Nearly three months back one evening Pakistani director Khalid Ahmad met Bollywood actor Om Puri at a party and was floored by his warmth and affable nature within minutes. “He was all over the place in just five minutes. He even exchanged a recipe with my cook. I was surprised how well he gelled,” says Ahmad. “I didn’t see any enemy there and wondered why we didn’t collaborate more often.”
Little did Ahmad know then that three months later his wish will come true with Zee Group’s unique peace initiative—Zeal For Unity. Under the initiative, the media and entertainment company has roped in six reputed filmmakers each from India and Pakistan to make short films to promote peace and harmony between the two neighbouring countries through cultural exchange.
The endeavour will begin on March 15 with directors from both sides coming together at the Wagah border. “It will be a symbolic gesture,” says Shailja Kejriwal, chief creative officer of Zee special projects, who is the brain behind the initiative. Following this the group will travel to Lahore for a day.
By the end of May the movies will be complete and we will then start screening them in India and Pakistan, adds Shailja. “We will also take them across the globe by tying up with different international film festivals and have panel discussions involving all stakeholders. Besides, they will also be telecast through our television channels. The idea is to reach out to as many people as possible and use the art of film making to bridge the divide that has existent for decades. That is why we haven’t set a time limit for the initiative,” she adds.
Films of all participating directors will be produced by Zee Group. It is, arguably, the first time India is producing Pakistani films.
“There is so much cultural similarity between India and Pakistan. There is a lot to share and talk about and the initiative will give filmmakers an opportunity to understand each other’s craft better,” says Ahmad.
Agrees director Bejoy Nambiar! “At a time when the Indo-Pak relationship is strained, any dialogue is a good dialogue. This kind of a cultural initiative will better the relationship and bring both the nations closer,” he says.
Besides, there is so much to learn from each other, says director Tanuja Chandra. “The writing and acting pool of Pakistani film industry is amazing. Their mainstream television shows offer unique stories. So, there is a lot to learn and a great opportunity to share resources.”
She says that such endeavours are a win-win situation for everyone. If audience get a chance to feast on entertainment content from across the border and understand their culture, it gives wings to the imagination of directors and encourages them to push the envelope further.
Citing her own example, Chandra says: “I hadn’t made a short film before but this platform has given me a chance to do so. What more! There are no caveats attached. I have the complete freedom to tell a story that’s close to my heart. Treat it the way I want without worrying about being unconventional or commercially successful.”
Pakistani director Meenu Farhjad, however, says she is not sure whether an initiative like this can bring peace and harmony. What it will surely do, although, is give a new audience base to Pakistani directors. “Bollywood content is accessible to Southeast Asia but how many Indian have watched our movies? Initiatives like these will reinvent the way Pakistani content is consumed by Indians and other international viewers.”
In addition, the initiative will open viable distribution channels for Pakistani directors and thus boost business. “Access is what this platform provides. We all know how difficult it is to take a film to the Indian audience. Some will argue that film festivals like Goa International Film Festival or Kerala Film Festival serve that purpose but that has limited audience. This is where such initiatives come in picture,” she says.
“Even though collaboration between the two countries has been happening, it has not been official. Now I am hopeful that the discussions among participating filmmakers will help us go beyond collaboration and lead to co-production,” explains Farhjad.