Zinda Bhaag will translate seamlessly in India
51 years is a long wait. Pakistan's film buffs are rejoicing that Zinda Bhaag has been submitted in the Foreign Language Film Award category at the 86th Academy Awards. In an email interview, writer-director duo, Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi, tell Fiona Fernandez about its simple, Lahore-centric plot, Naseeruddin Shah's humility, and how the film is creating a buzz, even in India
How did the idea to make Zinda Bhaag come about?
Farjad Nabi: Our producer Mazhar Zaidi did a journalistic piece on a boat, which had capsized off the Greek coast, years ago. He went to a village in Gujarat where the dead bodies of the drowned men were returning. When he described the scenes to us, it impacted us such that we couldn’t forget it. If you read the news of late, you will read a news item about a boat capsizing somewhere off the Italian or Greek coast, yet again. It is a relentless cycle, which does not stop. We were interested in the question as to why do men take such high risks for something that may never come about? The answers turned out to be many layered.
Meenu Gaur: We had close friends and family who had made similar journeys. They had told us stories, anecdotes, events that stayed in our head. We began to write this script and somewhere in the writing process, our motivations grew; we also wanted to tell a quintessentially ‘Lahori’ story. While Zinda Bhaag does have illegal immigration as a theme, it is essentially an everyday sort of story from Lahore.
What were some of the initial challenges before you could set the ball rolling?
Farjad Nabi: In Pakistan, the film industry is in a rebuilding stage after a long period of hibernation. Therefore we had to not only plan for the film but also build some sort of an infrastructure as well. For example, our art department was entirely made up of students, some of whom hadn’t even graduated.
Meenu Gaur: So when Zinda Bhaag won Best Film at the Mosaic-Misaff Festival in Canada, we were very proud that the jury had mentioned Art Design as one of our strongest factors. That spirit and dedication of our crew, mostly on their first feature including us, has been the touchstone for Zinda Bhaag.
Tell us about the film’s cast, who were mainly non-actors? How did Naseeruddin Shah come on board?
Farjad Nabi: We had written an intimate script where one would feel as if they are inside peoples’ homes listening to their conversations. We were also shooting on location, from where the stories had emerged. So, in extension, we wanted ‘real’ actors to do the roles. The audition process was huge, from which we short-listed our three boys. The actors are playing themselves, which lends the film its spontaneity. Even minor characters emerged from our auditions.
Meenu Gaur: The character of Puhlwan is a larger-than-life character. We wanted somebody who would immediately grab the attention of the audiences. We were big fans of Naseeruddin Shah and therefore thought of him. We didn’t know him and neither did anybody we knew, know him. So, we sent him our script and he really liked it.
I can’t get over the fact that Naseer saab read a script that arrived at his door, without any references or recommendations. He judged the script purely on its potential. Also, for an actor of his stature who has ‘done this, seen that’, to agree to learn a new language for a role in a film by first-time filmmakers is indicatve of his passion and commitment to his art. On our request, he came to Lahore to conduct a ten-day acting workshop for our main leads, as all of them were non-actors. It was a solid workshop for all — including our writers and directors.
Could you give us a brief background of the film’s soundtrack and how important it is to the film?
Meenu Gaur: Farjad and I are big fans of our 1960s-70s films, and the music of our film both in terms of content and form is inspired from there. So, our entire music is recorded with live acoustics. It’s how music was recorded before the present era of software-generated instrumentals.
Farjad Nabi: As filmmakers, we wanted the story to determine the use of music. Zinda Bhaag explores ‘Lahori’ popular culture so we knew that it had to have great music. Also, Lahore has produced great musicians in last many decades, so wanted its music to be one of its strongest elements. The talented Sahir Ali Bagga is the music director. The film has seven songs sung by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Arif Lohar, Abrar-ul-Haq, Amanat Ali, Jabar Abbas, Iqra, Saleema and Sahir Ali Bagga himself. The music is available in India; recently, I had called someone in India and from the other end, I heard the Arif Lohar song from our film playing!
When you began making Zinda Bhaag, did you imagine it would go this far? What are you and the team doing to ensure it gets its due, globally?
Meenu Gaur: It’s great to have made the long list of the Oscars. The news has generated an interest in cinema in Pakistan.
Farjad Nabi: We released commercially in Pakistan and the US, and will be followed soon by Canada. A big release across the UAE and the rest of Middle East is up next. The film will translate spontaneously and seamlessly in India. We’ve heard about the lobbying that one has to do for nominations, and that we need to get a publicist in the US. Ours is a small, independent film and so, taking that route isn’t possibile but even without any publicist, our film has generated great buzz in the US media.
Will the movie be released in India and at film festivals?
Farjad Nabi: The film will be screened at the Kolkata and Kerala Film Festivals. In between, it will be at the Goa Film Bazaar as part of the Film Bazaar Recommends in the Viewing Room. Most Bollywood films are released simultaneously in Pakistan, so now, our films should also be released in India.
Farjad Nabi: The film is without the terrible stereotypes that the media propagates. It would be a
window to life in Lahore so it would be a fun experience for audiences here.
The Pakistani Academy Selection Committee selected Zinda Bhaag as the first Pakistani film in over fifty years to be submitted for Oscar consideration in the Foreign Language Film Award category at the 86th Academy Awards. Four films were submitted for consideration: Chambeli, Josh and Lamha (English title: Seedlings), apart from Zinda Bhaag. The film is directed and written by Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi, and is produced by Mazhar Zaidi. The cast includes Naseeruddin Shah, Amna Ilyas and Khurram Patras in leading roles. It recently won four major awards at the Mosaic — The South Asian Heritage Festival of Mississauga including Best Picture.