Instep Today

The marvelous Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

By Maheen Sabeeh
Sun, 04, 23

Commemorating 20 years as a journalist and filmmaker, the two-time Oscar winner sits down with Instep to talk about directing a Star Wars film, her reasons for creating projects pertaining to the partition of the subcontinent, and the deliberate decision to live in Pakistan even though she can move abroad

Fawad Khan and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, behind-the-scenes on the Ms. Marvel set, released in 2022.
Fawad Khan and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, behind-the-scenes on the Ms. Marvel set, released in 2022.

“Skywalker’s not a real person. Though in a sense he is every person. He’s a prototype. Or, as Carl Jung would say, he’s an archetype, part of the collective unconscious.” – Judging Amy

Sitting before me, in a black kurta and speaking her mind is Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, winner of two Academy Awards and – I’m downplaying this – several other prestigious awards. She agrees that meeting for an interview – in person – if possible - is always better. I, too, agree and we quickly start talking. She is pressed for time.

The room we occupy is comfortable. A shelf with Obaid-Chinoy’s various trophies can be seen behind a glass cabinet.

Physical copies of Variety magazine are lying on a table and it took a minute before my eyes fell on the walls.

As I started looking, it was almost hard to look away. If walls could talk, each photograph in this room would probably make for a great backstory.

I spot Obaid-Chinoy in solo images with (brace yourself) Madonna, Beyonce, Justin Trudeau, Mira Nair, Hillary Clinton, Steven Spielberg, Sadiq Khan, Meryl Streep, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Charlize Theron, Thandie Newton, Mark Ruffalo, George Clooney and many more.

An image that did jump out more than others was one in which Obaid-Chinoy was wearing a shalwar kameez with her head covered in a nondescript room surrounded by guns. Another one that immediately piqued curiosity showed how she was holding a boom mike in a rural village aimed at a woman.

From walls, I forced my gaze away because Shar-meen Obaid-Chinoy appears right on time in the room (I was early). She had a meeting before this interview and jumped on a call as soon as our pre-decided time to talk was over.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a busy woman and in 2023, she is commemorating 20 years of filmmaking, journalism, animation; all of which kicked off when she was 22.

At the moment, the elephant in the room is the news that she will direct a Star Wars film solo. This, after she co-directed Ms. Marvel series that featured a combination of Pakistani talent including music, actors and a story that was good enough to influence us to watch it in the first place.

Articulate during the interview but also deliberately careful when speaking of this new information that made prime-time news cycle in Pakistan, Obaid-Chinoy pauses before talking about the Star Wars gig, first revealed at a Star Wars celebration event in London earlier in April.

“I’m excited to be able to work on a story that has influenced the lives of millions of people around the world,” begins Obaid-Chinoy, “If I take a leaf from my own filmmaking career, I’ve always worked on films that hold up a mirror to society, a reflection of the way we are and that is what Star Wars has always been. George Lucas’ vision and his films were shaped through that prism.”

It is a mainstream project but her take on how she’d go about it is interesting. As I tell the director what Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins had said about how directing any big-budget franchise film means getting it right because the responsibility of the entire gender is somehow put on your shoulders. If one woman delivers a flop, other women are not tapped because the view (and Hollywood sexism) dictates women can’t do it. If a man delivers a dud (we’re looking at you Zack Snyder), it doesn’t mean he will not get other big projects.

Obaid-Chinoy, however, doesn’t exactly share the same views and her own are simple: she feels a sense of responsibility for every film she has ever made.

“Throughout my career, she responds, “I have chosen projects and films that speak to me; they are deeply personal and resonate with me. I would like the world to be aware of them, so I shine a light on stories and subjects that few do and I’m taking Star Wars in the same vein.

“I think it’s exciting that a woman is going to be helming a Star Wars film but there are so many women who have been working on Star Wars television series’ like Deborah Chow (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Leslye Headland (The Acolyte). I think I’m carrying on in their footsteps.”

“The cat is out the bag, I am not your savior.”

