When I first meet Marya Javed over Zoom, she’s clutching a coffee cup and wearing a big smile. She tells me she had just been for a swim, and I feel envious, because Lahore’s sweltering heat has been merciless lately. A few minutes later, a third window pops up on the Zoom screen, and I am introduced to Meher Tareen, who sits in front of a brightly colored painting featuring a parrot. Her young daughter runs up to her and waves shyly at the camera; Marya makes some small talk with the child, and then she turns back to me and says, “Sorry, now back to work.”
Back to work is correct, for the reason The Friday Times approached Marya and Meher, is to talk about their upcoming film ‘Baadi’ which will be screening in Lahore on Monday July 4th, at Cue Cinemas in Gulberg. The film was written and directed by Marya, while Meher was the executive producer, along with co-producer Sahar Habib. The film got selected for a number of festivals in the US. The two had very kindly allowed me to watch it before it officially screened, for the purposes of this review, and I was ready to extract all sorts of answers from them.
The film is described as a story about repressed sexuality, which highlights the dearth of conversation or information for teenagers about their changing bodies in a society where their latent desires are often shamed as a means of control. It touches themes of socioeconomic divides, adolescence and puberty and identity dynamics. Baadi is also the Punjabi slang word for bra, which Marya tells me probably came out of the English word ‘body’, which she says is fascinating to think about, because how did our bodies as a whole get simplified down to just one garment?
Marya, who currently lives between Istanbul and Islamabad, first started out as an actor, and then became a assistant director and producer with director Sarmad Khoosat, and has now fully evolved into a writer and director. She has directed a web series and has written and directed seven short films, one of which was co-written and produced by Meher Tareen, and was very well received in Pakistan. Meher lives in Lahore and runs a wellness platform called The Mindful Missy. The two first met at film screening and panel discussion for one of Marya’s earlier films, called ‘Inheritance’, and since then Meher had wanted to tell her about this idea that she had been musing over, about loneliness in marriage. And that is how their first film together, ‘Settled’ came to be, which the two wrote together.
For ‘Baadi’ however, it was Marya who approached Meher with this idea that had been growing in her mind over time, about repression and the shaming that our society subjects young girls to. At first, Meher was a bit apprehensive, because telling a story about something that is not a lived experience for people who are from an entirely different socioeconomic background has a lot of room for errors. “I was like let’s see the actual script first,” says Meher, explaining how they knew it was a sensitive topic and they didn’t want it to come across as fetishizing poverty or being very out of touch with reality.
But Marya manages to pull it off. The delicate and subtle weaving of the narrative and the underlying subtext of coming of age in an environment where you can’t really come of age the way you want to, takes you by surprise. This wasn’t an accident: Marya says she knew the topic could be so controversial and divisive that she had to find a clever way to tell it so subtly that people aren’t able to pick it apart or find any points of contention. “I really wanted to be able to convey this subject or the pain, or the agony without offending anyone’s sensibility,” she says.
The film stars Meherbano Raja in her debut role, which you almost can’t tell. When I asked Marya about her casting choices, she said she personally auditioned countless people for roles in the film, which is her standard protocol. But what drew her to Meherbano was what she describes as ‘untraditional cinematic beauty’. “I wanted someone who was inherently beautiful, but not so beautiful that you immediately know that that’s where the tension lies,” she said, adding, “For me, Meherbano had that kind of beautiful cinematic face where you could miss her, but there’s something about her that will keep your attention.”
The hardest role to cast was the owner of the sewing shop that Meherbano’s character goes to, Rashida Baji. This character had to be one full of zesty life and loud brashness and a certain degree of sensualness and sexuality that was not all that subtle, Marya explained. This was a woman who wasn’t afraid of being loud and uninhibited and all those things that women are told not to be. Which is precisely why it was hard to cast her, because such women are so rare in Pakistan.
Ultimately, the film works. From beautiful landscape shots courtesy of Director of Photography Mo Azmi (of Churrails fame), to a beautiful score by Payam Mashrequi and first time composer Raazia Abrar, to callbacks to quintessentially Pakistani experiences that every girl has gone through, the film leaves you thinking about both the Other, but also, the Self. I found so many moments throughout the 20-something minute short film that led to me having vivid flashbacks to key moments of my adolescence. And this is exactly what Marya wanted to happen. “Every scene must have a point,” she tells me, explaining that’s the crux of her directing. And this is what made it worth producing for Meher, who sees herself as a story teller of sorts. “That’s my goal, really. To keep telling stories, to keep having honest conversations and impacting people, even if it’s only ten people.”
Khadija Muzaffar is the culture editor at The Friday Times. Previously a Fulbright scholar at NYU, she enjoys writing about society, culture, music and food. She tweets at @khadijamuzaffar, but is far more interesting on Instagram.