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Film festivals are the only space we have: Mehram director Zain Anwar on fostering creativity

In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, the filmmaker spoke about the inspiration that led to the making of the film.

Zain Anwar with his team at WIFF 2017

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Director Zain Anwar’s short film, Mehram, explores the constraints placed on women wherein under sharia law, women without a ‘mehram’ (a male blood relative) are forbidden to perform Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The thought provoking film raises pertinent questions about religion and gender as it portrays the relentless struggle of a woman as she tries to pray to her Maker.

The film stars Farida Jalal, Rajit Kapur and Sushma Seth.

In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, the filmmaker talks about the inspiration that led to the making of the film and contemplates the role of festivals in creating spaces in the city for young filmmakers.

Tell me about what motivated you to make a film on an issue that many people may not know about...

I come from Jamia Mass Communication Research Centre, so this film was my graduation diploma film and I have been very vocal about gender and the disparity therein. We found an article in the newspaper about Amina Kutty from Kerala who had filed a petition in the court because she was not allowed to go for Hajj as she did not have a male companion. Despite being a Muslim, I did not know about this law. I researched it from a religious and social point of view and realized that it had no social significance. And as you rightly said in your article, it was a bad interpretation by men which systematically pushed women away.

So, we pitched the script to an external producer who was from Kerala, who did not approve of the script and the film was shelved. So, I had the script for a few years in my hand and one day my colleague Shweta asked me about the script and we started working on it. It was initially supposed to be a very small budget film with theatre actors.

How did you manage to get such a stellar cast for your film?

Well, it was one of those dreams that stupid filmmakers have…

Rather one of those dreams that ambitious filmmakers have!

(Laughs) Actually, yes that’s a better way to put it! So, we had those dreams that what if Zarina Wahab, Waheeda Rehman or Farida ji did the film and because I was involved in a lot of theatre, one of my colleagues somehow contacted Farida ji and she asked us to come to Bombay and agreed to listen to the script.

The three of us, me along with the producers thought that atleast we’ll meet her this way and we narrated the story to her and she liked it and agreed to do it! Then we went to meet Rajit Kapur saab during the same trip, he readily agreed and then we went to Sushma ma’am in Delhi and she readily agreed to do it, so it was lots of dots connecting on their own in a way. I wouldn't like to take a lot of credit for it as somehow they liked the script and believed in the story and the way it came across.

What struck me is that while your film is about religion and gender, religion gives way as it sort of allows her to move ahead but gender does not. Do you see gender as much more an embedded issue than the constraints of religion?

I believe that gender cannot be taken as a separate problem. It exists everywhere — be it religion, politics, even food, the cinema...it’s unavoidable. Also in the film, I did not want her (Aamna’s) wish to be fulfilled through a man, I would rather have her not go. It’s important to think about how religion is being dictated because there is a systematic way of excluding women from religion as the latter is naturally associated with power and the majority doesn’t want to give up their power. This is the same issue in minority issues, religious strife, or even gender. So, women have been systematically sidelined, particularly in Islam.

If you go back in history, you realise that Muslim women were actually very progressive. In fact, the Jama Masjid had spaces for women to pray alongside men, which has been systematically eradicated primarily through the clerics. It is also a Saudi Arabian law, not an Islamic law and this distinction is important. Saudi Arabia has never had a Queen and is deeply patriarchal, so religion and gender cannot be seen as existing in separate spaces. It exists everywhere.

You’ve etched each of the characters very distinctly as almost every character in the film allows us to see where they’re coming from.

I’ve seen that several filmmakers do a lot of cultural appropriation with minority characters, be it from any community. I understand that a certain stereotyping may be necessary but I never wanted my Muslim characters to be so identifiable. So, none of my characters are stereotypically Muslim. For example, Afzal does not wear a skull cap because many Muslims don’t wear a skull cap all the time. This is what filmmakers miss as they want to show Muslims in a certain way to be identifiable.

Do you think it’s because of the treatment of minorities in a Hindu majoritarian country?

Well, one of my friends is an artist and told me that perhaps filmmakers don’t realise this or it is somehow embedded in their psyche that often in a majority set-up, the irrelevant character or one doing a menial job belongs to a minority. He was pointing this out with respect to my film because Masterji was a non-Muslim character, the only Hindu character in the film. So maybe it is an inherent psyche wherein a tailor or a puncturewala is usually shown as being a Muslim, but I don’t really think it’s done explicitly or deliberately, but is rather embedded in the psyche wherein somehow we think that a rickshawala belongs to a minority community, which I think even my film suffered from. When I had conceptualized my film, I had thought of Masterji as being the other voice who brings in that sanity.

What would you see as being the role of festivals like Woodpecker in providing platforms for filmmakers like yourself?

I think festivals are the only space that we have. Despite the proliferation of content digitally, I don’t really expect anyone to see my film on Youtube.

Why is that?

Well, look at the content that is popular digitally. There is a research that states that the average attention span is of 8 seconds. I cannot catch the attention of audiences in 8 seconds. My film is very slow and takes 29 minutes to say what it says in the end. Especially for content like ours, which is not humour or the typical content that would be considered engaging, I think I would get one tenth of the views of a regular Youtuber.

And you would also be competing with videos of cats!

(Laughs) Exactly, so this is the only space that we have and the audience that comes to film festivals are people who are genuinely interested in cinema and not a passive audience. They are active recipients of the message and they want to have a conversation around films, which is what films are for. 

As a filmmaker, I cannot make films just for the sake of doing so. The films have to say something. They have to be politically active so these are essentially the spaces that we have. And I am glad that these festivals are happening in Delhi and Woodpecker is premiering the film which is a big thing for us.

Mehram was showcased at the Woodpecker International Film Festival in New Delhi on 11 November