I want to show the west we can make animation as well as them, says Usman Riaz
Usman Riaz’s The Glassworker is set to become Pakistan’s first hand-drawn animated film.
In the film, childhood acquaintances Vincent and Alliz become something more, as war advances in their homeland.
The trailer of the film's prologue's is out and the audience agrees that it is "breathtaking", "EXCELLENT" and "very Miyazakish", comparing it to the work of one of Japan's greatest animation directors.
Yet, something is off.
A part of Usman's audience has a complaint. "Why is this film not set in Pakistan or [sic] has Pakistani culture in it?" they ask.
The question arises from the fact that the characters in The Glassworker speak Urdu. Yet, they are named Vincent and Alliz, resemble their Japanese anime counterparts, live in a fantastical European location, etc etc.
People are unsettled by this disconnect between The Glassworker and expectations we tend to have from an Urdu-language project. A few even went as far as calling it a bad dub.
But Usman couldn't be happier about the response. In a Ted talk in Kuala Lumpur and an article for Ted Fellows, Usman talked about how he "wanted to shake things up" in Pakistan — and beyond.
"I hope that as this unique collage of language, culture and story makes its way to a global audience, people both in Pakistan and around the world will have their eyes and ears opened in some small way to the riches of our culture and language — just as my mine were opened and my curiosity sparked of faraway cultures as a child," he wrote.
We speak to Usman about his conception of The Glassworker and to talk further about why he chose Urdu as the film's language.
Images: Before we talk about your choice of language for The Glassworker, I was hoping you could talk a little more about the origins of the film's story. I understand that it’s inspired by your own experience of living in Pakistan, but could you elaborate on the specifics? I'm curious to know how the characters of Vincent and Alliz formed in your mind, why you chose to have their love story unfold inside a glassblower's shop...
Usman Riaz: First of all, I love the art of glassblowing. I was absolutely intrigued by it when I saw it for the first time on my trip to Italy. I thought it would be the most unique thing to bring to animation, because in animation, you can control the colours, the environment, everything. It's such a perfect medium to showcase this art, because unlike filmmaking, everything is under your control.
But where the characters came from... I was just drawing and sketching. I just imagined this little boy and this little girl meeting in this glass shop, interacting with each other, living in a city that was [politically] very much like Karachi and how they would react to that.
Slowly, Vincent and Alliz's characters started to build. The more I drew, the more their characters came out. It's like making a sculpture, sort of peel away at everything, and then the characters are right there underneath.
Their names came later. One of my producers is Alliz Espi. I always found her name interesting and her husband’s name is Vincent. So I thought I'd lift their names and put them in the film.
Images: And what about the setting? In your article, you said The Glassworker's western setting was a very deliberate choice. It's understandable that animation audiences are more likely to watch a film if it looks like the others they've seen. But some of your viewers insist that the film looks nothing like Pakistan, and that perhaps it should if your characters are speaking in Urdu. What would you say to them?
Usman: I want to clarify that people have been doing this for a very long time. In Japanese anime, for example, Hayao Miyazaki's works like Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Howl's Moving Castle — those are all western settings with characters who are extremely Japanese and are speaking Japanese.
And it's such a contrast to what Disney does when Mulan, a rural Chinese girl, acts like an American teenager.
So I wanted to take that and twist that around. We're in a western setting, but our characters are extremely Pakistani, speaking in Urdu and I think it will be something new. It's never been done before, that's why it's making a lot of people uncomfortable.
"There’s nothing coming out of Pakistan that I'm proud to show other people. [...] The entertainment industry is saturated with garbage. I want to lift some people out of that, make beautiful work, make people realise this kind of work is possible."
Images: Yes, there have been some strong reactions to the Urdu...
Usman: Some people just loved it and didn't even think about it being in Urdu, which is great.
Then, there are others who say that the Urdu doesn’t fit. Technically, Japan has been doing this for years, so I don't understand why it’s bothering people so much. But I’m very happy about the response because it shows that this is the first truly disruptive idea to come out of Pakistan.
There’s nothing coming out of Pakistan that I'm proud to show other people. Jami made a beautiful film Moor, which I’d show people. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy's won two Oscars, and her films like Song of Lahore are amazing, but I'm talking about fictional works.
