In Conversation With Maheen Zia & Miriam Chandy – The IndoPak Filmmakers of ‘Lyari Notes’

It has been my dream to eliminate borders and bridge the world with meaningful art forms that go beyond the realms of cultural and political differences. The purpose of WMF too, is to become a platform that enables such a future, and I am confident that the story of Maheen Zia and Miriam Chandy would prove to be benchmarks and inspiration. I had the good fortune of meeting Miriam in Chennai and interacting with Maheen via social networks, and so far it has been a sharp learning curve. The clarity that these two filmmakers have towards their craft and social justice is a testament to their respective films and their latest film together, Lyari Notes. This is probably the only extensive interview that both filmmakers have given together, I am grateful and hopeful that the readers would benefit from their thoughtful answers and wonderful anecdotal experiences. Meet Maheen Zia from Pakistan and Miriam Chandy from India, exclusively for WMF.

1) Could you tell us a little bit about yourself – childhood, schooling and graduation – how was your early experience of taking on patriarchy?

Maheen: Childhood memories are filled with a lot of play outdoors. And animals – always several cats waiting outside our kitchen door. Academically I was an erratic student. My parents married late so were not overly anxious or controlling as younger parents can be. I was always stubborn and once my mind was made up, not very compromising. While I was aware of mainstream narratives, I did not feel pressured by them. People would tell me I acted more like a boy than a girl, and I thought how limited their imagination was about how girls could be.

Miriam: I was always the rebellious child. I was used to being the one who was outspoken and strong willed. My brother in comparison was always soft spoken and got his way with much less of a fight. If I was asked to help around the house I would insist my brother has to pitch in and my parents were progressive and fair in that sense. My (late) father and I were very similar. He encouraged me to question everything and we discussed social and political issues very often taking opposite points of view but in a way that we respected the differences. He taught me not to blindly accept authority. I still remember at the UK visa office we were waiting our turn and watching a very belligerent visa officer being rude to a young, nervous man. My father told me “If he gets too rude just tell him we are no longer colonised and not desperate to go to the UK so get up and walk off”

So yes I was always brought up to speak my mind and not forced to conform. I have had extremely strong opinions in school and college to the point I was sometimes blacklisted by a few teachers but my parents always gave me a fair hearing and inevitably backed me in their own diplomatic way.

2) Filmmaking, was it planned or consequential?

13086744_493544270833760_2236094184102751734_oMaheen: While I was a student in Pakistan filmmaking was not on the academic landscape, so it wasn’t until taking a film appreciation course in college in the US that it occurred to me I could pursue this as a vocation.

Miriam: I did a science major for my graduation. I enjoyed studying subjects like genetics and conservation but I just could not imagine working in a sterile lab or research environment. I was always my best when I took part in cultural events – drama, music, creative writing…So once I graduated I took a year off to really think what I wanted to do. I worked in a media NGO and I think became much more aware of social, environmental and gender issues. I decided at this point I would be a filmmaker and I would write all my entrance exams.

My parents were not thrilled with my decision, my mother was still supportive but my father flipped out. The last straw was when I got into a few institutes and I chose to join the AJK, Mass Communication Research Centre in Delhi. He was extremely concerned also for my safety. This was a time I took the tough decision to leave home with or without his support and he came around a few months later.

3) What is your view on the political divides (banning/threats) caused by our governments and its effect on people?

Maheen: Irresponsible and short sighted.

Miriam: I think we live in an extremely polarised age. The politics of our time forces us to take positions with very little middle ground so much so even between family and friends there is no longer such a thing as a `friendly discussion’ that I had growing up. More and more it is a chest-thumping jingoism that is becoming evident and the educated, rational middle class have abandoned their role as critics and reduced their role to being cheerleaders. I think we live in a very vibrant democracy but I do not take it for granted but instead to keep debates lively and inclusive so that change benefits even those rungs of our society that are barely heard.

4) When the world is ripping itself apart with wars and massive destruction, do you think art has any space to bring the world together?

Cf9b7ZRUEAEZfGGMaheen: Yes. Art has the capacity to soften hearts. Hard hearts make war.

