Filmmaker Hamza Bangash vividly recalls his maiden innings with cinema — watching Titanic for the first time in Islamabad, Pakistan. It wasn’t quite the experience James Cameron would have expected as people whooped and whistled, pointing hand-held lasers to the screen. The episode left its reverberations nonetheless. Hamza was introduced to the joy of cinema for the very first time and the energy a film is capable of generating. Born in a household that religiously promoted the arts and education, the Karachi-based filmmaker migrated to Mississauga when he was merely nine years old. Passionate about the art of narrative building since his childhood, he hosted puppet shows and stage plays to express himself. Starting out with the visual arts, he moved towards theatre, and eventually cinema, as an adult. ‘What’s changed for me over the years is the medium. What I love about cinema is that it combines so many art forms: music, performance, visual art, and writing. I grew up between two distinct cultures/geographies, and cinema for me is the universal language, one that can be appreciated no matter where you’re from,’ he asserts.
Constantly moving between Canada and his homeland, it was in 2015 that he finally decided to set up a base in Karachi with his theatre company. It was a smooth transition to cinema, as he indulged in making short films with his friends. 2018 was the filmmaker’s first big break when his short, Dia, made it to the Locarno Film Festival. He adds, ‘It was a revelatory experience. The festival flew me out to Switzerland for the screening and I saw my film in a theatre for the first time. I got to watch the best of art-house world cinema, and returned to Karachi, reinvigorated. Then I made another short film, Stray Dogs Come Out at Night. The film went on to be the first Pakistani film to compete at Clermont-Ferrand, the world’s largest short film festival. It was surreal, presenting the film to the French audiences. After Clermont-Ferrand, I headed to Berlin to take part in the Talent Project Market with my feature film, a feminist-horror film set in Karachi. This was all just before the pandemic hit. Those memories really sustained me during the first few months of Covid-19.’
Adding yet another gem to his oeuvre, Hamza’s upcoming short film Bhai is all set to play at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. A deeply moving narrative about two brothers, with one being on the autism spectrum, the short deals with shame, trauma, brotherhood and the underlying complexities of it all. We’re in conversation with Hamza, who tells us all about the making of the film.
Which films and/or filmmakers have influenced your craft over the years?
The filmmakers whose work I admire most are the masters of the medium — Bergman, Almodóvar, and Ray. They all have distilled humanity in their films, which is something I aspire towards. From contemporary filmmakers, I am inspired by the work of Alfonso Cuarón, Ruben Östlund and Yorgos Lanthimos. Recently, I have gotten into East Asian cinema, and am making my way through Kurosawa’s filmography. For me, films are both a profession and a passion, and so I am always seeking out new works/worlds. I am also excited by the stuff coming out of the parallel industry in South Asia. In some ways, thanks to streamers, it is a great time to be in the industry, as films have never been more accessible. Before, living in Pakistan, I would only get access to mainstream Hollywood films. But that being said, I still miss the communal experience of watching a film in a theatre. It’s a whole different thing.
What was the starting point for Bhai?
Bhai is inspired by the experiences of my co-writer and the film’s co-lead, Mohammad Ali Hashmi. Hashmi grew up with a sister who is differently-abled, and has first-hand witnessed the stigma and shame that comes with having a family member who is expected to be hidden from society. Largely thanks to my executive producer, Mina Husain, I’ve been able to create short films about mental health and illness for a while (my short Dia was about a young woman coping with grief-induced psychosis; Stray Dogs about depression and self-harm). This time, I wanted to explore the world from the perspective of someone who is on the autism spectrum, as well as those who care for them. I’ve always been intrigued in telling stories about individuals who find themselves on the margins of society. I’m interested in showing how joy, happiness and resilience can be found, no matter your circumstances. These thoughts all corralled into the creation of Bhai.
Considering the theme of the short, how challenging is it to highlight subjects that are otherwise brushed under the carpet?
To an extent, most of my filmography is speaking to subjects that are brushed under the carpet. Right before Bhai I made another short, 1978, that spoke to the changing culture of Pakistan in the late 1970s, as well as the lasting impact it had on the Goan-Christian community of Karachi. So, I have a bit of practise now in working with topics some would deem as sensitive. I think, as long as you are cognisant of the culture you are working in, and creating art that speaks to that culture in a relatable way, there is a way forward. Of course, it’s always a challenge to get films like these financed, and for that I am so lucky to have such incredible executive producers.
