Hemal Trivedi lost a friend in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, she couldn’t make sense of the tragedy that struck so close home. So, instead of merely joining a candle march protest or resuming life anew from the next day like most of us did, the 30-year-old embarked on a journey to Pakistan to look for answers.
Hemal’s quest resulted in a disturbing and enlightening documentary titled Among the Believers, which captures the radicalisation of Pakistani children in madrassas run by the Red Mosque. The film also tracks Pakistani cleric Abdul Aziz Ghazi, a ISIS and Taliban supporter, who has declared jihad against the Pakistan state.
We caught up with Hemal at the ongoing International Film Festival of India, in Goa, where the film is in competition for the UNESCO Fellini Prize.
Q. So how did 26/11 affect you, which you have said propelled you to embark on this journey which resulted in Among the Believers?
In 2008, I lost a very dear friend in the Mumbai terror attacks. When that happened, I was very angry. I am not a very political person, I don’t follow politics as much as I should, so I was just reacting to my emotions.
I used to work in Nariman Point, I know that area very well, I used to take a train from CST and being from Bombay all these places had symbolic emotional value.
So, I just experienced this irrational anger, extreme anger towards Pakistan, since a lot of the perpetuators were alleged to be Pakistanis. I wanted to figure out what’s going on. So I went on a quest to understand this phenomenon and in this quest what I realised is that Pakistan is a deeply divided country and there is a fringe minority of Pakistanis who are trying to takeover the way of life of the vast majority of Pakistanis.
Attacks such as the Mumbai terror attacks are happening almost on a monthly basis in Pakistan, it’s just that they are not reported in mainstream media. Because mainstream media is not used to seeing Pakistanis as victims. They always paint the entire country with the same broad brush stroke. So I wanted to make this film on the ideological divide in Pakistan and I noticed the divide is deepest in the area of education.
Q. How difficult was it as a woman from India to shoot this film in Pakistan, get access to madrassas and the higher offices of the Red Mosque?
I got my visa with the help of Pakistanis. To tell you the truth, everybody who has helped me with this film has been Pakistani. My co-director, two of my co-producers who have been working on this film from day one. They all are Pakistanis, they helped me get access to all these places.
You know when I was filming in the regular school and the regular Pakistani society, I wasn’t afraid at all. The regular Pakistani society just looks like an Indian society, there was no difference at all.
I would wear my salwar kameez, I didn’t even have to cover my head. If I would wear my salwar kameez, like you would in a small town in India, there was nothing to feel threatened about. People were warm, people used to invite us for meals at their home. As an Indian I didn’t experience any difficulty in Pakistan.
But when I went to the madrassa I was very scared. I filmed with Talha (a 12-year-old student) in his madrassa, I never filmed within the Red Mosque headquarters. I have never set foot in the headquarters yet.
When I was filming with Talha in his madrassa, I disguised myself as a Muslim woman. I mean, I basically was wearing a salwar kameez and put a dupatta around my head, to cover my head and I said my name was Henna Khan and I am from Dubai, I was very scared, but so were my co-producers Naziha and Syed, there were both with me at that time and we were all really trembling.
There was no way I would have filmed inside the Red Mosque because I was also tipped off that I might be being watched, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a Pakistani jail. That’s when I collaborated with Mohammad, we needed to get into the lion’s den and we needed to get Aziz himself, because Aziz is the reason why Pakistan is in this turmoil right now.
The siege of the red mosque which happened in 2007 was a turning point in Pakistani history. It was almost like Pakistan’s 9/11, it actually divided the country. A lot of tension that we experience from Pakistan is actually an outcome of the siege of the red mosque. That story was important to tell, but I also knew that I would not be able to film it. That’s when my amazing collaborator Mohammad came on board, it took him 3 to 4 years to get access to the Red Mosque itself. It wasn’t easy.
Q: What was the most memorable moment which has stayed with you while making this film?
My most memorable moment, was when I first went to Zarina’s house. You need to understand that Zarina has nine siblings, they live in a very small house, it’s not like a pakka makaan, it’s a kuccha makaan, and her mother is very poor, she is the only provider. Despite all that when we first went there, her mother borrowed money from the neighbours and she sent her youngest kid to get us a bottle of Fanta so that they could serve us something.
It almost made me tear up, because no matter how poor, there was this culture of mehmaan nawazi, I felt guilty about forcing myself on them, I tried to compensate her. I told her that it’s not fair that you’re borrowing money to treat us, but she said that’s our culture, and that’s something that stayed with me.
I think that these are the elements that we need to dig into when we try to find common ground with Pakistan, the fact that we have so many cultural similarities –rather than look for reasons to hate them.
Q: Do you think the Pakistani administration has failed to effectively counter the growth of madrassas such as the ones run by the Red Mosque, which radicalise youngsters?
Hemal: The Pakistani civil society has miserably failed in providing services to its civilians which would stop them from falling prey to forces such as the Red Mosque.
In Pakistan there are a lot of schools called the ‘ghost schools’, which are schools which exist on paper, there is a building, there is a teacher in paper, but in reality there is no building, there are no teachers, there are no students, there is nothing, it’s just empty land.
In Pakistan, the public education system is very fractured, and in comparison the madrassa eduction system is very very efficient. They get funding from sources which they don’t want to reveal and they are very well organised and very well administered.
If you look at even Maulana Abdul Aziz, he is an excellent administrator, you may not like his ideology, but if you look at just the way he conducts his madrassas you would be impressed. He conducts them impeccably and efficiently - they have good buildings, food, clothing, they have medical facilities, he as a very good mechanism of enrolling students, of luring them into it, and of keeping them. It’s very professional. You don’t see that level of efficiency in Pakistani public school systems.
Q: Have you screened the film in Pakistan, how have the reactions been?
Hemal: I was very careful that I didn’t want to make a polemic on Islam. I definitely wanted to make a statement about the madrassa system in the Red Mosque but I never wanted to make a polemic on Islam and say – “you are kind of alienating the entire culture and religion”, and say “these are bad people”. I never wanted to do that.
So I was very delicate with my edit. For me the biggest thing was that if Pakistanis accepted this film, then I would feel accomplished. We had screenings of this film in Pakistani communities abroad and they loved it. Whenever we have a screening, if there is a Pakistani in the audience, they always come up to me and say they loved the film, because this is the first time that they see that their point of view was properly represented.
So that really encouraged us and we will now hopefully show this film in Pakistan, probably Karachi. So for me to make a film that is so sensational and so controversial and yet be accepted by the community that I thought would be alienated by it is very rewarding. We’re planning to show the film to Aziz as well.
Q: Among the Believers is competing for the UNESCO Fellini Prize at IFFI 2015, this is the first time that this prize has come to India. How do you feel?
Hemal: I am very excited to be competing. I am very excited that IFFI took this film, because I’ve been following IFFI for a very very long time as an Indian filmmaker. It’s almost like a pilgrimage to come to IFFI. It’s such an honour that they’ve selected my film.