Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy: Pakistan’s ‘guerilla filmmaker’

February 21, 2016

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy talks to Instep about branching out into animated cinema, the unflinching dream of a better tomorrowand why she likes to tell stories that provoke and haunt us

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy: Pakistan’s ‘guerilla filmmaker’

When I ‘google’ the name Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, the terms that pop-up are "guerilla filmmaker" and "the Oscar lady". While most people view her as a filmmaker, and it certainly is an appropriate description of what she does, Sharmeen, 37 identifies with the term "journalist" equally if not more.

When I ask her about being "the Oscar lady" Sharmeen laughs heartily. It’s close to 12 pm; a beautiful sunny afternoon is upon us as I head out to Sharmeen’s office in Karachi. Upon arrival, I am greeted by posters from Sharmeen’s films as I’m led to her office on the first floor. Sitting on a chair, facing a laptop, Sharmeen looks up as I walk in and we shake hands as I sit down, and fiddle with my phone to record the interview. Sharmeen asks politely: "Are you recording this?" I tell her yes and she observes: "Good. You know I wonder how people remember everything…"

In between offers for refreshments and a reminder from a staffer about an upcoming shoot, we chat about everything under the sun - from motherhood to music to hanging out with Meryl Streep to the horrifying issue of honor killing that is strangling innocent lives across Pakistan. What’s obvious is that Sharmeen has strong convictions, she doesn’t hide from hard questions and ultimately wants to make Pakistan a better place for her children. There is no better reason than that.

Excerpts from the conversation:

Instep: 2015 has been a remarkable year for you in terms of multiple releases…

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (SOC): It’s been a huge year for me because I feel like I’ve had many babies. I physically had a baby a few months ago. I’ve have also released four films: Song of Lahore, A Journey of a Thousand Miles, 3 Bahadur and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.

Instep: Congratulations on the Oscar nod…

SOC: Thank you…

Andy Schocken, Meryl Streep and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy at the screening of Song of Lahore in New York City, circa 2015.
Andy Schocken, Meryl Streep and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy at the screening of Song of Lahore in New York City, circa 2015.

Instep: How do you feel? You fly out later this month for the Oscar ceremony.

SOC: This time around I have to say that I am more determined to get the honor killing bill passed in parliament. I’ve been making more noise about that than the Academy Award because I have an Academy Award and if my nomination can shed light on an issue that so many people have been working on for such a long time and have been doing remarkable work… Sometimes something happens cosmically that brings attention to an issue and helps hopefully all of those great people who have already been working on this issue for years.

Instep: How challenging is it to make films like Girl in the River, Saving Face. These are important stories that need to be told but how do you deal with something so painful? How do you go about making films that deal with such intolerance and injustice, issues that are shoved under the carpet?

SOC: To be honest, for me I have always looked - whether it’s in Pakistan or any other country in the world I’ve filmed in – for issues that people hesitate to talk about or people find it hard because I don’t like looking at my country and seeing these issues. I don’t like to know that a thousand women are killed every year for honor killing in Pakistan. By the way, that is the reported number; the unreported number is much higher. I don’t like looking at women having their faces disfigured in this country. I don’t like to know that now rape amongst minors is rampant. Every single day in a newspaper in Pakistan, you’ll find a story about the rape of a minor child. Every single day. They to me are as important as terrorism, as important as poverty and this is where I find my passion. I would like to look at my country and feel proud of the way it treats its women.

Instep: You’re a mother, you have children, yes?

SOC: Yes, I have two daughters.

Instep: How do you deal with the threat to schools, having children and facing that? Do you live in Pakistan?

SOC: Yes, I live here just like everybody else does. We all have the same issues, we all have children, we have the same worries but we all live here and work here and try and do the best that we can. We have been given a difficult set of circumstances and I think there are many people in this country, nameless people who we don’t even know, who are risking their lives every day for a better tomorrow for the rest of us.  We owe it to them, and to ourselves and to the next generation to leave a better Pakistan for them. People always ask me why I choose to live in Pakistan when I can live anywhere else in the world and my answer is that Pakistan is my home.

People ask me, ‘why don’t you make a film about rape in America? (and this is by the way the most common thing I get told) and win an Oscar for that’ and my response is I don’t live in America. I live in Pakistan, why don’t I make film about rape in Pakistan? If I lived in America, I’d make a film about rape in America. There are plenty of people who live in America and make films about such issues and who get nominated for Academy Awards. If I live in Pakistan, I will make films about Pakistan and if you don’t like the issues I choose to highlight, then you better work to fix those issues because then you clearly don’t have a problem with me, you have a problem with the issue but it’s easier to target me and not the issue.

