Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Salam Mumbai

As I walked thorough the doorway into the open, a black stone slab overlooked the Arabian Sea. Large engraved letters read - In Memory of our Guests and Our staff - 26th November 2008. They were the thirty who were murdered here in a three day siege. Observing the shiny marble floors, the sparkling brass banisters and the friendly staff in unform smiling with a Namaste, I could barely begin to fathom what those harrowing days would have have been like. Much like I would like to forget a similar day in Brooklyn all those years ago, as the towers swallowed jet fuel and human flesh while I walked my child to school. I could tell people here would rather not be reminded of what happened that day. But then, how could one forget?

A group of men set sail from Karachi, Pakistan with carnage on their mind. By the time they were done, they had murdered a hundred and sixty four, caused significant damage to Mumbai's major landmarks and shaken the world, as everyone watched it all unfold on live television. The killers belonged to the terrorist group Lashkar-E-Taiba. The investigation and the intercepted phone calls revealed that their enablers and handlers were prominent members of that terrorist group. Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi was named the mastermind of the attack, and was briefly arrested in Pakistan and then let go. David Headley an American citizen who scouted the locations for the attacks was sentenced to 35 years in prison in a US court. Kasab the only surviving member of the murderous band was convicted in an Indian court and hanged. The leader of Lashkar-E-Taiba, Hafeez Saeed, was briefly placed under house arrest and let go. After the attacks and the investigations, relations between the two nuclear armed nations, which were always precarious, fell to a new low. A decade later relations are as tense as ever.

I am in Mumbai to attend the Mumbai International Film Festival where my new film Salam has been selected to screen. The film is about the Nobel Laureate physicist Abdus Salam, who was born in 1926 in pre-partition India and was laid to rest in Pakistan in 1996. The film is also about the political trajectory Pakistan took, from its birth to where it is today, riddled with sectarian violence and terrorism. The film is a passion project of two Pakistani science buffs Zakir and Omar, who always were irked since their youth, by the fact that Abdus Salam did not receive the prestige he deserved in his nation due to intolerance and bigotry. I was impressed by their commitment to bring this story to light and was drawn by the layered magnificent life of this remarkable man.

This festival organized by the Indian government, is a premier festival for documentaries in this part of world. So the selection of our film was encouraging and exciting in every possible way. Invitations were sent out, and as the director I was flown to Mumbai and am being graciously hosted at this plush hotel, afforded only by the elite of India and the travelers and businessmen with dollars, euros or pounds in their pockets.

My producer Zakir was also graciously invited to the festival by the organizing committee using their official letterhead that bore the government seal. But the Indian High Commission at Islamabad did not give him a visa to take the hour long journey from Karachi to Mumbai. Despite trying our level best and making calls to people in power, a letter was mailed to him after the film festival had started stating that his visa had been denied but he "may choose to apply again and his application would be considered without prejudice". Another filmmaker who was also invited to this festival from Pakistan, was denied entry.

The conflict between the two nations, which was born out of an amputation that took place almost seventy years ago has shown little sign of healing. With armies amassed at borders, nuclear weapons on launch vehicles, terrorists wreaking havoc and suspicions of each other only deepening, the prospects of any real peace seems more distant than ever. As people are brainwashed on either side to hate each other via their screens, there is a sizable population on both sides that exactly wishes the opposite.

Everyone recognizes that we are one people divided. We speak the same language, are entertained by the same food, music and films and love cricket with all our being. To restrict interaction in these spaces of creativity and sport is damaging to the collective soul. Civil societies on both sides of the border need to interact so there can be some dialog to prevent war. Many free thinkers and writers in Pakistan are under attack by those who fear a shift in status-quo and believe in a divisive and bigoted vision for their nation. Many journalists and bloggers languish in jail for speaking their mind and being critical of what they see. Some have disappeared and others have been killed.

At this Mumbai Film Festival, which is organized by the government, I was pleasantly surprised to view films that were critical of the state. Some filmmakers from Kashmir were allowed to show and express what they felt about the destruction and rape of their land and people. But there was one film from Kashmir titled In the Shade of the Fallen Chinar which was pulled from the schedule for reasons never clearly explained. A protest was launched by many of the filmmakers there with a letter expressing outrage.

I was at a panel discussion where myself and other filmmakers openly expressed our views on the need for absolute free speech in a healthy democracy without the need for any censorship or intimidation by the state or any group.

While India in no means is perfect, and freedom of expression has come under attack off late, with the killing of some prominent journalists and writers, it was heartwarming to see that there is a space for almost free expression with out fear of persecution. While the controversy around the release of a mainstream Bollywood film titled Padmavat dominated the newspapers, as people rioted and terrorized children in city streets, I was heartened by the fact that there was a space, albeit small and less influential, where filmmakers could speak their mind and shine a light in the dark.

While revealing the tragic life of Abdus Salam in my film, we draw attention to this point, that when any kind of intolerance suffocates creativity and brilliance, young people and nations end up paying a heavy price whose adverse effects are felt across generations. I was deeply disheartened that my Pakistani friends and colleagues, had become a casualty of the level of blanket mistrust and intolerance that has come to dominate the relationship between the two nations.

As I look down at the Arabian Sea from my fourteenth floor window I recognize that this body of water seamlessly connects Mumbai to Karachi. It is my wish and hope that this distance in never impeded at least in the creative and intellectual space, where we can relate to each other's humanity without malice or prejudice.

It is what it is.

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