Mehreen Jabbar never set out to change mindsets. “It’s the stories that get me,” says the phenomenally successful Pakistani-American filmmaker whose debut feature film Ramchand Pakistani (2008) starring Indian actor Nandita Das went on to win several awards worldwide and who has made several hit television serials and films since then.
“If I tell the story well, it may change a few mindsets in the room but I believe you shouldn’t make films for an audience; you should make films you believe in,” says the award-winning director. “The audience will come to the films.”
Mehreen is back in the news of late for her delightfully addictive new web series Ek Jhoothi Love Story, which is one of the few Pakistani serials available for viewing in India, and Wehem, a psychological thriller shot in New York that has received rave reviews from Hindi / Urdu audiences worldwide.
“I am driven by the story. Who would have thought that people would love watching a woman play chess,” she says, referring to the new American miniseries The Queen’s Gambit. “People watch all kinds of things,” the 50-year-old avers.
Born and raised in Karachi, Mehreen’s parents ran one of Pakistan’s leading advertising agencies of the time. Her father Javed Jabbar had a long career as a writer and intellectual, and was also the filmmaker behind Pakistan’s first English-language film in the early 1970s.
Mehreen’s mother, an entrepreneur, actively ran the family’s ad agency until her retirement. “I had enough strong female role models in my family,” says Mehreen. “My maternal grandmother was the first Muslim woman to go to Cambridge University in the 1930s; she came back to Pakistan to set up colleges here and was an educationist. So I was always brought up in a very liberal-minded environment.”
After completing her schooling in Karachi, Mehreen moved to New York to study film and television production and then returned to Pakistan to work with her parents. “It wasn’t easy to get into media back then,” narrates Mehreen, who was brought on a diet of Pakistani dramas, besides mainstream American and Indian films including those by Mira Nair and Satyajit Ray.
The country had only one state-owned television channel back then and Mehreen’s first attempt at making a telefilm Nivala based on an Ismat Chughtai story ran into a roadblock as she wasn’t allowed to use an Indian director. Her second attempt with a Pakistani director finally got aired four years later on a private channel.
For the first 10 years of her career, Mehreen focused on television shows, making one every year, as Pakistan’s film industry was “practically nonexistent” at the time. She moved back to New York but continued to shoot in Pakistan.
With family on both sides of the border, she always had an affinity for India and was keen to work on Indo-Pak collaborations like her father. When he suggested she make a feature film based on a real-life story of a Hindu Pakistani who was imprisoned in India for crossing the border illegally while searching for his little son, Mehreen jumped at the opportunity.
“Thank God I listened to my father,” she smiles in retrospect. The film, Ramchand Pakistani, was made despite diplomatic standoffs between the two nations but Mehreen only has words of praise for government officials on both sides.
“My father had been running an NGO in the Thar desert [in Pakistan’s Sindh province] for several years when he came across the story of Ramchand, whose father had been a substitute teacher in one of the schools of the area. We were crowdfunded by 20 people who had the vision of working towards an Indian-Pakistani collaborative project,” explains Mehreen, adding that Nandita Das was allowed to travel to Pakistan to shoot the film and the music score and editing was done in India.
The film was critically acclaimed and screened at film festivals worldwide, and in fact several times at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “Cultural exchange between the two nations was more fluid back then,” she adds, “I can’t imagine an Indian actor coming to Pakistan now to shoot a film here.”
Mehreen focused more on television serials for the next several years, and came up with hugely successful shows like Daam and Jackson Heights. She ventured twice more into feature films with the award-winning Lala Begum and Dobara Phir Se, both releasing in 2016.
With the advent OTT streaming television – and especially of Zee5 in India and its Zindagi initiative that invests in Pakistani cinema and screens Pakistani dramas in India – Mehreen is optimistic about the future of television in her country.
In conversation, Mehreen is remarkably down-to-earth. While she does speak with the poise and conviction only women of purpose have, she is so amiable that it is easy to forget she is one of Pakistan’s icons in contemporary cinema and a role model for a generation of girls and filmmakers.
Towards the end of the cinema panel at eShe’s Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women last month, a young fan’s voice piped up from the virtual webinar audience, addressing Mehreen on the panel. “How can a normal girl like me get a chance to work with you? I am even willing to be the chaiwala (tea-server) on your set.” Mehreen’s co-panelist, documentary filmmaker Tazeen Bari, added with a grin, “Mehreen, I would also like to offer to make chai on your set.”
Mehreen smiled from New York, where it was around 8 am in the morning. “Sure, come on down,” she said with her characteristic good-naturedness. “Make some chai.” No doubt, she wears her crown lightly.
First published as the cover story of eShe’s February 2021 issue
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