A Night with Noorjehan
Written an directed by Mariam Majid
Since the Lumiere Brothers’ ‘Arrival of the Train’ in 1896, cinema, deeply rooted to our archaic need for storytelling, has been entangled with the human condition. It continues to shape narratives and define cultural identities, but the embodiment of shared emotion through haptic visuality of the moving image manifests towards far reaching consequences.
Whether it is nationalistic propaganda or the charm of a spectacle, it begs to question the authenticity of representing realism. This is aptly put by Lucia Nagib in her book ‘World Cinema and the Ethics of Reality’ -
“ ...making films is making history, entailing change in the real life of casts and crews, and therefore producing an ethical reality”.
The quote sums up the ‘Noorjehan journey’ and, for me, raises the question whether there is such a thing as ‘responsible realism’ in film.
The current global film culture having birthed from Western capitalism dominates international cinema. The postcolonial world still reels from its trauma. This is noted beautifully by Roy Armes in his book ‘Third World Film Making and the West’, as a quote byOswaldo Guayasmin,
“...like a man who has lost his fingerprints. This is the danger we would all risk if, cursing our cultural identity and ceasing to defend it, we blindly accepted the bilateral assistance, foreign technicians and international cooperation, which corresponds to other mental patterns, other orientations and other objectives.”
Armed with the false confidence of Western education and from the domain of privilege, I embarked on my mission to make a social realist film to give a voice to the subaltern. But as Gayatri Spivak’s book title asks - “Can the subaltern speak?” ‘A Night with Noorjehan’ taught me, the question is not the above in fact but - can the subaltern be heard? And whether any film, however well intentioned, is capable of truly doing justice to ground realities. Especially as Stephanie Muir asks in ‘Studying City of God’-
THE SUB-CONTINENT POSTCOLONIAL CINEMA AND THE WESTERN GAUGE
After partition in 1947, and the catastrophic exit of the British from the Sub- Continent, India has enjoyed a a strong commercial and parallel film industry with world renowned filmmakers such a Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and the more recent Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, Sanjay Leelabhansali; its neighbouring, Pakistan, like an amputated limb did not have such luck.
The first Pakistani film submitted for an Oscar in 1959 for the Best Foreign Film Category, the only known neo-realist film produced in Pakistan was ‘Jago Hua Savera’ (Day Shall Dawn). Directed by A. J. Kardar, it was a collaboration between Pakistani, Indian and British creatives.
The plight of a fishing village suffering at the hands of loan sharks, the film caught international attention. Since it was filmed not much after the bitter divorce with India, Pakistan’s martial law dictator General Ayub Khan quickly banned the film and incarcerated many poets, filmmakers and writers. The Pakistani parallel cinema never recovered from the blow.
Given the current nationalist, geo-political and religious factors, a filmmaker from Pakistan continues to face headwinds from both national and international challenges. Twice Oscar winning, documentary filmmaker Shermeen Obaid Chinoy has been heavily criticised at home for portraying the ‘ugly’ face of the nation in her films, ‘A Girl in the River’ and ‘Saving Face.’
I find that the ramifications of the nature of a social realist film from Pakistan not only burdens me with the responsibility of representing reality with authenticity but also demands me to be conscious of the severe sensitivities at home.
The Child and the Transgender
Focused on the snapshot of human connection between a transgender sex worker, Noor, and a 12 year old street child, Ben. Set around a vintage cinema of old Lahore, the microcosm depicts a clash of the authoritative jurisdiction of men and the other - child, woman and transgender.
Ben, fascinated by the cinema, associates the actress on the billboard with the regular visitor in the neighbourhood, Noor. He follows her out of curiosity but ends up helping her escape a policeman by causing a distraction. They both take refuge in the back entrance of building. As they catch their breath, the sound of music takes them up a flight of stairs. They open the door to find themselves in the middle of the cinema hall. For that moment, they are transported into another world to part ways when the movie finishes and they return to their ordinary lives. One can opine that A Night with Noorjehan is essentially a coming of age film.
It is worthy to note that before the 1900’s the Lumiere brothers’ first films were about children. Whether it is Victoire Thivisol as Jacques Doillon’s Ponette or Catinca Untaruas Tarsem Singh’s Alexandria, children in film have always inspired pathos and self- reflection, regressing us to our own subconscious affiliations to our forgotten selves. They also have the capability to show us our world as Bert Cardullo notes in his research paper at Yale University -
I feel the same truth resonates with most of my projects, theatre and film that feature or are aimed at children. Perhaps it’s my truce with my own reality as a mother.
On one hand there was the child protagonist and on the other discernment of repressing transgender. M. Michelraj states in his research paper titled, ‘Historical Evolution of Transgender Community in India’ that there is significant evidence of ‘recognition of the third sex’ in ancient text from the Indian Sub-Continent. ‘Hijras’ (transgender) held important roles in the royal courts of the Islamic world from the Ottoman to the Mughal empires.
