THE ICON INTERVIEW: THE RELENTLESS SHARMEEN

Published April 9, 2023
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy directing Mehwish Hayat during the filming of Ms Marvel
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy directing Mehwish Hayat during the filming of Ms Marvel

It’s the year 2023 and, at the three-day event titled Star Wars Celebration in London hosted by Lucasfilm, Pakistan’s only Oscar-winning director (twice!) Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has been formally announced as the director for the next Star Wars film. It’s a bit surreal. Star Wars is one of the longest-running and biggest film franchises in the world. Sharmeen will not only be the first woman to direct a Star Wars film but also the first person of colour to do so.

I remember seeing my first Star Wars film when I was just four-five years old around 1989-1990 and re-watching those tapes of Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) pretty much defined my whole childhood. I never imagined I’d see the day when a Pakistani filmmaker would direct a Star Wars film. But, here we are.

On the phone from London soon after the announcement, Sharmeen sounds excited but is very tight-lipped about the project. “To be given an opportunity to tell a story as important as Star Wars with a global audience, with one of the biggest franchises in the world, comes with great responsibility,” she says slowly and carefully. “I’m excited to bring these characters to life. I’m excited to infuse new characters into the galaxy. And more importantly, I’m excited to welcome a whole new generation of Star Wars fans into the Star Wars world.”

I understand she can’t talk about the film until filming has concluded. But I try to ask questions around it, anyway: How old were you when you saw your first Star Wars film? I ask her. I’m met with silence. Okay, who is your favourite Star Wars character? “I really can’t say anything,” says Sharmeen. And that’s the end of this discussion.

She’s just been tapped to direct the next Star Wars film, the first time a woman and a person of colour will direct the sci-fi fantasy franchise. How did Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy get to this place from making documentaries? And what has this journey really been like?

I had met Sharmeen a few weeks earlier at her office in Karachi at the head office for Sharmeen

On the set of Ms Marvel
On the set of Ms Marvel

Obaid-Chinoy (SOC) Films. Operations were moved here sometime in 2011. From the very large waiting room to the lounge and going all the way up the staircase, the walls of SOC Films are covered with a multitude of photos celebrating Sharmeen’s global success.

While waiting, you can see all of the foreign celebrities she’s rubbed shoulders with on this very instagrammy wall. Once outside and en route to her office upstairs, you’re faced with framed cover pages of prominent local newspapers headlining her historic Oscar win. There are life-sized posters of some of the bigger films she’s worked on — there’s Saving Face of course, Girl in the River, Peacekeepers and Transgenders to name a few. Everywhere the light fell from the glass roof a couple of stories high, reflected an ode to the groundbreaking magnificence of SOC Films.

This is a far cry from the living room of her father’s house where I would first interview Sharmeen back in 2007 [Living in Reel Time, September 23, 2007] and where she would take most of her meetings. Three years later, she would win her first [for Pakistan’s Taliban Generation] of six Emmys and subsequently also bag two Oscars for Saving Face (2012) and Girl in the River (2015), respectively.

Around that time, she was in the process of forming the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), a non-profit organisation dedicated to collecting oral histories, especially from the Partition generation. She’s seemingly done a million things since then — she opened the National History Museum in Lahore, started an animation studio which released the iconic Teen Bahadur series among other projects, a television series starring Fakhr-i-Alam, and her production house in the meantime, kept churning film after film — some aimed bring about awareness of basic rights and others aimed to tell stories of marginalised communities, among many, many other films and projects.

Directing Fawad Khan for his role in  Ms Marvel
Directing Fawad Khan for his role in Ms Marvel

If there was one word I’d used to describe Sharmeen, it would be relentless. It’s been 16 years since our first interview and yet, her drive and determination to do it all (and she has) doesn’t seem to have diminished even the slightest bit. She’s dressed in her signature all-black outfit — a colour popular with creatives as it negates the need to spend brain cells in trying to figure out what to wear every morning — and I’m greeted with a warm, familiar smile.

How are you not tired already? I ask her jokingly.

“I think that telling stories in a sphere where few women have had the opportunity to, drives me,” says Sharmeen adding that when she started out, she didn’t have role models from this part of the world that she could look up to. And now there she is for others, and there are many coming through now.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy with her first Oscar in 2012
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy with her first Oscar in 2012

On switching over from doc films to big-screen fiction films

There are also news reports online that you’ve signed on a film with Will Smith. Is there any truth to that? “I’m developing a project with Akiva Goldsman which is a Paramount Studios project which is called Brilliance,” responded Sharmeen after a very long pause. “Akiva wrote A Beautiful Mind. And it’s an incredible story and I’m excited to bring it to life.”

