he wasn’t a renegade like me. [Laughs] He was posted in France at the time and it must have been embarrassing for him when the film premiered at the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. My mother had settled in Karachi after my father died and one of the reasons I didn’t leave earlier was because I was worried that there would be repercussions against her. In those days you had to be registered as a film producer, you couldn’t just buy film stock. Friends of mine would lend me a thousand feet of film and I’d shoot a commercial just to keep body and soul together. But after two years I couldn’t take it any more. I was stagnating. I told my mother I was going to leave and she gave me her blessing.

HZ: And you left via Afghanistan, without a passport?

JD: I left with a passport, but not my passport. [Laughs]

HZ: Okay one final question about your films… Your earlier films had almost a sense of surreality to them, where imagery took precedence over the narration perhaps. Your later films seem much more regularly structured. Is that a function of market requirements or of your own evolution as a filmmaker?

JD: To some extent it’s my evolution as a filmmaker but the main reason is due to the changes in market dictates. I wasn’t that interested in scriptwriting when I first started, I don’t think the scripts of my earlier films are that carefully thought out. However, those films had very strong imagery which told the story very forcefully. Over the years I gradually learnt how to write scripts. My last film which you saw, Seven Lucky Gods, is very much a scripted film, it’s dialogue-led. I’d love to go back to my old style of filmmaking. [Laughs]

HZ: Changes in film distribution, particularly over the last 10 years or so, have really brought marketing to the fore in many ways. I know people who say marketing should be built into the original budget. But then where does that leave the struggling, independent filmmaker?

JD: Well the struggling independent filmmakers have a huge problem on their hands because there are so many films that are sitting on the shelf that nobody has ever seen. Also there are too many films in the market, too many films that will never be seen. It’s extremely competitive this medium. Sometimes I wonder why I do it. But like I always say, it’s like having a baby, you forget the pain and all else until you have another one.

HZ: Films like Bend It Like Beckham were one of the earliest indie films that built a marketing budget into their original budgeting, the figures I got at that time were that almost 50 percent of their budget was kept aside for marketing…

JD: That’s why there are so many bad films out there. Because they’ve got a budget to push them. Independent filmmakers don’t even have proper money to make their films let alone market them. I have sales agent in Los Angeles who gave me a long list of deliverables. I can’t even afford to give him that because any money I had went into making the film. The other problem is the middle-men, it’s the middle-men who make the money. Hopefully, sooner or later independent filmmakers will be able to market their films directly, through the internet and so on.

HZ: What do you think is a mainstream Pakistani film and do you think you could ever make one?

JD: What it used to be is a song and dance, a musical with a melodramatic story. I couldn’t do a traditional film like that, unless it was a take-off on it. [Laughs] I’ve always tried to make films that can cross-over but in the end they don’t really, they’re mainly for a Western market. The only film that sort of crossed over was Jinnah.

HZ: Since Infinite Justice, you’ve also been a big proponent of digital filmmaking. How has that changed filmmaking?

JD: Well it’s changed filmmaking in that the technology is much more accessible, anybody can get up and make a film. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll make a good film.

HZ: Do you think filmmaking as a whole has changed also because of social changes? I mean attention spans are shorter now and the idea of the slow, long shot probably doesn’t find many takers now. You have the MTV generation where every shot is two seconds long…

JD: It’s not even two seconds now. Two seconds is a long time. [Laughs]

HZ: [Laughs] Yes, 20 years ago when I was studying film it was two seconds then. Obviously things have changed but in your opinion, is it a good thing, a bad thing or is it just different?

JD: I think from my perspective, the advent of digital technology is a good thing. Everything’s so much easier, it’s cheaper…I remember days when I used to lug cans of film around because I couldn’t even afford to take a taxi across town. The old editing machines were just horrendous. I used to work on Moviolas and Steenbecks. Moviolas were the worst although some old editors loved them, I can’t think why. It’s so much easier now, you can be sitting on a plane and editing your film.

HZ: But it’s sort of a double-edged sword sometimes right? I mean the whole procedure of cutting and splicing to make an edit was painful but the one thing that it perhaps did was that you had to really think about your edit.

JD: I’ve heard this argument before but I don’t find it convincing. Earlier on, once you made a decision, you couldn’t change it. Often you were stuck with a mistake. Now it’s so easy to fix that. After I finished my last film, there was a scene that kept bugging me. And then I figured out what was wrong with it and I went back in there and fixed it. Obviously there was a cost implication but not a huge one. Had this been done on film, once the negative was cut, it would have been pretty much impossible. You’d have to live with that mistake. In any case, film is on its way out. I know there are cameramen who say digital doesn’t have the same quality as film, but in the end, your audience doesn’t know the difference. And soon, even cameramen won’t be able to tell the difference.

