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Interview with Fahim Irshad

Interview by Sneha Krishnan

When I first saw Aani Maani at the International Film Festival Kerala 2019, I was hooked. The director, Fahim Irshad introduced his film to the audience saying, “This film was made with friends, and not funds, so give it all your love.” I was struck by the simplicity of the filmmaker and the story he narrated his film, fraught along socio-political fault lines in an unnamed town in Uttar Pradesh. It begins with a girl, her family members gradually joining in. The girl is playing a game locally called Aani Maani, twirling and reciting the rhyme Aani Maani, Aani Maani, nani ammi badi sayani peeti doodh batati paani. Aani maani aani maani raat ko mahke raat kee rani (Aani maani, aani maani, my dear grandmother you are innocent, you drink milk but call it water. aani maani aani maani, the night jasmine blossoms during the night”. We follow the story of Bhutto, who runs a food joint where people throng to buy meat kebabs.

The film is as much a story of Tarannum, his wife, as much as it is about Bhutto. They are recently married after Bhutto is released from prison after seven years for a crime he did not commit. It is the story of his daily struggle for his family’s upkeep, and how a seemingly inconsequential political decision fractures the fragility of relationships and precious lives. The film premiered at the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) Film Festival in 2019 and went on to win the International feature film award at International Film Festival Kerala 2019. I caught up with the director, Fahim Irshad when the film was screened at the 11th Indian Film Festival in Bhubaneshwar in January 2020. This conversation is part of an interview series with talented filmmakers, both emerging and subaltern, belonging to different parts of India and narrating stories which are set apart from the mainstream.

Tell us about yourself, Fahim. What’s the meaning of your name? How has your journey been, from a boy from Azamgarh to making your first feature length film?

My name means intelligent, in Persian-Arabic with the root in Faham, which means understanding, and Fahim means knowledgeable. My father was very fond of Persian, so he gave his children Persian names. My life in Azamgarh was fairly simple, growing up.

Azamgarh is infamous for being politically active and for its ‘goondagardi’ (gang wars), but I felt that this is the picture that I saw painted in the media and the films. In our childhood, we hardly had any access to films, but we were exposed to several thinkers and writers emerging from Azamgarh like Kaifi Azmi, Rahul Sankrityayan, Hariaudh Singh Upadhyay and Shibli Nomani. They were traditional keepers of knowledge in Azamgarh but somehow the wider world hardly knew about them, besides few scholars of Urdu and Hindi literature.

When I went to Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi, the world cinema to which I was exposed opened up a new portal for me. I realized the potential and power that human stories had to touch people’s hearts and I wanted to create that magic as well – to evoke emotions in the audience.

Your debut film premiered at MAMI in 2019 and won the best film award at IFFK. You also won the best director award. Yet the film is not open to the general audience. How can the general public view the film?

If people call me, I will take my film to their home, all they need is a DVD player. If they cook and invite me for food, I will go and show them the film. Because, releasing the film is not in my hands. I was able to write it, and somehow make the film, along with my team. Now, where possible, we are screening the film at various festivals such as New York Film Festival 2021, where we participated virtually. Usually that generates word of mouth publicity. We screened at various campuses such as IIT Bombay, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Calicut University and Kozhikode College. The reception was really good. However, since COVID-19 halted all our plans, the producers thought of getting the film on an OTT platform which would get a wider audience, but that process is taking up a lot of time.

Aani Maani is a love story, but at the same time it’s also a deeply political film. It doesn’t comment on it but depicts it as a matter of fact. Was it a conscious decision for you?

Firstly, we belong to a community that has become depoliticized, and secondly you feel responsible towards those who suffer from hardships and are marginalized, in fact those whose lives are rarely shown in films. Hence, I make a conscious decision to tell those stories, to show their humanity. But at the same time, it need not be propaganda, or preachy. Even if I cannot be objective, while writing it’s necessary to show these stories in a way that connect with the audience’s experiences. I hardly saw people like me or my family in popular films. Tell me how many Muslim friends or colleagues do you have? How do the films you watch represent their lives? I feel mainstream films hardly show stories from our communities, and when they do, they are just stereotyping us and present a vilified version of our lives.

What is your process of writing, scripting and film making?

For writing, I follow characters that grow within me, based on what I have seen, or who I have met. Then I think of what the opening and closing scenes of the story would be. If I hold these two strands, then I feel the urge to write the story through the screenplay, along with dialogues. There is no need to write a 4 or 8 page summary. If you have the screenplay, these summaries can be developed later on. I just go with the flow. If it’s written in the first instance, then you have the material which you either like or you do not like. That’s what happened with Aani Maani. Everybody was keen to shoot the film once they read the script. I didn’t get any feedback on what further work was required on any aspect of the script to make it better. I will be careful here onwards to not get carried away by my emotions and will rework my script and improve it further. I am in no hurry. For my second film, I want to ask questions, be more assured, become aware of traditional rules and techniques while rewriting to avoid becoming an amateur, but also retain my story’s innocence. I have learnt to appreciate to take it slow and be patient with the painful process of pre-production.