Since her background is primarily in documentary films, what makes her think she’s ready to tackle filmmaking on such a massive level? “I worked on Ms Marvel,” reminds Sharmeen. “It was a very special experience to work on Ms Marvel because it was an opportunity for me to tell our story and to tell the story of the Partition in fiction. I’ve worked as a documentary filmmaker, I’ve worked in animation, this was the first time I worked in live-action.”

How did it feel? Switching over. “In the second week of filming, there were four trains and 1,500 extras. The set was abuzz, there was an action scene, there was a scene between Fawad and Mehwish, there was chaos. And I stood in the middle of the platform and I really felt transported to 1947.

“It was so special to be able to tell a story I’ve grown up listening to. And also, a story that I have preserved through the Citizen’s Archive of Pakistan for 15 years. And out of that came the opportunity to direct more live-action. That’s how my foray into live-action has begun.”

But she didn’t want to do it alone. “One of the things that I feel is important to do as a filmmaker is, because I’ve managed to cross over, how many people can I take with me? So, for Ms Marvel, I took actors, actresses, translators, people in Pakistan whom we contacted for set decoration. We had Nimra Buccha, Mehwish Hayat, Samina apa, Warda Aziz, Asfandyar Khan, Fawad Khan. When we were filming it was like a real community of us who were out there. And that made the experience so special for us. Because there were so many Pakistanis who went with me to be part of Ms Marvel.”

The South Asian Oscar Party

A South Asian Excellence pre-Oscars party was hosted by Priyanka Chopra and Mindy Kaling, along with Paramount Pictures. One picture from the party that did the rounds on social media featured quite a few Pakistanis in attendance. There was Sharmeen and Malala Yousufzai, along with Saim Sadiq, stylist Tanveer ‘Tan’ France, Alina Khan, Ali Sethi and Iram Parveen Bilal among others.

“When I first went in 2012, there was only myself, Mira Nair and Freida Pinto [from South Asia] at these pre-events for the Oscars,” relates Sharmeen. “Exactly 10 years later we come to an event where there were over 100 people [from South Asia]. It was really special because you were not just with South Asians, you were with Pakistanis.

“I remember there was a moment where Ali Sethi, Saim [Sadiq] and myself were standing around. The three of us looked at each other and we said, ‘Can you imagine that we’re all here in Los Angeles?’ We’re all doing something meaningful, doing the things that we love and being celebrated for it.”

“And we thought back to 9/11 and what our lives were at that time. I’m older than both Ali and Saim and in 20 years, we have really gone places. We have struggled to tell our stories but we are finally telling our stories. And I think that is a moment for us to stand and say that our time has come.”

On telling stories that create an impact

When I first met Sharmeen almost 16 years ago, she spoke about wanting to start a production house for documentary filmmaking. At the time it seemed quite ambitious. At the time, we didn’t have a strong tradition of documentary filmmaking in Pakistan let alone have the platforms to show our films (something we still struggle with).

But she started SOC Films and now it’s a living, breathing monster of a thing now. “Exactly,” says Sharmeen. “The thing about SOC Films is that people know it exists in the country. Do you know how many calls we get from the Government of Pakistan asking us about the films we’ve made that they want to show in conferences?”

The films the production house has been churning out, one after another, have been having a real impact on ground, stresses Sharmeen, a hint of pride in her voice. She refers to one of the films made in a five-film series titled Forsaken (Children of Minority) which highlighted the trials, tribulations and discrimination faced by the family of professional sweepers in the Punjab which are almost exclusively from the christian minority.

“The National Commission for Human Rights picked up that film and used that film to lobby the Punjab government to remove ‘Christian’ from the ads for sweepers,” she says. “Our film was instrumental in doing that last year. That is incredible!”

This isn’t just the only film that has made an impact. “We made a film on girls in Hazara who are playing football,” says Sharmeen. “The Argentinian ambassador saw that film and he said, ‘I want to bring an Argentine coach to train these girls.’ And that’s being put in the works.

“We made a film on Shia children whose parents were martyred in bomb blasts in the North West of Pakistan. [It was filmed at] an orphanage school. When our film came out, a family in Dubai saw that and decided to send funding to them.”

“That’s what our films do,” stresses Sharmeen, fire in her eyes. “Once a film is made, it becomes a connector for people to watch and support.”

Moving forward, no matter what

Do you get nervous at all? You dive head first into things but do you ever have moments of crushing doubt? I ask her.

“They’re not moments of doubt, they’re moments of… when I think about what I’m about to do and the magnitude of what I’m about to do… failing is not an option,” she says strongly. “It’s just not an option.”

“Look, I’m here,” she says, looking me straight in the eyes. “It may make some people very uncomfortable but this is my country. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 9th, 2023

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