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There is a Star in My Hand

October 5, 2010

a close friend told me this year that i had always made plans of being a filmmaker. apparently, during our first year of university, i had showed him a poster of a film i wanted to make in karachi.

what he probably didn’t remember was that i had also long harbored dreams of captaining the national cricket team, of writing the Great Pakistani Novel, of being a desi Jim Morrison, of doing and dreaming all the things that young people dream of doing.

filmmaking was not some passion or obsession for me. i was more interested in being famous – not in a paris hilton kind of way, but being famous for having done something spectacular. to be an artist. my mother would tell me that the lines in my hands crossed to make a star. her father, a famous poet had the same star. she would tell me i was fated to be great.

it didn’t take me long to realise that all mothers have such ambitions for their children. but the whole idea of fate was not something which readily escaped me. and in fact, this story is as much about fate as anything else.

because while i never seriously planned to make a career out of films, i did care enough about them that when i met a girl who liked a movie i was crazy about, i decided to marry her. when i graduated from university, i had no plans either, but that same girl convinced her brother to get a job for me at the news channel he worked for.

malcolm gladwell argues that the truly great spend at least 10,000 hours honing their skills before they make it big. i may not have spent that much time editing, shooting and producing at the channel, but they were the best thing that could have happened to me.

too many filmmakers are film students, who arrive at the trade as students, not apprentices. their heads are crammed with theories and inspirations from famous directors, cinematographers, sound designers, editors. they forever approach these tools – these cameras and editing suites – as something to venerate, something where every gesture must have a meaning. and soon, they drown themselves in a morass of smug, boring, insufferable films which relate only to other ‘insider’ films.

but for me, i was editing for other people, producing and directing according to the dictates of the program, following the highly restrictive paradigms of the news package. and so i kept learning new things not because sven nyqivist or woody allen swore by them, but because they were tools i was learning to use.

perhaps it is churlish to describe this as fate, but this is my story, not yours. also, if you’re still not convinced. wait till you hear the next one.

after two years, i had begun to grow frustrated. frustrated by the state of journalism, frustrated of watching so much i was meant to care for but couldn’t, frustrated of being trapped in 40 minute shows and 3 minute packages, frustrated of thinking about the ‘message’ and frustrated by the internal politics of the organization.

safieh, who was now my fiance, got both of us to apply for our masters. only i didn’t know what to do, so i chose journalism courses. i figured that being a journalist in one of the most happening countries – news-wise – in the world, would probably mean the acceptances would come rolling in. after all, colleagues had gotten into prestigious ivy league schools with a lot less experience. but safieh told me to widen the horizon a bit, so i applied to two other places for fun.

despite letters of recommendations from some of the top journalists in the country, i didn’t get into a single school out of the dozen or so i applied to. the only places which accepted me were the only two film programs i applied to.

what was it you were saying about fate?

“Welcome to Tarantino-land”

to understand how clueless i was at film school, one needs to look no further than the story of me and quentin tarantino.

but first, some background.

i have this perverse dichotomy when it comes to films and music – two things i’ve always been really interested in. i find it very difficult to rate contemporary western or pop music, or admire it, as much as that from the more classical era of the 60s etc.

with films its the reverse – i have always avoided old films like the plague, and loved watching newer stuff.  to understand the extent of this, take the fact that even after a year of an MA in film, i’ve yet to see a complete film by orson welles OR alfred hitchcock. you can kill me now.

out of all the newer films i loved, no director compared in my mind to tarantino. i absolutely adored his films, particularly the first two – pulp fiction and reservoir dogs. the spitfire dialogue, the fractured narratives, the superb music, the twists and turns, the outlandish characters.

so imagine my absolute shock when i arrived at film school to learn that tarantino’s claim to critical fame, the reason he stunned cannes and wowed the world was his largely due to his use of intertextuality.* i mean all the other things were great, but they were the icing on the cake, the gravy on the steak, the afterthoughts in the minds and eyes of the cineaste.

(* to those of you going ‘inter-what?’ i’ve explained this here and here.)

but seriously.

i’d never known that his films were so chock-a-block with references and homages and rip-offs. i had barely recognized the apparently obvious spoofs and parodies and pastiches which made the films so wondrous for their audiences.

now of course, this was a delicious example of post-colonial, postmodern, globalization mumbo-jumbo. how was i supposed to know about uma thurman’s haircut in pulp fiction? none of the references were to my immediate culture, and many were from those old films i have always avoided. in fact, i even began to revise my feelings about the tarantino films i had loved, for i felt an odd humiliation of having thought i enjoyed them when i didn’t even realise what was going on.

over time though, i learnt two things. firstly, no matter how important the theories and ideas behind a film, it has to connect with its audience. that’s what happened with me and pulp fiction et al., and that’s the most important, basic rule that everyone must learn.

every film is going to be watched, and as such, it must respect, or acknowledge that relationship. it has to connect, and a great film can connect with many audiences, and live in many contexts.

secondly, this intertextuality thing was what was missing in pakistan.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Nabeel permalink
    October 9, 2010 04:24

    Great post – I loved reading it, and am curious to see the references in Sasi Masti. I can’t remember a complete Lollywood production, so can’t comment on intertextuality there, but I’m fairly certain it must exist in some form of Pakistani content – probably in TV serials at least!

  2. October 12, 2010 05:59

    If intertextuality means multiple narratives twisting through each other, it has been applied in Pakistan. Jinnah. And some people worried when it came out that it was the facet of having multiple narratives moving back and forth that made it a difficult to follow over 70+ minutes for our aam awam. I would think it would be because Akbar S Ahmad’s film was kinda, well, stale.

    • October 12, 2010 13:43

      my knowledge on intertextuality is rather wikipedia-esque, but fractured or multiple narratives are not necessarily a feature of intertextuality in of themselves. i could be wrong though.

      however, i have seen intertextuality in paki cinema before – both intentional and unintentional. as for Jinnah, i never ended up seeing it so can’t comment on its staleness, but working with twisting storylines is quite the bitch, because you lose momentum every time you switch gears, and have to draw in the audience all over again. it was one of the reasons i kept a lot of this film simple, so that you wouldn’t get lost or have to concentrate very hard to follow it. the more “intellectual” things are i suppose hidden in the dialogues and the scenes.

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