Miriam: Yes art builds bridges. The most powerful art has been created in turbulent times and they speak through, poetry and truth to challenge the status quo. Art is a great truth presented in a poetic way that connects with an audience to build bridges when all else has broken down. I must clarify here that I do not think all expression is `art’ and more and more these days propaganda is mistaken for art, a distinction must be made.

5) In your experience of traveling abroad for films, being a jury/ writing/ filming – what is the one striking difference that comes to mind about the position of women pursuing arts?

Maheen: I suppose the number of women and number of opportunities are significantly greater. There are actually quite a few women in media in Pakistan now, contrary to what people may expect, it is just that the industry is not as large or diverse. I was particularly impressed at a documentary workshop in Amsterdam where many, maybe even most, producers/directors attending were women and amongst them several mothers of young children and a few single mothers! Now the kind of effort and focus and multi-tasking that takes I can only marvel at.

Miriam: I have always been drawn to the works of women whether it was literature or films. My favourite books were ‘Mill on the Floss’ and ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’. Both I thought were written by men when I read it, but discovered later they were the work of women who sometimes had to take a pseudonym to write or be respected. I think women in the arts are very often women in touch with their inner core…and they are blessed!

6) How did the two of you come together to make Lyari Notes – could you share each of your story briefly?

Maheen: Miriam had the idea and approached me to collaborate.

Miriam: I had collaborated with Maheen on a film more than 10 years ago which was on camel racing in the Middle East. I had pitched the idea to the National Geographic Channel and was filming how a robotic substitute was being created to replace the use of children in camel races. I had filmed for close to a year and shot the child jockeys being repatriated to their home countries. A majority seemed to be from Pakistan. I wanted to capture the emotions of them returning to a home they had never known as they had been kidnapped or sold very young. This is when I found Maheen on an online database and asked her to film this small but extremely soulful part of the film. I only spoke to her on the phone and corresponded by email.

When I thought of the concept of Lyari Notes, Maheen immediately sprung to mind as she was a filmmaker based in Pakistan. At the time I thought of the film, it was called The Guitar School and the concept evolved through Maheen’s involvement. It was important for me that a filmmaker from Pakistan was involved as very often films made by ‘outsiders’ are exotic to the home audience. A local filmmaker has an innate understanding of nuance that I believe brings value to good documentaries. Besides the hostilities between India and Pakistan on the political front seemed to complicate the possibility of long-term filming.

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7)  While Maheen was out there shooting, and you keep hearing about all the curfews and tensions that were going on, what went on in your mind, Miriam?

Miriam: As we were shooting with minors we had an extremely cautious approach to filming. We did not take risks we might have if we were shooting the film with adults. At that time it was always a feeling of extreme restraint but I think in a sense the film has the violence as a very strong undercurrent and subtext that has become the distinct yet subtle language of the film.

8a) Maheen, owing to the ongoing tension in the locality, you would have had to keep a very low profile, especially outdoors – could you take us through the process and some crucial decisions along the way?

Maheen: The most important decision was to film openly in the streets towards the end of the filming, and the drone shots we took were the very last shoot. Besides not wanting to call too much attention to the filming we didn’t want to create any complications for the families we were filming with. We also worked as a very small, two woman crew. Our hosts in the locality were also extremely gracious and mindful for our safety.

8b) Maheen – It must have been one dreadful withdrawal for you after shooting for 3 long years – while Miriam was editing, was the waiting game overwhelming?

Maheen: Not really as most of the shooting and editing overlapped, i.e. Miriam was putting together the material as I was sending it. What was dreadful was to not be able to see it becoming part of or being dropped from the cut as internet bandwidths just didn’t allow for that kind of edit timelines to be shared.

9) Could you each narrate the moment when you both met for the first time? What was going on in both your minds? Anxiety? Excitement? A ball of emotions?

IMG_5894Maheen: Relief! And also curiosity. Our meeting became the bigger story than the story we were telling. It was at IDFA’s Summer School. My flight had been delayed causing me to miss a connection and arrive a day late. By then the other participants had heard the backstory and were amazed how two people who had never met were making a film together as well as most curious about how we would take to each other. So it was a big dramatic moment of the workshop.

Miriam: In my mind, I had met Maheen even before I met her in person. Technology like skype literally had us discussing things face to face every other day. In a way, it was a glimpse into Maheen’s world. There was inevitably a cat curled up near the computer or a dog asking to be fed as Maheen rescues animals in Karachi.

