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Sabiha Sumar: on her journey through her films

By Asis Sethi Monday, Sep 18, 2017 10:33: AM

Khamosh Pani was some time ago but it was one of the bravest films I saw back at that time. Fourteen years later, Azmaish, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, comes out. The film almost seems as a continuation of where Khamosh Pani ended. Sabiha Sumar, the director of such phenomenal work, indicates that this thought process hits on something very important and looks at it this way, “I too feel, looking at my work in hindsight, that I have been concerned with a journey of a set of questions, and then that set keeps growing. With each film, I’m exploring a new concept and in turn, I’m growing. Each one of my films is very connected.” She explains that Khamosh Pani is connected to a Dinner with the President, which is connected to Good Morning Karachi, which is in turn connected to Azmaish. When we go back, we can then piece together the four films as part of the same quest, a growing quest, a growing concern that is being expressed in different ways, with different characters, using different tools.

I hate suggesting sequel to Sabiha because the term has become loosely used, but it seems that it is a journey. But when we get to 
Azmaish, I’m curious to find out where the title ultimately came from. Sabiha explains that when they tried to find an English translation for Azmaish, they couldn’t really find a good one – one of the titles explored was the Trial of Life, but that title did not capture the spiritual journey, and the meaning of that journey. This is a journey that we are learning from, she says, and it is a journey we are growing from, and we are evolving from it.

She tries explaining the concept vis-à-vis using the example of old stories. It is the idea that God is giving you a tyrant and that’s an “azmaish” for the people. Like the small little stories that we had, very often having stories about kings and rulers, and it was the time when people would be crying and asking to be saved from a treacherous ruler. They are being asked to be saved from their children being killed, or from taxes, or they are going hungry. But the people soon learn that this is a test for them. They must go through this journey no matter how hard this journey may be – that’s a test of their inner self and how they go through this journey. All of these elements and how you come out of the journey is part of this.

An essential part of 
Azmaish, of course, is the outspoken Kalki Koechlin. Sabiha tells us how it all happened, “We met and it was a coincidence. I told her that I was making this film and I was looking for someone in India who I need to help with that area of the film. I told her to look at my work and if she was interested, we could talk further. I think she liked the fact that it was a conversation and not a political seminar where you ask questions and you know the answers. It was a new approach and she was comfortable with it. I also wanted to work with somebody who was deeply concerned about what was happening in the countries but also did not have a very journalistic approach to it.”

The film allowed for questions for myself, Sabiha, and Kalki to ask questions as to why things were happening, how they were happening, and what we could possibly do. Kalki and I could commiserate, Sabiha said, and so she decided to participate in the film.

And, of course I ask, is there also a sense of bringing people together by showing similarities between India and Pakistan, two states which always seem to be at odds with each other, at least on a political level? Sabiha comments that she thinks it goes even beyond India and Pakistan. Thoughtful in her answer, she says, “the film is showing the common humanity that we share with the world. We all have concerns about the safety of our children, food, water, and how we live our lives. And what do we contribute to our journeys. It is, of course, about India and Pakistan, but I hope the film will be seen as a broader perspective, and that we are being ruled by a very narrow sense of politicism and patriotism that is taking over what should be broader perspective.”

She talks about the notion we all live through, which forces us to confine to the norms of certain territories, to the exclusion of others. Sabiha goes onto say that the exclusion is a reality that each one of us goes through in different parts of the world, who are facing these situations. What I want to be able to achieve through the film, she says, is to ask ourselves very fundamental questions about where we stand and why we stand there.

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