Pakistan's serene mountains hide within them ghastly tales of individual struggle and loss and Nighat Shah, an investor turned filmmaker from Chitral, wants to talk about the rising and deeply concerning suicides in her home region.
On May 10, it was reported that three people decided to end their lives in Chitral in a single day. Two young women, aged 19 and 20, threw themselves into the Chitral River. In a separate incident, a 29-year-old-man stabbed himself to death.
"Pakistan is home to approximately 200 million people, and despite having over 100 medical colleges in the country, there are only about 500 licensed psychiatrists and very few psychologists. That breaks down to one psychiatrist per 400,000 people, and most of those psychiatrists are in urban areas. How many of them do you think are in the mountain areas?" Shah asked during a conversation with Images.
Shah, a Pakistani impact investor and philanthropist living in the US, whose career choices reflect her deep motivation to spur change, has turned filmmaker with her new short film, directed by Shoaib Sultan, to shed light on a pressing matter she insists cannot go unaddressed any longer. The matter is a dirty, horrifying secret hidden deep in tall, gloomy mountains.
"The rising suicide rate in Chitral has concerned me for the past decade or so. And like many families I know, I have lost loved ones to suicide.
"In Pakistan, suicide ravages all walks of life from those in poverty and illiteracy to the well-educated, upper class. Beneath the picturesque surface of some parts of Chitral and Hunza of Gilgit-Baltistan, the suicide rate surges exponentially," she added.
According to a study, between 2007 and 2011, 300 people committed suicide in Chitral district, with another 176 cases being reported between 2013 and 2016. To contextualise these numbers, the population of the region is less than 450,000 and 82% of these suicides were reported to be within the 15 to 30 age group, of which 58% were women. It is important to understand that with all crimes, these numbers are grossly underreported due to poor reporting and policing infrastructures, and social stigma that causes families to turn a blind eye to suicide.
The research credited these suicides to several factors, among which was the unforeseen and sudden amplification of the internet which provides young people with ideals, dreams and aspirations of modernity that don't mesh with their traditional, culturally homogeneous societies. In societies where the a young person's freedom can hurt society's 'honour', honour which is often more valuable than human life, the youth take refuge in suicide. The matter fails, however, to reach our country's power quarters.
Another situation born of the exposure to modernity is that the socio-economic conditions that these youths find themselves living in ignites pessimism. In a world of connectivity, where information travels at the speed of light, these young Pakistanis see their lives as grim in comparison to the very modernised and emancipated lives of the youth of the first world. Even the lives of the youth in the big cities of their home country seem like distant, unattainable realities — close enough to dream of, but too far to touch.
This is well and truly an epidemic.
The short film, Darya Kay Iss Paar, follows the story of a young girl who feels alone, unheard and uncared for. She sees a gap between what she feels inside and what she portrays and sees beyond — her unfulfilling life, her inability to be heard, owned and understood. As she faces the brunt of social norms, and piercing mental anguish, we, the viewers, follow her struggles.
"The cold isolation of the mountainous area where she lives intensifies her problems," Shah said of the lead character, played by Hibba Aziz in the film.
"The pressures that began when she was a student compound after she marries. No one in her life acknowledges her feelings or thoughts. Rigid social values and norms add fuel to the fire. One gloomy dawn, she reaches a breaking point, plunges herself into the river, and drowns."
This is not uncommon in the valley and one could say it happens often. In the aforementioned report, we also learn that 36% of the victims committed suicide by drowning themselves in the Chitral River, with 77% of the female victims reportedly doing so.
Another 28% of the casualties were the result of a gunshot, with 85% of them male casualties.
"This story depicts the typical cultural behaviour of society towards mental illness and how they develop over time. The heartrending tale is a roller coaster ride of emotions that we hope will cause viewers to reflect on and reconsider this tragedy," she said of her intention with the film.
The literacy rate in Chitral is "closer to 95%", Shah said, but unemployment is surging. This creates an uneasy situation. The frustration that is born out of this causes anger and pain, plunging one into a suicidal mindset. "Lack of employment, resources, and career counselling fuels depression in the young generation," Shah said.
There is, however, another aspect to this situation when gender comes into play. There is obviously a reason the lead character of the film is a young woman, not a young man.
"It gets more aggressive for women because they are confined to the bottom of the societal thread. We should look more closely into the causes of mental health problems, and I am sure financial frustration will be among the top," Shah noted.
"My film’s mission is to bridge the mental health problems in the mountains and the awareness of those in more urban areas. I want the mental health problems in some places of Chitral, Ghizr, Hunza, and GB… to be acknowledged more because that is when people will start to help more. It’s crucial to understand that there’s a lack of real news as well; not every drowning is a suicide, so there needs to be a proper investigation of all these cases," she explained.
"Just a couple of days ago, two girls committed suicide together in upper Chitral. There was no uproar in the media. Now, we hear stories that it could have been an honour killing. But we won’t know for sure, because frankly, not enough people care, and there’s not much investigation," she said.
As she answered our questions, she noted that she received news of yet another woman having committed suicide in Drosh Chitral. There is no other way to demonstrate just how pressing this matter is.
"The deteriorating mental health and suicides among the youth of Chitral have always concerned me, but it was not until depression took a life in my family that I felt the need to do something more than ever," Shah said on her inspiration to make the film.
Shah urged that it is time that the federal and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa governments make suicide prevention a priority. She believes there need to be more conversation and awareness around mental health illnesses in national mainstream media, government messaging and public discourse. She also believes there needs to be a systematic movement to develop more and better mental health professionals in Pakistan. Incentivising medical students, she argued, is a great step to take in the right direction.
"The government should also recruit and train crisis counsellors and make their services available to those in need. Kids should have access to career counsellors starting from a young age, free of charge at public and private schools," she went on.
Celebrated film and TV actor Samiya Mumtaz makes an appearance in the film, as other stars include Qasim Farid, Afsar Ali, Mohammad Waseem and Mir Humza.
The film has managed to get features, and even awards, at several international film festivals, with more in the pipeline. The movie made it to the semi final round at the Fade In Awards Short Films, won three of the four major categories at New York City International Film Festival — best film, best director and best lead actress — bagged the outstanding achievement award at the Calcutta International Cult Film Festival and another award at the World Film Carnival in addition to being screened at the After Hour Film Festival, 12th Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival, and Short Film Corner Cannes Court Métrage.
We applaud Shah's efforts, and hope for her success.