The following article is a review of Ramchand Pakistani, a film that was broadcast on Channel 4 in October as part of their Cinema Pakistan season. Whilst writing this article I became sidetracked with my opinions on the Pakistan film industry and the significance of a film such as Ramchand Pakistani emerging from this capricious environment.
Believe it or not Pakistan once had a movie industry. Located in Lahore, the cultural capital of the country, it was referred to as Lollywood and churned out amateur genre pictures on low budgets catered for male audiences. A steady output of films was released throughout the eighties and nineties and many cinemas gave the films precedence over foreign productions. A ban on Bollywood films also meant that the industry generated enough revenue to keep up momentum. Its status as an industry, however, has remained problematic for a number of reasons. Foreign competition and the thriving dvd piracy market in the country are its major obstacles. A person can walk into a legitimate shop in the capital Islamabad and buy box sets of their favourite shows or films for a small price. For the working class citizens of Pakistan cinema going is still a cheap form of entertainment. After all Bollywood is a contemporary multimedia giant because of the working class citizens that pay to view its unique brand of glossy escapism. Therefore it is a shame that Lollywood could never match its competitor. Lollywood’s output of generic productions aimed at working class males was regarded as proof of the immoral nature of the film industry by the nation’s conservative society. As a result a cinema full of young working class men was deemed an unsuitable environment for women and families. Therefore it was Lollywood’s refusal to address a wider audience that ultimately sealed its fate.
Ramchand Pakistani, Mehreen Jabbar’s debut feature is significant for a number of reasons. It is among a handful of films that are currently being produced through collaborative efforts between Pakistan, India and the West. The fact that it is directed by a woman and contains a female protagonist reflects the progressive stance the film has. It deals sympathetically with its subject matter and characters showing a mature sense of restraint in relation to the heavy political issues it tackles. Adapted from actual events the narrative concerns a family that belong to the Hindu Dalit caste, discriminatorily referred to as “untouchables”. This particular family of husband, wife and child live near the border with India. The child, Ramchand, and his father accidentally cross the meagre borderline and are captured by Indian forces and thrown in jail. The film then focuses on two parallel storylines concerning the torment of the father and child trapped in an overcrowded jail and the grief of the mother.
Identity is a major theme in the film. The script provides a series of interesting comments on the issues of nationalism and injustice. In the prison there are ‘no castes’ says an Indian officer and the multicultural inmates echo this statement. Yet there are signs of progress in the plot which the filmmakers want us to believe are achievable. Most notably in Ramchand’s relationship with a female police officer who initially won’t even touch him due to his background. Their friendship and the camaraderie of the inmates is part of the progressive stance the film takes.
Mehreen Jabbar must be commended for her debut feature film. She has announced herself as a distinct voice in an arena which required the presence of a female visionary. She manages to extract strong performances from her cast, which is mostly made up of Pakistani actors. Nandita Das, one of the few Indians in the film and perhaps the most well known actor, is good as the mother but Rashad Farooqi, the father, and Navaid Jabbar as the older version of Ramchand are arguably better. Furthermore the cinematography also shows moments of intense beauty in its depiction of the barren landscapes of the Sindh region and the gloriously colourful costumes and bazaars.
Although the film is a collaborative effort between India and Pakistan it does not resemble a Bollywood masala feature. In fact it mirrors the Parallel Cinema, also known as the Indian new wave, associated with the films of Satyajit Ray. One can only hope that this is the beginning of a Pakistani new-wave and I can’t think of a more capable director to be leading the cinematic revolution than Mehreen Jabbar.