Q&A: ‘Pakistani children should have homegrown heroes’

With the country’s first full-length animated film, Oscar-winning filmmaker wants Pakistanis to look for heroes at home.

3 Bahadur - animated Pakistani feature film
The film's heroes battle against Mangu, a mafia boss who is terrorising their town [Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy Films]

Karachi, Pakistan – Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy never thought she’d get this far as a filmmaker when she was an aspiring journalist in the late 1990s.

Back then, she was chasing stories in her native Karachi, writing for a few local newspapers as she had done since she was a teenager.

In 2002, however, she started making the first of what would be a series of award-winning documentaries, covering subjects such as how the Taliban indoctrinate Pakistani children, or tracing the lives and struggles of Pakistan’s transgender citizens.

In 2012, she co-directed and reported “Saving Face”, a film on acid attack survivors in Pakistan, and how they go about reconstructing their lives. The film won an Oscar that year, making Chinoy Pakistan’s first Academy Award winning filmmaker.

Today, however, Chinoy has shifted her gaze slightly, turning her attention towards making her first feature film, “3 Bahadur” [3 Heroes]. The country’s first full-length animated feature film follows the story of three children – and their dog – who take on a local mafia boss in the small, fictional Pakistani town of Roshan Basti,Town of Light.

The move was part of an wider effort, she said, to produce a new narrative in Pakistan, one that is directed inwards, towards giving Pakistani children local heroes to look up to, and the belief in themselves to stand up against injustice.

Chinoy spoke to Al Jazeera of the challenges of making the film, how important it is to have homegrown heroes, and how pop culture can drive changes in social norms.

Al Jazeera: Why did you shift from documentary filmmaking to feature filmmaking? 

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy: I make documentary films for television and for the cinema in the West. There is no market for documentary films in Pakistan. I have a lot of expertise and a rich body of work, and I feel sad that it cannot be shared here in this country.

So, I thought that there’s got to be a medium that I can use that can have social messaging, that reaches out to adults and children at the same time, and that is entertaining.

And my own personal agenda, of course, is that I want kids 10 or 15 years from now to grow up and say that 3 Bahadur were their heroes, or that we laid the foundation for how they see themselves as heroes in their own country.

The three heroes start the film as ordinary schoolchildren, but discover superpowers as they take on the mafia [Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy Films]
The three heroes start the film as ordinary schoolchildren, but discover superpowers as they take on the mafia [Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy Films]

Al Jazeera: How important is it to have homegrown animated content?

Chinoy: All the content that comes to Pakistan is in a language that is foreign to a large percentage of the population in this country. 3 Bahadur has done remarkably well at the box office because it is in Urdu, a language that transcends socioeconomic classes in Pakistan.

Why shouldn’t they [the characters] look and feel like they come from Karachi, or Lahore, or from amongst our own. And why shouldn’t we reflect our problems and our solutions through film?

Al Jazeera: In making films which aim to make a social change, is it easier in a fictional environment?

Chinoy: Absolutely! With fiction you can take so much leeway, which with non-fiction you cannot.

You can see people fighting over water, or the lack of it, on a news item, for example. But in the film, we explain the whole “tanker mafia” [a private water distribution system that siphons off public water and sells it to citizens].

And when we explain it, kids get it.

Somebody called us and said that their child saw a tanker on the street, and said “Mama look, Mangu [the main villain in 3 Bahadur] is stealing our water!”

Now that’s a very powerful thing. He understands that the water is not meant to be sold. It should be a right for every citizen.

Al Jazeera: Is there a gender message with the character of Amna, one of the story’s heroes who has the power of speed?

Chinoy: We stood outside so many cinemas as kids came out, we’ve recorded all of these responses, and the girls, they just feel so empowered to say that “We are Amna”.

It’s nice for a young girl in Pakistan to see herself as a girl who runs. As a girl who is physically active, versus just using her brain.

The films henchmen range from the outright evil to the comically incompetent [Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy Films]
The films henchmen range from the outright evil to the comically incompetent [Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy Films]

Al Jazeera: Do you believe that  these messages will bring about any social change?

Chinoy: Social change does not happen overnight, and in a country like Pakistan, I don’t know if social change is possible in my generation.

But what this does is get children to think. And if we can get children just to think, maybe the next time they see something, or experience something, something clicks for them, and they remember and learn something from the messaging that we had in the film.

Al Jazeera: Reaching an audience from different economic backgrounds is also important for social change. Is the film reaching a diverse audience?

Chinoy: It’s been across the board – [from] the guy who tore my boarding pass to board a flight two weeks ago, [who] said that his children loved 3 Bahadur, to the waiter at a restaurant who had said that he and his friends had gone to watch 3 Bahadur, to the guy who drove my taxi from the airport in Lahore and told me that his kids wanted to watch the film.

The kind of areas that have done remarkably well for 3 Bahadur are [the smaller Pakistani cities] like Gujranwala, Multan, Gujarat, Hyderabad and Rawalpindi.

Al Jazeera: Was it difficult to make the country’s first full-length animated feature?

Chinoy: We couldn’t afford to pay [the team] the same rate that some of the bigger Pakistani animation companies could.

But, what I told them was that they were going to be part of Pakistan’s history.

Even 30 or 40 years from now, if someone writes about Pakistani cinema, they will have to write about 3 Bahadur because it is the first Pakistani animated film.

I talked to them about creating local heroes for their kids. I also spoke to them about being part of history.I think that that resonated a lot with people.

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy believes some Pakistani TV shows perpetuate the negative attitude towards women [Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy Films]
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy believes some Pakistani TV shows perpetuate the negative attitude towards women [Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy Films]

Al Jazeera: Do you think that it is popular culture that dictates social norms, or is it that social norms actually drive the content of popular culture?

Chinoy: I think it’s a circle.

[Popular] culture identifies that there are gaps that need to be addressed. [It] is borne out of this gap.

In addressing this [gap], the content [of popular culture] can come from [the filmmakers’] personal push.

Al Jazeera: Yet, is popular culture driven by social norms as well?

Chinoy: I think that people do also perpetuate stereotypes through popular culture.

For example, our television shows, perpetuate woman-on-woman violence … this idea that modern women who work are not good spouses.

I actually think that [these] television shows … do a huge disservice to this country.

A lot of these shows perpetuate the idea that being dumb actually makes women attractive.

I find that offensive.

I think that actually, women are very smart, and they should use their intellect to further themselves, their families and their children in life.

Why do you have to pretend to have less of an IQ to be successful or attractive in this country?

Chinoy’s comments have been edited for clarity and length.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera