By Sonya Rehman
A journalist beheaded, a mujahaideen killed, a government overthrown and a race exterminated…these are the stories, of people and nations that are kept alive via documentaries, docudramas and feature films. And for years, filmmakers have produced works – of their very own individual accounts of a historical and/or political event. You will notice, for instance, that a film (which has been reproduced by different directors) will differ in its facts and overall execution. Personal perspectives, on the part of various filmmakers, will eventually and inevitably, seep into the movie’s script…its general ‘backbone’.
But at times, even the slightest stereotypical depiction or unrealistic approach/angle to a film unleashes a roaring visual vehicle of distortion, which in turn, affects the viewer’s perception. And that is what is truly dangerous.
‘A mighty heart’, a book, penned down by the wife of a slain American journalist, Daniel Pearl, was adapted into a film which has been internationally released this year in June. Mariane’s book, chronicles the events that led up to – and during – her husband’s disappearance in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002.
But as stated in the beginning, somehow, the movie manages to teeter off the edge into a pool of murky bias in some aspects. “Obviously any film about Daniel Pearl is bound to inevitably reflect badly upon Pakistan,” Hasan Zaidi (co-founder of the Karafilm festival) said, “Considering the kind of incident it was, it wouldn’t create a positive impression of Pakistan. But my problem with the movie is something different…the film doesn’t tell you anything more than you already know. Winterbottom, don’t get me wrong, is an extremely talented director…but I was looking for something slightly more insightful as to what really happened. As depicted in the film, the bustling roads of Karachi, and its overall ‘exoticization’ could have been less stereotypical”.
Hasan was absolutely right. And to delve into the matter further, I decided to contact Asra Q Nomani – Daniel’s colleague whose role was played by the talented Archie Punjabi in the film.
But what truly prompted me to contact Asra was her article (which appeared in quite a few national and international publications) entitled, ‘A mighty shame’, where she writes: “…the moviemakers and their PR machine seemed intent on two very different and much shallower goals: creating a mega-star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, who plays Mariane, and promoting the glib and clichéd idea that both Danny and Mariane were ‘ordinary heroes’”, and, “For me, watching the movie was like having people enter my home, rearrange the furniture and reprogram my memory”.
I felt the need to get to the bottom of Asra’s discontentment with the film…and therefore, in an email interview, I finally got my answers.
Instep: Did either you or Mariane get to read the final script before the
film went into production?
AN: I was given a copy of scripts through the summer of 2006, close to the date of production. I offered many suggestions. By the time they had a final script, I had probably become such a pain they might have wished I’d just go away, so I didn’t see the final script.
Instep: What were Mariane’s thoughts about the film?
AN: From the press interviews I’ve read, she has publicly said that she liked the movie.
Instep: And what were Mariane’s sentiments regarding Jolie’s depiction of
AN: There, too, from the press interviews, it seems that Mariane liked Angelina Jolie’s depiction of her.
Instep: Do you think Archie Panjabi did a ‘good’ job playing your role?
AN: Archie did a really good job with what she was allowed to do. Like most people, I had a cynical view about the intellect that actors put into their roles. Archie – as well as the Pakistani actors whom I met during production in India – proved me wrong. Director, Michael Winterbottom, sent the actors to visit with the characters they would be playing. Archie was the lucky winner of a visit to the heartland of America: my home in Morgantown, West Virginia. I went through my photos of my days as a pal of Danny’s in the Washington DC bureau of the Wall Street Journal. She saw Danny in his long hair and ponytail phase. She read our email exchanges to each other so she’d understand our banter. She even tried my favourite item at our local Dairy Queen – a banana split Blizzard – to be able to know me better. But most importantly she learned the details of the investigation to find Danny as thoroughly as if we were still in the midst of it. She knew every player and every twist and turn in our struggle to try to find Danny. And in a true signal of professional sacrifice: she learned to speak English with an American accent, stopping just short of saying ‘dude’, as I do, and she spoke the same lyrical brand of bad Urdu that I speak. When I watched the movie I felt sad because not only did I feel the movie didn’t capture the real people portrayed, but I believe it didn’t reflect the depth of all of the individuals who were involved in the film. In India, I met many of the Pakistani actors who were in the movie, and I was very impressed by their thoughtfulness and intellect.
Instep: In one of your emails to me, you stated: “If you can believe it, too, I stood up against the movie’s portrayal of the ‘Karachi elite’ whose intellect I thought was too
quickly dismissed.” Could you elaborate on this further (regarding your stand
against the depiction)? Because I felt the representation of the ‘Karachi elite’ (during the dinner scene) to be insensitive somehow – they appear to be pretentious, obviously having shrugged off all compassion towards a (noticeably) distressed Mariane. Why? And also, did that scene take place in actuality? If it did, how was it different from the film’s dinner scene?
AN: As the movie showed, I did throw a dinner party at my house the night Danny left for the interview (that he thought was going to be with Sheikh Gilani). I wanted to introduce Danny and Mariane to the world I had entered in Karachi through my boyfriend at the time. Sadly, as the movie showed, Danny never arrived for the dinner. Through the evening Mariane was calling Danny’s mobile phone, but it had gone out of service. I started calling, as well, and then I told my then-boyfriend and his friends. It’s true that while concerned they didn’t jump into action. As I remember that night, I am filled with regret, because maybe if we had sent up a flare to U.S. and Pakistani officials as soon as we knew Danny wasn’t picking up his phone, we could have gotten clues about his whereabouts while the trail was still hot. Alas, folks didn’t kick into action until the next morning. To me, the movie took the easy way out. It’s easy to caricature and mock the elite of any country as arrogant and cavalier. But sometimes I think we forget that – despite the privileges of inherited status that many of us most certainly receive – they have probably become the elite through some expression of intellect, education and proficiency. Shaukat Aziz, for example, is a living example of a so-called member of the elite who could be dismissed but indeed he is actually being substantive in his contribution to his country. Back to our dinner, I argued that it wasn’t appropriate to dismiss the men and women who were gathered for the dinner. My former boyfriend, for example, was the one who suggested we immediately contact the ‘Citizens Police Liaison Committee’, but I didn’t take the suggestion seriously because – you have to admit it – on the surface the name sounds sort of funky. That was me, however, being cavalier and dismissive.
I thought the movie had an opportunity with that dinner party to show more than just dispassion in the Karachi elite, because at the end of the day, they are also very smart and they care enough about their country to remain on its soil.
Instep: Asra in your opinion, why did Paramount fail to give depth to Pearl’s character? Because honestly, ‘A Mighty Heart’ focuses only on the ‘hunt’ for Pearl’s murderers. As a Pakistani I felt disconnected from the movie because I didn’t feel ‘connected’ with Mariane’s grief and loss of Daniel. The script failed to bond the protagonists and the viewers. And then, I felt repulsed too – Pakistan has been depicted as a barbaric, suspicious and filthy country…the ‘energy’ of ‘A Mighty Heart’ (the film) seems thoroughly prejudiced. What’s your take on this?
AN: Truth be told, despite all of the protests from ‘Paramount Vantage’ that the movie wasn’t a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, playing the role of Mariane, I think that’s what the movie was edited to become on the big screen. Sadly, though, I didn’t even feel for Mariane by the end of the movie because I think that nobody’s character got developed. That’s Hollywood, so to speak. But I felt it was unconscionable that Danny’s ‘character’ was sacrificed. When I watched the movie for the first time, I told my mother, “Danny played a cameo in his own murder.” To me, as a Muslim, I thought that the film also squandered an opportunity to show the complexity of Pakistan and Muslims. For example, after we learn of Danny’s murder through beheading, we see a scene where a man is about ready to butcher a goat for Eid. I cringed in my seat when I saw the image, because I felt that this ritual of Muslim culture became a symbol of barbarism by Muslims – the kind of barbarism that killed Danny. As a Muslim, I know that it’s not that simple. Sure, we have issues – serious problems that we need to tackle – but we are neither monolithic nor barbaric as a people.
Instep: How has the film been received in America?
AN: Before the movie was released in the theatres, reviewers loved it. I wondered if they watched the same movie I had seen. After the movie was released, it tanked in theatres, not making much money and being pulled from many theatres because of the poor audience turnout. Some people would say that that reflects the failure of a serious movie in American theatres. But I wouldn’t draw that conclusion. To me, the movie simply wasn’t a good movie.
Instep: Apart from the lack of depth in the film’s characters, what other
contentions do you have with the film?
AN: Look, I’m not one to ever give a government official a pass, but I have to say that while then-Interior Minister, Moinuddin Haider, did try to blame India and even Danny when we met with him, seeking help, he didn’t cut us off and run us out of his office, as the movie showed. That was an instance where I felt that creative license was used to caricature a foreign government official. And, definitely, President Musharraf was made to look like a hapless, clueless leader when he said that he hoped that Danny was alive during his visit to Washington to meet with President Bush, and we later find out he was actually already dead.
Instep, The News