The fortunes of Pakistani film have been tied up with its neighbour’s film industry, Bollywood, but can it go it alone?
When Sarmad Masud was filming “My Pure Land” in rural Pakistan, a film exploring three women’s battle over a home in Sindh, life imitated art.
Disputes over land in Pakistan are common and often become dangerous, even deadly. When an elder, home or land-owning family member dies, a conflict over property rights ensues.
Nearby the set, a familial argument over who should inherit a home exploded. A brother killed his sibling. As the funeral procession for the slain brother got under way, Masud, a British-Pakistani, continued filming the story he had chosen to highlight.
Hailed as a groundbreaking Pakistani feminist western, My Pure Land tells the tale of Nazo Dhajero, the most powerful force of a female trio fighting to protect the family home as her father and brother languish in jail.
Alongside her younger sister Saeda and mother Waderi Jamzadi, she picks up a gun and attempts to fight off 200 bandits led by a bitter uncle who wants to claim the house.
In September, My Pure Land was nominated to represent Britain in the foreign-language Oscar race.
Al Jazeera speaks to Masud about his debut feature film, his relationship with Pakistan and why he chose Nazo’s story.
Al Jazeera: Five minutes into the film, Haji Khuda Buksh wisely tells his two daughters: “No matter what happens, you need to protect this land. This isn’t just land. This is your honour. How many times do I have to tell you? In this world, nothing is more important than your honour. Not even your life.”
His mother later repeats the line during a moment of battle. Many people hear “Pakistan” and “honour” in the same sentence and immediately think of so-called honour killings. Were you making a comment on the concept of honour?
Masud: I wasn’t making a comment on it, but I think the term has been hijacked. I feel like the word honour is no longer honourable. The association with honour killing is not religious, that’s a strange thing that’s been adopted.
Once people watch it, they will see the earth is really important, to be humble to the earth. That’s where you come from and where you will return. We also wanted to film in Pakistan, for the soil beneath us to be Pakistani.
Al Jazeera: How did you come across Nazo’s story?
Masud: I was going to make a remake of Cop Land. As I was making it, I came across an article in The Express Tribune – “Meet Nazo Dhajero: The toughest woman in Sindh” – and sent the journalists who wrote it an email. That’s how I got to speak to Nazo.
She was a local legend at the time, but that’s all she was. A bit of a footnote in a paper somewhere. Her courage and her strength were impressive. Then the cynical part of my brain kicked in. I thought, “How do we turn this into a film?”
She only had a couple of questions: “Will I be in the film, will there be a song and dance?” She assumed it was a documentary.
Her husband read the script and said: “It’s an action film.” He sends me WhatsApp messages virtually every other day now. They are very humble people. They haven’t seen the film yet. I want to show them on the big screen.
Al Jazeera: Watching the success of your film play out on social media, it seemed as though one minute the trailer was released and the next you were selected as Britain’s Oscar pick. How are you feeling about the film’s journey?
Sarmad Masud: It’s crazy and I’m trying to do my best to enjoy the moment – sitting here talking to you, thinking back to shooting in Pakistan in the 40-degree heat in March and April 2015.
I raised a lot of money myself for the film, the house we filmed was my grandad’s house, we edited it in my spare room, there is a poem in the film by my dad and sung by Sanam Marvi. I don’t think I will ever again make a film that’s as personal to me. It was a journey I could not have imagined before.
I’m trying to make all of Pakistan and the UK proud, that’s really important to me.
I was born in Bradford, and now Bradford and Yorkshire are claiming it as their own. People in Nottingham, where I grew up, claim it as theirs. And London, where I now live and work, claim it’s theirs too.
This is the first Urdu-language film submitted by Britain in the Oscar race.
Al Jazeera: Critics have described your film as a feminist western, a masala western, an arthouse work with action-movie suspense. How do you characterise My Pure Land?
Masud: I don’t know, it’s tough. If you describe a film as a rom-com, people can understand what they’re going to watch. A feminist western gives people a category they can associate with it. But for me, there’s more to it than that.
At its core, it’s a sweet story about the relationship between a father and his daughter. It’s a patriarchal society and despite that, such strong women come out that society. Nazo Dharejo is another woman who threw all conventions out the window. It’s a counter-narrative.
I did think it was a western from the off. It’s a lawless country in that anything can happen, there was the good versus evil element, the badlands of Pakistan, and the landscape is so barren.
Al Jazeera: Do you think the feminist label has stuck because the three main female characters practice gunmanship and because audiences in the West are attracted to stories of the female “badass” in an eastern setting?
Masud: It shouldn’t be, should it? For me, it’s sad we’re talking about whether feminism exists in Pakistan, in Islam. I was talking to someone in the UK about feminism and Islam. Prophet Muhammad’s first wife was a strong businesswoman, and she asked for his hand in marriage more than 1,400 years ago.
Al Jazeera: What’s your relationship with Pakistan? What drew you there?
Masud: Both my parents are from there, As kids, we took it in turns to go back. The madness excited me, the landscape, the people. When I became a filmmaker, I was attracted to go back. When I was younger, I filmed a bad short film there. It was all just full of landscapes.
Pakistan is something within me. I’m proud to be a British Pakistani, it’s an interesting and complicated experience. In the UK, you’re not classed as British and in Pakistan, you’re not Pakistani.
I wanted to shine a light on an aspect of Pakistan, which is very rarely represented accurately on screen.
Al Jazeera: As the child of Pakistani immigrants, do you worry about romanticising your parents’ homeland?
Masud: I don’t have a romantic ideal of the country. When visiting as a child, I was always painfully aware of who to speak to, and who not to speak to. My dad always said, don’t trust anyone.
I ask my parents, why do you love Pakistan? The corruption, the politics, it’s a mess. I’m a huge cricket fan, but stuff even goes wrong with the Pakistani cricket team.
My Dad would always respond with a love and longing of the soil, the birds, the smell of Pakistan. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Al Jazeera: The film is set in Sindh but the characters speak Urdu, not Sindhi. Was this a deliberate choice?
Masud: I was aware of the fact this was based on a true story but I also believe the story is about defending home and land which is universal. I think it might travel better in Urdu. That’s why I didn’t want any landmarks to show where we are in Pakistan, or what period we’re in. Land disputes have been prevalent since the cave-dwelling days, they are now and will be in future.
Al Jazeera: Pakistan’s literal meaning is “land of the pure” and My Pure Land is a translation from Urdu of “Meri Pak Zameen”. Did you consider any other titles?
Masud: There were a couple. The toughest woman in Sindh, Once upon a time in Pakistan.
Al Jazeera: What challenges would you associate with filming in Pakistan?
Masud: It is tough out there. Even when you visit family, you have to re-acclimatise to the climate and madness. It was just me, my wife Caroline Bailey – who is the production designer – and a cameraman who went from England.
The rest of the crew were from Pakistan. We had a local fixer who didn’t know what he was doing. My wife and I were hospitalised at one point. Armed robbers fired at us as we were driving back from set one night.
I do feel people there are not properly trained. I think it’s great there is a revival of Pakistani cinema, but I think we’re still finding our voice. As cinema-goers, people want excitement, something they don’t see every day, a song and dance. When my wife and I went to buy DVDs, we found Orange is the New Black and Newsroom. Pakistan is just full of contradictions.
Al Jazeera: And what’s next for you?
Masud: I will ride this wave out for a while. I’m also working on a feel-good sports film about an underdog.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla