Indu Sharma as Perween Rahman in Into Dust
Indu Sharma as Perween Rahman in Into Dust

A docudrama directed by an Oscar-winning filmmaker about Karachi’s assassinated social activist Perween Rahman is to debut on Amazon Prime on August 24. Icon finds out more in an exclusive

Into Dust, a docudrama by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel, begins with a phone call between Perween Rahman (played by Indu Sharma) and her sister Aquila Ismail (played by Sudha Bhuchar).

Rahman tells Ismail that she loves her, before hanging up the call.

It is March 13, 2013. The day when Rahman, a real-life hero, was assassinated in Karachi. The architect, who had turned her energies towards social development since the early 1980s and was the head of the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute (OPP-RTI), was murdered on her way back from work.

Releasing eight years after that fateful day, Into Dust tells the story of Rahman's work and death, and Ismail's ongoing struggle for justice following Rahman’s murder.

Ismail has not seen the film yet. “It’s too painful for me,” she tells Icon. “Too, too real and too, too painful.”

But while Ismail may not have seen the docudrama, set to release on Amazon Prime on August 24, she has played a big role in making the film feel so real. Listed as an executive producer on the film, she gave her go-ahead on all the creative decisions of the story. “There was nothing that went by without discussing with me,” she says.

Ismail had long conversations with filmmaker von Einsiedel, and Charlotte Wolf, the film’s writer. “They were always in contact with me,” Ismail says. “Throughout.”

When Ismail was first approached about the project, sometime in 2018, she had emphasised two things to the filmmakers. First, she told them that her sister loved Karachi and Pakistan, and so there could be “nothing against our country” in the film. And, second, because Rahman’s murder trial was still ongoing, Ismail said there could be nothing in the film that could “jeopardise our case.”

“We are seeking justice from our system and they are delivering,” she tells Icon, recalling those early conversations.

Actress Sudha Bhuchar in Into Dust
Actress Sudha Bhuchar in Into Dust

The filmmakers agreed. They knew that this was a story they wanted to tell.

The reason Rahman’s story spoke to von Einsiedel so much was that it celebrated the bravery of an extraordinary woman. A Pakistani hero who he believes “deserves” to be a global hero. “Somebody who wouldn’t back down in the face of criminality and the powerful, and threats from the powerful,” von Einsiedel says.

The film focuses particularly on Rahman’s fight for the water rights of underserved communities in Karachi.

A GLOBAL ISSUE

“Water is the petroleum for the next century.” This quote from the Goldman Sachs Global Investment Report 2008 sets the context for Into Dust, right at the onset of the film.

While the film looks at Rahman’s work around water theft in Karachi, water scarcity is a global issue. “This film began with looking for a story ultimately about water,” von Einsiedel tells Icon. “There is a growing global water crisis, mostly driven by climate change, but also by poor decisions globally about how we use water. And, of course, this is one of the most precious resources in the world — we all need it.”

When the filmmaker came across Rahman’s work around water rights in Karachi, something clicked. “I try to tell stories about issues that are global in relevance,” von Einsiedel says. “I believe the way to tell those types of stories is to focus on what is ostensibly a very small story — a story of a single person or a small group of people, who are doing something to fight for that particular issue.”

The British filmmaker has successfully done this in multiple documentary films before. His Peabody Award-winning feature documentary Virunga tells the story of four individuals fighting to protect a national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And his Academy Award-winning documentary short The White Helmets follows three ‘Syria Civil Defence’ volunteers as they work in Aleppo and across Syria.

A scene from the film showing Perween Rahman at work
A scene from the film showing Perween Rahman at work

Von Einsiedel decided to try his hand at making a docudrama with Into Dust. “In the end, you try and work with the medium you think gives that story the best chance at success,” he says, speaking about the decision. In this case, he also felt that because there had already been “a great documentary” about Rahman — Mahera Omar’s Perween Rahman: The Rebel Optimist — there wouldn’t be a lot of value in making another one. “We felt that we needed to do something different creatively,” he says.

In Into Dust the director still takes a character-driven approach, usually seen in narrative documentaries. Rahman’s story arc in the film focuses on the water issue and the activist’s work around it.

