The grand dame of filmmaking | Art & Culture

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The grand dame of filmmaking | Art & Culture

Shireen Pasha – a filmmaker, producer, writer – is a woman timelessly modern with an utter lack of pretension, a quick wit, sensibility and habitual thoughtfulness.

Pasha has worn fame differently than others and has never let her popularity separate her from the public she portrays so vividly in her documentary films.

Cholistan, The Walled City of Lahore, Before It’s Too Late, Only One Way, and Nathan in the Land of Sufis were films that talked directly to the people ‘out there’ in the dark.

Pasha did her most wide-ranging, impressive work during her time at the PTV from 1975 to 1990.

Challenging the vapid and emotionally dishonest depiction of life, Pasha went directly for the truth about human relationships, making films like And She Danced On and Hema.

Besides working under her film banner, The Filmmakers, she divides her time between Toronto and Lahore where she teaches filmmaking at the National College of Arts (NCA).

Below are excerpts from an interview conducted at Nairang Café in Lahore, in which she talks about her undying association with her late father, her stint at PTV and her fixation with Lahore.

The News on Sunday (TNS): Let’s go back in time to your childhood. Apparently you had always been very close to your father. What are your early recollections of him?

Shireen Pasha (SP): I was born in New Delhi in 1946; that’s what makes me a ‘midnight’s child’. My father was an agriculturist from Multan. My mother was a Kashmiri, from the Walled City of Lahore. My father belonged to the Khand clan of Pakhtuns. In other words, my DNA is half-Pakhtun and half-Kashmiri. The story that goes with the Khands is that they used to trade in sugar. Once, they made a brief sojourn along the banks of a river in the Punjab as night fell, and decided to cross the river the next morning. That night, the river flooded out in a storm and all the sugar they were carrying drained into it. They could neither go ahead, nor move back. So, they had to settle down, right there.

My father had bought some land in Multan. He was the eldest son, and an amazing character. Of all the children, I was closest to him. I always saw him as a bureaucrat surrounded by files and two stenographers –one for the morning and one for the evening. He used to sit in his study and people would crowd outside to see him. We couldn’t somehow get physically close to him because, as was the custom in those days, you would stay at a respectable distance from your parents. When I pick random images of him and put them together, I am surprised to see an amazing man with very basic intelligence at his side.

I used to love travelling across Pakistan. I would often look up the map, and choose a destination. Once we were staying in a small resthouse in Pakpattan. A stranger walked in and inquired after our background from the management. “Find out whose daughter she is?” So, a gentleman came up to us and said there’s a landlord asking about you. A few minutes later, the landlord himself came up to me, and questioned me: “Are you Mohammad Yar Khand’s daughter? We had been waiting for you since long in the anticipation that one day we will meet you, to acknowledge Khan Sahab’s openhandedness”. He said he had some lands lying in unresolved dispute for 2-3 generations that no one would ever visit. They were far-flung, and one had to go there on a horseback. Legal suits concerning those lands would get lost in files. “Khand Sahab was the only outsider who went there, sat through the nights, and stayed with us to resolve the dispute”. This is how I discovered my father – in bits and pieces.

My father cherished the fact that, as a child, I loved books. No one would know that I would be sitting under his huge study table with a big Atlas opened before me amidst people visiting him. That was my favourite hideout.

TNS: What was the National College of Arts like when you joined it in the ’60s?

SP: When I joined the NCA in 1964, Shakir Ali was the principal. There was an amazing set of teachers, in those days, taking the four-year long course. We were a small class of three in the Fine Arts Department: Talat, Lubna Azam and myself. Things were changing globally during the ’60s, and the NCA was still emerging. Mine was the fourth batch since the institute’s nationalisation in the late ’50s. Among the artists who had graduated and were now teaching were Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Nayyar Ali Dada, Mian Salahuddin, Ahmed Khan (taking design), Khalid Iqbal, Salima Hashmi, Colin David, Askari Mian Irani and Saeed Akhtar. All the teachers had a very distinct approach to artmaking. The nicest part of it all was the diversity of teachers and the teaching methodologies. And even though they were all from different schools of thought, there were no contradictions per se. Studio facilities were few and far between in those days, and sadly, continue to be so even today.

