She is a workaholic. Always engrossed in work. But she is Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy after all. She apologises repeatedly for the five-minute delay after winding up a meeting as we are ushered into her office. A dynamic room wafting with the fragrance of a scented candle, there is a throne of sorts behind the mahogany desk with a Macbook propped open – from there she commands a team of budding filmmakers and editors working for her SOC Films. A look at the side wall in her office – and you will see her photographs with Hollywood celebrities and top world technocrats plastered across – turn your bearing further and there stand two glistening golden trophies – possibly Sharmeen’s most prized possessions to date – the Emmy and the Oscar.
A woman who has achieved so much by all means, Sharmeen hasn’t let fame, recognition and success get to her. She does not cut a figure of some arrogant showbiz celebrity either. She is polite and humble but unapologetically upfront about
“Success comes with hard work,” she emphasises.
“My father who was a self-made man dropped out of college to start his own business. I saw him struggle, work hard and succeed. I had learnt at a very early age that hard work pays off,” she says telling us about her early endeavours.
"I want to change the way people watch TV in Pakistan"
“I was never a good student,” she laughs reminiscing her childhood days.
“I never got good grades but was good at sports. I always worked hard and landed my first job when I was only 14.”
When asked if it was easier or harder when she got in the spotlight, Sharmeen responds with an affirmative.
“It’s easier because a lot of doors open up for you. People know you, they trust you so they divulge a lot of information to you that they may not have to anyone else, but at the same time being in the spotlight makes it difficult for you to work on some of the most controversial stories because recognition becomes a problem sometimes,” she says adding, “there is also a constant risk because people know who you are and there are chances of getting threats or kidnapped.”
Nevertheless, she adds that all the fame and recognition has helped her further her professional cause. “Despite the high stakes, the spotlight has allowed me to tell stories that I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to tell before,” she remarks.
Having won numerous accolades in the last two years after the success of Saving Face, Sharmeen has also been listed in TIME’s 100 most influential people of 2012 – a list that comprises world leaders, humanitarians, technocrats and personalities who are shaping the global landscape.
“That number becomes very small when you think about the world. As a Pakistani woman it is extremely important to be on that list because it’s a reaffirmation for me that my vision and my work, not just in Pakistan, but the whole region, is resonating with the world,” she says, revealing that Angelina Jolie, who has done a record number of humanitarian projects was the one who nominated her for the list.
She will be in the US to participate in ‘Women In The World Summit’ along with the likes of Oscar winning actress Meryl Streep, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and former US president Jimmy Carter.
“I will speak about Kainat Soomro and her fight for justice. How she fought with the system after she was raped to get justice and what happened to her,” she says telling us about her inclusion on two panels in the summit and her work on a film on Bangladeshi women in police force – the world’s first all-women all-Muslim peace-keeping unit for UN.
“I have been following them for about 10 months and I will talk about Muslim women becoming peacekeepers and breaking the stereotype that the West has about us,” she says adding that she will also take with her two young women – Humaira Bachal and Khalida Brohi – who will talk about grassroots change that Pakistani women are bringing to their own country.
A hardcore professional who has received international fame over the years for her work, she still says she is yet to achieve more. In response to a question, whether there is anything she has always wanted to do but hasn’t been able to, she says, “Oh there is a lot that I want to achieve but have not been able to achieve yet. I want to make fiction films and I am looking into that. I am working on an animated film in Pakistan as well.
“I have never done something for local television. I was looking for the right project when my partnership with a local TV channel came through two years ago and we as a team started working on Aghaz-e-Safar.
Talking about her project, Sharmeen shares with us the gist of Aghaz-e-Safar that sheds light on the issues that plague the society by bringing human interest stories to the forefront.
“Pakistanis talk about politics, politics and politics, but has politics of the country ever helped the common man?” she asks underlining the need for telling stories of the common man.
“We went out for 18 months across Pakistan and visited more than 25 towns and villages to unravel stories of people living with child abuse, domestic violence, water scarcity, sexual harassment, forced labour etc. We filmed these people, created a narrative and brought them to the studio so that they could talk about their issues,” she says.
