Nazo Dharejo became a bit of a local legend in Sindh back in 2012.
It was then that she, along with her two daughters defended their agricultural land from the 200 heavily armed men that sought to claim it as a part of a familial feud.
The dacoits probably thought to themselves that the land was as good as theirs, since they were up against women and outnumbered the other side.
Little did they know what they had coming their way.
Out on September 15 in UK cinemas, My Pure Land focuses on the long, dramatic standoff itself and the true events that led up to it. Give it up for Pakistani women who fight the patriarchy.
The film marks British-Pakistani director Sam Masud’s debut and boy, does it seem like one to watch. That being said, how did he stumble on her story?
Images spoke to the director to find out.
1) How are you responding to the feedback for My Pure Land?
Sam Masud (SM): It’s tricky because – I had the idea in 2013. I spent 2014 raising the money for the film and we began filming in March/April 2015 and this is 8 September 2017 and people still haven’t seen it. It’s a long process: you’ve gone from raising money for the film to actually seeing it release and then getting into a cinema.
And you forget why you actually woke up in the middle of the night to tell the story. But then people see it and come out of the cinema crying and connect with the film and that’s when you actually remember. Oh yeah. This is why I wanted to tell the story.
What I have noticed now is that the story isn’t mine anymore, it’s yours. I’ve done my bit and it would mean a lot to me if someone in Pakistan or someone in Yorkshire would see the film and connect with it. That would mean a lot to me. I’m incredibly humbled and excited by what’s happening.
2) How did you find out about Nazo Dharejo? Have you gone to the place, seen the person?
SM: I was googling, yeah (short laugh). Originally I was thinking of making a film along the lines of Copland so I was googling police corruption. And stories of police corruption in Pakistan. I came across this and it was amazing. One woman defending her land before two hundred men, that was amazing.
And we’re calling it a ‘western’ because that genre is easily transferable to Pakistan because of the lawlessness stories, the police being corrupt. I emailed Saba Imtiaz and Samir Mandhro, I spoke a lot to Samir, I spoke to Nazo Baji and her husband Zulfiqar. They’re such honorable people. They read the script. He thought it was an action film! But I hope that when you see it, you’ll realize that it’s more than just an action film.
3) How accurate is the film? In terms of location, language and characters?
SM: There’s a couple of things. It’s really difficult to condense someone’s life in 90 minutes of film. There’s something people say: if you want the facts, go to a historian. If you want to know how it felt, give it to a dramatist or a novelist. And that was my job. To tell you how it felt for that girl to be surrounded by all those people, defending her home.
I think if you walk out of that film without feeling what that girl felt, without laughing, without crying, I’ll give you all the money back myself. It is more honest than any film you’ll see in Pakistan.
We found actors who were happy to not have makeup on their faces, to not have green contact lenses and bleached skin – and with the dialog as well, I was adamant that the actors did not speak the way that they spoke in the tv dramas. Actors sometimes tend to believe, that every line or dialog as an excuse to show how good they are. And I tell them, trust your audience, ‘cause they are smart.
I’d tell them to believe in a thing called subtext. The audience are wise, they will know. And they’re probably like, “Pata nahi kidher se ye larka agaya hai!” (where has this boy come from!) What kinda film is this! What kinda director is this! I’d love to see their reaction when they see the film now
4) Does a woman holding a klashnikov implicitly say she’s a feminist? How closely do you view the relationship between this reactionary violence, that Nazo Dharejo ultimately had to take up arms, and feminism? A lot of coverage that your film got was that it was slated as a feminist film. But as a filmmaker, as a creator and as someone who has taken up this subject, how close is the relationship that these two elements have?
SM I think that’s a very good question. It’s a tough one to answer, isn’t it? It is being marketed as a feminist film and into the feminist western genre so that people know oh yeah I know what that is. It’s interesting that it’s being pigeon-holed as that, but there’s so much more to it. Whether a woman holding a gun is defined as a feminist film, I don’t know. For me, feminism and Islam and Pakistan aren’t oxymorons.