The Department of Film was the first ever department to get equipment worth thirty million rupees from the government. When I started setting up the department in 2004, it was the first occasion for the college to get that kind of equipment otherwise there would be nothing but desks, ceiling fans, teachers and easels. In that sense, it used to be very old-fashioned.

Most of the teachers had come back after higher studies abroad – Shakir from L’Ecole des Beaux Arts and Khalid Iqbal from the Slade. Khalid Sahib would ride an ancient Volkswagen; he would often tie up his easel to the carrier or rest his painting against his motorcycle, finish off a landscape on the spot, and return. When I meet Rachid Koraichi now, he reminds me of them. It’s not that if you have become rich and famous, you are an artist. It’s not about the quantity either. It takes a lot of work to go beyond.

TNS: Did the NCA have a particular agenda or policy in terms of art instruction in those days?

SP: The first principal, Sponenburgh, called in teachers from everywhere, like a ceramist from Japan. The first batch of graduates that joined in 1958 and graduated in 1962 had experienced all those teachers who Sponenburgh had invited to teach from far and wide. They carried the residue of all those mentors who had now left. Sponenburgh was gracious enough to return on a visit, years later, upon the centenary celebrations of the college. When asked: “Did you know, at that point in time, what you were doing, and that the NCA would eventually achieve this level of excellence?” He responded: “The only factor that had sparked my imagination, at that point, was that when the institute was being founded, students from all the provinces, from all the three strata of the society came together. I felt very strongly that that would help bring out the best.”

When I set up the Department of Film, I could see what Sponenburgh had said. The students, such as those coming from Hunza, have maintained their own level of interest. I have suggested to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, that we should have an association of distinction-holding graduates in film, and call it The Hunza School of Filmmakers. Finally, all the provinces should team up because they are all product of the same department, and trained filmmakers at that. It’s a great achievement that the department has produced a lot of young filmmakers, and nobody realises that a small movement has already begun.

I could not continue as head of the Department of Film beyond my 65th birthday. However, I still continued working on the post until I was 67 because there was no one else to take over. I was summoned back to teach the final year students. The results have been magnificent. There are some very bright students. When we planned out the course outline, we included a list of both Urdu and English literature pieces apart from art history. A lot of film schools do not have these disciplines, and they often draw from the larger bulk of people who apply. We tapped film schools and academies across the globe, including FTII in Pune, India, which is said to be the main source of Bollywood actors. We included our own indigenous culture in our curriculum.


We came to understand later that wherever in the world serious filmmaking is offered as a professional pursuit, there are certain criteria to be fulfilled. For example, one of the schools categorically said that it does not entertain any candidate below the age of 30 because it’s not a child’s play. “We need people from an academic background so that they bring with them a new wave in filmmaking with their ideas. We don’t teach the grammar of filmmaking so that one can just make films. It has to be people who want to make films on a subject. They should be passionate about it, research it, and have a strong will to go about making films.”

We show different directors’ films to our students. For instance, we show three films directed by Guru Dutt: Pyaasa, Kaghaz Ke Phool and Chaudhveen Ka Chaand, and Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. We also look at Pakistani Cinema and its struggle to maintain itself, particularly Jago Hua Sawera. Before Partition, there was only one cinema known as the Indian Cinema. Lahore was the hub for spotting talent pool for Bombay, like Madras was known for music and Lucknow for lyric-writing. All these cities served the Bombay Talkies, and Lahore had a big share in it. The first cinema house in the subcontinent was also in Lahore, at the far end of Bhaati Gate.

TNS: How did you decide to make a shift from the world of 2-D painting to the 3-D world of son et lumiere, animation and sound – the world of film?