She gives us a sneak peak of the yet-to-be released first episode of the series. And as we skim through the plus 48-minute edited video, we are shown three stories – one of Hasnain and the other of Urooj Zia – both victims of child abuse along with the story of Tanveer, a motivator who works for rehabilitation of street children.
Every episode of the show has a negative and positive side. While one story reveals what happens when the system fails, the other reveals what happens when the system works, concluding on a positive note by giving hope.
"I never talk about the state of Pakistan but the people of Pakistan. For me the people of Pakistan are Pakistan and not the state"
When asked why her production seemed to be along the lines of Aamir Khan’s talk show Satyamev Jayate, Sharmeen rebuffs, “It’s Pakistan’s show, with Pakistan’s problems and Pakistan’s solutions.”
After winning the Oscar for Saving Face, Sharmeen seems to have drifted from her genre of documentary films such as Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret, Pakistan's Taliban Generation and Pakistan’s Double Game which have projected a comparatively darker side of the country. However, since then she has worked on Humaira – The Dream Catcher and has Sounds of Sachal and Seeds of Change as her upcoming projects. When asked if the drift is a deliberate attempt to showcase a positive image of the country to the world, she refutes the assumption.
“The shift is a change in me to tell stories about the people and not the issues anymore. My stories before were about issues, now I am looking at people who are trying to bring change and then through those people, I’m trying to get to know the issue.
“My work still shows the side of Pakistan that some people might not want to see, but they also show people who are risking their lives every day to bring about change – who they are and what they are doing,” she notes, adding, “I think, for me it has always been about showing a mirror to yourself and to the society. When you shove your problems under the carpet, they don’t go away. We need to talk about our problems and address them to find solutions.”
She draws an interesting analogy with political talk shows about how we address our issues.
“We need to talk about our problems. The problem with this country is we don’t talk about our problems, we shout about our problems. I want to shout out my point of view, and you shout your point of view, the loudest person will win the argument and nobody will understand,” she remarks.
“I want to start a discourse. If I produce something that makes you feel uncomfortable, I’ve done my job because it is only when you feel uncomfortable, will you start thinking of a solution,” she contents, adding that in each of her films, there is beauty and there is darkness, something that she says she will always do.
“There are people who like my work and those who don’t. The latter do not hold up a mirror to their faces, but those who like my work, do. They are the ones who see beauty in my films,” she points out.
After her Oscar win in 2012, Sharmeen was conferred with the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz by the Government of Pakistan and also honoured with a Lux Style Achievement Award – making her the youngest-ever recipient of the title. When we ask how she felt about being honoured in her homeland, she points towards the general perception of Pakistani society as one that does not acknowledge contributions. Yet she adds, “I get awards all the time on the international level, but that was my first big Pakistani award and was very special to me, because it showcased to the world that people in Pakistan were acknowledging me.
“Awards give me confidence to continue my competition globally,” she says pointing out that since there is a non-existent film industry in the country, whatever she had achieved was on her own.
Yet she says that there is more for her to achieve that she hasn’t been able to.
“Apart from whatever I am doing, I want to dedicate my time to the aims and objectives of CAP,” she says.
Sharmeen co-founded the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) in 2007 to preserve the country’s rich history through innovative and interactive means.
“I want to build a museum of living history where every Pakistani can go and learn about where we come from so that people can’t distort our history,” she tells enthusiastically, describing her plans for CAP.
To our surprise she admits that at some point in her life she wants to change professions.
“I have long felt that I am temporarily a filmmaker and in future I will become an educationist,” she tells.
She smiles and there is glint in her eyes, when she says, “There is a lot I can do, I’m just 35,” hinting that her to-do list is yet to be chock-full.
As a hard-hitting professional who has brought taboo topics and gruesome stories to the foray in a country that has become a battleground for journalists, it seems inevitable that threats exist for anyone aiming to bring a change, and Sharmeen agrees. However, she confidently shrugs off her fears by admitting that whatever is written in her stars will happen to her.