– ‘Savior’ by Kendrick Lamar, Baby Keem and Sam Dew

The greatest rapper of all time, Kendrick Lamar, through his last album, made it clear that he cannot be the savior of an entire culture and an entire people. When the question is put before Obaid-Chinoy, her answer is nothing like Lamar.

“I don’t carry any burden with me,” surprisingly so. “If you look at my work over the last two decades, and the kinds of projects I’ve done and the stories I’ve pushed forward, you’re well aware that I’m not carrying any burden because I’m free to pursue whatever I want. I’ve never looked at things from one prism.”

Her modus operandi is not binary.

We’ve moved to the nexus of partition in her work where there is a conscious or perhaps unconscious appearance of the subject in multiple things she has done. What is it about the partition of the subcontinent that makes her come back to the subject?

Obaid-Chinoy feels the subject of partition is as personal as it is about individual stories, and she hits the nail on the head. “It is the individual story of hundreds of millions of people in the subcontinent who migrated on foot, in ships, in trains and those stories are erased from our textbooks. Those stories are erased from public discourse.”

To that end, Obaid-Chinoy co-founded The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, set up a National History Museum in Lahore, which is the first digital interactive museum in Pakistan commemorating partition.

“The idea,” she says, “was to talk about the people - who are these people that lay the foundation of this country. What was their ideology? Why did they leave their families, the streets they grew up in, the smells they were familiar with and migrate hundreds of thousands of miles in great hardship? What was the vision they carried with them and how far have we strayed from that vision.

“It moves you emotionally, it connects you to your forefathers and it puts a very clear vision about what Pakistan was meant to be.”

“Take me to the magic of the moment/On a glory night/Where the children of tomorrow dream away (dream away)/In the wind of change.” - ‘Wind of Change’ by Scorpions

Maintaining that she has foolish idealism 20 years on, Obaid-Chinoy says you have to be idealistic in order to persist and continue to make the films she does. “My work is a repository of refugees, minorities, women, children, exclusion. That’s what my work is all about.”

Obaid-Chinoy encourages people to make films but the one thing she abhors are Pakistani dramas and how it angers her is visible as she speaks.

“I don’t watch Pakistani dramas,” comes a crisp answer.

Why? Apparently, we’re touching the skies.

“I just cannot. I’ve spent 20 years of my life trying to erase the kind of mindset that they perpetuate and I cannot bring myself to watch them. I find it deeply heartbreaking that that is the fodder we’re feeding to this country.

“Women in Pakistan, by and large, even if they’re treated marginally better than another woman, they think they’ve won the lottery because we have created a mindset in this country ‘that be grateful that you’re not getting beaten, you’re being fed, and you are alive. It is that mindset I want to break.”

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has no formal training in filmmaking, but she started out in front of the camera, taking viewers to places she went and the people she met, and finds those eight years (2002-2010) another tool that allows her to get her “subjects to open up to me”.

Saving Face, her first Oscar winning documentary, made in 2011, was when Obaid-Chinoy went completely behind the camera.

Do you miss it?

“I don’t.”

As overjoyed as we are about her work in Ms. Marvel and now an upcoming Star Wars solo project, there are also those who feel she shouldn’t make “negative” films about Pakistan. In fact, at a press conference after her 2016 Oscar win, Obaid-Chinoy’s panel was surrounded by a small band of policemen. These and other reasons make it obvious that out of all the stars/artists in Pakistan, Obaid-Chinoy is a probable target. But she is unfazed.

“I’ll be honest, I can live anywhere else in the world, I do not need to live in Pakistan. I choose to live in this country; it’s a choice for me. I’m not here because I have to be here. That is a very important distinction to make.”

She adds - as our time to talk is just about wrapping up – “I have co-founded Citizens Archive of Pakistan, I spearheaded the creation of National History Museum. SOC Films is now celebrating its fourteenth year, hundreds of filmmakers from around the world have walked through these doors and I have gone on to win multiple accolades. I’ve set up Patakha Pictures, the first mentoring and funding program, an organization for women.

It has already funded five films, winning multiple awards. It has been accepted in multiple film festivals around the world. We’re currently funding 10 films with twenty filmmakers. Six months from now, we will be funding another five. This is home.”