Mehreen Jabbar is the most progressive director of Pakistan. The progressiveness results from the risks she does not hesitate to take regarding any aspect of dramatic storytelling, be it the choice of subject-matters, the style of presentation or the choice of actors for the portrayal of characters. Mehreen started off in the mid-90s with some aesthetically pleasing artistic telefilms such as “Farar”, “Abba, Amma aur Ali”, “Ab Tum Jaa Saktay Ho”, “Laal Baig” and “Putli Ghar” and continued to make serials and series as well in the same manner such as “Dhoop Mein Sawan”, “Aur Zindagi Badalti Hai” and “Kahaniyaan”.

While “Harjaayee” was a bit different, its commercial aspect was beautifully covered with matchless actors like Atiqa Odho, Khayam Sarhadi, Tahira Wasti and Faisal Qureshi. Then Mehreen shifted to the US and that is where her most experimental period commenced. She did not only work with Indian and American writers such as Larry Pontius and Ambika Samarthya or did not only choose a different subject matter i.e. the struggles of South Asians in America from various perspectives, but along with top-notch Pakistani actors like Faisal Rehman, Mahira Khan, Humayun Saeed, Ayesha Khan, Imran Abbas, Badar Khalil, Adnan Siddique, Tooba Siddique, Sarwat Gillani, Naghma Begum, Neelofer Abbasi, Noman Ijaz, Adeel Hussain, Shamim Hilali, Ali Kazmi, Amina Sheikh, Khalid Nizami, Nasreen Qureshi and Khalid Nizami, Mehreen’s US based projects included many Indian American performers such as Deepti Gupta, Ismael Bashay, Pooja Kumar, Farah Bala, Rupak Ginn, Ritu Mishra, Bittou Walia, Padma Khanna, Diksha Basu and many others.

Despite these new faces on Pakistani channels, these works won the hearts of Pakistanis. While “Malal”, “Vasl” and “Jackson Heights” are remembered to date, the rare artistic US projects of Mehreen include the series, “New York Stories”, the short films, “Saayey”, “Saraab” and “Wapsi”, and the serial “Pehchaan”. Even when the director moved towards totally commercial projects like “Mata-e-Jaan”, “Doraha”, “Daam”, “Coke Kahani”, “Ghoongat” and “Dino Ki Dulhaniya”, the writers she worked with were veteran writers like Mohammed Ahmed, Yunus Butt, Umera Ahmad and Farhat Ishtiaq. Mehreen’s latest work has been her feature film, “Dobara Phir Se”, a soft rom-com totally different from her first feature film, “Ramchand Pakistani” which was a work of art released when Pakistani Cinema was taking its first steps after the revival. I asked Mehreen Jabbar a few questions, which are as follows along with their answers:

You have always made artistic dramas. Do you feel that the modern times which lack intelligent content are growing challenging for a creative director like you?

Yes, it has been challenging. In the last few years, our drama industry has fallen a victim to mass production and ratings and has experimented less with subject-matters. When I started working back in the 90s, I had a lot of opportunities when it came to story-telling. We were given the space to adapt good pieces of Literature by both classical and modern writers. Now, it is a very specific kind of story which a channel is expected to present. But I hope that this kind of an environment does not last long. Digital media is growing very strong throughout the world and people are running towards digital platforms such as Netflix and Amazon which are producing interesting and unique things. Considering these changing circumstances, it is hoped that our industry also ends up that way.

What has kept you and Mohammed Ahmed together for so many years?

Ahmed and I share a great sense of humour together. We love to laugh, make fun of ourselves and discuss stuff. We are similar in the way that we love to delve deep into characters’ personalities. Both of us dislike black and white characters. These common views, both regarding story-telling and the world beyond has kept us together, as both working partners and friends.

Tell something about your friendship with Sonia Rehman. How did she end up as the creative consultant of your film, “Ramchand Pakistani” and as a performer in “Doraha”, “Pehchan” and “Coke Kahani”?

I met Sonia in the early 2000s. She came to me for an audition and that’s quite an interesting story. Even Sonia loves to narrate it. Anyhow, she did not get the role due to some reason and was extremely disappointed. She then moved to the US where I had also shifted around the same years. I was making the serial “Pehchaan” at that time and I needed a character. I approached Sonia for that role and she turned out to be amazing. Our friendship commenced at that point in time. Sonia hasn’t worked that much as compared to other actors but whatever she has done, she has done it extremely well. She is one of the very few natural actors we have and I have always enjoyed working with her. She is fully engrossed in whatever she is doing, asks the right questions, has a very curious mind. She wishes to explore things from a different perspective. We are very good friends now but not the kind of friends who keep praising you for no reason. While we respect each other, we also criticize each other but in a positive manner which helps both of us to revisit our mistakes and improve them.

You worked with some very senior actors like Yasmeen Ismael, Khalida Ryasat and Subhani Ba Yunus in the very start of your career. As a very young director, how difficult was it for you working with them?