“I cannot live my life being afraid, nobody can,” she says comparing herself to just any other Pakistani who risks his life when he goes to work in the morning.
“I will continue to do what I want to do without thinking about the dangers involved in it,” she notes, adding, “I am a fatalistic person!”
Apart from terrorism, drone strikes have been a pressing issue in the politics and media of the country. When asked whether she would bring the torments of drone strike victims on celluloid, she shies away from giving a straight answer.
“There are so many films that have recently been made about drones, some even by my own friends. But I think there are far more people dying in this country because of Baloch insurgency and sectarian violence than there are in drone attacks. I would like to talk about what we are doing to our people,” she notes, highlighting the presumption of the Pakistani society that the enemy is outside the country and not within.
This shifts the focus of conversation towords Pakistan’s image across the world. To a question whether she bore certain responsibility towards painting Pakistan in positive light, particularly as a filmmaker who has garnered critical acclaim, Sharmeen dismisses the expectation.
“The biggest misconception that Pakistan has is about its image. I could make 100 films about Pakistan’s positive image but the day a bomb kills 20 young girls, it all goes to waste.
“Your image will improve if you improve, if the situation in the country improves. I don’t think anyone can improve the image of Pakistan. Only Pakistan can improve the image of Pakistan,” she says voicing concern for the plight of this country.
Nevertheless, she admits that by telling stories of the people who are risking their lives to create change in the communities, she is creating hope.
“I want to make films that leave audiences with some hope. That’s why I did a story on Humaira Bachal and a whole series Kar Lo Yaqeen on six people to project positivity,” she adds, further explaining her viewpoint.
“Take Saving Face for example. Some people say that it shows Pakistan in a negative light but I believe it shows Pakistan in an extremely positive light,” she says while discussing the characters of the film.
“It shows a doctor who comes to Pakistan to rehabilitate acid attack victims, a strong female lawyer who deals with acid attack cases and a politician who fights for women’s rights. To me that is the story of Saving Face. I don’t think it would have won an Oscar if it showed Pakistan’s problems only. The reason that film is special is because it shows how everyone came together to solve a problem and there lies its beauty.”
The conservative segment of the society is prone to criticising anyone honoured by the West, so much so, that even moderates have painted efforts of their fellow citizens as an attempt at gaining the patronage of the West. When asked if she had been subjected to similar criticism, Sharmeen clarifies the perception that such criticism stems from preconceived notions of presenting a negative image.
“I think it is a very simple argument. When I have screenings anywhere in the world, halls are overflowing with expat Pakistanis. Do you think they would come and watch films to see their country in negative light? Absolutely not! All my films leave people with faith. You watch my films and you are moved by the people in these films,” she remarks.
“There are also people who think that there is no violence in this country, or abuse for women,” she quips, adding that her definition of a patriot is somebody who questions himself and forces people to make change.
Over the years, the methodology of story-telling has evolved and people have grown accustomed to the change in digital landscape. Sharmeen agrees too, she says that with the digital camera, anyone can become a story-teller.
“When you remove boundaries and give access that’s when change comes. Now, we have many media schools, it will take a while, but I strongly believe that cinema will develop one day,” she says resounding hope for the art.
The government legislature is replete with bills and resolutions for women empowerment, and despite the paperwork, change in the plight of women requires a more proactive approach, believes Sharmeen.
“We have a lot of good laws in Pakistan. The problem is implementation and lack of awareness.”
She says mobilisation and educating people about their rights by running awareness campaigns on television is the need of the hour.
“Women in this country do not know about their rights. First you have to educate them and you have to create cultural sensitivity.”
One of the positive facets about Sharmeen’s work is the fact that she has brought unknown faces in front of the world. She hasn’t sought fame by associating herself with big names, and her work has always stood out because of her originality and bold approach.
"I think it is us who are deliberately biased towards Pakistan, forget rest of the world"
“I believe in finding voices that are less heard,” she differs when asked whether she would want to shoot a documentary on child prodigy Malala Yousufzai if she wins a Nobel Peace Prize.
