Close on the heels of the elimination of two Indian films, Ravi Jadhav’s Nude, and Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S Durga from the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), Pakistan’s official entry — Farhan Alam’s Saawan — was also shown the door. An official submission for the best foreign language film at the 90th Academy Awards, the film was to be featured in the Cinema of the World section at the 48th edition of IFFI, currently underway in Goa. The US-based filmmaker spoke exclusively with Firstpost in the wake of development.
What transpired between you and the IFFI officials? What was your reaction on getting the invitation?
I received the invitation from the festival on 22 October and was told that I would be given flight and hotel accommodations in Goa. I was very happy and honoured. I really can’t describe the feeling.
You seemed to have shipped the copy of your film to the organisers. So has anyone seen your film?
As a part of the selection process, each film has to be seen by the committee members of IFFI. We shipped the DCP of the film once we received the official acceptance to the festival, as it is the norm. I’m not sure if anyone has seen the film since then.
What was the reason given for the film being dropped? What did they tell you?
On 4 November, I received a letter in which I was told that due to scheduling issues my film was not going to be shown at the festival.
What is your film about? Is there a message in it?
Saawan is based on a true event. The movie is about a nine-year old boy who has polio, who is abandoned by his family in a desolate valley in the mountains of Balochistan, with very few chances of survival. Strengthened by memories and dreams of the love of his mother, he begins a perilous journey to find and reunite with his family. There are several messages in the movie: I wanted to show that there is a vital need to vaccinate against infectious diseases, that the way our society still treats people with disabilities is very sad and inappropriate, and that child trafficking is still happening and it is a horrible thing, and we — artists, politicians or common people — should do more to eradicate it.
Do you feel your film could be a step in thawing the cultural relations between the two countries?
I am thinking more that my film could bring common ground between the countries, that noble efforts could eradicate those ugly ghosts that haunt the past and present of both countries. You see, my parents were born in India and I have lots of relatives there as well. Is this a coming back? I am not sure, but if I wish well for Pakistan I wish well for India too. Eradicating sufferance should happen all over the world.
Obviously, being selected and to have my film screened in India after the recent ban on Pakistani talent was little step in thawing relations. We are, in essence, one people divided by a border. On this trip I was planning to visit my ancestors’ house situated in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh. I had heard that the house will be included in a demolition plan, sometime this year.
What do you think could have been the reason for your film’s elimination?
Honestly, I’m not sure how to feel. I was excited to have my film screened and to find out it was dropped was…sad, disappointing. I was told the film was dropped due to scheduling conflicts. I really want to stop thinking that could be another reason.
Can you tell us about your family background?
My dad, who was born in Ghazipur (India) later migrated to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. He started his career as an assistant cameraman in Dhakka, later he became one of the best directors of photography there. I inherited a love of films from him, as did my two brothers.
My mom was born in Raipur, India; she also later moved to East Pakistan. My grandparents from both sides were born and raised in India, and I still have relatives in different parts of India.
The film’s editor and the singer are also from India…
It is nice to mention that Aseem Sinha ji, a great and fine editor, and Charanjeet Virdi, a great voice, contributed with their talents to our movie. And yes they are Indian. I was excited to see the finished product with Aseem ji. He was an integral part of the film and had the hardest job to do. An editor often goes unnoticed but the direction your film goes in highly depends on the editor — one wrong cut or too long a scene and the whole film doesn’t work. It just hurts, no more or less. I want to know, I want to discover India. Maybe one day India would like to know me too.
Saawan was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2018 Oscars. What has the experience at various film festivals, award ceremonies been?
We have had a great response at the festivals that we have been part of. The film has been well received and non-desi people have come up to me saying how much they related to the movie and the message that it portrays. It’s amazing to hear such positive remarks. So far, Saawan has won six international awards for best foreign film, best director and best music.
How do you think your film will make a difference?
Film is a very powerful medium, which can really be helpful for the betterment of any society. In South Asia, issues such as poverty, child trafficking, illiteracy, health and education are the major cause of most of the problems. Saawan is all about that. A differently-abled child fights the odds and sets an example for others, in not being dependent.
As a film, Saawan could prove that humanity is the way to go. Every religion in the world teaches love, understanding and respect for each other. Through my movie I wanted to bring people to embrace these values.
Somehow, from all the responses that I have received, I believe that Saawan was the right messenger.
What do you plan to do next? If you were approached again by festivals in India, how would you react?
For festivals…well I would be happy to attend any invitation that I will receive, always with good expectations. My next project is on human trafficking.