“I’ve Always Felt That Half of Me is in India” – Top Pakistani-American Filmmaker Mehreen Jabbar

One of Pakistan’s most illustrious filmmakers, Mehreen Jabbar is known for her prolific run of hit television series and feature films that touch the hearts of her audiences and spark cult trends.

The 50-year-old New York-based producer and director comes from a family with roots in India. Her first feature film Ramchand Pakistani (2008) starring Indian actor Nandita Das was shot on the Indo-Pak border in Sindh and edited in India. Highlighting the effect of the cross-border conflict on ordinary families in the border region, the film is based on a true story of a Hindu Pakistani boy who inadvertently crosses the border to India and the following ordeal that his family has to go through.

The film was released in both India and Pakistan and went on to win several awards worldwide.

Jabbar was a panelist at eShe’s Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women. We asked her about the idea of a South Asia Union and her thoughts on regional unity.

Mehreen Jabbar

Aekta Kapoor: What if we had a South Asia Union on the lines of the European Union, with a single currency and visa-free travel? How does that idea sound to you as a filmmaker?

Mehreen Jabbar: Having the same currency may get complicated. Both India and Pakistan are huge countries. So I think keeping currencies separate is fine.

But I agree with you on the passport bit. I definitely advocate easier travel and am 100% on board for creative and sports collaborations. What it could do for me as a filmmaker? My god, I love India. My history of collaborations with India goes back a long way, from Ramchand Pakistani to Lala Begum (2016), and now with Zee5. I would love to travel to India, to interact with the people there, collaborate on film projects, share and learn. So, for me, that would be the biggest advantage of opening up the travel sector in the region.

AK: You mentioned you have family in India and there’s a link, a shared history…

MJ: Yes, I have family on both sides of the border. My father moved to Pakistan six or seven years after Partition by choice; and left his mother in India! So I have been straddling both worlds but unfortunately I have not been able to get a visa to go to India for the past eight or nine years. But I have always felt that half of me is there, in India.

It’s the saddest thing that there is so much of shared history, shared culture and yet there is so much doori (metaphorical distance) and we have to go outside our countries to meet people who are our neighbours.

It is enriching for both countries when we can have people-to-people contact. I know for a fact that whenever Indians have visited Pakistan, they have loved being here. They have got incredible hospitality and it’s the same for Pakistanis who visit India. Everything blends and all differences dissolve when you meet in person.

Mehreen Jabbar at a shoot location

AK: What do you think about the political differences?

MJ: Obviously, you can’t whitewash all the political issues. There are serious issues in South Asia that need to be addressed. But that doesn’t mean that you put everyone in a single basket and generalise. I have never believed that.

For example, I may not agree with American foreign policy on so many fronts but I cannot say all Americans are bad. Then I would never want to meet another American! That would just be stupid. America bombed Japan to smithereens but they still meet each other.

So, I think we need to get beyond all our issues while retaining our identities. We can continue to be Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, while still having amicable relations.

AK: But nationalist politics is on the rise in many countries, that’s bad news for all of us, isn’t it?

MJ: Yes, governments and institutions continue to criticize those on the other side of the border. That’s why the common people live in fear; they don’t know what’s on the other side.  

Borders are there, they will always exist, and as a filmmaker I believe the only way we can cross them is by storytelling.

I don’t want to get into whether Partition was right or wrong, those topics are now old. Yes, we have to study the history and we have to learn from it. But I think the way forward is to recognize that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are independent states, yet there is so much more we have in common between us — so many stories and so much that we can relate to — rather than differences. It is our responsibility as filmmakers to highlight this shared culture wherever we can.

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