SP: I graduated from the NCA in fine arts. I had learnt to play with colour, composition, contrast, texture and light. These things are extremely important to camerawork. I had always been interested in photography – I had a Baby Brownie I used to compose pictures of the family with.

Before Partition, there was only one cinema known as the Indian Cinema. Lahore was the hub for spotting talent pool for Bombay, like Madras was known for music and Lucknow for lyric-writing. All these cities served the Bombay Talkies, and Lahore had a big share in it. The first cinema house in the subcontinent was also in Lahore, at the far end of Bhaati Gate.

After my graduation, I left for the US to major in history of art – the subject I was drawn to academically – at the State University of New York at Binghamton. I used to excel in art history, and when my teacher, Iqbal Hassan, left for the US while I was in the 3rd year, I was asked to teach the first two years at the NCA in his place (while still a student). Prior to that, I’d already had my first one-person show of paintings at the Alhamra in 1968, the year I graduated in. While in the US, one summer they offered an elective course in filmmaking. I took up the short course, and it was then that I decided what I wanted to do. There was Bolex, 16mm film and a very encouraging teacher. I think I was encouraged because I could frame and light my subjects in a different way because of my fine arts background. The chiaroscuro in painting was so close to lighting in black and white photography. I used to admire the Italian neo-realist cinema and my favourite director was Fellini. I also loved Lina Wertmuller’s films, especially Seven Beauties and Swept Away. She was Fellini’s assistant for a long time and his co-worker on the sets.

If you look at the Indian parallel cinema of the ’50s, it conforms to neo-realism. When I did the short course, everything came together for me. I knew I was above a lot of other people – my lighting was different; I could do my own sets and costumes – the mis-en-scene was born entirely out of my practice as an artist. I had a natural proclivity for filmmaking. In fact, it was one step ahead with the addition of sound and linear editing. The medium offered too many possibilities, and when the technology became digitized, it was too painful to switch over. 16mm was such a grand format. We used to have 3-5 soundtracks run simultaneously. Then came Umatic, which was a limited format in the sense that it could be ideal for recording The Lucy Show in the studio, and not for any kind of creative work. There were a lot of limitations for people who purported to look at film as art.

In 1996, I received a scholarship for a programme in Hollywood. They made us visit Hollywood directors and technicians. Each time our first and last question would be: film or video? We were a group of 16 directors chosen from all over the world. It was a sensational group – filmmakers from the other end had been keen on meeting us, and so forth. We met the team of Citizen Kane. No one got a satisfactory answer. No one knew what was around the corner. A lot of good schools still begin by training on film. First there was Low Band, followed by High Band, Beta SP, Digital Beta, etc. During my career, there were 4-5 changes in format. And with each format, the gadgets would change, as well as the methodologies. In non-linear editing on computers, you get 99 soundtracks. They took us to the production sets of Amadeus. It had 27 soundtracks playing on 27 machines. If the director felt that out of the entire lot only one was running low, he would have to roll back all 27 of them and replay them. That was the summit of perfection.

TNS: Did you join the PTV, Lahore, immediately after your return in 1975?

SP: PTV had advertised jobs before my return in 1975. It was operating on a high level, and a lot of people were interested in getting jobs there. There was a vacancy for 28 producers and 3,000-4,000 applicants. It was a tough competition. PTV had spawned a new culture, a new milieu, so to speak, and it was attracting a lot of people. When I met Aslam Azhar, I told him that I had missed the opportunity, that I had been late because I was away. He encouraged me to apply. Within a day or two, I was called in for an interview. During the interview, Agha Nasir said that since I had an arts background I could be offered the job of a designer. I remember that I stood up to leave at that point and said that I had come looking for a position in direction. I was sure that it was challenging to be a designer but I wanted to make documentaries. As soon as I had reached for the door, he asked me to hold on, saying: “We were just testing your enthusiasm to be sure you knew what you were talking about.”

