An unusual collaboration between two filmmakers who never actually met each other while their shooting was underway has resulted in a moving documentary about Karachi’s musical scene. Lyari Notes, which will be screened in the International Competition section at the Mumbai International Film Festival (Jan 28-Feb 3), has been directed by Miriam Chandy Menacherry from Mumbai and Maheen Zia from the Pakistani port city. The film takes its name from the multi-ethnic and often volatile suburb in Karachi that is home to four girls: Aqsa, Mehroz, Javeria and Sherbano. They enroll for music lessons at the Music Art Dance School run by Hamza Jafri and Nida Butt, who provide lessons in the arts for the children of Lyari. Hugging guitars that are bigger than themselves, the girls make often perilous journeys to the institute every week to broaden their horizons (one of them wants to rule Pakistan some day). The crowd-funded film is set between 2011 and 2015, and among the tragedies it covers is the senseless attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, 2014, in which 141 people including 132 children, were killed.


Intertwined into the 69-minute documentary are the stories of other musicians such as the Beygairat Brigade, who are struggling to keep singing and composing in the face of regular violence, terrorist attacks and rising religious fundamentalism. In a farcical sequence, a sound check for a concert is truncated when a bomb disposal squad arrives at the venue. Also in the film are the parents of the children, who are mindful of a widely prevalent Islamist ideology that considers music to be sinful, and who wear “Islamic nail polish” that can be quickly scrubbed off with tissue paper if the need arises.

Menacherry and Zia worked out a fascinating collaboration that involved Indian and Pakistani technicians, the swapping of hard drives between the countries, and endless conversations on Skype. In an email interview, Menacherry, who has previously directed the documentary The Rat Race, and Zia, who has directed several documentaries and shorts, tell about making a cross-border collaboration work.

Was the original idea to make a film about the Pakistani indie music scene, or was it always your intention to frame the film as the journey of the four girls?
Chandy Menacherry: Yes, the film was very much inspired by the indie music largely circulated by YouTube then. I was following many of the bands including Beygairat Brigade and their “Aalu Anday” video that went viral and the work of Ali Gul Pir and his raps that took on VIP culture and censorship, including the ban on YouTube.

I scrolled down to the comments section and saw that many of the responses were from Indians engaged in a lively yet humourous exchange. It struck me that this was a dialogue that was missing from mainstream reportage about Pakistan. These were young, fresh and engaging voices of Pakistanis demanding to be heard.

Zia: Miriam had the idea and approached me asking if I wanted to collaborate on a film exploring Pakistan’s vibrant underground music scene. I had produced a small segment for a documentary she had produced for National Geographic on camel jockeys some years ago, and it had been a good collaboration. Though we had never met in person and only spoken over phone and email, when she suggested we work on a feature together and described the idea I agreed.

Chandy Menacherry: The idea was definitely to use the music videos as a narrative device, but we chanced upon Hamza’s music school as a space and narrative framework to explore the issue and find our characters.

The focus on the girls and their journey from Lyari was something Maheen suggested after looking at the many activities of Hamza’s school. Both of us agreed that it was a very strong thread given the volatile and violent nature of Lyari and therefore the contrast with a weekly music class for young girls from this area.

Zia: On the one hand was this very pertinent, engaged music emerging from a small committed music scene in Pakistan, which stood out in stark contrast to the very limited public space for presenting music in Pakistan. Who were these young musicians, where were they coming from, and what was the future for music making looking like for their ilk? The rising insecurity was shrinking the already limited space so how was the community responding?

Hamza was someone who emerged at the crossroads of many of these questions. With his band co-Ven, he produced sharp social commentary and yet wore another hat which was of music educator fighting the shrinking space by founding first The Guitar School in Lahore and then the Music Art and Dance School in Karachi. His strategy seemed to be: fight back by growing in numbers. So he was a natural choice for a protagonist through whom we could explore these questions.

Initially we had thought we would do much of the filming in Lahore at the first music school he founded, but when we visited him in Karachi and chanced upon the Lyari Gift Programme at MAD where musicians were jamming to raise funds to teach music to a group of children from Lyari, we were compelled to set the stage for the story in Karachi.

Why were the four girls we see in the documentary chosen over the others?
Chandy Menacherry: The initial plan was for me to go to Karachi and we would film together. Initial budget constraints and visa procedures in Delhi etc meant that Maheen began shooting. From the nature of the shooting and material it became very apparent that we would have to shoot over extended periods of time to form a narrative. Also, we decided that maybe it is better that we do not draw any attention to the shoot as we were filming in Lyari and with minors. We therefore adopted a very different style of collaborative film making. Maheen would shoot and send me material and I would share with her edits and scenes that were working. We have more than 20 trailers, cuts and edits of the film. We had weekly and sometimes daily Skype sessions.

The four girls literally emerged from the edits and footage, partly because they were best friends who also lived near each other and therefore spent a lot of their free time together and had a natural, breezy style of interacting with each other. The other big reason is because they stuck with the music classes for three years till the final performance whilst many others dropped out.

Since neither of you was in the same place, how did the documentary shape up?

Chandy Menacherry: Neither of us had the opportunity to travel between India and Pakistan, this was a decision we took early in the filming. This film really is a testimony to how much technology has evolved so two like-minded filmmakers can collaborate despite hostile borders and complicated visa procedures.

In fact, there was a point where we crowd-funded our film and shared a glimpse of the complexities of making this film over three years from the Skype discussions to how even sending drives between India and Pakistan is an issue. We even toyed with the idea of building this into the narrative, but ultimately dropped the idea.

Zia: We have finally met in person (thrice, in the Netherlands) in the course of making this film, but have yet to visit each other in our home cities. While I would really like to meet the editors and the rest of the post team that worked so hard on the film, I feel it is even more important to bring Miriam to Karachi so she can meet the protagonists of Lyari Notes.

The film must have been challenging to shoot, given the violence and unrest that was always around.

Zia: It was challenging particularly because of the security situation and how it could suddenly change. There were times when while on the way to shoot I would have to turn back because something may have just happened.

We had to be very clear to show our reason for visiting Lyari was to tell the story of the girls and not any undercover political journalism. Lyari has seen a lot of conflict and violence and is divided into territories controlled by different groups, so there is always suspicion as to why an outsider is there and particularly so with the potential for media coverage. So, for example, one day we were already there and a shootout happened in the next street where someone was killed. We immediately moved indoors and stopped filming on the streets so no one would think we might be there to cover the incident and give it our own spin (i.e. misrepresent it).