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Mehreen Jabbar Unplugged
BY DESPARDES TEAM
29, 2005: Mehreen Jabbar is a Pakistani woman filmmaker, director, who moved to New
York from Karachi some time back hoping to hit it big. In her own right, she
has. After having raised the bar in Pakistan’s Show Biz, a Bollywood stint or a
Hollywood handshake is all she needs to peddle to the top where silver
success is defined not only in terms of dollars and golden dreams but in turning
ideas into realities.
In Pakistan, her unconventional style of story telling earned her much acclaim
and several awards. In the United States, she is positioning herself for a
breakthrough as a first Pakistani-American. Until that happens, she is
kaleidoscoping Pakistani and Indian diaspora stories, plots, specially working
women related, through the lenses. Pehchaan - a TV drama serial happens
to be the latest one such.
Mehreen, who turned 34 today and is single, already has an extensive portfolio.
After, directing her first play in 1994 when she was just 23, she went on to
create work which ranges from short independent art films to commercial serials
for television. Her work has appeared in many film festivals including The Hong
Kong International Film Festival, The San Francisco Asian-American Film
Festival, and The Leeds Film Festival in U. K. to name a few.
DesPardes.com team decided to chat online with her and present the
excerpts to our visitors.
Happy Birthday Birthday Girl!
DesPardes.com: How old are you. Why are u settled in New York and when do u plan to get
married or not at all?
M: I am 34. I came to New York to try out a different venue to work in and the
marriage question, I usually never answer.
DesPardes.com: So u r enjoying being a single woman in NY?
M: I don't answer that.
DesPardes.com: Are you making money or....surviving ?
M: At the moment, somewhere in the middle.
DesPardes.com: Do u cook or you order takeouts and deliveries?
M: Well, more takeouts and deliveries. I cook some vegetables. I am mostly a
vegetarian, in that i might eat chicken once in 2 or more months
DesPardes.com: Which is your favorite hangout in NY?
M: My room. which has a great view of Brooklyn. And also the Angelika Theatre Cafe
in Soho, and Union Square.
DesPardes.com: Your favorite food?
M: Salads, French fries, oranges, avocadoes
DesPardes.com: what is your favorite movie that you have watched more than 3 times?
Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders.
Do u read books and what kind of books?
M: Nowadays, mostly fiction. Currently I am reading a book called The Vagabond, by a French writer called
Collette, based in the early part of the century. Also enjoy Marquez, and Saramego.
Are you a practicing Muslim or not yet or not at all?
M: I don't answer that either. Sorry.
DesPardes.com: If you were asked to produce and direct a teleplay depicting desi diaspora in
USA, what would u get as the first thing in mind to be the start of your
M: Actually, that is what i am doing at present. I am making a series about
South Asians in NY and the themes are several.
DesPardes.com: Have you thought about directing a movie in Bollywood at all or not
M: I don't think of that right now. I want to make a good film, and hopefully get a
festival screenings and a release in theatres.
DesPardes.com: How would you rate Indian made teleplays? Any favorites out there?
Actually, I've only seen some soap operas and sitcoms and I haven't really liked
them at all.
DesPardes.com: What is your favorite, I mean an ideal story line you would
produce and direct if you were given the chance to do so?
M: I have always wanted to do a film on Queen Nur Jehan and maybe that will happen in a decade or so, when
I feel I'm ready.
DesPardes.com: Who are your favorite desi and pardesi directors?
M: Desi directors: Shoaib Malik, Shahzad Khalil. Pardesi: Bergman, Almodovar..
DesPardes.com: Why do u make films only on women issues?
I don't think I make films only on women's issues. My first three telefilms were
perhaps more on that line but since then, I've done over 30 telefilms and
serials, and they have dealt with a variety of themes. I do tend to portray
women as strong and conflicted characters, but that doesnt mean I deal (only)
with 'women's issues'.
DesPardes.com: Your teleplays Nivala and Putli Ghar. Were these your 2 breakthroughs or
which play was your breakthrough?
M: My first play that aired was
Ab Tum Ja Saktey ho with Khalida Riyasath, and then was Farar,
which did very well. Putli Ghar I think was one of my favorites but I would say these three
were the establishing ones. Establishing in terms of a career. I still have to
make a break through film though.
Tell us a little bit about your film 'Beauty Parlor' which was recently screened
in New York and which has also been screened in several film festivals around the
M: Well, it is a short film made in 1998. It is a
special film to me because we made it with the intent of doing something
without the constraints of PTV and self censorship and to explore themes that we
could not show on Pak TV in those days. It was made with a very small budget
and with very dedicated actors and crew who worked for low pay and invested all
I'm happy, that it continues to draw interest even now.
DesPardes.com: Were you associated with your father Javed Jabbar's movie
"Beyond the Last
M: Well, I was 3 when he made it. So apart from coming in a few scenes as an
extra, i don't think i was capable!
DesPardes.com: Do you consider yourself being one of the "enlightened and moderated" individuals?
M: I don't know. I think one is constantly being enlightened as one lives and
learns. But I am I guess a 'moderate' individual though maybe not..!
If you were to "visualize" a fairly balanced working Pakistani woman how would
you dress her up in your movie? I mean a working woman in the cities, let's say
Karachi and New York?
Those are two very different cities. I don't know what you mean exactly by
dressing her up. But I guess it would be a shalwar kameez in Karachi and a suit
in New York if she is a banker, or some formal clothes if she works in a
corporate firm, or jeans and a shirt if she is an artist.
