What about the security situation Pooja? Asks a slightly anxious Dino Morea on the eve of our departure to Pakistan to showcase our film Holiday at the fifth annual Kara film festival held in Karachi each December.
A festival that was akin to a pilgrimage my father and me ensure that we take each year... I laughed. Not blaming him at all for his concern. It was Dino's first trip to Pakistan and naturally he had a thousand pre-conceived notions about our so-called 'enemy-state'.
I asked him to relax and enjoy the ride... this was my third visit after all and I felt more 'safe' there then I did in certain parts of my own country, city or 'home'.
On arrival, his anxiety turned into disbelief when almost every person at the airport came up to him and with utmost sincerity shook his hand and said 'Welcome to Pakistan. Thank you for coming to our country'. Nowhere else in the world is that said so often and that too, so genuinely.
It makes you feel a little guilty about your fears regarding attitudes and security threats in that country. We are taken through immigration in a matter of seconds, with utmost grace and before we know, are heading out into the cold December air where our buddy Ali Azmat, the ex lead singer from Pakistan's greatest band Junoon, and now flying solo, waits for us in his gleaming new car like a little boy unable to contain his excitement.
But before we reach his car, we come face to face with a wall of journalists who shower bags full of rose petals. Yes, rose petals — like we are royalty. Yet through the stampede, not one person pushes or shoves.
Dino is rather taken aback. ‘Hey I should come to Pakistan more often, can't remember the last time I got so much attention back home,’ he jokes. We drive straight to Ali's house where his mother has prepared a meal for us — Lahori Biriyani, Kheema Mattar, Nihari Kebabs and halwa.
I drag myself away from the table half an hour later. I will burst if I eat another morsel or fall asleep in a second. Something I can't afford to do since our screening of Holiday is at 11 pm that night and I need to be alert or at the very least, awake.
Dino is still eating. He's eaten more food in the last one hour than I've seen him eat during the whole making of Holiday, and I tease him about that.
Ali's mother is delighted, of course. Nothing gives her more happiness than feeding people and watching them enjoy her food. Later that evening as I drive to the venue of the screening, I can't help but get nostalgic about my first visit — my father was firmly by my side while Paap was screened, for Rog too. But this time, for Holiday, I'm on my own. Yet, I don't feel alone. Ironic.
There is a huge crowd outside the theatre so we drive around the block for a while till the organisers manage to move the excited audience inside, to their seats. That's what I love about Bollywood, it turns 'festival' audiences into screaming fans. This is my hat-trick'of sorts. I am the only filmmaker who has brought a film to Kara three years in a row
It is especially gratifying to see the hall overflowing with people and brimming over with unheld back love for us. The next day, as I make my way to the Air Force Museum where the closing ceremony of Kara is being held I feel a strange buzz in the air. ‘President Musharraf might be attending the function’ whispers a visibly moved Hassan Zaidi, the director of the Kara film festival, eyes glinting with pride. I look at him warmly and give him a hug. I know what this means to him, to us, to Kara.
Last year, while Rog was being screened, a few members of the Pakistan’s film censor board arrived at the venue and tried to disrupt the screening.
It was only Hassan and his young team's commitment and audacity, which made them back off. And today, if the president makes an appearance at Kara, the festival will get the legitimacy it requires in order to become one of the most relevant film festivals in the world.
As we sit on the lawns freezing, India receives its first award. Anupam Kher receives the best actor award for his performance in 'Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara'. The crowd is ecstatic and me even more so. I am called on stage to receive it on Anupam's behalf and it is a proud moment for me. The fact that Anupam won an award for a film that celebrates the spirit of Gandhi makes it special. The fact that he wins that award in Pakistan even more so.
When Kara gives a nod to that spirit, it means Pakistan does too. And if that's not unification, I don't know what else is.
There is suddenly an incredible energy in the air. President Musharraf has arrived and his presence is like a meteor in the night sky — blazing, vibrant. He sits at a table right next to us and his energy is palpable. Later when he is invited on stage to present the 'Best Film' trophy, there is an awe struck hush in the room. This is a monumental moment for Kara. Never before has the government supported cinema so openly and everyone is waiting to hear the big man speak. He speaks from his heart. Meaning every word he says and is more than generous to the Indian delegation. But what makes my heart almost stop is when he pauses mid-sentence to say “I know Pooja is here... And we are very grateful for the work she has done by bringing her films every year to Pakistan”. I am touched beyond belief. Not only by what he says, but also by the manner in which he says it. Such a departure from 'correctness', from 'protocol', and it's a validation of my father's and my commitment to erase these lines between our nations in our own small way by taking our unreleased films each year to Kara.
The experience taught me that eventually only the truth prevails. President Musharraf's public acknowledgement of me and my work is not because I am a 'top star' or have just produced the biggest 'hit' of the decade. It's because of my genuine commitment. And one that only proves itself by action. The General is a man of action. When you have action backed with generosity it leaves you dazzled. And keeps the flame that burns in my heart to bring about change, burning brighter, higher. Because when the 'enemy' acknowledges your contribution... at that moment, you are most relevant and hence, most alive.
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