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Some excerpts from the interview with Hassan Zee - Writer-Director of Night of Henna, the first Pakistani-American feature film
by Anupama Gopalakrishnan -

AG: How did you get into the medical practice of film making after a doctoral degree in medicine?

HZ:Since I was a kid, I had this big passion for making movies. My first story was published when I was in the sixth grade. I had an imaginary radio station in my room. When at 18, I informed my parents of my decision to be a film maker, they were really shocked as my parents wanted me to pursue medicine. They felt that there was not much future in my dream. So I went about making a deal with them that I would go to the pre-med school that was close to the radio station. I joined Radio Pakistan and thinking about it 12 years have passed. I wrote, produced and dubbed English Cartoons into Urdu language which became very popular in my country. Now kids could see the cartoons in their own language and understand. The Dim Light was my first television drama which I wrote and directed. It was telecasted in thirty-two countries by Pakistan Television. This venture gave me enough confidence about my future in cinema.

AG: From an Indian perspective, women are slowly moving towards liberation while the Pakistani counterparts are having their own set of challenges in terms of tradition, culture and religion. Do you think cinema is a good instrument for change?
HZ: When I came to this country I was in total shock. It was a totally new experience for me. I saw men and women working together in every field of life and every one was being treated with great respect regardless of age, color, ethnicity. That is the beauty of this country. Ideas have revolved in my mind for years and some of them have found expression through my poetry and sometimes through my radio program 'Meri Jaan Francisco'. Cinema has a greater and powerful reach with an intense impact on the audience. My feeling towards women and cinema started during my medical practice in the Burns Unit at an hospital in Pakistan. I would see women who are helpless with over 75% burns due to Dowry or female infanticide. This had a striking impact within me and I wanted to give something back to my community. I cannot do this by staying in Pakistan. The crucial problem that has bogged the society is ignorance. The society does not distinguish between social causes and religious causes.

AG:How did the movie "Night of Henna" evolve?
HZ: My feature film 'Night of Henna' is about a young Pakistani girl Hawa, meaning Eve - the first woman, who struggles to get out of an arranged marriage to a stranger. Positively influenced and inspired by the western society, she questions the tradition and discovers the true meaning of freedom. I wanted to portray the meaning of marriage. In the Pakistani custom, one does not see his/her partner until the marriage. You have no clue with whom you are going to spend your entire life. This made me think on how two people could sacrifice their whole life and feelings. In this film, I am conveying my own feelings of how I see the two different parts of the world with such different cultures. The movie was earlier titled 'Daughter of the East" but I changed the same to Night of Henna because of the vibrant color of the bride's hands. In my film, the protagonist is not given the right to decide her husband, but is shown as a beautiful and obedient daughter and at the same time as an independent woman who pursues her little dreams and goals. I truly wish the Indian and Pakistan community come and watch this movie. So much of energy and money has been invested in creating this awareness. This is the story of an Asian American woman. Be it Pakistan, India, or any Asian country for that matter- women are still suffering. The film's theme is universal. Education is the only tool that can change people's perspective. The 'Night of Henna' began in 2003. It was shot in 35 locations in 24 days with a budget of $500K.

AG: Will Night of Henna be accepted in Pakistan keeping in mind the religious ideologies?
HZ: The world is changing. We are moving towards the modern era. We will have to accept the change. When you don't accept the changes within your community, problems erupt. Tradition is man-made, it can be changed. Religion is about love, peace and honesty. As long as my Pakistani community is able to distinguish between these two, I don't foresee any problems. I think people need to be aware of what's going on. They should accept independence. The film will go through a few cuts before being released in Pakistan but I am sure the mullahs will be shocked initially. I am willing to face the controversy to voice my honest perspective on women. I want to break this silence amongst women.

AG: Any specific reason for choosing an Indian actress to play the lead role in your film?
The film's concept basically involves social issues that is common place within the Indian or Pakistani community. The original choice for this film was Nandita Das - an accomplished Indian actress. Due to date problems, Girija Shankar (a well established character actor from India who played "Dritharashtra" in the Indian sitcom Mahabharata) who plays Hava's father in the film suggested Pooja's name. I was not sure about Pooja in the beginning as I was looking for an actress who could speak a bit of Urdu/Hindi and English. One telephone call to Pooja and I was convinced. Pooja was based in United States and it was all the more comfortable to cast her in the film. Pooja was recently awarded the SAG emerging actress award for "Flavors". Another prime reason is the fact that I would like to build bridges among nations. Being In United States, Pakistan or India- social causes are present and we need to get together as a community to solve one another's problems. Be it India or Pakistan, the older generation would like to keep their values and traditions while the younger generation is definitely hanging between the east and the west- inside and outside home.

"The Night of Henna" will be screened at
Emagine Novi, and Cinema 10, Flint starting April 22, 2005


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