Wearing your "directing hat" how would you depict a typical Pakistani
Muslim but educated working single woman in Karachi and another in New York?
M: How would I
dress a woman character on Pak TV is simple. Obviously I won't put her in a mini
skirt, because that is not how most women dress there. So it would either be a
shalwar kameez or trousers, depending on where she works.
DesPardes.com: The West sometimes depicts or is depicting a typical Muslim woman with hijab even though
she may be wearing a business suit. Would you as a director of films, depict
it similarly if u had to depict a Muslim woman?
I would use a hijab if the character that I am filming believes in a hijab, otherwise
We understand you developed the story and plot of TV serial PEHCHAAN is it true?
"PEHCHAAN" goes on air
M: I worked with the writer Azra Babar. We both developed it, but Azra is the one
who actually wrote it and took it further.
DesPardes.com: What is your birth star?
DesPardes.com: When is your birthday?
29 Dec, 1971
Have Your Say >
More on Mehreen from the web:
completing the program at UCLA, Mehreen Jabbar returned to Pakistan to practice
her craft professionally. Her first play, in 1994, was called “Nivala” (Morsel)
which was based on a short story by Ismat Chugtai, one of the foremost authors
in the Urdu language. It was the first of what was to be a series of plays for
television based on stories by South Asian women writers. Unfortunately, the
decision- makers at the state-run television of that time declined from airing
“Nivala” because it was based on the work of an Indian writer and, subsequently,
the idea for the entire series was cancelled. Though this was a setback, it did
not deter Mehreen from doing what she loves. She continued to make short films,
feature length plays, and drama serials.
Most of Mehreen’s work has been for the television.
Unfortunately, the Pakistani commercial film industry has experienced a sharp
decline in popularity during the past two to three decades. Due to the low
quality of films being produced and the shady atmosphere at cinema houses, going
to a theater is not a viable form of entertainment for the mainstream public.
Thus, television remains by far the most popular source of family entertainment.
So that has been the industry to which vast majority of writers, producers,
directors, as well as, actors turn who wish to hone their craft and create work
with depth and meaning for the audience.
Much of Mehreen’s work has focused on the everyday lives of
average Pakistani women and the conflicts they experience from day to day. “I
have focused mainly on women, maybe just because I find that I can relate to
[their] stories on a much more personal level,” says Mehreen when describing her
work. While other directors have created fine plays which are obvious in their
attempts to raise awareness of women's rights, Mehreen enjoys the challenge of
applying subtlety to get her message across. Her viewers often find themselves
immersed in the minds of her characters in order to fully understand the
characters’ motives. Her tele-film, “Putli Ghar”’ (Puppet House), is an example
of such work. It is a story of two young couples living in the same building.
The film focuses on the friendship that develops between the two wives; one, a
naïve newlywed, and the other, who has been married for a while, more set in her
ways, and enjoys making puppets. As the friendship between the two women grows,
the bizarre relationship between the puppet maker and her husband is slowly
revealed to the naïve friend resulting in adverse effects on her own
relationship with her husband. Another tele-film “Farar” (Escape) is about three
friends, a widow, a working woman, and a third woman who is a student of
classical dance. The play shows the struggle of each woman to sort out her life
and find a unique identity for herself.
Television and art film actor, Faisal Rehman, who has appeared
in many of Mehreen's plays describes her directing style in the following words:
"She gives you the floor to play as an actor and becomes a silent spectator and
she will only check you when you cross the boundaries of her perceived story in
the wrong direction." Faisal feels that, unlike many other directors, Mehreen
does not dictate every move of her actors. She allows them to experiment and
improvise as they act out a scene. This he believes is a "great way of making an
actor feel at home and get the best out of him." As a director Mehreen is not
threatened by an actor's ability to contribute to the story. If through
improvisation an actor is able to add enhancements to the play keeping it within
the boundaries of her preconcieved storyline then, says Faisal, "[Mehreen] will
accept your idea with open mind and heart without being egotistic about it. That
is a sign of a good director anywhere in the world."
To Mehreen experimenting with a story is one of the most
interesting parts of creating a play. It is something which she believes is
missing in many recent plays airing on television. She believes that producers
are playing it safe and are prone to take on projects which are based on a
proven storyline for success. The result is that the same basic plot is repeated
over and over again in different plays or films. “For example,” says Mehreen,
“[Producers and directors] think ‘Monsoon Wedding’ was a hit so lets make
‘Pakistani Wedding’, let’s make ‘American Wedding’, etc. We really don’t see
that many quality television plays anymore like we did back in the Eighties.”
According to Mehreen, she enjoys making films and plays because
she loves telling stories and it is what she has always wanted to do. She says
of herself that while growing up she was always a "shy and reticent individual".
Therefore, taking a written story and giving it life by turning it into a play
or film has been her outlet, a way of expressing herself. If shyness is what
made Mehreen into a filmmaker than her viewers consider it their good fortune
because her contributions have certainly added a new dimension of creativity to
Pakistani television plays.
Though commercial Pakistani films remain largely unpopular in
the mainstream, several independent filmmakers have emerged in recent years,
such as, Shireen Pasha, Farjad Nabi, Hasan Zaidi, and Mehreen Jabbar herself,
who seem to be breathing a new life into the Pakistani art film scene.