Salman Ahmed is a Toronto-based producer who came on board in the middle of the pandemic, and without his support it is unlikely we would have been able to finish the film. Mina Husain is a UK-based producer, and has been the driving force behind so many of my films. We also found support with Taha Sabri of Taskeen, as well as Pakistan-based Westbury Group. I also feel that by working exclusively in short format, there is immense freedom. No one really watches shorts, and they are not expected to recoup financially. So as a filmmaker, you are kind of given this freedom to do whatever you want. It’s liberating.
Was there a particular reason why you chose to present the film in black and white?
At the time of shooting and post-production of Bhai – which was between the first and second wave of Covid in Pakistan — I was watching a lot of classic cinema, specifically making my way through Ray’s films. I thought black-and-white looked so beautiful in South Asia, and gave his work a timeless quality. Films like Days and Nights in the Forest and Nayak, felt as though they could be shot in the present. And then, the story of Bhai is one that embodies the harshness of a vivid contrast in black-and-white cinema, but also a softness, in the grey areas that the characters find themselves living in. Also, this is my last short film in Pakistan, and I thought it was now or never — as I move to longer mediums, I won’t get the opportunity to make this choice.
Take us through your casting process. Was the decision to cast Ayan deliberate?
Very deliberate. Cinema has not been kind to differently-abled individuals. Awards are frequently given to actors for playing neuro-divergent characters, from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to I Am Sam, but the industry has yet to consider differently-abled individuals for these same roles. I believe authentic representation is the way forward, and I was determined to work with someone who had similar experiences to my character in the film. We worked with Pakistan Institute of Living and Learning (PILL) and Special Olympics Pakistan in the casting process. I must have met over 20 differently-abled individuals and their families. They had such inspiring and amazing stories. My first AD, Fahad Alvi, was integral to the process as he had been working with Special Olympics Pakistan for the last few years. The stories of resilience and hope that I learned through the casting process informed my choices in creating Bhai.
I still vividly remember meeting Ayan. He was wearing a fedora. We started talking, and bonded over our shared love of Golden-age Hollywood cinema. He loves Charlie Chaplin movies. Ayan was shy at first, but when we spoke he was so passionate about so many different things — animation, music, gaming — and he had a firm gentleness to him that made me instinctively believe he would be great in the role. The whole casting process happened before the pandemic, and as a result of the new world order, we spent about 8 months in Zoom rehearsals. This ended up being a huge advantage to both of us, as it gave me more time to learn how to bring out the best performance in Ayan, and Ayan time to get comfortable in performing in front of a camera. The whole experience has been really fulfilling, and I hope it encourages other directors to open up their casting process to differently-abled individuals. Cinema must progress.
L: Hamza Bangash, Photo courtesy of the CFC/Janice Reid
Do you think there’s this inherent sense of machismo that underlies brotherhood? Also what do you wish for the viewers to take away from the film?
I think, especially in South Asian society, that after the father, the oldest born son is expected to take on the role of caretaker/protector of the family honour. This never made sense to me, as they are still kids themselves, and struggling to figure out their own identities outside of the family. Masculinity in South Asia is very much tied to violence, respect and authority. I tried to upend that in Bhai, as the older brother discovers he has much more in common with his differently-abled sibling, and that his younger sibling has a resilience and willpower that he can learn from.
I hope the viewers take away an experience of walking in the steps of someone who is different, and have a greater sense of empathy for the characters.
Finally, is there a feature film on the cards? Can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
There is very much a feature! We’re currently in pre-production, with a hope to shoot in early 2022. It’s a feminist-horror film set in Karachi. My 2018 short, Dia, was a proof-of-concept for the feature, and it’s exciting for me to return to a familiar world, with a team that I love and respect. It’s scary, in more ways than one, but for me, I can’t wait to get back on set. It’s my favourite place.
The film will be releasing online free on World Mental Health Day, on October 10th, 2021 - it will be released on the website www.citylightsmediapro.com , and can also be accessed from IG @hamzabang.
Text Unnati Saini