Once upon a time in Pakistan
'My Pure Land', the UK's official Oscar entry, has been called a 'Pakistani feminist Western'
Globalization in cinema can bring unexpected and wondrous things. Sarmad Masud’s debut feature, My Pure Land, made in Urdu and shot in Pakistan, is the UK’s entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It is a strong film, with powerful images rarely seen in South Asian cinema, of a rural teenage girl holding her own in gunfights with gangs of goons. These resonate long after you have left the theatre, and have a particular power because the film is based on a true story.
The film is inspired by the life of Nazo Dharejo in Sindh, Pakistan, whose father raised her sisters and her as if they were boys, often dressing them in shirts and pants rather than the traditional shalwar-kameez, and teaching them to use a Kalashnikov at the age of 16. Land grabbing is common in Pakistan and nearly one million land dispute cases are pending in its courts. When Dharejo’s uncle hired armed goons to grab their family home, her brother was murdered and her father tossed into jail, the teenager bravely and successfully led the unequal gunfight.
The film was playing at the just-concluded 14th Dubai International Film Festival, where I spoke to the director, who was there with Pakistani actor Syed Tanveer Hussain (who plays the father) and Caroline Bailey, the film’s production designer and Masud’s wife.
Sarmad Masud (“Sam") is a British director of Pakistani origin, born in Nottingham. He had earlier directed for television, made a short (Two Dosas), and with his first feature, has vaulted into the league of Oscar-nominated film-makers. “Originally, I had wanted to make a film about police corruption in Pakistan, like Cop Land," says Masud. “Then I read about Dharejo, who had fought hundreds of bandits to defend her home and land. It sounded so much more interesting, so I contacted her. She asked if I was making a documentary and I said no. She asked if there would be song and dance and I said no. She asked if she would be acting in the film; I said no, someone else would play her." She gave Masud the rights to her story but refused to take money for it. ‘Just tell my story’," she told him.
The film, which has been called a Pakistani feminist Western, has a raw power because the protagonist is not some badass Asian Kill Bill-style heroine, but a rural teenager (actor Suhaee Abro, who is wonderful) in a dupatta and shalwar-kameez, with nose ring and anklets, wielding a gun. Her ordinariness gives her character an extraordinary power. The police are corrupt and misogynist: Her brother Sikander is killed in police custody, and her father also suffers tragically there. Dharejo is left to lead the gunfight along with her sister, mother and brother’s friend, Zulfiqar.
Dharejo’s father is remarkably liberal, given that this is conservative rural Sindh: He brings up his daughters like sons—in the film, he calls Dharejo and Saeda “Mukhtiar" and “Munir"—and trains them to use guns to defend their home. When Zulfiqar asks Dharejo to marry him, she coolly says: on three conditions—she will not live with her in-laws, she will continue to work and she will travel wherever she likes.
“Even though my film is being described as a feminist Western, Trojan-horsed within that is actually a lovely story about a father’s relationship with his daughters," says Masud. “The lead character might be a traditional rural girl... but she is (also) a brave, independent Pakistani woman who stands up for herself. She’s based on a real-life person who did actually fight her own battles and is a living inspiration for women throughout Pakistan, and the world."
There is a fascinating contradiction at the heart of the film: The father appears liberal, but he is also deeply patriarchal, insisting the girls’ izzat—honour—is connected with the land, and they should protect it even at the cost of their lives. And women’s honour is at the heart of much of the violence against women worldwide. “I guess I never really saw this contradiction in the same way," Masud responds. “I believe the father in our film is very liberal and progressive, raising them to feel like equals to his son. He is empowering and equipping them with the necessary tools to fight for their home and land, which they have nurtured with blood, sweat and tears, their soul is in this land, and it isn’t just land to him. It is so much more than that. I guess nothing to him is more important in this world than your honour. This land means more to them than even that."
Masud has strong memories of visiting Pakistan. “We have a lot of family members living in Pakistan, so I have many happy memories of visiting them. My earliest memory is attending my uncle’s wedding in the early 1980s; I recall being very hot in a grey suit.... But I was always fascinated by, and vividly recall, the people, the chaos and the landscape."
Did he intend the film to influence public discourse on contemporary Islam? “That wasn’t my intention," Masud says. “I do feel a responsibility as a British-Pakistani Muslim to tell stories which closely reflect the religion and the world as I see and experience it. It’s also important to make a film which attempts to shine a light on a country, culture and religion which is very rarely accurately represented on screen."
I ask Masud if he feels non-resident Pakistani/Pakistani-origin film-makers such as himself, Afia Nathaniel (Dukhtar) and Iram Haq (What Will People Say), tend to make more feminist feature films set in Pakistan than resident Pakistani directors, including Shoaib Mansoor (Bol), Sabiha Sumar (Khamosh Pani, Good Morning Karachi, Azmaish) and documentarian Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy. “I would hope all the directors you have mentioned are feminists at heart, who believe in equality," he says. “It just so happens the films Afia and I have made, are centred around strong female leads."
Five female-led Westerns
Johnny Guitar (1954)
Steely saloon-keeper Joan Crawford holds off a mob led by Mercedes McCambridge in this classic Western directed by Nicholas Ray. Martin Scorsese has described it as one of cinema’s “great operatic works...pitched from beginning to end in a tone that is convulsive and passionate".
McCabe And Mrs Miller (1971)
Though Warren Beatty was arguably a bigger box-office draw, Robert Altman’s film makes clear that Julie Christie’s brothel madam is the more formidable character and the driving force of the narrative.
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
In this elliptical, stunningly photographed film by Kelly Reichardt, Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson play increasingly desperate settlers on a wagon trail in the Oregon desert who realize too late that their guide might not know where he’s leading them.
In this tense German-language film by Thomas Arslan, Nina Hoss battles nature and the competing interests of a group of prospectors who travel to Yukon, Canada, hoping to take advantage of the 1899 Gold Rush.
The Homesman (2014)
A fine low-key Western directed by Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman stars Hillary Swank as a former teacher who undertakes a difficult journey transporting three women who have been declared mentally ill from Nebraska to Iowa.