With the advent of the colonial rule in the 18th century the status of the ‘Hijra’ deteriorated. Michelraj notes -
“Accounts of early European travellers showed that they were repulsed by the sight of Hijras and could not comprehend why they were given so much respect in the royal courts and other institutions. In the second half of the 19th century, the British colonial administration vigorously sought to criminalise the Hijra community and to deny them the civil rights.”
The stigma remains centuries later. They are subject to severe marginalisation and violence, expelled from their homes as children and left to fend for themselves. The community leaders ‘gurus’ maintain safe houses where the community lives and works, mostly as dancers and sex worker paying part of their wages to the guru. During my interactions with the community it became apparent that they were keen to reclaim and change their narrative. Damien W. Riggs, Chloe Colton, Clemence Due, and Clare Bartholomaeus, in there research essay titled, ‘Mundane transphobia in Celebrity Big Brother UK’, claim a similar trend is experienced in the west.
“...that contemporary media representations of trans people continue to be marginalising, and to a certain degree sensationalising.”
It became paramount for me that I was conscious of how the characters of Noor and Lucky were portrayed especially in the scene where a sexual act was insinuated. It was important that I do not disrespect the dignity of a community that already suffers due to demeaning sensationalism.
I wanted to underplay the act and allow the viewer to come to their own interpretation rather than making a crass and blatant representation.
THE QUEEN OF MELODY
It is also important to note the inspiration for the name Noor having been taken from Noorjehan, born Allahrakhi Wasai in 1925, one of Pakistan’s greatest treasures. An actress and singer her prolific work specially as a singer earned her the title of ‘Malika Tarannum’ (Queen of Melody). A generation in Pakistan has strong nostalgic associations with her music and stardom. As an ode to the power of fantasy in cinema I felt it was apt to interweave her music and name in the narrative of my film as well. This may be lost in translation for Western audiences who are not familiar with the actress and her work.
To create a convincing ambience the sound design of the film uses snippets of dialogue and song from the Punjabi films ‘Choorian’ (Bangles)1998 and ‘Chan Tay
Soorma’ (Chan and Soorma)1986. Chan Tay Soorma featured the song ‘Zalima Coca Cola Piya Day’ (Oh Heartless buy me a Coca Cola) by Noorjehan. Initially I had planned to use the song in the film, this decision was changed to bring in a song by actress Saima who resembled Nirmal more and also performed a dance routine that could be repeated by Noor in the cinema scene.
THE PURSUIT OF FAITHFUL DEPICTION
Stephanie Muir begins her book, ‘Studying City of God,’ with a quote from the founder of Cinema Novo in Brazil, Glauber Rocha.
“This, while Latin America laments its general misery, the foreign onlooker cultivates the taste of that misery, not as a tragic symptom, but merely as an aesthetic object.”
I was keen to explore if I could make a film that was true to its inspiration. Having grown up in Pakistan I felt I could exonerate myself from concepts of exploitation as Muir discusses in her book. In the true spirit of De Sica’s Neo-Realism and purist Iranian New- wave I planned to shoot in the old commercial part of Lahore casting actual transgender men to play the roles of Noor and Lucky.
CASTING AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
Encouraged by Mira Nair’s ‘Salaam Bombay’ and Bhaman Ghobadi’s ‘Turtles Can Fly’, I explored how I could best utilise their discipline of working with non-actors in A Night with Noorjehan.
Nair, after her extensive experience in documentary films, had cast street children who received training in a workshop before filming. Ghobadi spent three months in Iraq searching for the best performers. He states in an interview with Cornerhouse’s Cinemas Education Officer, Rachel Hayward -
“My young actors and actresses are not pretending, they are reliving their lives. Most of my stories and characters come from social realities, so amateurs can identify with those parts and then reproduce them for me. With children we have to wait and have patience until they produce their best acting.”
Casting Nirmal Chaudhary and Lucky Khan in the roles of the transgender was an important decision for the film. It allowed it the semblance of authenticity that an actor could not have provided.
The real challenge was casting Ben. Given the sensitivities of the theme and the difficult conditions of the shoot, my great hesitance to take the responsibly of a child from an underprivileged background and the unreliability of working with street children with, I chose to cast my own eleven year old son.
Keeping the same constraints of cast and time, if I were to reshoot, I would allow the camera to be on standby to capture natural behaviour during blocking. These moments, in fact, provided us with some shots that made it to the final edit. There were other wonderful natural moments, where Romaan expressed other gestures natural to the demeanour of a child while waiting for the shot to be set.
I also took the lead from Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. Which Author Carlo Celli describes as, “The cinematic style developed out of this current of children’s films was recognised by the critics for its use of long takes that helped communicate the psychological interior of characters. These films feature non professional actors and on-location shootings”
Melanie Swalwell in her journal ‘The Senses and Memory in Intercultural Cinema’, quotes Eisenstein - "collision" of shots could be used to manipulate the emotions of the audience and create film metaphors. "methods of montage”
I found elements of Eisenstein’s philosophy in Ray’s Pather Panchali. These became a guide to convey nuances of Ben’s character.
