Sound of Unity

Two cultures bonded with one history, one culture but separated by a geographical boundary. India and Pakistan however have a porous attitude to building bridges through culture, music, cinema, food and art. Pakistani photographer Mobeen Ansari, who is hearing -challenged, documents talents of the Bollywood film industry in his upcoming book and exhibition. Excerpts from his interview with Manju Ramanan.

Tell us about your tryst with Bollywood? What intrigues you about the actors as a photographer?

My trust with Bollywood has only just started. Like the song goes, ìAbhi toh party shuroo hui haiî

As a photographer, what I truly find enjoyable working with actors is the wide array of emotions they can display, and their ability to be my mirror and let me tell my own stories. Itís like making my own film frozen in a still, if you may.

As a Pakistani photographer working with Indian actors, what I absolutely relish is that besides the countless commonalities both our countries share, I enjoy the process of capturing their profound and relatable humanity.

There could be a rickshaw driver in Lahore, who could be a poet at heart; would be able to find a connection when seeing a photograph Naseeruddin Shah, writing something next to a lantern.

Whenever I photograph an actor, I have a habit of giving them roles. For instance, last week I did a shoot with the actress Sania Saeed, and asked her to play someone who has been time travelling through the ages, into different bodies, and so she portrayed uncertainty, joy, and memories.

With Johnny Lever, the process consisted of multiple layered shots, meaning that there were duplicate versions of him in one frame, and he would portray each character differently.

What about Pakistani cinema?

I have had the privilege of working with many actors and actresses across Pakistan, for portraits as well as film stills. I have shot for films like Song of Lahore (by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy), Tammana and Operation 021, and interestingly these films released at a time when Pakistani cinema was going through its initial revival, so to be part of that process has been very gratifying.

Whatís beautiful about Pakistani cinema is the that we still have an incredible fraternity of veteran actors, and Iíve been fortunate enough to work with living legends such as Zia Mohyuddin, Babra Sharif, Zeba Ali, Behrooz Sabzwari, Nadeem Baig who are continuously evolving the industry and raising the standards of professionalism for the younger counterparts; so when I work with them, I feel like I am interacting with history of Pakistani cinema itself!

Having said that, we also have some incredibly dynamic contemporary artistes like Mahira Khan, who is a shining example of talent and versatility and not to mention a sheer joy to photograph.

Tell us about your book on Pakistan’s connection to Bollywood?

A few years ago, my friend Arpana Gvalani (a chef and curator of music and stage musicals, and podcast producer based in Mumbai), and I started a project

called ëBreaking Boundariesí, which features portraits of Indian artistes (actors, actresses, directors, writers) who have a connection to Pakistan.

The narrative was also that both the people behind the lens- Arpana and myself- have ancestral ties to each otherís countries. My grandparents were born in India and migrated from there, and Arpanaís hailed from Pakistan.

We photographed actors like Naseeruddin Shah, who has worked in two Pakistani films, and has taken part in literature festivals in Pakistan. He also has familial ties to Pakistan and in fact is a distant relative of mine.

Then we featured Om Puri, who had traveled extensively to Pakistan and had done a theatrical play too. He always pushed the boundary lines between the two countries; to give you an example; he was once on stage during a live play and started fumbling in his pockets to look for something, this grabbed the attention of the audience and he told them, that he was looking for something but cannot seem to find it. The audience then offered to help search and asked what it was that he seemed to have lost. He then looked at them and said ëenmityí.

We went on to photograph Kabir Khan, who has made a cross border themed film called Bajrangi Bhaijan including the list of actors we had the opportunity to photograph were Johnny Lever, Anupam Kher, Shabana Azmi and the highly acclaimed director Mahesh Bhatt.

The faces you would have liked to capture on lens – people from the past and why?

I would have absolutely loved to photograph the iconic Moin Akhtar. Sadly my concept of documenting iconic people of Pakistan materialized after he had passed away. He truly was one of a kind and his unique brand of comedy made each and every household laugh.

I would have also loved to photograph the gifted singer Nazia Hassan. She was an irreplaceable talent, and no less than legendary.

What strikes you about the person you photograph?

I have always believed that portraits are like landscapes of people. For every person, features are relative, as everyone is unique. Every portrait I have done has been very different from the other, so I would say uniqueness of a personís character is what strikes me the most.

Tell us about your documentary films and the unique subjects you explore?

I have made two silent films.

My first film Hellhole was released in 2016 itís a black and white silent short film based on the life of conservancy workers, better known as gutter cleaners as seen through the life and often forgotten humanity of one such worker Pervez from Karachi.

The second film is Lady of the Emerald Scarf released in 2018 which is set in the heart of Gulmit village in Gilgit Baltistan (Northern Pakistan), Lady of The Emerald Scarf is a short silent film which follows a day in the life of Aziza, a carpet maker and shepherd, spread through winter and spring seasons. It explores her relationship with her surroundings, with the focus on the symbology of emerald, the color of her scarf.

Will you shoot a feature someday. Who will you cast in it?

I certainly hope so! Although both my films were short films, the experience was thrilling. I would cast Naseeruddin Shah, Sania Saeed, Susan Sarandon and Naumaan Ijaz!


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