“Malala already has a documentary film releasing next year – she is an international icon, I would instead like to tell stories about people who are going through tough phases while living in Pakistan,” she says while telling us about her upcoming film about a woman who is doing incredible work in Sindh and Balochistan titled Seeds of Change.
As a documentary filmmaker, Sharmeen has sifted through the miseries of the people out on the field to bring them on film. And as a hardcore professional she doesn’t seem to be the type for red-carpet events, yet she admits that even though these events merely acknowledge contributions and achievements, they boost one’s confidence and voice support.
“We need to start celebrating each other and in that narrative, award shows and summits are very important,” she says, adding “when you bring people together to celebrate them, it inspires others to carry on their footsteps.”
She has been dubbed as a ‘warrior for truth’ for her outspoken criticism about the injustices in society. She reminisces how one of her articles in a local daily, which she wrote at the age of 17, about the children of feudal lords who kidnapped kids and shaved off their heads, had put her under a lot of pressure, but she never cowered.
“My name was chalked with profanities everywhere near my house, but my father said that if I spoke the truth, he would stand by my side and so would the world,” she recalls, admitting how important his words were for her.
Post 9/11, the western media has crafted a well-tailored negative image of Pakistan, projecting it as a country plagued with many ills. Despite all of this, there are brilliant people in their respective fields who have set the global narrative straight with their achievements.
This is how Sharmeen believes negative criticism of the West about Pakistan can be tackled.
“I represent a positive example of Pakistan. When I go to places and talk about my country, I can see the change in the way people look at us.
“When I sit in front of them, talking sense and reasoning with them, I, by virtue of being me, am a success for my country. I never look at the negativity of Pakistan because I am the positivity of Pakistan,” she adds, stating, “I talk about the things that people don’t know – about Malala, Arfa Karim, Jahangir Khan and many others.
“I never talk about the state of Pakistan but the people of Pakistan. To me the people of Pakistan are Pakistan and not the state,” Sharmeen reminds.
However, at the same time, she criticises the internal perception of the society when asked whether she thought the Western media is deliberately biased towards Pakistan.
“I think we are deliberately biased towards Pakistan, forget rest of the world. There is very little motivation to make the country better on a national level. Statistics on bomb blasts, deaths, health and education budgets speak for themselves,” she criticises, pointing out, “the West cannot distort the stats.”
She says the West can continue to highlight the things that are wrong, but it is the people who need to start thinking what can be done to correct our issues.
“Nobody is going to come help us, we need to help ourselves. We have this mentality in Pakistan of being the victim. We need to change that mentality to being the survivor. Flip that mentality from being victims to being survivors and you will see the change,” she says animatedly.
“It’s too easy to say the West paints us like this. It is too easy to say the West is responsible for our problems. The day we take ownership of this country and of our own problems that is when we stand up on our own two feet to bring change.”
Sharmeen talks passionately about the change she wants to bring to the country, and this fervour is indicative of her potential for becoming a politician. However she rebuffs all such notions, in a way that is symbolic of a politician’s diplomatic answer.
“I don’t think I’d become a good politician, because I’m very upfront. What I’d love to do is work in the field of education for the government, but I can never try my hand in politics,” she says with a smile.
The 35-year-old, mother of one daughter, once said that she at times felt she was trying too hard to do everything and should stop that, indicating her responsibility towards her family.
“I am a wife and a mother, I run a production company that very few women do in this country and currently I have four projects under my belt. At times it becomes difficult to find the balance,” she confesses.
“I’m not following someone else’s footsteps, I am creating my own footsteps as I walk and I have to find my own balance because I am a workaholic. Sometimes I feel like I am doing too much, so I cut back,” she tells, admitting that on some occasions she has had to say no to many people for various projects.
She replies in the affirmative when we asked would she say yes if Angelina Jolie approached her to make a film for breast cancer awareness.
“I would love to, absolutely!” she quipped.
“I believe opportunity comes knocking at your door,” she says, recalling how she has perceived life since she was a child.
“I’ve always had big dreams and I’ve always encouraged people to have big dreams by telling them to reach for the stars and to never take no for an answer!”