Monday, September 14, 2009

Mehreen Jabbar

Mehreen Jabbar is a filmmaker who, at a young age, has an extensive portfolio. After, directing her first play in 1994 when she was just 23 years old, Mehreen went on to create work which ranges from short independent art films to commercial serials for television. Her success as a director can be assessed by the fact that her work has appeared in many film festivals around the world including The Hong Kong International Film Festival, The San Francisco Asian-American Film Festival, and The Leeds Film Festival in U. K. to name a few. At home, in Pakistan, her unconventional style of story telling has earned her much acclaim and several awards.
Mehreen grew up around Pakistan's show business. Her father, Javed Jabbar, is a filmmaker himself. He has also been running a highly successful advertising agency for about 30 years which is where Mehreen got her first exposure to the television world. After receiving a B.A. from St. Joseph's college in Karachi, Mehreen went abroad to the United States in order to study film and completed a two year program at UCLA. She describes this experience as a crucial part of her training because her teachers were working professionals from the film industry who were able to provide real insights on the art and business of filmmaking.
After completing the program at UCLA, Mehreen Jabbar returned to Pakistan to practice her craft professionally. Her first play, in 1994, was called “Nivala” (Morsel) which was based on a short story by Ismat Chugtai, one of the foremost authors in the Urdu language. It was the first of what was to be a series of plays for television based on stories by South Asian women writers. Unfortunately, the decision- makers at the state-run television of that time declined from airing “Nivala” because it was based on the work of an Indian writer and, subsequently, the idea for the entire series was cancelled. Though this was a setback, it did not deter Mehreen from doing what she loves. She continued to make short films, feature length plays, and drama serials.
Most of Mehreen’s work has been for the television. Unfortunately, the Pakistani commercial film industry has experienced a sharp decline in popularity during the past two to three decades. Due to the low quality of films being produced and the shady atmosphere at cinema houses, going to a theater is not a viable form of entertainment for the mainstream public. Thus, television remains by far the most popular source of family entertainment. So that has been the industry to which vast majority of writers, producers, directors, as well as, actors turn who wish to hone their craft and create work with depth and meaning for the audience.
Much of Mehreen’s work has focused on the everyday lives of average Pakistani women and the conflicts they experience from day to day. “I have focused mainly on women, maybe just because I find that I can relate to [their] stories on a much more personal level,” says Mehreen when describing her work. While other directors have created fine plays which are obvious in their attempts to raise awareness of women's rights, Mehreen enjoys the challenge of applying subtlety to get her message across. Her viewers often find themselves immersed in the minds of her characters in order to fully understand the characters’ motives. Her tele-film, “Putli Ghar”’ (Puppet House), is an example of such work. It is a story of two young couples living in the same building. The film focuses on the friendship that develops between the two wives; one, a naïve newlywed, and the other, who has been married for a while, more set in her ways, and enjoys making puppets. As the friendship between the two women grows, the bizarre relationship between the puppet maker and her husband is slowly revealed to the naïve friend resulting in adverse effects on her own relationship with her husband. Another tele-film “Farar” (Escape) is about three friends, a widow, a working woman, and a third woman who is a student of classical dance. The play shows the struggle of each woman to sort out her life and find a unique identity for herself.
Television and art film actor, Faisal Rehman, who has appeared in many of Mehreen's plays describes her directing style in the following words: "She gives you the floor to play as an actor and becomes a silent spectator and she will only check you when you cross the boundaries of her perceived story in the wrong direction." Faisal feels that, unlike many other directors, Mehreen does not dictate every move of her actors. She allows them to experiment and improvise as they act out a scene. This he believes is a "great way of making an actor feel at home and get the best out of him." As a director Mehreen is not threatened by an actor's ability to contribute to the story. If through improvisation an actor is able to add enhancements to the play keeping it within the boundaries of her preconcieved storyline then, says Faisal, "[Mehreen] will accept your idea with open mind and heart without being egotistic about it. That is a sign of a good director anywhere in the world."
To Mehreen experimenting with a story is one of the most interesting parts of creating a play. It is something which she believes is missing in many recent plays airing on television. She believes that producers are playing it safe and are prone to take on projects which are based on a proven storyline for success. The result is that the same basic plot is repeated over and over again in different plays or films. “For example,” says Mehreen, “[Producers and directors] think ‘Monsoon Wedding’ was a hit so lets make ‘Pakistani Wedding’, let’s make ‘American Wedding’, etc. We really don’t see that many quality television plays anymore like we did back in the Eighties.”
According to Mehreen, she enjoys making films and plays because she loves telling stories and it is what she has always wanted to do. She says of herself that while growing up she was always a "shy and reticent individual". Therefore, taking a written story and giving it life by turning it into a play or film has been her outlet, a way of expressing herself. If shyness is what made Mehreen into a filmmaker than her viewers consider it their good fortune because her contributions have certainly added a new dimension of creativity to Pakistani television plays.
Though commercial Pakistani films remain largely unpopular in the mainstream, several independent filmmakers have emerged in recent years, such as, Shireen Pasha, Farjad Nabi, Hasan Zaidi, and Mehreen Jabbar herself, who seem to be breathing a new life into the Pakistani art film scene.(

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