Last fortnight, I participated in the first Pakistan International Film Festival as part of an Indian delegation. The last time I went to Karachi was nine years ago, with Firaaq, to the Kara Film Festival. When I returned then with the Best Film award, it was strange how the news focused on me winning a “Pakistani” award as if it were a crime. And this was before anti-national medals were bestowed on anyone who wanted to build bridges rather than walls.

Unfortunately, Kara, a festival organised by a group of young filmmakers, has since been discontinued. The Pakistan International Film Festival is organised by one of the country’s leading television channels, Hum TV. The force behind this new venture is Sultana Siddiqui, a feisty woman who, with limited resources and time, put this festival together. The Indian contingent comprised 22 delegates including Baahubali director SS Rajamouli, the film’s producer Shobu Yarlagadda, Rekha and Vishal Bharadwaj, Vinay Pathak, and scriptwriter Anjum Rajabali.

For many of them, it was their first time visiting Pakistan and they were surprised by the overwhelming warmth and hospitality we were received with. I have always felt that our perceived sense of animosity would dissipate if we made the effort, or rather if we were just allowed, to meet, in flesh and blood.

The Indian delegation at the Pakistan International Film Festival.

While the festival has a long way to go, it was not bereft of intent or passion. Both Indian and Pakistani film fraternities came together on various panels to explore ways in which we could collaborate and passionately discussed issues of common interest such as the shrinking space for independent cinema and how to navigate through various genres of films. The idea of a South-Asian Forum for people in films and television was floated and found support across the board. This would create such a pool of talent from the entire subcontinent and I am sure some very unique and interesting projects would emerge.

So near, yet so far

Mumbai to Karachi is an hour’s journey but there are no direct flights because of tense relations between the two countries that have only worsened in recent times. For us to fly to each other’s country, we have to go via Dubai. Moreover, we only get restricted city visas that are not valid for the whole country. But this time, the delegation got lucky and along with visas for Karachi, we also got Lahore visas. I could not resist the opportunity to meet the daughters of the great writer of the subcontinent, Saadat Hasan Manto, on whose life I am making a film. They have been a constant support, both in terms of access to information that one would not find in books and more so in the way they have showered their affection on me. It was an absolute delight to spend time with the Manto family whom I last visited almost two years ago. Yet, it felt like no time had passed.

The other reason for my excitement at getting to go to Lahore for even one night was to meet Saeed Ahmed, whom I had only spoken with. Among the many Manto enthusiasts who wrote to me on reading about the film I was making, he was one I impulsively responded to. One of the best decisions I took in years. A Manto expert and a writer himself, he has been a valuable resource for the script and the film. But more importantly, he is one of the most “Mantoesque” persons I have met through this long and challenging journey of making the film. Saeed sahab is someone who truly embodies Mantoiyat, the Manto spirit.

The crossing at the Wagah border was for me a visual reminder of Manto’s most celebrated story, Toba Tek Singh. It is the story of an old Sikh man who dies in no man’s land because of an absurd decision by the governments of the two countries to exchange mentally ill persons on the basis of their religions. Today, 70 years later, the barbed wires have become thicker, the poles on which the national flags fly have become taller. As Shyam, the actor friend of Manto, says in the film, referring to the distance between Amritsar and Lahore, “Kitni ajeeb baat hai, ghante bhar ki doori, aur ek pura alag mulk.” (Barely an hour away, and a whole different country).

Small steps

I have come back knowing fully well that the warmth and hospitality we all received will quickly fade in the noise of predictable name-calling by trolls and misrepresentations about our intent. While it is true that the Pakistani regime has harboured or at the very least been soft on terrorists, it is just as true that their own people have also suffered grievously from this terrible choice.

I wonder if vilifying all the people of another country is the only way to feel good about one’s own? Is the only way for me to prove my love for my country to hate another’s? Yes, there are some real and imagined conflicts that we are locked in, and while that reality – history, geopolitics, and terrorism – is unlikely to change any time soon, I still believe that small bridges could and should be built. Some of us think that these small efforts, through art and cinema, through people-to-people dialogue, will someday create a more peaceful and a saner world around us. Perhaps one is foolish, but if we do not begin now, then when?

Photographs courtesy Nandita Das.