A scene in particular resonated with me. When Apu’s mother beats his sister Durga and Apu watches hapless. I took this as inspiration for the scene where Ben witnesses the Policeman harass Noor.
For the cinema scene I had taken shots of the screen at Metropole cinema but the content did not support the film narrative. A scene in Salaam Bombay solved the issue, where I noticed that cutting to archival footage without showing the cinema screen seemed to work perfectly well. The same film inspired the ‘full circle’ notion of opening and ending the film.
The most challenging scene to film was Noor’s altercation with the Policeman. I wanted to show Ben’s POV which concealed part of the action. I broke up the scene keeping editing in mind. I studied a scene in Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’ (2013) when the character of Scarlett Johansson trips and falls. The impact of the scene is completely manufactured in edit, piecing together four clean shots that convey a fall with precision. I tried to bring that knowledge into the shot where Noor is thrown out of the car. The film was also inspirational in its concept of filming general public.
Location: From Laxmi Chowk to Jamal Tikka Shop
Carcasses of tanks on dust lands of ‘Turtles Can Fly’, the cacophony of colour in the metropolis of ‘Salaam Bombay’ and the concrete geometrics of the council estate of ‘Fish Tank’, the unspoken language of location created the universe of these film. For us it would be Abbot Road, Laxmi Chowk in Lahore with its many vintage cinemas.
I had secured the locations from London. Upon my arrival, two days before the scheduled filming, we discovered the cinema manager had disappeared, neither did we have the cinema and nor did any cafe on the street agreed us to film. This threw the whole schedule off and all pre production paper work became irrelevant. I had to rewrite some scenes excluding some characters. Although I believe fewer characters worked out better in favour of the final film .
I took out a day scheduled for rehearsals and workshopping to scout locations. We chose three, divided over the three day shoot and gained permissions. We also scheduled to meet the President of the Pakistani Cinema association to secure a cinema. Nothing could go wrong now.
Prepared for electricity power cuts and unwanted attention from the crowds, despite many unexpected hitches we had the first day of shoot under our belt, only to realise we had missed some key shots in the confusion of the scenes divided between all three locations.
Nevertheless, on day two we arrived on location but within minutes of set up there were hoards of people and traffic made filming very laborious but as every take was punctuated by clapping and cheers, it lifted everyone’s spirit. However, since we had to rewrite our shot list, we did miss the establishing shot that would put the protagonist in relation to his surroundings.
During the edit I had to look through my archival footage of Lahore and pick two shots to compensate for the missing shot. Although shot at 60 fps and a different camera, they managed to fit in.
Day three brought on it’s own challenges on Abbot Road/Laxmi Chowk, from late arrivals, filming with lights inside a cinema hall while a movie was playing, the dinner break that ate up an hour and half to the Metropole Cinema shutting off power at midnight with no recourse. With many scenes left to film we had to either postpone filming or find a creative solution.
Script from English to Urdu
The screenplay was written in English. To film in Urdu and also to give Nirmal and Lucky the opportunity to represent themselves with authenticity, I provided them with a step outline of their scenes in Urdu and Roman Urdu. We read through the Urdu translation and discussed the subtext and backstories of the characters. The scenes were then played a number of times and the audio was recorded. We finalised lines that seemed most genuine and the cast was comfortable with.
For the other characters, we discussed the subtext of their scenes and marked out the beats. Unfortunately to the disappointment of some, the over-eager desire to express their acting skills had to be curtailed.
To create a convincing ambience the sound design of the film uses snippets of dialogue and song from the Punjabi films ‘Choorian’ (Bangles) 1998 and ‘Chan Tay Soorma’ (Chan and Soorma) 1986. Chan Tay Soorma featured the song ‘Zalima Coca Cola Piya Day’ (Oh Heartless buy me a Coca Cola) by Noorjehan. Initially I had planned to use the song in the film, this decision was changed to bring in a song by actress Saima who resembled Nirmal more and also performed a dance routine that could be repeated by Noor in the cinema scene.
Filming A Night with Noorjehan was a tough challenge. It was too ambitious a film for the experience and size of the team. Filming on a more discrete camera on a crane would have helped avoid the hassle of tracks and time consuming, labour intensive exercises. This would have also helped with avoiding crowding. Under the Skin is a perfect example filming in public with hidden cameras. I regret not sticking to my initial idea to shoot on a shoulder rig for Ben’s POV shots, these would have helped the mobility of the camera and would have saved valuable set up time.
In the end A Night with Noorjehan may have slipped away from the director’s vision but it carries my heart within it.
From the merits of escapism and the didacticism of ‘kitchen sink realism’, at best, filmmaking has turned me into a voyeur, scavenging for stories in the irritable mother with a tiresome toddler - the man with a stained shirt in the back row of the cinema - the school boy with a bloody nose. Are these stories a means to an end in the hope of reclaiming the narrative for Pakistan, or do they birth from the self-aggrandising impulse of an artist?