There are such strong women in Pakistan and we can talk for hours about how in a patriarchal society we are producing women like Benazir Bhutto, Abida Parveen, Sanam Marvi and Suhaee Abro – so in term of iconography, it was important for me to have a Pakistani woman, with or without the headscarf asserting her position. But what this film does is start this conversation about feminism and that’s great for me.
5) Can you talk about the cast a little bit, especially the lead character who plays Nazo Dharejo?
SM: We were fortunate to find her and the rest of our cast. We were a week before filming and we still hadn’t found our Nazo. I kept meeting these girls with contact lenses and very bright, light skin, over-the-top dialog. For me, the essence of filmmaking is truth. Your actress must believe that she is that girl, who lived in that village. Somebody showed me her photo and I said she looks interesting.
We had a Skype audition and my Skype is rubbish and it looks like a watercolor painting. She flew in from Karachi the next day. And as soon as she walked in, I knew she was the one. She had a bit of dialog to read and I was like, “What do you think?” And she said, “It wasn’t very good.” And she was the only actress in the process to say that it wasn’t good, and that she was self-critical.
I was like, don’t worry about it. You already got the role. We were so fortunate to get Tanveer Bhai to get on board and I can’t believe that man’s not acting more in Pakistan.
6) What was the most difficult part about shooting in Pakistan? Many Pakistan based scenes are often shot in other countries, in some movies, which sometimes becomes a cheap imitation of what Pakistan is, in real. How important was it for you to shoot in Pakistan and did at any point you say, oh my God what did I get myself into?
SM: All of the above. It was REALLY important for me to shoot in Pakistan. I raised some of the money myself and right towards the end, Bill Kenwright came in and put rest of the money in. I was adamant to shoot in Pakistan. I wanted Pakistanis to be proud of it and South Asians to be proud of it. Even though I’ve been brought up here but I have such a strong affinity to Pakistan.
I asked my dad about it sometimes, what is it, why do you love the country so much, there are so many problems, and he said it’s the mitti. The soil. And if I’m making a film about space, I know that I don’t have to make it in space – but if I am making a film about My Pure Land, I’ll try to make sure I’ve made a film on the Pakistani soil.
7) What have been your favorite movies to come out of Pakistani cinema in the past ten years?
SM: I do my best to keep up. I struggle with them sometimes. I’d say the work done by Jami. Dukhtar. Zinda Bhaag. Saawan. I think Nabeel Qureshi is a very good filmmaker. He looks like he’s learnt his craft and he takes the audience on a journey. My dad and I watched NaMaloom Afraad and Actor in Law. You know I’d love to get Atif Aslam to get one of his songs in.
8) Are you tempted to do any big budget, mainstream masala films for Pakistani screens? The big Bollywood style – the classic South Asian cinema is, with the songs and the dance and the fanfare and the music and the dance.
SM: I don’t know. It would depend on the story for me. I’ve gotta care about the person, the character, and it’s all gotta work. I think it’s a bit unfair when people watch a Bollywood film and say that’s got too many songs. That’s the genre. You can’t watch a horror film and say it’s got too many murders.
9) Do you think you could ever foray into that area?
SM: I worked with Kabir Khan on Phantom, and it was epic to see them work on that scale. And I grew up in the 80s and I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg is the greatest filmmaker of all time. So it would have to be a combination of both. East meets West.
10 What kind of an impact are you hoping for the film to make for Pakistani audiences?
SM: I hope people are proud of it. I think it’s important for films like this to come out. And it’s important for filmmakers to be vocal and present to be in the public eye and there aren’t many Pakistani-British filmmakers making films that are shown in the UK cinemas. And we’re getting great coverage in papers like The Guardian, which is big in the UK and it’s not associated or news for child abuse or honor killing but promoting a film.
Ultimately, I hope it finds an audience in Pakistan who are prepared to be entertained, to find it engaging and find it an interesting film which it is.
11) What’s next in the pipeline for you?
SM: I’m trying to do a feel-good sports film in the UK, an underdog sports film. I also want to make two more stories that I want to work on in Pakistan but I want to see how My Pure Land gets the kind of response. I’m hoping for a rich uncle to sponsor me and give me money!
This interview appeared in Dawn Images in September 2017.