“I have been sent here,” said the man in the dark shalwar kameez, as he stood framed in the door of my hotel room in Karachi. It was in the early days of the shooting of the Jinnah film in 1997, and there were widespread reports in the media, attacking the film, its cast, and crew.
“From now on, I will be by your side and will escort you to your plane when the film is completed. You will succeed despite the opposition.”
I had not met him before, but this was Jimmy Engineer, one of Pakistan’s most famous painters and social activists. He was known to be a passionate Pakistani patriot and his Zoroastrian religion served to enhance it.
He did not elaborate on who had sent him, but he hinted it was a “transcendental power”. He insisted that I watch a video, and pushed the cassette into the video player. It was a strange darkly lit film sequence shot by a handheld camera, depicting Jimmy entering a cave, and then showing a cage with two lions in it. There was palpable danger to his life, as the lions were agitated, but they eventually calmed down.
“Your position is quite similar to what has been shown in the film. You too are facing ferocious lions in a cage. But I have been sent to be by your side, and in the end, you will accomplish your mission.”
When the government reneged on its agreement to fund a part of the budget for Jinnah, Jimmy launched a one-man crusade to raise funds. He even walked from Karachi to Lahore for this purpose.
True to his word, Jimmy was by my side throughout the long and difficult shooting in Karachi and Lahore, and then finally saw me off at the airport too.
Another Jimmy, this time my class fellow from Burn Hall, Abbotabad – actually named Jamil Hamdani – and his wife rallied in support of Jinnah. They not only invested in it but also held a grand dinner in Karachi, which played a big role in cheering up Shashi Kapoor.
Shashi had been down in the dumps ever since he arrived, and became the target of some vicious attacks in newspapers. These accused him – and his family – of being enemies of Pakistan, who were “out to destroy the country through this film”. Isolated in his hotel room after the day’s shoot, he confided that perhaps he had made a mistake in coming to Pakistan. His aim was to act as a goodwill ambassador between India and Pakistan. Ironically Bal Thackeray, the Hindu nationalist, had warned him that if he went to “enemy” Pakistan, there was no need for him to come back. “I wonder whether I have made a mistake in coming,” he would say to me as I tried to assure him that Pakistanis had big hearts and appreciated him for what he was doing.
I requested Jimmy, my class fellow, to host a dinner in which I could bring Shashi. But Shashi was reluctant to appear in public, finally relenting and agreeing to come for a few minutes only. On arrival, he was surrounded by several dozen Pakistani begums, whose imagination had taken them back several decades to a time when they were younger and much more carefree. They talked of his popular films and hummed some of their favorite songs that had picturised him. The enthusiasm of his newfound fans began to cheer him up. Every time I came to take him away, as we had arranged, he would plead with me, saying, “Just a few more minutes Akbar sahib and then we will go.”
Bal Thackeray had warned Shashi Kapoor that if he went to Pakistan for the film, there was no need to return to India
In Karachi, Jamy Rahim his wife Iran, Amir Chinoy and his wife Almas, and renowned Pakistani historian of Jinnah, Professor Shariful Mujahid, all gave me unstinting support in every possible way: both before and after the shoot. In Lahore, the people of the city opened their hearts in support. Shahid Hamid, the governor, allowed us to film at the Governor’s House for several days, giving us some memorable scenes in the film. His father Hamid Nawaz, a distinguished Pakistani diplomat, joined us for the shoot. He was a family friend from the time he was posted as Pakistan’s ambassador to Bangkok, Thailand, where my father worked for the United Nations and I visited from my boarding school in Abbottabad. His love and support during those difficult days meant a great deal to me. He would come early in the day to the hotel and ask me sweetly, as if I was his commanding officer, “What are my instructions for today?”
Other Lahore stalwarts like SM Zafar and Malik Miraj Khalid also showed their warm support. SM Zafar invited us to his home for a glittering dinner. On his request, I brought James Fox, who was playing Lord Mountbatten, fully dressed in his Viceroy’s costume to the dinner, where he became a sensation. Malik Miraj, who had been interim prime minister, turned up at the shoot and thanked Christopher Lee for his great contribution to the Pakistani nation while expressing his disgust at the nasty attacks on us in the media.
There was my friend and wife’s relative, Shamsher Ali Khan, the secretary to the president of Pakistan, and my batch mate Azmat Hassan, who worked with the prime minister of Pakistan. And then there was Moeen Qureshi, the acting prime minister himself. They initiated the Jinnah film project long before it took its final shape. There were many other such Pakistani heroes who helped in one way or another and I wish I could name each and every one of them, just to show my appreciation for what they did.
Let me end by naming several special Jinnah supporters in England who were with me over the decade that I was working on Jinnah. Their support for my Jinnah projects was unwavering. A larger-than-life figure with a big heart, Mohsin Akhtar, owner of the Heydon Grange Golf Course and Farm, was a devoted friend and generous supporter from the time we met on my arrival in Cambridge in the late 1980s. Not only did he put his establishment at my disposal, but accompanied me to Pakistan for the shoot. I always appreciated his humor as we did the rounds, meeting Pakistanis to chase up the Jinnah project.
Jimmy Engineer insisted he had been sent by a ‘transcendental power’
Nadir Rahim, the younger brother of Jamy Rahim, admired Jinnah and understood his importance in defining the identity of Pakistan. He had been insistent that I leave the civil service of Pakistan and focus my efforts on scholarship to contribute to the global debate that was forming around Islam. As a matter of record the Quaid Project Limited, which was formed to make the Jinnah film, was created in his flat near Marble Arch in London. He would receive us with impeccable hospitality and insist on dropping us off afterwards at Kings Cross Station, where I would catch the train back to Cambridge. Mumtaz Khan was another loyal and staunch supporter of the project.
And last but not least was James Shera, the former mayor of Rugby. A Christian Pakistani, he was perhaps one of the most passionate Pakistanis I have ever met. His love for humanity – and especially Jinnah and Pakistan – was exemplary. To me, he was Saint James.
James would accompany me from the early 1990s on my tours to raise consciousness on the Jinnah project, long before we began to shoot the film. He would become visibly agitated if anyone said anything negative about the great Quaid.
Despite having been settled in England for many decades, James retained his sharp Punjabi sense of humour. In private, he was fond of joking with me. “The Quaid gave the white in the Pakistan flag for the Christian minorities,” he would say with a twinkle in his eye. “Today too, the Pakistan flag has something for the minorities. Unfortunately it is only the danda (stick).”
Professor Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, Washington DC