The reason Rahman’s story spoke to von Einsiedel so much was that it celebrated the bravery of an extraordinary woman. A Pakistani hero who he believes “deserves” to be a global hero. “Somebody who wouldn’t back down in the face of criminality and the powerful, and threats from the powerful,” von Einsiedel says.

Ismail tells Icon that, in the initial days, even when it wasn’t clear what the film would be, it was made known to her that the focus would be on how people are dealing with water shortages. “And that was a very big part of Perween’s work,” Ismail says. “She had written that seminal report which actually exposed the water mafia.”

Of course, Rahman worked on many other issues as well, including her work on land encroachments, which led to her making some influential enemies.

“With somebody like Perween and her life, you could focus on lots of different aspects of it,” von Einsiedel says, adding that she did a lot of remarkable work.

“In this case, the funding for this film was from a foundation called the Grundfos Foundation, who ultimately care about the issues related to water and making sure people have the right to water around the world,” he says. “So the decision was to focus on that aspect of Perween’s work.”

THE OTHER HALF

Perween Rahman
Perween Rahman

Rahman’s work is only one part of the narrative. The other is Ismail’s ongoing struggle for justice for her sister. Ismail’s story arc in Into Dust primarily focuses on the early days after her sister’s murder, that led to her decision to stay in Karachi, instead of returning to the UAE where she was settled at the time.

In reality, it has been a long eight years since that decision.

A day after Rahman’s murder, the police had claimed on national television that the Taliban were behind the killing. But this raised more questions. Why would the Taliban kill her? And how was the murder solved in a day?

With these questions began the struggle for justice for Rahman.

A petition was filed before the Supreme Court for reinvestigation of the case. And a group of men were identified and are being tried by an anti-terrorism court. Final arguments in the case were presented earlier this month.

It has been a long legal battle, with the Supreme Court once admonishing law enforcement agencies, saying they seemed “helpless before land and water mafias.”

But Ismail has not lost hope in all this time. This is also what she represents in the film — hope.

“There are plenty of things going on in the world that are very upsetting,” says von Einsiedel, when talking about the film’s narrative structure. “There is a version of this story where you make this film [by telling] the story of Perween’s life, and it shows the extraordinary work she’s done and then it ends with her tragic assassination.”

“That’s truism,” the filmmaker says. “But, in some ways, it misses another aspect of the truth.”

He points out that, after Rahman was killed, her sister moved back to Karachi and continued her work. She kept her legacy alive and did not let Rahman’s death be the end of everything she worked for.

“And today they’re continuing their incredible work,” von Einsiedel says, speaking about OPP. “It’s very inspiring, and that felt very important for us to show. It felt hopeful.”

“Actually, they wanted to give a message of optimism,” Ismail says. “Perween was all about that.”

A TALE OF ONE CITY

Perween in a meeting with OPP founder Akhtar Hameed Khan | Justice for Perween Rahman
Perween in a meeting with OPP founder Akhtar Hameed Khan | Justice for Perween Rahman

Besides being a film about Ismail and Rahman, Into Dust is also a film about Karachi — the city that the sisters called home for most of their lives, and that Rahman continued working for till her last breath.

But owing to security concerns, the film was only partially shot in Karachi. The rest of the shooting was done in India. Von Einsiedel says that the initial assumption was that everything will be shot in Karachi. But they were advised against it.

Nonetheless, the film and the Karachi on screen never feel inauthentic. In fact, considering that a lot of the team and cast are non-Pakistanis, Into Dust is surprisingly nuanced. While exploring Rahman and Ismail’s relationship with the city, for example, it is mentioned that their family came from Dhaka to Karachi in 1972.

Von Einsiedel says he is always interested in exploring what it is that makes people decide to devote their lives to something bigger than themselves. He believes that having to flee what is Bangladesh today left an “indelible mark” on Rahman.

Ismail also shares Rahman’s love for Karachi. “Karachi is a city which opens its arms to everyone,” she says. “It is a city with such a large heart.”

This love for Karachi comes through in the film too. And this is clearly owing to extensive research. “Creatively, everything came from Perween’s friends and family,” von Einsiedel says. “All the input there was from Pakistan.”

Von Einsiedel describes Into Dust as a “universal story of bravery against powerful forces.” One hopes that the film, and the impact of Rahman and Ismail’s work, travels far and wide.


Published in Dawn, ICON, August 22nd, 2021

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