Dubai, Where Indian and Pakistani Artists Work Together As One
Mahwash Ajaz writes about the experience of working with Indian and Pakistani artists on a film she wrote.
I remember the first time I had written a story. Well. We've all written those 'My Best Friend' wali stories but this is, perhaps, the first time my name showed up in print for a piece of fiction that I had created all on my own.
It was one of Khaleej Time’s magazines back in the late 1990s. Young Times used to be quite the craze in Karachi. I used to get the issues regularly and decided to send in a story that I had written after a lot of hard work (read watching films). It was a very filmy story, really. It was the age of dialup. You kids remember dialup, right? Never mind.
The story was picked up by the editor then, a Mr. B. Subramaniam, who serialized my story and it went on to appear in the magazine for the entirety of the summer. It was one of the best summers I’ve ever had because my father would brag about my published work to his friends and family (She writes in a Dubai based magazine!) and I was hardly sixteen years old. My parents were all but ready to distribute boxes of mithai with the copies of the magazine to the entire city of Karachi.
But obviously, no one takes writing seriously as a career. My father, a well-connected, talented journalist in Pakistan, always told me, “Don’t ever choose journalism over a ‘professional’ degree.” In our part of the world, professional inadvertently meant being a doctor or an engineer. You were only good enough if you got into medical university. So back to biology and chemistry books, which I only found partially interesting. What I was always more interested in – were stories. I often found myself imagining alternate realities for people I would meet or wondering what they really thought instead of what they really said. One of our favorite activities as children was watching movies and cartoons with a big bucket of food instead of going out and playing with other children. I would sometimes watch the same feature film multiple times and each time, I would look at it from a different character’s perspective.
Whether it was Shah Rukh Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or Mara Wilson in Matilda, Salman Khan in Judwaa or Bruce Willis in Die Hard, Umer Sharif’s shows or Anwar Maqsood’s satire, Sweet Valley Twins or Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations – my love for the talkies and the written word was much higher than the pursuit of more practical solutions, such as remembering what’s the exact purpose of a nucleus and what happens when you add an extra H in a formula you’re studying in organic chemistry.
I gradually drifted away from medicine and hardcore science to social science. I chose psychology and decided to appear in a Pakistani civil service exam while pursuing a master’s in clinical psychology. I failed my CSS (they flunked me in an Islamic Studies paper, I still have no clue why) but did well in psychology. Got a job. Paid the bills. Got married. Moved to Yemen.
Yemen was the first place I actually began having interactions with Indian people. As a Pakistani whose family had migrated from India, I did have family in India (Allahbad, Agra, Qazipur) but I had only met them on special occasions and had never set foot in India either. We had a Jain couple from Mumbai who lived in our building in Sana’a and when I moved to Bahrain and Hong Kong after that, I often wondered if India and Pakistan could continue functioning like normal states instead of warring countries. I remember reading somewhere that Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had wanted a fluid sort of a border between India and Pakistan and Pakistan was mostly a majority Muslim state for the Muslims in the subcontinent. Perhaps he had no idea that 70 years down the line we’d be ready to kill each other with nuclear arsenal (should have spent more time figuring out that’s what a nucleus does).
I was a columnist and blogger in Yemen, Bahrain and Hong Kong, constantly on the go because of my spouse’s job. Juggling life and a small son in tow, I wasn’t really doing a full time corporate-style job the way I was in Karachi. We finally moved to Dubai in 2014 and I got the time to write, make more lasting friendships and get the time to think and maybe write the great novel I’d always been meaning to write.
But then I had baby number two so that plan got postponed. For a while.
Living in Dubai for the past five years has opened a lot of doors for me which probably wouldn’t have been possible had I been in Pakistan. I got to meet Shah Rukh Khan, who has, by the way, kissed me on my forehead (if someone from the event has a video of that footage, I will pay you to give it to me), I attended the Masala Awards as a correspondent for a Pakistani daily and I worked on various projects. Many of these projects never saw the light of day and many of them are now in the pipeline. Masala, a platform which brings many Pakistani and Indian stars together on one stage in Dubai, was a perfect fit for me.
Early last year I began meeting a few people who were interested in starting a Dubai based film. We began combing through various concepts, a lot of timelines and teams changed until finally now, the team announced the film. The film is directed by Manish Pawar, from Elite Films, who have been associated with Zee projects like Khwaabon Ke Darmiyaan and that famous series of ads featuring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Ayesha Khan. The film stars, in the lead female protagonist’s role, Aleeze Nasser, who was in Yalghaar, and Sami Khan, the noted television and film actor. It also stars Marina Khan, Javed Sheikh, Faizan Khawaja and Ali Sikander. I’ve worked on this film with Althea Kaushal, a writer from Bollywood, who is not just hilarious but will tell you stories that have had me in fits of laughter. Althea has famously penned down Shah Rukh Khan’s Happy New Year, Sonakshi Sinha’s Noor and Excel Entertainment’s Three Storeys.
It’s strange how none of the ideological divides, which exist in politics, on social media and on television, exist when people are working on a project together. Your spot boy could be from Khatmandu and your supporting actor could be from Lahore and your director could be from Delhi. Despite the rising tension between two countries, we’ve had many coffees and dinners and lunches together, Indians and Pakistanis. None of the craziness matters and our focus is the project. Whether it was the B. Subramaniam back in the day working at Young Times or Althea or Manish with whom I closely worked with on the story, creativity finds a connect. Stories transcend borders and politics and petty agendas.
The film is slated to release somewhere around next year and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tell all the stories in my head that I want to. I do know that I love telling stories. I love writing them, I love playing with characters. Earlier last year I wrote a novel, available on Kindle, called Firdos: a post-apocalyptic world where two countries (loosely based on the subcontinent) have annihilated each other. I don’t know how many people have read it or will ever read it. But I do know I’ll never stop writing.
When we were growing up, my brother Ali and I used to watch a film called Paulie which starred a talking parrot. The guy who listens to the parrot is a Russian (played by Tony Shalhoub). At one point, the parrot says, “Aah, it’s a long story.” Shalhoub replies, “I’m Russian. I love long stories.”
So do I, guys. So do I.