But of course, I was very excited to meet Maheen in Amsterdam in a workshop environment where there is time and space to really engage with the creative process. IDFA really provided us this environment many times over and are responsible for the film taking the many creative twists and turns and tough decisions that are finally taken when one engages person to person.

10) How did you keep the positive spirit up for so long? At any point, did the process get to you? What did you two do to give the film a fresh set of eyes, as much as you can?

Maheen: The first time I’ve done a film with no end in sight. A bit like a script you have been working on that you wonder if it will ever see the light of day. Except, in this case, it is something already in production. I think dividing and sharing responsibility helped. We were also able to alternately step back and see it through each other’s eyes.

Miriam: Both Maheen and I are very different people. I tend to dive into things and also am more confrontational in my approach. Maheen is much more measured in her approach. I think we balanced each other because I would keep nudging Maheen and she would always find a middle ground that worked in her own time. I often got frustrated by the pace but then the long timeline helped the film evolve into a coming of age story.

11) For two freethinking filmmakers to come together and arrive at one vision must have been a Himalayan task – could you take us through your process of agreements and disagreements? Was there any significant difference in the way you took the film ahead, after you both met?

CUhb9vdVEAEmZMuMaheen: Meeting was very important because that is how you get a sense of where someone is coming from. I think it allowed us to trust each other’s vision for the film.

Miriam: After we met the film got renamed `Lyari notes’ from `The Guitar School’ this meant that the camera lens would equally focus on the 4 girl protagonists and the world they lived in and the odds they faced to attend music school. This was an important creative decision to make and Maheen’s understanding of Karachi and Lyar gave me the confidence to trust the film would have rich layers of meaning because it was rooted in this context.

As editing goes Maheen had to trust many of my decisions including introducing a very strong political narrative and milestones that she was more keen to underplay.

12) Could you tell us how the reception had been for the film when you played it to the children of Lyari and in other cities of Pakistan?

Maheen: The children seemed happy and their parents and other people from Lyari told me they were very moved. It was moving for me to hear it from them as well. It has also been screened in Islamabad and Hyderabad to appreciative audiences.

13) Would it be safe to say that the future of both the countries rests in the hands of children and that they do not subscribe to the notion of divergence as caused by our governments?

Young-girlsMaheen: Yes. Many years ago I mentored a Youth Initiative for Peace, where eleven children from India came to Karachi and attended creative workshops with twelve children from Pakistan.They came with some trepidation and a lot of trust and it was really wonderful to see the fast friendships and the wonderful work they produced together, including a short film. Such dialogue and sharing must continue, to provide a counter-narrative.

Miriam: Children are products of their time and contexts. I wish that they did not subscribe to hate politics of governments but they can only have other narratives if they are exposed to wider perspectives. They are the future of our countries and I believe it is their right and our duty to provide a rich spectrum of opinion so they can make informed and probably diverse choices.

14) Though it is amazing that you two transcended borders to make Lyari notes possible, could you take us through some practical difficulties of working together virtually?

Lyari Notes-5180Maheen: Internet connectivity was often quite poor which was a challenge.

Miriam: Well I think in a sense tables were turned. I have a lot of restless energy that gets channelised on shoots and being on location whereas I found I was mostly combing through reams and reams of footage rooted in a chair. I have few kilos to show for these three years but on a more serious note, I think the distance gave me objectivity. Maheen I think is far more comfortable with edits but she was shooting a long form observational documentary that I think was new and challenge for her.

Reaching footage with all the restrictions was a constant issue as were sharing finances and we had to be creative about logistical issues that are unique to a cross-border documentary that involves filmmakers from India and Pakistan. Some of the most simple issues that seemed to cause so much delay seem ludicrous and one really questions the relevance of borders.

15) Given a chance, would you do a cross-country collaboration one more time? With each other or anyone else?

Maheen: Yes. Good creative collaboration makes everything else just a logistical challenge, not a deterrent.

Miriam: Need to be back and in touch with the shooting process myself, it has been too long, so my next film is solo. But looking ahead, yes, why not? This collaboration was personally enriching and I like to pick storylines from Asia that will dictate and facilitate these cross-border creative collaborations.