On March 5, 2013, I had the memorable pleasure of attending the North American premiere of the wonderful Pakistani feature film Josh (English title: Against the Grain). It happened to be in my home city of Seattle, and director Iram Parveen Bilal was present. Josh is the story of Fatima, an elegant and well-bred elite Karachiite who involves herself in village society and politics -- thereby endangering herself and others -- when she insists on finding out why her beloved maid has gone missing. It's a cross-cultural story but emphatically a domestic Pakistani one, with minimal reference to the world outside Pakistan. In my review of the film published in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, I reflected:
Americans are accustomed to seeing other countries, especially Pakistan, as refractions of our own national worries and self-regarding obsessions. That is our problem, not Pakistan's, and Josh serves us well by declining to pander or spoon-feed. It is a very good film, well-conceived and executed on a small budget, and the question in my mind as I left the cinema was whether and how it might be possible to shoehorn such a serious piece of Pakistani storytelling into the awareness of some measurable fraction of the millions who know Pakistan only through TV news and Hollywood movies such as Zero Dark Thirty. I was very nearly the only gora [Westerner] at the Seattle screening.
In a Q-and-A session following the screening, Iram told the audience:
I felt that there are a lot of doctors and engineers in Pakistan, and there are not many storytellers. Everybody makes documentaries about Pakistan. I wanted my first feature-length film to be from Pakistan. We worked with a completely Pakistani cast and crew.
In the year since, Josh has been screened in a number of other U.S. cities and has garnered much well-deserved acclaim, including the ARY Viewers Choice Award for best independent film. As of May 7 it is available on DVD and online through iTunes, Netflix and Amazon. The ARY award, Iram told me on May 5, is "a sweet ending for the theatrical journey."
But she continues to have aspirations for Josh and its impact. With the DVD release, Iram is hoping to reach a wider audience. "There were some really great screenings," she told me. "More than 10 of them sold out. So there are definitely more people who want to see it than saw it." In particular, she hopes that Americans who lack personal exposure to Pakistan will see Josh. "I definitely feel satisfied in terms of the Pakistani diaspora," she says.
In terms of the Western audience, not really. Western audiences need to watch it. It's like a ticket to Karachi, a journey to Karachi in 100 minutes. It's a very realistic portrayal of Pakistan; I pride myself on that. In some ways, I feel non-Pakistanis are a better audience for the film, and that's why I'm looking forward to the DVD release.
When I asked Iram about her hopes for the film's impact, she reflected:
I don't think that I'm trying to initiate a huge peace agreement, or anything like that. But it's not really modest. You don't know what type of wheels are going to turn in the viewer's brain, and that could lead to a big change in someone's life. What we can hope is that people consume our art and then move a bit. The more people watch it, the more people will maybe initiate a peace agreement or something.
If making Josh was a journey for Iram as a first-time filmmaker, all the grassroots promotion she's done has been another adventure in itself. Her enthusiasm and work ethic are impressive and make clear how strongly Iram believes -- as well she should -- in the value of her art.
"I think, as independent artists, we're both artists and business people now," she told me.
There's no two ways about it, so you might as well embrace it. It's very exhausting, but there's a certain amount of empowering that can happen when you work from the ground up. And when you work from the ground up, you build a wide base for yourself. And then maybe even some of the people at the top start paying attention.
Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (updated 10th-anniversary edition, 2014).