Toronto International Film Festival 2021
Short Cuts: YYZ Edition
Bhai / Brothers
On Pakistan’s independence day, two teenage boys go out to celebrate at a fast food restaurant – when a dancing monkey interrupts.
Hi Hamza thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you held up during these very strange times?
To say it's been a rollercoaster would be an understatement. The month before the pandemic hit, I was attending the Berlin Film Festival as part of the Talent Project Market. I was pitching my feature film and getting to meet filmmakers from every corner of the globe. Fast forward a few months into our new Covid-reality, and I was applying for online-English teaching jobs- as the independent film scene in Pakistan had completely fallen apart. Now, almost two years later, I have a film at TIFF and am in pre-production on my debut feature. I've been very, very lucky.
Has this time provided you with any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
It's forced me to look inwards for inspiration. I recently shot a short film as part of the Director's Lab program at the Canadian Film Centre - and it's my most personal film to date. Prior to this, my shorts are largely at the intersection between external stories and my personal values. Now, I'm mining my own past - so that's new, and exciting, and scary. In terms of opportunities- well I guess industry folks no longer feel like we have any geographical constraints. Any given day, I'll have zoom meetings on Pakistan, Canadian, UK or LA time. I guess, the internet age has really arrived.
What does it mean for you to be able to Premiere Bhai in the Short Cuts section at TIFF?
Everything. TIFF was the festival that was my first brush with cinema. Spending my teenage years in Canada, it was my dream to have a film of mine premiere at the festival. I used to volunteer for the festival as an usher when I was in college, showing film critics to their seats for press screenings. I remember watching Ida at TIFF 2013- a film that was discovered at the festival and went on to win the Oscar race. I remember it was a 9 AM weekday screening, and I couldn't understand why all these people would come to watch a black and white, foreign-language film at such a weird time. By the time the film's credits rolled, I was in awe. Bhai will be screening in the same cinema as Ida, so in many ways I feel like I'm coming full circle. The fact that Bhai is also in black & white, and 4 by 3, is a happy coincidence.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Bhai came about, what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
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.
When writing the screenplays how much do you draw from you own life and experiences when creating your characters?
For me, I have to have a point of intersection with the story and the characters - a point where my lived experiences or values overlap. That allows me to approach the film through a lens of empathy- which is the kind of cinema that excites me. I think it's important to walk the walk. However, the thing that's interested me the most lately is what happens at the end of empathy- what comes next?
How important is the collaborative nature between writer/director and actors?
Because I grew up in theatre, the collaborative relationship between myself and my actors is a huge part of my process. Often, some of the best material comes out workshopping the script with my actors. I remember reading somewhere that making a good film is 90% casting. I believe that. I love my actors, and the cinema dreams of mine that they make a reality. It's such a privilege to work with strong talent, and I've had the opportunity to work with some of the most gifted veteran actors of Pakistani and Canadian cinema, such as Adnan Shah Tipu in Stray Dogs Come Out at Night. It was such an honour to learn from such a brilliant actor. At the same time, I've been able to work with some exciting up-and-comers, such as Mohammad Ali Hashmi in Bhai. He brings such a vulnerability and dedication to every performance, and it's been a privilege to watch his growth in the medium.
What was the biggest challenge you faced bringing Bhai to the screen?
I mean, I could make a list. Our location flooded. Child Actors. Monkeys. The busiest intersection in Karachi during a heatwave / between the first and second wave of Covid. However, the easiest thing, was working with Ayan Javaid as the lead. Ayan identifies as differently-abled, and to have him play the role of Taimur - a character on the autism spectrum, was a goal of mine from the start. Ayan, with his unflinching resolve, made the shooting process so incredibly easy. I hope this film inspires other directors to work with actors who are differently-abled. We need real representation in cinema.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I’ve always been passionate about stories. I grew up in a household that encouraged the arts and education. My first brush with storytelling was as a kid, when my mother used to hold puppet shows and stage plays for our birthdays. I started in visual art, moved to theatre as a teenager and dove into 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 a universal language- one that can be appreciated no matter where you’re from.
"I think we have to push boundaries - that that's the purpose of cinema as a storytelling medium."
Has your style and the approach to your projects changed much since your debut film?
I'm not sure I'm the best person to answer that - I think that would be a question for a someone whose watched my films. I think I'm braver now. I have a better idea of what I want to say, and how I want to say it. I did a period film, with a cast and crew of over 200 people, on a tight budget - so I'm not as intimidated as I used to be. My craft has grown.
Do you think filmmakers should continue to push the boundaries of the films/stories they want to tell?
I think we have to push boundaries - that that's the purpose of cinema as a storytelling medium. Otherwise your art is complacent, and complacency doesn't interest me.
Is there any advice you would offer someone about making their first film?
Have fun. Make mistakes. You'll get better.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Bhai?
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.