Instep: There is a perception (and it maybe unfounded) that getting a film to the Oscars requires a bit of work, you need to be "connected"?

SOC: I was not connected in 2012 when my film made it to the Academy Awards.

Instep: To all the positivity with which this nomination is greeted by people, there is some negative feedback….

SOC: Yeah but people who have no idea how the Academy works and the inner workings of the Academy or what the process of nomination is, cannot just make statements about how one gets nominated for an Academy Award.

Instep: The echoes include things like "she went to college abroad, she knows the right people"…

SOC: Leonardo DiCaprio went to college, he’s a big Hollywood star. Does he have an Oscar? I rest my case.

Instep: Moving to the glorious Song of Lahore, Sachal’s story is incredible and somehow we’ve been unable to highlight them in a deserving fashion. Song of Lahore, on the other hand, does it with a lot of soul. It’s also playing across select theatres in the USA.

SOC: It will release in Pakistan in theatres in a few months. Song of Lahore is my ode to my grandfather’s Pakistan, a Pakistan in which there were large orchestras and concerts, people dressed up and went out and appreciated Pakistan’s classical instruments, where musicians earned a living through their music, where when a head of state came to visit, the Pakistani Prime Minister would get an entire orchestra to play for them. It is an ode to Pakistan’s former self, its lost glory and its past and for this generation to realize that we had such a rich history and such a rich culture and our music (not just the music we hear today) but our musical past and our instruments are very much part of the fabric of this country.

SOL is a beautiful story of a man who is Pakistani, has lived abroad all his life and his decision to set up a studio to bring the great masters of Pakistani instruments together to create music. And they experiment with jazz, which becomes a number one hit on iTunes. My camera is there from day one, follows them all the way to New York where they perform to a packed standing ovation and their journey back to Pakistan. It is a film that has beautiful music and now an album is coming out which I helped orchestrate with Universal Music in the United States. It is a collaboration between Sachal Studios and American artists. The album will be out in April and it carries the same name as the film, Song of Lahore.

Instep: I found pictures of Thandie Newton dancing to Sachal Studio sounds. Meryl Streep has endorsed it. It’s generated a lot of positive vibes…

SOC: I have always been a very proud Pakistani. I wear Pakistani outfits to every single event I’ve ever been to in my life. I try and showcase whatever I can about this country and Song of Lahore allowed me to bring this face of Pakistan to the West. We wrote to Meryl Streep and she agreed to host the screening. You will hear very soon that she’s doing something with the ensemble, which I’m very thankful to her for. Thandie Newton is a very dear friend of mine and she loved their music and she attended the event. It’s just a joy for us to bring this face of Pakistan to the world. These are some of the greatest musicians I’ve ever heard.

Instep: You ventured into the world of cinema full-scale with the animated feature 3 Bahadur. Let’s talk a bit about that…

SOC: I must’ve done it because I’m very connected.

Instep: Touché. But seriously, the drama of box office, people have to buy tickets. Is it nerve-wrecking?

SOC: In my career, the night before a film comes out, I’ve always been very nervous. It’s like having a baby. There is the conception period and you carry that for so long and then you deliver it to the world and then you wait for the world to embrace it. People were going to watch something that I helped put together for three years. When I started 3 Bahadur, everybody was like it’s never going to play in a cinema, no one’s going to watch it…

Instep: My nephew watched it and then he came over and wanted to play the video game of 3 Bahadur and I was thrilled because instead of Chota Bheem, he had these characters that were our creations….

SOC: You are one of hundreds of people who have told me this. I get stopped in malls and restaurants; parents tell their children that she’s made 3 Bahadur. And there can be no better feeling because I love the fact that people want their kids to have Pakistani role models, these Pakistani characters. Now we’re working on 3 Bahadur’s second film and its exciting because we’re doing something fantastic with it and we’re branching out. To be honest if you ask me, my greatest joy in 2015 (apart from having a baby) was to give Pakistani children 3 Bahadur.

Instep: It takes an Oscar nomination for the Prime Minister to make a pledge to end the horrifying issue of honor killing.

SOC: I think that sometimes things happen which inspire a leader to do more. I think the Oscar nomination inspired him to do something. And I am grateful that PM Sharif made that statement. Given the nature of the country we live in, it takes a brave Prime Minister to make a statement like that. Look, he’s a father of girls and he is a grandfather of granddaughters. I am sure that he does not want to leave a legacy in Pakistan where honor killings are condoned, where people get away with murder. Forget that he is the head of the country. Let’s say as a father and grandfather, what is the legacy he wants to leave the women in his family.