Like most people, I love watching films, but can make little or no claim of critically understanding the medium — leave alone finding the courage to write about films, whether feature films or documentaries. It is somewhat unfortunate, because my father was a documentary filmmaker, besides having worked in the production of some feature films in his early career.

He primarily made documentary films and directed a few docudramas, but his passion for cinema at large never ceased. When I was young, there used to be many travelling film festivals that would visit Pakistan, from Poland to Turkey to Korea. He would take me along to these festivals and introduce me to different forms and styles of filmmaking. Unlike most of us film-watchers, who remember a film by its cast, he remembered films by the names of their directors.

Himself trained in the film philosophy of John Grierson, the Scottish pioneer of documentaries, my father drifted in other directions as well. From him I inherited scores of books on movie-making, storyboards, screenplays, cinematography, editing and treatment.

These were beside the books on the lives and works of different directors, such as Jean Luc Godard, Sergei Eisenstein and Federico Fellini, and on different periods in the history of American, European and Asian cinema.

I begin by remembering my father because his 17th death anniversary fell on September 29 this year. The bereavement stays there forever but gets deeper in September. I remembered him even more when, last week, I picked up a thoroughly engaging and informative book on world cinema, surprisingly in Urdu.

On subjects other than politics, basic social issues, poetry and fiction, our readership rarely gets to read anything substantive or worthwhile in Urdu, or in other languages that we speak as our native tongues. Dr Naazir Mehmood must be commended for compiling his 32 pieces on a variety of subjects under the broad theme of cinema.

Titled Cinema Kahani [The Story of Cinema], the collection is published by Mashal Books. There is no particular order in terms of chronology but that bothers you little, because each of the pieces are standalone and present the writer’s opinion after an essential description of the topic, followed by an analysis and some due comparisons.

Over the past few years, Mehmood has established himself as one of our prominent organic intellectuals, with knowledge and insight into a range of subjects — philosophy, history, politics, literature, performing arts, film and television. He is also an ace translator from English into Urdu and a regular columnist and editorial writer.

Professionally, he has been an educator and an adviser to education projects. Mehmood attended the People’s Friendship University in Moscow and the University of Karachi before receiving his doctorate in education management from Birmingham University in the UK. Often, he reminds me of Mark Twain’s famous saying: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

In Pakistan, we are not just being hit by an economic meltdown and societal breakdown, but the spectre of intellectual bankruptcy is also knocking at our doors. Therefore, people having a broad vision with a breadth of knowledge must be recognised and read, without compromising the application of a critical lens to evaluate what they produce.

Mehmood begins his Cinema Kahani with discussing the creative prowess of Tennessee Williams and the films made on his plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Night of the Iguana. Mehmood particularly discusses the last one and establishes the importance of film as a window to the human condition in the US and Mexico of those times. He also comments on the film technique, acting and the differences between the play and film.

Mehmood moves on to James Jones and the film made on his book From Here to Eternity. He finds a dark comparison between the film and what is happening in Pakistan today, in terms of social injustices and increasing despair. He also mentions the poem by Rudyard Kipling from which the title of his book was taken by Jones.

From Frank Sinatra to Ava Gardner to Kirk Douglas to Jeanne Moreau to Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan Khan, Mehmood has also assessed the performances of his favourite actors and commented on various films in which they appeared.

An interesting essay is on Gopal Das Neeraj, the outstanding Hindi and Urdu poet who turned his attention towards songwriting in Bollywood. From Indian actor and director Girish Karnad to Polish director Andrzej Wajda to Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, Mehmood has tried to bring to us different flavours offered by different countries. He also describes the role and importance of Zeffirelli in opera.

Mehmood has separately discussed the films made around large upheavals in human history, from the world wars to resistance movements to forced migrations of communities and peoples. Mehmood writes about Bridge of Spies by Steven Spielberg and Charlie Wilson’s War by Mike Nichols and recommends to his readers that these films — although he likes Spielberg’s film more than Nichols’ — are necessary to watch if they wish to understand the cold war between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union.

From classics such as War and Peace, La Ciociara, Devdas and Mother India, to some recently made films, such as the documentary made by Sekunder Kirmani for BBC, Murder on Campus: The Story of Mashal Khan, to Raj Kumar Hirani’s PK, the reader will find an array of mentionable films from world cinema.

There are many other subjects, actors and films that Mehmood has also written about and offered an honest appreciation of. The entire contents of the book cannot be mentioned here due to paucity of space. But Cinema Kahani is lucidly written with some black and white posters and pictures inserted within each piece.

I hope Mehmood also writes about the ups and downs of Pakistani cinema in the near future.

The writer is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into society, culture, identity, and diaspora. His latest collection of verse is Hairaa’n Sar-i-Bazaar

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 8th, 2023

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