A still from Dehlavi
A still from Dehlavi's 'The Blood of Hussain', which was released in 1980

HZ: How do you see where Pakistani cinema is at the moment? Where do you think it went wrong and is there hope? You spoke earlier about the apparent resurgence…

JD: I don’t know where it went wrong. But you have a lot of new people coming to learn at new university departments, they will learn the technology there, may be they’ll get inspired and it’ll produce a new generation of independent filmmakers.

HZ: Is that what you’re hoping to achieve at Habib University?

JD: You can’t really teach film, you can only guide your students, try and inspire them and show them the technology. Either they have it in them or they don’t. I’ve called my first course ‘Guerrilla Filmmaking.’ It’s total immersion course in filmmaking from concept to delivery. My approach to teaching will be hands-on… Students will be required to write a script for a short film of their choice, taught the use of digital cameras and sent out to shoot their project. The footage they bring back will be analyzed and then edited into a coherent piece That takes them through the whole process of filmmaking and demystifies it. Then it’s really up to them. Over the four years those who choose to specialize in filmmaking will be doing more and more complex projects.

HZ: How do you see this strange schizophrenia about film in this society? When we set up the KaraFilm Festival the revelation was the overwhelming number of young people who said they wanted to get into film but didn’t know how to go about it, where to go to study it, since there were no institutes to study film at the time. But at the same time you have this overarching narrative, which has existed for a long time but particularly since Zia’s time, that people from “good families” were not supposed to go into films, that watching films is a frivolous activity, or that there’s a religious stigma attached to them because imagery is not allowed. What do you make of this dichotomy?

JD: Don’t you think it’s a generational thing? I mean I don’t think it’s so much of an issue for the younger generation. I’m from a different generation, where my father would enjoy watching films but wouldn’t want his children to take it up as a profession. But now it’s different. I think television has changed things to a great extent.

HZ: How do you see the difference between television and film and this new resurgence of television even in the West? You have series like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones which are very well written and have great cinematic production values. And of course in Pakistan, serials are still considered more profitable than films because of the repeat advertising factor.

JD: I’ve made films that were financed by Channel 4 and the BBC, but they were feature films. A series like Game of Thrones would be very attractive proposition if one was given the opportunity.

HZ: One of the problems that exists everywhere for filmmakers but is perhaps particularly acute in Pakistan is how to survive as a filmmaker. You can take on other jobs to get by, such as ad-filmmaking, but then there’s so much money in it that it becomes incredibly difficult for people to turn down that kind of money and make your own film. What would you say to younger filmmakers, such as your students about that?

JD: There’s nothing wrong with making commercials or corporate videos if that’s what you need to do to survive. I wouldn’t discourage them from doing it, in fact it’s good to have that fall back. I never did that personally, somehow I managed to survive making the films I made.

HZ: You see in theory that makes perfect sense. But in practice what I see is people saying ‘I’ll do this and then I’ll make my own film’ but then it never happens…

JD: Well it doesn’t happen if you get into the commercials industry because it’s very well paid. You get spoilt. What I spend on a 100 minute feature, they’ve got that kind of budget to make 30 seconds. Unless you’re really dedicated and have something to say, why would you take on the hassle of making a feature film? You have to be really driven to be a real filmmaker.



Faizabad redux
02 Oct, 2023

Faizabad redux

THE memory of the infamous Faizabad dharna of 2017 has returned to haunt Pakistan. When one looks back at the...
Exporting beggars
02 Oct, 2023

Exporting beggars

A RECENT revelation by the Senate Standing Committee on Overseas Pakistanis during a briefing to the Senate has...
Brutalising society
02 Oct, 2023

Brutalising society

THE Senate Standing Committee on Interior passed a bill last week with a majority vote that favoured the public...
Massacre again
Updated 01 Oct, 2023

Massacre again

If this monster is not vanquished at this stage, it will create a security nightmare of significant proportions.
A refuge no longer
01 Oct, 2023

A refuge no longer

SEPTEMBER has seen an alarming rise in the rounding up and detention of Afghan refugees. Pakistani authorities cite...
Whither justice?
01 Oct, 2023

Whither justice?

THE challenge is to ensure bestial tragedies are remembered. Two cases of femicide, involving men from Pakistan’s...