The Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy talks to Instep about taking the unconventional road, journeying into Hollywood, and bringing her own chair to the proverbial table
Kamala Khan and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy have something in common: they both have special powers.
When Kamala puts on an ancient bangle, it unleashes her inner potential and gives her the abilities needed to save the world.
When Sharmeen gets behind a camera, she creates powerful narratives that command the world’s attention.
It is only fitting then that the latter has been chosen to tell the former’s story.
The Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker ventured into the Marvel Cinematic Universe by directing two of six episodes for (the first season of) Ms. Marvel, the new Disney+ series that introduces the Pakistani-American superhero to the Avengers universe.
“I’ve been a storyteller for the better part of two decades, working in documentary films and animation, and I was looking for the right story that would allow me to make the transition into live-action,” Sharmeen tells Instep. “When Ms. Marvel came about, I thought that I would throw my hat in the ring to become a director for it because it was an extension of my work. I’ve been telling stories of ordinary women who have extraordinary abilities and that’s exactly what Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is. She’s an ordinary girl from New Jersey with extraordinary abilities.”
Not unlike Kamala, Sharmeen is a seemingly ordinary woman from Karachi with some very extraordinary abilities. She has done what no other Pakistani has done before: won (among numerous other accolades) not one but two Academy Awards, both in the Best Documentary Short Subject category, for her projects Saving Face (2012) – the story of acid attack victims and their struggle for justice – and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2015) – a look at honour killings in Pakistan.
These films may have courted controversy at home but have earned critical acclaim internationally and helped her become a part of one of the world’s biggest entertainment franchises.
“I was asked to come and pitch to Marvel Studio, which I did in L.A. with Kevin Feige and Victoria [Alonso], Brad [Winderbaum], Lou [D’Esposito], and Bisha Ali, who is the head writer,” she recalls. “I spoke about my vision of what I wanted Ms. Marvel to be and how I thought that the story should pan out and the next thing I knew I was on set calling action.”
Having worked extensively in documentaries, Sharmeen already had an arsenal of skills – from being prepared for the unexpected to thinking on her toes about where the story will go and how to mould it – that came in handy while making Ms. Marvel. “The transition from documentary filmmaking to Marvel Studios … there was a moment where I wondered, how would I cross that bridge?” she admits. “But I think preproduction and spending a lot of time with the different teams, including visual effects and stunts and my second unit director Gary Powell, allowed me to work with the different teams [and] for them to realize the kind of vision I had.
“I think my second week into production I was standing on set, and I looked around and there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of extras,” she continues. “There were stunts and there was a fight sequence and there were visual effects. Standing on set, I sort of looked around for that minute, and I was like, ‘this is what it feels like to direct for Marvel’! As a filmmaker, I couldn’t have asked for a better collaboration for my crossover from documentary films into narrative.”
Pakistani-Canadian actress Iman Vellani heads the cast of the series which also includes several Pakistani actors, like Nimra Bucha who plays a vital part as an antagonist, and Samina Ahmad, Fawad Khan, and Mehwish Hayat who appear in smaller but significant roles. Sharmeen found it a pleasure to work with all of them. “Pakistani actors are incredibly diverse and very, very talented,” she says. “It was an honour and a privilege to work with them and to fashion the story of Ms. Marvel with their collaboration. And I feel truly proud that so many of us will be represented in Hollywood through Ms. Marvel.”
The director describes the series as “a celebration for South Asia and a moment for Pakistan”. “It is a celebration of what we eat, of our festivals, of the fabrics that we wear, of the music that we listen to, of the way we lead our lives, and I think that when audiences watch Ms. Marvel, they will truly realize how special her coming of age story is for all of us.”
Kamala Khan will be [woven] into the fabric of Pakistan and South Asia’s pop culture narrative, she says, and there is no doubt that so will Sharmeen.
Climbing the rungs of Hollywood is no mean task, and Sharmeen has done so with remarkable talent.
