Pakistani-American director Iram Parveen Bilal's new film shows a different type of Pakistani family
Watching the trailer of Bismil: l’ll Meet You There was different — it was a departure from the usual portrayal of oppressed desi Muslim women we see on the screen. In the film, we catch a glimpse of a young girl raised without the stereotypical boundaries usually found in South Asian culture.
Bismil: I’ll Meet You There is the story of a Pakistani-American family living in Chicago and stars Faran Tahir, Muhammed Qavi Khan and Nikita Tewani. The film has been written and directed by Iram Parveen Bilal. It was nominated for the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Award at the South by Southwest film festival in 2020 but when the pandemic hit, the release got delayed.
I’ll Meet You There is Bilal’s third feature film after Josh and PHD film. Josh was released in Pakistan in 2012 at a time when Pakistani cinema was shakily climbing back up to its feet. We sat down with Bilal to find out more about the film and her experience as an independent filmmaker.
How did you come up with the idea of Bismil: I’ll Meet You There?
Bilal: Bismil: l’ll Meet You There is a story of inter-generational and international immigration conflict. It is a story of growth, it is also a story of what happens when we make choices to break ourselves from traditions.
Back when I was in film school, I wrote my first feature script titled "Forbidden Steps”, which was the first name of l’ll Meet You There. It was a badly written script — you know how all first scripts are — but it was quite personal.
Basically, the world changed dramatically after 9/11 and that really took a toll on the lives of many Muslims living in the US. During my undergrad there was an Iranian-American girl whose father was picked up from a mosque by the police. He was in jail for two years and in the end the charges that came against him were about incorrect filing of tax. I still clearly remember sitting and hearing this bizarre allegation in the courtroom in Pasadena and this sort of behaviour was happening a lot with Muslims.
Then, during this time, my sister who taught me how to dance started stepping away from it with the idea that dancing is not appropriate in Islam. Later on, one evening in 2006/2007 I was at a community iftar where I saw this orthodox Muslim — in terms of his beard and prayer cap — wearing a police uniform (LAPD). That image just struck me and I thought that his life would be interesting in these complex times given the sort of passive-aggressive, racist Patriot Act motions happening.
This is how I connected the elements of Islam and dance together as well as my own struggle to juggle two different countries and identities. All of this then came together in a film that talks about how nothing is black or white and everything is grey — I’ll meet you in the middle and hence I'll Meet You There.
What was the idea behind the name?
Bilal: We have named it l’ll Meet You There after Jalaluddin Rumi’s quote “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I'll meet you there” and Bismil because of the Sufi raqs 'Raqs-e-Bismil'.
Does the main character's passion for dance come from your own experience?
Bilal: My obsession and passion for dance is very vivid in this film and the struggles that I have faced for not being able to pursue it are also very much present.
Which character in the film do you relate the most with?
Bilal: I connect the most with Faran Tahir’s character, who is a middle-aged cop, primarily because he signifies someone like me who came to the US for college and whose family is still back home. Hence, [he is] dealing with ageing parents and the complexities of where to call home and how to represent your community in this country where there are not many of you.
The trailer showed a girl raised with very little stereotypical boundaries in South Asian culture. Why was it important to create that atmosphere?
Bilal: It was important for me to create a different kind of dynamic bond between a father and a daughter because we have seen a strict oppressive father and dismal daughter [in stories]. Which is why I partly believe Hollywood was not interested in financing this film because they want to show a certain portrayal. For instance, there is another film which I’m not going to name that [embodies] the specific trope of an extremely strict Muslim father and a miserable daughter who has a white boyfriend. I have seen that story quite often and it’s not that it doesn’t exist, but I am not interested.
I want to talk about something else, because there are also many fathers that are very liberal and empowering to their daughters, but the word empowering doesn’t mean that you let them go loose on drinking and other things, I know the trailer shows a bit of it. Empowering [to me] means that fathers are supportive of their daughters in making their dreams a reality.
We have to show fathers figures who are caring and are not negative.
I also wanted to show a woman who has desire to belong to her community. So yes, it was a very conscious decision to show a positive father and even the grandfather.
What does the term 'independent film' mean?
Bilal: Independent just has to do with the financing structure of a film, for example if a film is under the banner of a production house or television channel that means it is not an independent film. If a filmmaker is going and raising private finance, that is independent. In my case, Bismil: I'll Meet You There is an independent film because it is not a Hollywood studio or a Hollywood production film.
In a cultural [sense] an independent film is usually done by artists who have a very unique voice and are willing to take risks by telling new stories rather than repeating the mundane ones. So basically, the financial aspect and voice are both connected.
Some recent examples of Pakistani independent film are Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha and Meenu and Farjad's Zinda Bhaag. Saim Sadiq and Sabiha Sumar are also independent filmmakers. So, they produce independently and then they partner with a television channel, which happened in the case of Josh. When you talk about people in Pakistan who have made a splash internationally it is the independent filmmakers.
I can't miss naming filmmakers like Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Meerza who have continuously produced remarkable commercial work and I really respect.
What was it like working with actors from different parts of the world?
Bilal: My actors are people I’m very proud of and here I would like to mention Muhammed Qavi Khan (who plays Baba), who is a real treasure of Pakistan. It has been such a delight to see how international audiences have responded to his character.
Most people, after watching the film, have said that they have loved Baba’s character the most.
Faran [Tahir], by the way, is somebody who I always knew was right and we’ve been wanting to work together. In fact, I had a character for him in my first film Josh but that didn’t work out. So for this one he had read a very early draft of [the script] and said whenever you make this, do talk to me. Thankfully, when the time came it all perfectly fell into place.
Nikita [Tiwani] was found through an audition by our casting directors Sunday Boling and Meg Morman, who did a brilliant job for us. This is also the first time I got to work with casting directors, and they then found the rest of the cast.
Coming to Nikita, from the first audition she blew me away and it's very rare to see an Indian American who knows Kathak. So, she was meant to be in it.
For the character of the grandfather, did you have Muhammed Qavi Khan in mind since the beginning? How hard was it to bring him to the US?
Bilal: I wanted to have a Baba who was very much entrenched in his culture and Qavi Khan was really it.
Getting him here (to the US) on an indie budget was really difficult and also because we wanted to do things the right way. We could have brought him here on a visitor’s visa and just shot the film, but we wanted it to be a proper professional visa, which meant we had to do the whole process of proving to the US government that nobody here could play the role. It took a while and finally three weeks before the shoot, his visa got approved.
Bismil: I’ll Meet You There was one of 10 films in narrative competition at SXSW 2020, how did you manage to change your release plans during the pandemic?
Bilal: It’s been pretty heartbreaking because if we had launched properly, it would have affected everything from buyers' offers to how the film has grown on the audience … but we’re here and we are trying. We made a decision to do a virtual premiere a week earlier this year with Level Forward and then we are also available in North America on VOD.
We decided to hold onto its international rights and see how the pandemic is going. Now we are going to be releasing it in the Gulf region on August 12.
It has been terribly hard to release a film in this pandemic and we have suffered severely. Having said that, we are trying to see the positive side of things and try our best. We are hoping for people to come out. As soon as the theatres in Pakistan open, we will try to figure out a release there but of course safety comes first.