The Artist Formerly Known As: Shehru Qureshi

“Zar Gul,” assistant directed by Shehru Qureshi’04, has won 12 international film awards since its release in 1995. The movie has been banned in Pakistan by the government, where it was filmed over the course of five years, but Williams audiences were treated to a showing over the weekend on the Images screen.

Could you summarize the plot of “Zar Gul” for everyone who didn’t get a chance to see it?

Basically it’s a political action drama – one of those epic films like “Robin Hood” or “Braveheart.” Or “Gladiator” (laughs). Yes, it’s true: Ridley Scott took it off our film. A large portion of this film was a political drama. It talks a lot about politics, which is exactly the reason it’s been banned in Pakistan. We talked a lot about the structure of politics and how corruption had infiltrated the government.

Did you know going into the project that it would be so political?

In a sense, yes. I’ve been working since I was 10 years old in political theatre and television, and most of what I personally do is very politically oriented. I mean, I’ve been imprisoned twice; once, I had to actually spend the night there. We’ve had death threats. I directed this play in ’98, which was all about religious extremism and how it shows up on college campuses, ‘cause that was a point in time when extremism could not be questioned. It was giving all these political groups the complete freedom to do anything. We picked up an actual story from the newspaper and made this play around it, and it hit so very close to home that the National Arts Council banned it and would not let it be performed. They said that it was “a hazard to safety and it should not be spoken about” – that’s a quote-unquote from the letter that they sent me.

Did it stop you?

Well, this British consulate had this empty barn in his backyard and he said we could use that to put it on. We got 600 people in that barn every night. The religious party actually came down to the barn to talk to us about it. My brother was working the box office and he came to me and said, “Get your cast out of here, run, disappear.” But I wouldn’t, and I told him, “No, I’m going to go talk to them – don’t let my cast know they’re here.” I took those people out back and said, “I’m so glad you came – I was going to invite you myself, but now that there’s been this misunderstanding, why don’t I take you out to dinner?” So I sent them off with my brother with a cell phone and we put on the play. A couple hours later, after the first act, I called my brother and said “bring them back” and they came in time for the second act, which was a love story.

So have you always been so involved in politics?

Yes, I’ve always been involved in political art. A lot of that has to do with my family, who are really stupid because they’re not only artists – they’re artists in a developing country, which is even worse. And they’re political artists, which is about as bad as it gets. This film was really a family project – one of my uncles directed it, another uncle produced it, another one starred in it. I started off as a lighting hand, a gaffer, because they wouldn’t let me near the creative side. They were like, “No, you know what, if you want to work, get us coffee – that’s work.” After a year, I started working with the camera man and doing some camera work, and two years into it, I was actually behind a 35 millimeter camera.

How long was it in production?

It took about four years to film and about a year to edit. It wasn’t because we were constantly shooting or something – there were huge problems. The government funded the film because my uncle directed it – he had been banned with a death penalty on his head for 11 years because he made political statements. So he was out of the country, and when he came back, they were saying, “Let’s celebrate him now that this tyrannical regime is gone, and we’re liberal and whatnot, let’s back him.” They decided to fund this film and it took them six months for them to realize that he was actually criticizing them. And they said, “No, stop this now.” We were banned, there were arrest warrants out for the whole crew, we were living in different houses – at this one point in time, they came and confiscated the camera. We sold our cars and bought new cameras. There are a lot of stories that go along with that.

Wow, that makes the starving-artist lifestyle look petty.

(laughs) I’m telling you, it’s not easy being a political artist, because starving – yes, you are anyway. But now you’ve got people hunting you down as well, especially the authorities.

Would you say you’d do it again?

Oh yes. Just because of the reason, personally speaking, it’s something that I can do. Because of all the time I’ve spent on it, I can do it – it’s something that I know how to do, and because someone has to do it. In this society now, there’s a very strong, important place for political art and a lot needs to be said about injustice, because people back home are being misled. Knowing that, I think it would be wrong not to do it, because it needs to be done.