Xpoze’ monthly interview
A New York Direction-interview with Mehreen Jabbar
Photos by MADIHA AIJAZ
Low-key and enigmatic, MEHREEN JABBAR has had a 15-year run in Pakistan’s TV industry, directing numerous TV plays such as Ab Tum Ja Saktey Ho, Beauty Parlour, Pehchaan and New York Stories amongst others that garnered favorable reviews in Pakistan. But it was with Mehreen’s directorial debut for the full-length feature film, Ramchand Pakistan (2008) that her name hit both the international stratosphere and made her a proud household name in Pakistan. While she could easily become a power-wielding and autograph-signing director in Pakistan, instead Mehreen has chosen since 2003 to live a relatively quiet existence in New York City where she says she moved in order to “explore, challenge herself, and walk on the streets freely.” Comfortable vacillating between the US and Pakistan, Mehreen says she spends many months of the year in Pakistan where she works; and returns to New York to live and edit her work. Here, Mehreen casually chit-chats with XPOZÉ representative and model ANNIE ALI KHAN as they girl-bond and hang around NYC…
Mehreen Jabbar moved to NYC to “explore, challenge herself, and walk on the streets freely”.
ANNIE: What’s the one thing about New York City that reminds you most of Karachi? MEHREEN: I think New York’s dynamic nature of constantly moving, being alive and awake at all times, and its survivor spirit remind me of Karachi. Karachi also bounces back no matter what. New York has the same spirit, particularly in the 80s when New York City was the most unlivable place. Not to mention 9/11. How NYC survived 9/11 and moved on is very much like the city I come from.
If you could take one New York characteristic to Karachi with you what would it be?
Definitely the restaurants!
New York nightlife or Karachi party crowd?
New York nightlife. Simply because of the options of places to go to. I don’t like going to clubs. New York has a lot of lounges and restaurants and live music acts. The Karachi party scene can get very noisy.
On the fourth of July (American Independence Day) I found myself singing the Pakistani national anthem. How did you spend it? I spent it traveling from Rome to New York. I was in Rome for a film festival. This year decided not to go and see the fireworks. Last year I went to see the fireworks with a group of friends and it turned out that we were on the wrong side of the river! So this year I stayed at home with a few close friends and just listened to the sounds of the fireworks desi style.
What does your facebook profile network say? New York or Karachi?
My network is New York. Eeps! I need to add Karachi. Though I am a fan of the group, ‘Karachi.’
What is the one thing women in New York can learn from women in Karachi? Women in New York can learn a lot from women in Karachi about adding color to their wardrobes. This is the one thing that is lacking here. I say this as today both you and I are wearing black. As for the other way around, I think New York is a lot less of a judgmental city and a lot can be learned from the women here who don’t interfere in your business. Live and let live!Kurti and jeans are quintessential Karachiite wardrobe staples. What New York article have you incorporated in your wardrobe? Flip flops. I can wear rubber chappals here in New York, something I don’t find easy to do in Karachi.
If you were given a chance to remake ‘Ramchand Pakistani’, what would you do differently. Or would you?
Many things! If I go into it, it would be a separate article. In retrospect, I always want to improve on what I’ve done.
One film you seriously wish you had directed?
Turtles Can Fly’ (2004 film written and directed by the Kurdish Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi which was the first film to be made in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein).
One thing about men in New York you wish men back home would adopt?
“Don’t stare at me!”
When was the last time you challenged yourself professionally or otherwise?
I have been perpetually petrified of public speaking. ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ called for sitting in forums in front of 50 or more people without breaking into a sweat. I still avoid public speaking but am better now than I used to be.
What in your opinion is the international perception of the Pakistani woman? And in what ways would you tweak that image?
It depends on who you ask. People who know politics know about Benazir Bhutto. For people who are not generally enmeshed into politics, the response is one of ignorance and a blurry amorphousness of who the Pakistani woman is. I don’t think the Pakistani woman can be defined that easily either. A woman in Karachi is very different from a woman in Gujranwala. As a nation we are extremely talented, haphazard, chaotic survivors, and all of that is embodied in the Pakistani woman. We are strong but also lazy and apathetic. In a lot of my television work I focus on women and try and portray them as being as complex as any other human being, and steer clear of stereotypes that they are often subject to, particularly in South Asian cinema. All over the world women get less meaty roles than men most of the time.
Is there a greater agenda to your work?
My agenda is to bring Pakistan onto the global cinematic map. I want to tell stories not just for Pakistan and India but for the world. Like the Iranian and Indian filmmakers, it’s important for me to get the Pakistani story out there.
Are you for breaking taboos or working within them?
Both. The best way to break taboos is to work within the system. You can tell your controversial or challenging story while remaining within the framework of the censorship code of a country even if you don’t agree with it. That way your voice will be heard in the country and
you can try and get your point of view across and make a difference. However, of course if the censorship laws or the government is oppressive and curtails freedom of speech and expression to the extent that there is a total stifling of one’s voice, then one has to find other means, like the Internet, etc.
Does being a celebrity in Pakistan have any value outside of being a commercial commodity?
The term celebrity is not that familiar to me, as directors are not usually recognized by face. I am known because I have worked for fifteen years within my circle. But I don’t think people on the streets would recognize me.
How did you celebrate Pakistan’s Independence Day?
I gorged myself on desi food like chaat, followed by a reunion with some old Pakistani friends.