Iram Parveen Bilal is a Physics Olympian turned filmmaker. Her first film was, Josh and it won 2012 Women in Film awardee. She was also selected for the Women In Film/Sundance Financier’s Intensive Program and is a co-chair on the Asian American Writer’s Committee at the Writer’s Guild of America.
Iram has recently founded Qalambaaz; Pakistan’s first professional screenwriting lab. Team Media Spring PK had the honor to have a conversation with this talented filmmaker and entreprenure from Pakistan. Here is what she has to say as response to our questions.
[Interview] 11 Questions with Iram Parveen Bilal
- Tell us something about your educational background, how was the experience of attending California Institute of Technology?
Iram: I have always been a certified nerd. In fact if you ask my high school buddies would they have expected me to be a filmmaker, most of them will start off by telling you what a math and science geek I was. I still am. Proudly. Caltech was tough. I was the first undergraduate woman from Pakistan. I was the youngest of the house and headed 2 months after my 17th birthday, half across the world, to an institute that is famed to break you down and build you back up. It is the prime research institute that boasted the greats, Einstein, Feynman, roaming its hallways. The crème de la crème of science is at school with you and you realize you are not that special. Or that, this is the new norm, that you are just another smart topper. Everyone else is too. That year, Caltech was world no.1 according to US news and world report. I had to take a deep breath and just realize that it was about running your own race, not always competing. Good life lessons. It also taught me that I didn’t enjoy the life of a cutting edge scientist. Hence the segue to something else.
- What the factor that took you from engineering to filmmaking?
Iram: I loved film. Grew up on Bollywood. I loved performance. I loved dance; the stage. My junior year at Caltech, I got an award for people at cross roads between science and something else. I decided to use that for a summer film production class at the Uni of Sussex. Indeed, I had the bug. Then I applied to USC film school and got in. I think for an Asian kid like me, that structure was important. I doubt I would have become a filmmaker without having gone to school like I did. Though in retrospect, I don’t think filmmakers need to go to film schools. You’re a storyteller if you’re a storyteller.
- How did Josh come into being? How was the experience? And how it was like to shoot a film in Pakistan?
Iram: JOSH started off with the kernel of Parveen Saeed, a character we were studying when I was working on the Bhutto [Benazir] documentary that went to Sundance 2010. It was a desire to tell Parveen’s story but not in a documentary form, and hence JOSH began. During the scripting it became about a lot more things, like the youth movement, the Pakistani spring etc etc. When we shot JOSH, very few films were being made. In fact, we were the first to shoot 100 cards on Jami’s camera EVER [we rented from him], so it was hard because there was no infrastructure and almost everyone on the crew had done nothing more than commercials. So the marathon of filmmaking was new to them. Furthermore, we were on a limited budget so we didn’t have the luxury of multiple shooting spells or excessive reshooting. We had to get it right, as right as we good, in the first go and in limited takes. We shot the film in 35 days. Despite reshoots because of bad lenses, we didn’t go over budget because we had gained a few days by working efficiently. People were a bit shocked at how organized we were. Haha! It was an exercise of amazing program management from the age of 26 – age of 29. I had to raise the budget right after the financial crash of 2008 and it somehow all fell into place. It helped me grow tremendously. And given the odds of making that film and the notoriety it has received, dare I say, I’m extremely proud of it.
- You have been a science student, and now you are working in the field of arts, do you think that the science and arts have a connection that many people cannot realise?
Iram: They do. Einstein, Feynman, Van Gogh, Archimedes, all these scholars dabbled in both the arts and sciences. They are connected in the primal question of “where do we come from and where will we go?”. Both those questions are at the core of “research”, art or science, the desire to understand the human race and our place in this universe.
- Who is your inspiration?
Iram: My mother and my husband. I don’t have a specific director that I’m crazy about. I like Julie Taymor, I like Winterbottom, Danny Boyle, Sriram Raghavan, Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bharadwaj, Shoaib Mansoor, Jacques Audiard. All of them. My ultimate favorite actor in terms of his craft though, is Daniel Day Lewis. Hands down. I can’t wait to work with him.
- As a filmmaker can you tell that what kind of Pakistan people want to see in films? Is our cinema showing the right image of Pakistan?