The entertainment industry is saturated with garbage. I want to lift some people out of that, make beautiful work, make people realise this kind of work is possible. If people are reacting to it, that’s great, they’re not numb, it means it didn't go over their heads.
Images: I also understand that Urdu won’t be the only Pakistani element of The Glassworker. You've talked about injecting Pakistani values and themes in the film. Can you elaborate what you mean by that?
Usman: The stereotype in Pakistan for being cultured or educated is heavily colonialised uncles and aunties who speak in English and have their colonial accents and live like the British people.
What I want to do is show an inverted mirror to the people of Pakistan. That is, have these western characters speak in Urdu, behave like Pakistanis (chai pee rahay hogay aur biscuit kharahay hogay) and experiences things like we did in Pakistan growing up, just to show people that they should own their own culture.
The experiences will be so similar — how we grew up with political unrest, [protests and rallies and clashes and fights]. Even though these things happened, I and lots of other people I know still had a relatively normal childhood. Even though I’m not proud of all of the things that happen in Pakistan, but I’m proud of the fact that it made me so aware and worldy wise.
"What I want to do is show an inverted mirror to the people of Pakistan — that is, have these western characters speak in Urdu, behave like Pakistanis and experiences things like we did in Pakistan growing up, just to show people that they should own their own culture."
I also want the world to see what it's like in Pakistan without it being set in Pakistan. I want to be more subtle about it. I don't want to slap the audience with ‘ye Pakistan hai’.
Of course, one day, after we've made The Glassworker and a few other things, we will set everything in Pakistan. But let us make this first and see what happens. This is not just for Pakistan.
We want to show the west and Japan that we can make animation as well as them. We want people to judge it on even ground and then we’ll branch out and do something else.
Images: From your article, it's obvious that promoting Urdu among young people in Pakistan is very important to you. Could you talk a little bit about your personal relationship with Urdu?
Usman: I think Urdu is an extremely beautiful language, if done properly. The way people speak it, especially millenials, is very crude and just not pretty. We have to find a way to bring its beauty back.
My article was about how I don’t want to stick to the old ways of doing that. I want to explore more modern ways of exploring the beauty of Urdu. Everyone who is my age and loves Urdu always talks about the great poets — Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Allama Iqbal, etc. I grew up in a family where Urdu is heavily prioritised. I had to study Urdu every weekend. My grandmother is the sister of [the famous orator] Zia Mohyeddin, who is known for the way he speaks Urdu. So my family always emphasised Urdu to me.
But I was very bored with what they were talking about. Faiz ki shayri suna karo, parha karo. I wanted to do it my own way, so my article was about reclaiming my language on my own terms.
What I want to do is to explore the beauty of Urdu with something I truly love. It’ll be my exploration of the language. I have a very close relationship with the language, just not the way you are supposed to. That is, Urdu ki kitabien tou parhta hoon, but i don’t pine for the dead poets that other people pine for.
Regarding this film, i thought it would be a very nice way for younger people to appreciate Urdu and to be proud of their language. I want the delivery of the lines to be beautifully done. We will make the language sound very pretty.
Images: How do they plan to ensure that, if it’s difficult to come by actors who speak perfect Urdu...
Usman: Which is why we haven’t found actors for the main character yet. Mariam, my wife, has been cast as Alliz, but we're still looking for Vincent. We’ve found actors for secondary characters, like Vincent’s father Oliver, because they’re older and it was much easier to find older people jin ki Urdu aur awaz bohot achi hai.
Images: So what are Mano Animation Studio's next steps?
Usman: Through Kickstarter, we raised $116,000 that will fund the prologue of the film. We will spend a whole year till August 2017 on that. We will have a special, invitation-only premiere and an art exhibition so people can see the individual frames. It will also be available to watch online for our Kickstarter backers.
Then, we'll be working on the full 90 minutes. That will take years, and we’re willing to put in those years. In Pakistan, we have a very bad habit of expecting quick results. We will take our time, a very long time, and we will do this right. Because no one else has done it right and no one will probably do it right except us because we’re doing it for the right reasons.