Well, it was quite easy for me to approach Khalida Ryasat. I did not know her personally but got in contact with her through some sources. All I had to do was send her the script. She really liked it and was ready for it. It was quite daunting, no doubt, to work with the team, for my first play before “Ab Tum Jaa Saktay Ho” was never released and I had this burden upon me to prove before the actors that I am capable of something and have everything figured out. It turned out to be an amazing learning experience. Khalida Ryasat gave all of us young people a lot to learn from, since it was Humayun Saeed’s second play as well. Khalida Jee died a few months after that but we never felt during the play that she is in pain, for she was completely involved in it and would often crack jokes. Same goes for Yasmeen Ismael, who was also suffering from cancer while doing “Marhoom Colonel Ki Betiyan” with me. Both the women were incredible when it came to their professionalism and humour amalgamated together, and in the times when they were in pain. Subhani Ba Yunus was also amazing to work with. I am lucky that I worked with many other senior actors as well, who were people from the days when being a celebrity was not based on putting selfies on social media. It was all about the roles they were doing and the characters they were portraying.

There is a soft and sepia touch to your dramas, particularly your telefilms. Your works please the eye and do not involve bright or glaring artificial lights. Where does that come from? Is it some special camera effect or technique which you make use of?

I don’t use any special tone. I just team up with good camera-men and directors of photography who know about light. However, I do have some styles which I prefer such as cut-lighting and mood-lighting. I don’t believe in presenting everything as shiny and bright even when it is not required. Lighting and colours depend on the mood of the scene.

Has ever a negative criticism hurt you so much that you have decided to take a break?

It has been more than two decades since I have been working. In this field, one has to get used to criticism and also open to it. However, the real job lies in deciding where the criticism is coming from and what is the intention behind it. It is obvious that a work produced will not be appreciated by every single person, for everyone has a subjective choice when it comes to stories. Being in this field, you have to accept that you are exposing your work to be observed and judged. This judgement then varies from project to project. Whereas personal experience is concerned, I too have gone through these times and at certain points, have asked myself whether I am even fit for the job or not. I have thought of doing other things but then backed off realizing that I can’t do anything else. But it’s part of the job. Ask anyone working in the creative field and they’ll relate similar experiences. It’s a difficult profession, quite challenging considering that we wish to present something new every time and then have to go through either extreme highs or extreme lows. But the good thing is to not to be obsessed with this industry. One must take a step back, look at the bigger picture or observe things from a holistic point of view and then make a comeback. This way, you do not allow your work to overpower you. Take a break, observe a landscape, ride a bicycle and make a comeback.

Is comedy more easy or serious drama, considering your recent comic projects like “Ghoonghat”, “Coke Kahani”, “Hum Chale Aaye” and “Dino Ki Dulhaniya”?

Yes, I have done a few comedies and I really enjoyed doing them. But as a person, I am attracted to serious drama. I don’t know why is that so. When I was born, even the woman who had to take care of me told my parents that a “Buddhi Rooh” (Old Soul) has been born. That is something that has continued uptil now. But comedy, no doubt, is fun to do on set. Writing good comedy is something very hard, much harder than writing a serious drama.

When are we seeing Bittou Walia, Deepti Gupta, Ritu Mishra, Ismael Bashay and Tania Kazi with you again?

Those were very good times. I was working with South Asian actors based in New York and we were experimenting a lot. I would certainly like to work with them in the future, for all of them are great and professional actors.

Do you think “Rehaai” by Kashf Foundation was more of an experiment that came into your hands? Do you think it would have grown more popular had it been aired after “Udaari” and “Aakhri Station”?

I do not know if it was an experiment. I was approached to do “Rehaai” by Momina Duraid and Kashf Foundation. I found the script very powerful. The subject-matter was quite disturbing yet important. It was something I had wanted to do, considering the great actors I was to work with and the story-line which was not catering to the rating system. Whereas its popularity is concerned, yes, “Rehaai” came at a time when social media was not very active, while “Udaari” and “Akhri Station” were released in the times of social media’s prevalence. But I consider all the three projects extremely important due to their respective subject-matters and therefore, I would not compare them with each other.

Which film of yours is your personal favourite? “Ramchand Pakistani” or “Dobara Phir Se”?

Both the projects are like my children, and I think it’s unfair to compare them. “Ramchand Pakistani” had a very different story-line and was released during the times when practically, very few films were being released. We had barely any cinemas. The way it got made and released was quite exceptional. Why it is dear to me is because it travelled the world and I was given the opportunity to present it before a large variety of audience. That was a great learning experience for me. Shooting “Dobara Phir Se” was my dream come true of wanting to do a film in New York. What both the films have in common is their amazing cast and crew, wonderful to work with, which is something that matters by the end of the day.

If ever you would write a story, what would it be about?

I have a lot of unfinished stories in my computer and in my head as well. The fact that I have worked in every genre and have been telling stories for so many years makes me back off at times and think that I have already told a similar story. But I would like to challenge myself now and if I write, I would write a psychological thriller or dark comedy, or anything that I have never done before.

(PC: Qudsia Farrukh)