Iram: Frankly, no. But what is “right”? Fiction films or movies, aren’t documentaries. We like to romanticize in movies. But that’s not Pakistan’s fault. That’s the nature of cinema everywhere. We want to see what we aspire to be. That’s what you see in the bubble gum films of today. They are always slick and clean, whether it is a WAAR, a KARACHI SE LAHORE. Then there are films like JOSH, Zinda Bhaag, Wrong Number, Na Maloom Afraad (haven’t seen the last two but have heard that they are gritty) that depict the real scenery. I’m a fan of showcasing a real Pakistan to the rest of the world because they are curious. Why take away the uniqueness and spice of street life in an effort to look slick and bland? I remember there’s a dolly shot in a song sequence in JOSH where PPP is painted on a telephone box behind Akbar Subhani who plays a painter on a street, and my sound guy asked me to reframe [total protocol bust btw!] since it didn’t look “nice” and clean. I told him that’s what I’m trying to show. I’m bringing Pakistan to people since they can’t come to Pakistan. JOSH was first made for international audiences and then for Pakistan. It was a slice of life.
- How would you describe Pakistani film industry? Do you see it rising with all the influx of more films being produced by it?
Iram: It is definitely rising and I’m very proud of it. I’m just cautious to not do only Bollywood rip offs and self-celebrating propaganda films; not to just do boy-buddy comedy and so-called “masala”. There should be all kinds of films being made BUT with a special attention to story. Make a comedy, make a drama, make a thriller but make sure it is a good story. As of lately, there was a film that appalled me because they had spent so much money marketing and pushing it down people’s throats touting it to be reaching Pakistan’s biggest box office numbers, but I felt there wasn’t as much attention employed in making the story work. Hence Qalambaaz and the desire to bring it all down to the basic of script. If you don’t have a good script, you will NEVER make an engaging film. You just can’t fix it in post. Films are a bit scientific too, you know. 😉
- As a female filmmaker in Pakistan, what are the challenges you face?
Iram: I think fundraising. But that’s not just Pakistan. That’s a global issue. It is hard for people to trust women with big budgets for some reason. It is always a “bro” club. That’s the reality in Hollywood, Bollywood, everywhere. In fact, I’ve been very fortunate to get some amazing male investors and distributors who wouldn’t be the typical profile of what you would expect to support a young woman, but they did. So stereotypes also have to be taken with a grain of salt.
- Tell us about Qalambaaz? What it is about? How did the idea of Qalambaaz came along? And how do you think it will help our film and TV industry?
Iram: Qalambaaz is a six month long remote screenwriting workshop where mentees are paired with mentors and they develop their ideas into full length scripts. It was just an idea I had since I wanted to help influence the kind of stories we tell beyond my own efforts and I kept getting inundated with young filmmakers wanting to intern with me. Not having a production company that runs everyday, but runs from project to project, that was hard. Hence this program. I had a network that was easily leveraged , everyone wanted to come on board with the pure intention of helping and mentoring and so Alhamdulillah, it fell together promptly. I think it will support the underdogs in at least getting their films developed and wherever these fellows go, they would have had some solid time to think of the semantics of a script. Scripts are not what you throw together on set or fix in the edit. Sure people have done that but none of the classics of cinema, globally, came about like that. I want us to aspire to that quality. Hence the initiation of the Oscar Committee, hence Qalambaaz. I want Pakistan to be internationally represented on a cinema level. This is why I’m constantly recommending films also to international festivals. A lot of programmers have approached and continue to approach me for recommendations. All of us must help each other rise and strengthen, to encourage this revival.
Also read: Pakistani Filmmaker Iram Parveen Bilal To Teach Screenplay Writing Through Professional Development Program – Qalambaaz
- Independent film making and now we can say mentoring with Qalambaaz, what can we expect from Iram Parveen Bilal in future?
Iram: I just like to execute my visions. So whatever I dream of next, I’ll hope to make it happen. Also, I’m a filmmaker, not an independent filmmaker. It has just happened that so far, I haven’t done a studio film but that doesn’t mean that is not ever going to be in the works. J I resist labels.
- Any new film projects? And when can we see them on screen?Iram
: I directed an English Language science comedy, this January, in the vain of Big Bang Theory that is hitting screens internationally this fall. It is called THE PHD MOVIE: STILL IN GRAD SCHOOL, a comedy exploring the trials of a life in academia. It is based on the hugely popular (7 million+ viewers!) online comic strip, PHD COMICS. I’ll be travelling with it as well as working on my next venture as a writer/director. It is called FORBIDDEN STEPS, a film to be shot in Chicago in June 2016 insha’Allah. We are in casting and packaging phases. Some very exciting names already attached from Pakistan/US/India. It will be a truly international film showcasing the struggles of a liberal Pakistani American family living in Chicago. It is my first script that I wrote back in film school and I’ve been tinkering with it for the past 8 years. I decided I wanted my first feature to be purely Pakistani and hence went off and made JOSH first. This script has been endorsed by various film organizations in the US, India and Nepal. A huge Pakistani music band is doing the music. But I don’t like to announce things till I have it all in the can. So keep the project and I in your positive thoughts. Fingers and toes crossed.