It was a balmy day in 1995 when this film-maker took her very first script for TV to the country’s finest actress, none other than the legendary Khalida Riasat. What she did not realise back then was this very venture would turn out to be a stand-out moment of her career. “She said yes to my script which would be her last play before she departed for the next world,” Mehreen Jabbar talks about her first venture for the small screen.
Documenting from a very young age, direction was almost intrinsic for Mehreen. “I always knew I’m going to be behind the camera,” she says, pointing out her “boring story, having no kind of struggle. At an early age I was filming friends, making shorts and music videos with VHS cameras.”
Growing up in Karachi, Mehreen recalls her younger self as an “awkward, shy and a quiet kid”. She likes to frame herself as an “extremely private person” who, now has “become quite comfortable with meeting people, but is still uncomfortable when it comes to public speaking or appearing on shows.”
Having outshone through her projects, Mehreen’s work holds a signature to them. Be it Daam, Rehai, Jackson Heights, Mata-e-Jaan, and Kahaniyaan to name a few from a starry list of TV serials to TV films, Lala Begum or Putli Ghar, or when it comes to the silver screen, her feature films, Ramchand Pakistani and Dobara Phir Se, the viewers have been hooked on to the products coming out from her factory of entertainment.
Living in a time where the local industry is coming out with films recurrently, Mehreen describes the entertainment hub’s nascent state. “We have started to walk and know how to say a few words,” she says marking out how we need to continue making more films. Does that imply the audience is open for experimentation? “The public has seen different kinds of films in the last couple of years and not all of them have done extremely well at the box office. I think even if you experiment, you have to engage the audience, you can’t make a very self-conscious film that fulfils your creative hawas,” and she states what she believes, which is “(a film) should inform, entertain or motivate the public. It’s not that a commercial film will do that, at times commercial films don’t do that; it’s the story that has to be told in a way that is engaging, and which reaches out to the audiences and that can be any kind of story.”
But to make it a lucrative venture, should a director be dictated by the audiences? “The first aim of the film-maker should be what kind of story he/she wants to convey; how much it will move a person, is when you decide what you want to spend two years of your life on. Penning scripts according to what the audience will like isn’t a good formula. I think the intent and the integrity of the story should be the number one priority,” she sheds her perspective in black and white. But when it comes to characters, Mehreen is one who is a hunter of shades. “I’m very interested in characters that surprise me – that aren’t written in black and white. I love grey characters as I love layers and subtlety because that’s what human beings are – they aren’t cardboard figures,” the lenswoman sheds light on her type of scripts, “where situations happen because of a character's actions or behaviour,” says the lady whose interest lies in dealing with proactive characters in films.
When it comes to steering the directing ship with a crew on board, Mehreen has always found it challenging. “You have to have your management skills put together; how you carry the team forward is very important and instilling a spirit of camaraderie or togetherness is of essence as a film is a sum of many parts,” says the team player who can be seen in front of the lens too in her projects.
A firm believer of cultural exchange, Mehreen is opposed to all types of bans. Talking about the Pakistan-India strife, she says, “The unfortunate call to ban Pakistani actors was very wrong and banning Indian films here led to nothing really; like it or not, our cinemas need a lot of films to survive every day and we don’t have that industry to give them those films yet.”
And Mehreen marks out the brunt of this situation which is “tragic for the actors and film-makers who have been made the face of the problem whereas business continues as usual; PIA still flies to India. Only the people who are working in this industry, who promote understanding of each other are targeted.”
Having worked for the small, and silver screen, Mehreen cuts out a slice, differentiating between the dynamics of each medium. “For TV serials you can’t have less than 25 episodes, so you may have an incredible story but you have to have enough content to stretch it for about 25 hours, and that’s where you approach a story differently. TV films are very close to actual films where you have to wrap up the story in one-and-a-half hours so you have to communicate a compelling story in a short time.”
With films being turned to TV serials, Mehreen is “absolutely opposed to the idea. You can be inspired to make a film out of a TV serial later or vice versa, but making it at one time isn’t a good idea.” Talking about films that are being made by directors either coming from TV or belonging to the advertisement sphere, Mehreen says “we will have remnants for the ad makers will have a commercial influence in the projects they work on and someone like me, from TV will have to be very careful when to let go of the TV formula,” and that for this film-maker is challenging to break out of.
Not many from Pakistan have had the luxury of experiencing the fervour of film festivals, but this lady has a tale to share. “I have been fortunate enough to attend film festivals for three films; one was Ramchand Pakistani, one was a short film, Beauty Parlor and another one being Lala Begum. It’s always an incredible experience for you are exposed to a wide range of audiences from all over the world and their feedback is so different, which makes you learn so much, and it’s a pleasure to show your film to people who aren’t from Pakistan.” But Tribeca, New York’s premiere film festival, holds special fondness for Mehreen for the Big Apple is her hometown for the past 13 years. “Ramchand Pakistani was played at this huge theatre with three-tiered balconies and I was in a daze, a magic land,” and as she speaks, hints of the moments flicker on her lit up face.
For this film-maker an ideal way to relax is by watching the works of other individuals who happen to practice her craft. But she “loves going to the cinema alone, and getting popcorn and vanishing” into the world of nickelodeon, preferring not to go with people.
She is one who is always on the lookout for inspiration. And that can come from “great food, subway rides, the people I see walking, by a book I read or discussions with friends and writers.” If you spot her next to you on a subway, maybe you are the source of inspiration for her next project. All those who wish to see themselves being taken up as characters on screen, look out for her upcoming projects – one, a TV series and another a psychological-thriller film.
Relating herself to ABBA’s tracks, Mehreen is one “who is all about looking ahead and having the perspective to be an optimist, just like the bands’ songs, the saddest songs having glimpses of positivity shine through them”. •
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