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Two women, a camera and no visas

Two women with the camera are challenging gender norms in the conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in north-western Pakistan

Madiha Chaudary wields her camera with ease and familiarity, whether she is shooting weddings or filming documentaries. Photo: Javed Akhter.
Madiha Chaudary wields her camera with ease and familiarity, whether she is shooting weddings or filming documentaries. Photo: Javed Akhter.

I’ll be honest. I love girls with cameras. Women. I mean women with cameras. I also love visas, especially the ones stamped between India and Pakistan—two countries that have not been separated long enough yet to forget how essentially intertwined their stories are. And I highly recommend the documentary film Two Women And A Camera. Shot in Mardan, Pakistan, by two women and edited in New Delhi by a third.

As we talked and remembered more details about the making of the film, Reena Mohan, the acclaimed editor of the film, declared, “There should be a follow-up film every seven years on the life of Madiha Chaudary. It needs to be an ongoing series."

“Of course I am flattered, but I don’t understand what is so special about me," Chaudary said to me. There is laughter in her voice. “People say I am brave and I have achieved a lot and I wonder what they mean. All my dreams, everything I want to do with my life, is still ahead of me."

It has been a decade since Chaudary and Nazish Sajjad were part of a group of 12 trainees from various parts of Pakistan attending a documentary training workshop that I was conducting at the Interactive Resource Centre (IRC) in Lahore. We were an exciting and inspired group. Each trainee was singularly interesting to me—their accents, faces and clothes reflected the region from where they had come, and as I pieced together this information, I could picture them in different states on the map of Pakistan.

Chaudary and Sajjad were cousins from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in north-western Pakistan. They had both been the first women to be radio hosts in the region, presenting shows on Radio Buraq, an FM channel broadcasting from Mardan. They had been invited by Mohammad Waseem, the director of IRC, to train as documentary film-makers with the IRC.

In my class, Sajjad had been the quiet one and Chaudary the bubbly, talkative one. Their work showed a natural flair for video journalism as they conducted candid interviews and practised filming video. Predictably, Chaudary’s group’s first lot of footage had too much of her own voice in the background, drowning out the ambient sound.

Two years later, Waseem called me from a Delhi number. He had arrived from Pakistan with hours of taped footage, shot by Chaudary and Sajjad, to hand over to Reena Mohan, who had agreed to edit it into a film. I met Mohan, her husband Nirmal Chander Dandriyal, and Waseem for lunch. Those who had shot the film in Mardan would not be able to meet those who would edit it in Delhi. There was no way to get visas for either team.

“We had no instructions," Mohan remembers. “There had been one conversation over a really bad phone line with Chaudary. We tried to make what we thought they had envisioned when they were shooting. Then we changed course and made the film that we saw embedded in the hours of footage. It was challenging and remarkably brave of them to shoot it in a certain way."

“Essentially, we disregarded most of the planned shooting and pieced together the moments caught when the camera was rolling in a free-flowing way," Dandriyal added.

In the film, now available online on Vimeo, the camera, handled by Sajjad, follows a veiled Chaudary from her home to the radio station and into the streets and markets of Mardan. When she isn’t talking to others, Chaudary talks to Sajjad, directing her, joking with her and muttering under her breath as they get stared at excessively wherever they go. “Either these people have never seen a camera before or a girl before," she says at one point, disregarding the fact that the men on the streets have certainly not seen two women with a camera before.

Gender norms in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have always been conservative and the sociopolitical fabric has been further ravaged by militancy, terrorism and repeated efforts by the Taliban to seize control of the region. In their documentary, Chaudary and Sajjad interview other women who work outside their homes, but none of them share their names or allow their faces to be visible on camera. They speak to a Shia colleague at the radio station and a Christian tailor who share anecdotes of being discriminated against. On camera, Sajjad receives a call from a man requesting a Pashto song on her Urdu programme. She laughs off the silliness.

The breeziest parts are those filmed at home, where Chaudary’s parents speak supportive words with pride and conviction, her sister always seems to be sleeping late and her younger brother tries to disrupt shooting with his toys and noises. “Stop behaving like a Pakistani," Chaudary chides him, laughing out loud at her own joke.

“There was a time when I would go out to film on my own, covered by a chador and a veil. One day I found myself completely surrounded by men and young boys, just standing and staring at me," Chaudary recounts an incident from her early years of being a video journalist. “I removed the veil from my face and dared them. Is this what you are here to see? Well, see my face and leave. Let me do my work."

This is Madiha Chaudary—practical, bold and frank. By the time Mohan completed the editing of the film, Chaudary had got married to a colleague at the IRC, and was expecting her first child. Today, her two children are five and four years old, and Chaudary has become the most sought after female wedding videographer in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region.

When their documentary film was first screened at the annual IAWRT (International Association of Women in Radio and Television) Asia Women’s Film Festival in New Delhi, Chaudary travelled to Lahore for a video chat with the first audience of the film via Skype.

“People queued up in front of the computer at the India International Centre (in Delhi) to speak to her," Mohan remembers. “It was such a moment of connection, as Chaudary’s image was projected on the big screen in the auditorium."

There is an innocent wisdom in Chaudary’s words as she chats with me via WhatsApp. She sends me an audio clip in which she talks about how much she loves the film.

“When somebody works hard on something, she does fall in love in with it. Even if it is something trivial. If one has so much as sewn a button on one’s dress, one looks at it again and again. Just like that I have also watched this film many times. When we would receive feedback on its screenings and how it had been received, I would feel pride. After all, we had worked hard on it day and night. I had revealed myself in it—this is who I am. I am happy to be validated."

As she remembered more about the film experience, Mohan shared: “In a way, it is my favourite film of all the ones I have edited. It is so delightful, with its youthful, bubbly, wonderful women protagonists. There is no burden, if you know what I mean."

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