That’s my process. Of course, there are also constraints that an independent filmmaker has to work with, as financial and other resources are required to produce a film.

I am interested to know how much of yourself and your life experiences are included in the characters of the film.

Films have inspired me a lot. Sometimes, I am lazy. It takes a lot of effort to make a film. Then I become lenient with myself, and think that I don’t have to push myself too hard. That’s when I indulge and watch other films. Then, I feel I can also make such films. I see a classic like Andrei Rublev by Tarkovsky and wonder if I have the capabilities to make such films. In recent years, I saw the film Marghe and her Mother by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and I think if I had worked a bit harder on Aani Maani, and watched this film, I could have made a more powerful film. I just don’t feel content after winning the best debut award, I also want to win the Golden Peacock, maybe open my film at Cannes one day. I like watching films on the Second World War. I saw Jojo Rabbit last month, I feel in my past life I must have been a Jew. I love every film which has been made on the Holocaust, it leaves me with this feeling of connection and inspiration. There’s something there, maybe we all get bullied, and fear confrontation, so when I see films that show taking up a stand against oppression, sometimes without violent confrontation, I connect with them.

In Aani Maani you show that love and compassion could counteract oppression in its own way. That’s how you take the fight forward.

To cleanse anything, you can use clear and clean water, you cannot use dirty water to wash away the dirt. That’s the fundamental thing, people are compassionate. Society operates on that, maybe people show themselves to be something else in the exterior, but compassion is inherent within us, so films should speak about these aspects. When people see such films, then there is an impact.

Will you be tackling such political issues in your next film? Will there be a sequel to this one?

There is not going to be a sequel. The films that I will direct will always be political. Even if the films are not political upfront, there are political connotations in the work that I am interested in, there is no escaping it. I am not an escapist, I would like to depict the issues we all face in my films. I want to make films with innocence but which retain a political color in them.

What were your inspirations in creating the various relationships in your film?

My focus was not on showing equal relationships. I wanted to show how these familial relationships are important and visible. When you find concepts such as better halves, it’s always about husbands and wives. It’s not about a man chasing a woman or the other way around. I was interested in the idea of love after marriage. That’s what I wanted to show: how do better halves make sense of the world together? In our society, we have not seen married couples showing love for each other. I haven’t seen my parents getting romantic, or holding hands, and saying ‘I love you’. The current generation is not like that. They are expressive. Love before marriage is still not easily acceptable, people do not favor it much, especially in North Indian communities and families. Then I felt at least it should be alright to love openly after marriage. That’s also missing in our society. So, I went looking for examples of such love in religion and scriptures. I found inspirations of love between husband and wife in our religious texts. The morality that we have constructed has only caused us more harm, and if you make claims that these moral standards gain credibility in religion, it’s not all true. Helping out in the kitchen, cooking together and men doing household tasks, we hardly see these examples in our homes. My father never helped out my mother in those days, but nowadays I see men making some effort to help their wives.

In the case of Bhutto, there was an economic aspect as well. He cannot afford another cook for his kebab shop, so his wife helps him out, and that’s how they both prepare for the shop together.

The film is an excellent portrayal of love, and the performances of the cast are gaining much appreciation. How was the process of working with a new cast, and since they are also your friends, how instrumental have they been to the creative process?

After scripting, I narrated the film to my friends – Farrukh Seyer, and my cameraman, Shailendra Sahu. When we were casting for the wife’s role, we were doubtful about Priyanka who plays the female lead. We knew she had to work hard on her performance and getting her Urdu diction right. Finally, I took the call, because both Farrukh and Priyanka had a good chemistry between them, having known each for several years. We did some acting workshops and they both enhanced their craft. To improve her diction, we had someone coach her. Even Neha, who played the sister, comes from a different background but she was able to get a good grip on the nuances of living in a village and playing her character. I am thankful that the right set of people and team came together to make this small yet important film.

Lastly, what drives you Fahim? What do you want to be known for?

I think the crises we face today – be it social, economic or political – we all are looking for relief. For me, I find respite when I write, when I develop an alternative world with my characters. I believe we are facing these crises because our current system has turned people to become greedy. I want to fight that – let’s just be content with where we are, like Tracy Chapman warns us all in her songs, ‘Don’t be tempted with the shiny apple’. The more examples we see of people who are resisting this temptation, maybe through my films or writing, the more I will be able to see it as my small contribution.

Dr. Sneha Krishnan is a researcher, poet and writer. Her poetry, essays and stories have been published in The Conversation, Helter Skelter, Analogies and Allegories, Indian Poetry Review, Gulmohar Quarterly, Belongg, Jaggery Lit, Feminism in India, Medium and The Wire. She teaches Environmental Studies at Jindal Global University, India.