It has been ten years since her first Oscar, and her achievements still stand unparalleled. “In the history of Pakistani cinema, there will be sort of tent-poles and celebrations that will take place. My first Oscar is one of them, and now, ten years later, there is Pakistan’s first film that has gone to Cannes, Joyland. Together, when you tell the story of Pakistani cinema and Pakistani filmmakers to the next generation … it’s something to be proud of, and I think it has inspired so much because when I speak to filmmakers who are making films now, they always inevitably come back to my 2012 win as a watershed moment for them to realize the possibility.”
Does she feel that her triumphs have had a larger impact on the perception of Pakistanis abroad or on Pakistani filmmakers and the Pakistani film industry? “I think that film is a medium to tell stories and when you tell good stories you change the way people see the culture and the art of that country,” she replies. “I don’t necessarily think that films are meant to change the way people see countries. They are meant to change the way that people see the arts because they are that: they are the arts, they are not a part of the country’s foreign service.”
And what has it been like to be a female director in such a male dominated field? “I think that film is a medium that can be an equalizer for women,” she answers. “I’ve always thought that being a woman is an asset, not a disadvantage, and I’ve always tried to use that in some way to negotiate to be in male dominated areas. So, I just speak my mind. Yes of course it is a disadvantage in many cases because being a woman I don’t have a seat on the table when it comes to men making decisions. But I found that I should just bring my own chair to the table. If you look at my body of work and what I’ve accomplished in the last 20 years as a filmmaker, I’ve taken the unconventional road and I think that that has allowed me to sort of have a voice in the filmmaking community in Pakistan.”
She now hopes to take many young women to filmmaking heights with her through Patakha Pictures, a mentorship and grant program for young female filmmakers in Pakistan. Two rounds of funds will be given to aspiring moviemakers every year. In this year’s first round, grants were given to ten filmmakers to create five films. In the second round, one filmmaker is being given money to create a film. “We fund at least five short films a year, allowing the next generation of female filmmakers from Pakistan to have tools to create the craft that they want to,” Sharmeen elaborates. “I know that 20 years ago someone opened a door for me. This is my way of opening doors for young women in this country.”
Sharmeen is the ideal person to mentor young directors, given her two decade experience in the industry. And she clearly has astute learnings she can share with her underlings, including the importance and power of stories that matter. “I think my biggest learning in the last 20 years as a filmmaker is that you should continue to tell the stories that you want to and don’t be intimidated by what the story is or what the audience will be for that story or how you will make it. I’ve always taken a first step towards telling the stories and I’ve found a way to do that.”
Up-and-comers can also learn poise from this accomplished director who has not only excelled in her field but has also gracefully handled the pressures of success while being put under the microscope. She has managed to deal with the weight of fame, she feels, by keeping a low profile. “I make films that make people deeply uncomfortable or make people celebrate things or make people stop for a second and reflect on their society and on their lives, and I think that my filmmaking side and my personal side is bifurcated,” she says. “I’m not a very public figure; you will not see me in magazines or in, sort of, social spheres. I keep a very private life. My film is my craft and my art, and I keep that separate from who I am as a person.”
In the pipeline is a 20-year retrospective of her work. In the next couple of months, a project will look back at her filmmaking career including the work she has done around the world in more than 15 countries. “I know that Pakistanis are not familiar with my work that I’ve done around the world but most of my work is outside of Pakistan,” she says. “I’ve made more than 22 films. [The retrospective] will look back at what each film was and where it came from and how special it was and how that’s contributed towards an understanding of different parts of the world.”
As for her upcoming projects, Sharmeen hopes to continue doing both documentaries and narrative, non-fiction and fiction. As long as there is a story that means something to her, she will go towards it. “I’m looking at both stories within Pakistan as well as stories outside of Pakistan that are fiction and non-fiction,” she reveals. “That’s what I hope to continue to do. There’s a number of projects that I’m developing now and hoping to put out into the world that have to do with Pakistan’s culture and food and music, but also looking at some projects that I’m doing internationally.”
Her career has been quite marvellous so far and the future looks just as bright for this extraordinarily talented woman.