I did not opt for PTV’s way of training people because there was no academy there per se, despite the fact that the Japanese had made a building for the purpose with classrooms et al. The Germans who had taught there initially had now left. In other words, PTV did not have a sound training ground. Their way of training people was to let them assist different producers for a period of time. I was asked to assist Yawar Hayat and Moneeza Hashmi. The latter was producing a children’s programme at that point.

PTV had Arriflex cameras and Steinbeck for editing which were supposed to be the best in those days alongside amazing equipment. Behind it all was ZA Bhutto who had been keen on getting things done. Of course, the level of interest varied with each government, but there had always been a lot of emphasis on the news bulletin. I had been around for a year and a half when it was time to select the directors and the assistant directors. There was pressure on me that since I made good documentaries, I should be in the News Section. True documentaries can never be a part of news because news follows the propagandist approach. I was very clear about that, and blunt and outspoken in those days.

Pakistan is a paradise for documentary makers. My film on Cholistan followed Cholistanis around the year albeit the film was made within 3-4 months because, luckily, I got all the seasons within those months. The film, however, followed them closely through their survival with nature. It was a beautiful experience watching the desert people, their camels, their lifestyles, and most of all the order with which they lived so close to nature. It was a 50-minute long film with only 9-minute long commentary. The film was made within the budget of 65,000 rupees under adverse conditions. We had no money, and we went into the desert land and lived there without a hotel in sight. I was nicknamed The Iron Lady after that.

TNS: Your predilection for Lahore can be felt through your approach to the city, reflected in The Walled City of Lahore, and in your association with Hazel Khan. What has been the level of your engagement with the city that has been very special to you?

SP: My mother’s family was from the Walled City – she was born in Mochi Gate. My nana’s haveli is still there where we’d go very often for Basant and Muharram. When I joined the NCA, being in the vicinity of the Walled City, most of our assignments led to walks inside it. With junkyards, photography studios and its many characters, the Walled City became our laboratory for adventure and discovery. Many years later, when I was heading the Film Department, the very first project in the first year was to go to the Walled City and make a film, ‘A Day in the Life of _____’. The very first batch made a fantastic film, A Day in the Lives of Two Shoeshine Boys. It won many awards.

I made The Walled City of Lahore ten years after Cholistan. There was another film that I made called The Portrait of Lahore, and a Bxw film, Subh-e-Lahore that got lost. Actually, I did a lot of work on Lahore. Another series called Naqoosh which used to have a lot of characters had A Day in the Life of a Tongawallah. In those days, Lahore had been the inspiration for whatever we wanted to do. Then came the ’80s when nothing much was done about the Walled City. The project conceived by the World Bank was never implemented. I was moving in a circle of friends who shared the same sentiments and who were dedicated to preserving the spirit of the city.

During this time, the debate between film and video was at its peak. Film should be gradually eliminated was the slogan which was utterly sad. My group of friends, that included Khwaja Najam and Shoaib Mansoor, was of the view that film should stay. How could you put away all the sophisticated paraphernalia and instead import new machinery from Hong Kong and Singapore? But that’s what was happening up in the headquarters. They were opting for the new medium which would not yield any creative results. There were some zealots like Obaidullah Baig who understood the value of film and had enjoyed working on film. It demanded a lot of passion and patience. There was Nisar Mirza who had made a wonderful docu on Kailash. We formed a group and lodged a protest in favour of film. We tabled our arguments at the headquarters against the videomakers.

There was a lot of emphasis on the content in the ’80s. Travelogue Pakistan that I had made was rejected because I didn’t show Islamabad as our capital. I argued by saying that in the one-minute shot, we say that the capital of Pakistan is at the hem of Taxila and Shakarparian. They taught me a lesson by taking away all my documentaries, and by showing Travelogue in bits and pieces. They argued that Pakistan’s progress had not been highlighted, and that it should be called ‘Rugged Pakistan’ instead. They gave me Raag Rang as a punishment. That gave me a chance to work with the classical maestros of all the gharanas. Then I did a Portrait Series. The three choices I floated were: Imran Khan, Malika Pukhraj and Noorjahan. I did all three, and soon after, left PTV.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

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