Pakistani mountaineer Samina Baig is the first woman to summit K2, Pakistani squash player Maria Toorpakai Wazir disguised herself as a boy for many years to compete and win in traditional male sports. Maria won weightlifting competitions against boys, she is now a professional squash player. The young girl who sold boiled eggs in Malam Jabba learnt how to ski with the help of makeshift skis held together by local material and constructed by her brother, and you know what, she was hearing and speech impaired too, but that didn’t stop her. Her coach now says she has a promising career ahead of her. Wheelchair activist and celebrity Muniba Mazari delivers TED Talks, provides hope to millions of children and advocates for wheelchair persons every day, Ayesha Malik is the first female Supreme Court judge to come out of Pakistan and that too, in 2022, Amna Baig Assistant Superintendent Police took oath as divisional officer recently, Sana Mir, Bisma Maroof are legends in the halls of cricket, Hajra Khan, the Pakistani football captain stands tall, Arooj Aftab, Laraib Ata, Sara Gill, the list is exhaustive.
But here we are, wondering why our cinemas are lost for stories. The only substantial narrative, correct me if I’m wrong, was Lt General Nigar Johar played by Mahira Khan recently. We are not lost for stories, we are lost for writers who want to tell the stories and production houses who want to put their money behind them. Audiences are not to be blamed if all they get to see in house is a hero, heroine having a pillow fight with feathers flying all over the room – oh the challenge to depict romance in a ‘family way’. Yes, pun intended!
You tell me if narratives shape stories and lives or vice versa?
We are big on Muslim representation and telling our stories – which is great and achieves a high (er) purpose for sure. And we also have a foot in the door, with Hollywood and Ms. Marvel doing the success rounds, we also witnessed an immensely proud moment at the Cannes Film Festival when Alina Khan stepped onto the red carpet, on a global stage but let’s not rest on our laurels. How about we stop relying on the west and start by telling our own stories?
Pakistan needs to set the ground rules instead of crying foul every time we are misrepresented, or someone else tells our story first.
You ask me how?
There are many places to start. Let’s begin by talking about the women who have fought patriarchy, or struggled through a personal impediment to achieve milestones that not only serve to inspire others but also serve as shining examples for our youth. And you know what, these aren’t fictitious people. In telling Hajra Khan’s, the Pakistani female football Captain’s story, we will not only showcase our young talent to the world, but to our own children as well, this is what cool looks like, and it’s achievable because it’s not made up, someone’s already done it, someone who looks just like you, someone who might share similar life challenges as you.
Our real-life superheroes can be so much more believable than the ones we dream up from scratch.
A Note For Pakistani Filmmakers
We have a film industry that is struggling to keep up with a wildly expanding entertainment space, ranging from OTT platforms, and dramas, to cinemas, to stage. We are prey to rising cinema tickets as well as an audience who will refuse to go watch a film that does not cast Mahira Khan, Humayun Saeed, Fahad Mustafa, Saba Qamar etc etc. That is the truth of filmmakers, and I understand it is a hard truth. I mean, as one Pakistani filmmaker put it, we are not Disney that we can cast an unknown face like Iman Vellani, catapult her into the Marvel universe and actually get mileage, huge mileage – we are Pakistani cinema that still needs to fill the box office by playing the faces we know (another article on reverse ageism coming up, wait for it).
So here’s the deal, why not employ the faces we love, to tell the stories that people will love? Is that a hard bargain to drive? Entertainment industries all over the world have been doing the same for ages. So why do we shy away from our real-life heroes? I mean, the Queen’s Gambit initiated an entire buying spree on online chess games and sales on offline chess boards. Can you even imagine what the life and times of Hockey player Hassan Sardar would play like, does our youth even know that he and his cronies (The Pakistani Hockey team) brought home the Olympic Gold for us? What would a biopic like that do for the future of Hockey in Pakistan? The sky is the limit.
So here’s the win for Pakistani filmmakers, why not play it safe with your casting, just like Nigar Johar, get your superstars to play the role but write the roles that are already telling stories! Can you imagine a biopic on cricketer Sana Mir? Can you even begin to imagine how many young girls and parents will be inspired by the life story of a young girl whose neighbors warned her parents to keep her off the cricket field, and now, the same neighbors are inquiring about how to enroll their daughters in the game?
That’s the punch it packs – a real-life story with real-life wins. I mean, you remember Dangal right? We watched it for all the right reasons, and btw, that wasn’t Alia Bhatt playing the lead, although Aamir Khan playing Mahavir Singh Phogat (an Indian amateur wrestler), made his presence felt, but gracefully allowed space for Sanya Malhotra aka Babita Kumari, the female wrestler in the movie to allow full range and playing field. The story was loosely based on the original but inspired a narrative that moved many.
Imagine the takeaway of playing a young girl who dreamed of becoming a senior police officer and she did. The challenges she faced in her young days, her wins, and her losses will resonate with so many young girls. Not just that, imagine how many young girls will gather the courage to follow in her footsteps. And how many parents will gather up the courage to send their girls for police training?
I realize that telling real stories will also mean opening up real issues to the face of the world. Like opening a pandora’s box on patriarchy, unfair advantage, etc, but then, it is the same system that facilitated the success of the same story right, and those heroes that made it happen must be lauded, and on a stage. If even one man helped support a woman at work and made her story count, that man must be appreciated and held up as a role model for young men to have something to aspire to.
Our youth does not have real-life heroes to look up to, but not because they don’t exist but because their stories haven’t been told yet. I wonder if any filmmaker is up to the task to ditch that script on the ‘next city to visit,’ the next superhero to have supernatural forces, and instead turn towards real-life superheroes with real-life forces – the will, determination, and grit to succeed beyond all odds – when I read of a young girl who traveled many miles by bus every morning to school, standing for hours on end (because there was no room to sit on the bus), and she then achieved her dream of enrolling in the police force, when I listen to the story of a young girl and her father, facilitating her desire to become a squash player in the very tribal region of Northern Pakistan, against all odds, I will know that I can too.
The fault dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our stories that we are underlings. Tell the story and help uplift your youth to do things they always imagined they would, but felt they couldn’t.
They will surprise you, and themselves, … and do them – such is the astonishing power of a really powerful real-life story!