Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is a bit of a guerilla film maker. When she took up a camera and went to shoot her maiden documentary short, titled Terror’s Children, in the year 2003, she “didn’t have any previous experience in the field” (her own words). She was an investigative journalist back then, having studied Communication and International Policy Studies at Stanford University. Over a decade later, she has just had her big-screen debut with 3 Bahadur, a full-length animated feature. She never trained for cinema nor did she have a clue to 3D animation. But, there she is.
Not only has Chinoy put together a competent production, she has also been able to make a success of it. Reportedly, 3 Bahadur has opened to an overwhelming response at the box office, something that Chinoy confesses to have dreaded the most. “More than the Oscar,” she says, in an exclusive chat with The News on Sunday.
These days, nothing interests Chinoy more than 3 Bahadur, a film she is the creative director of. It’s a position that has entailed working in close coordination with a group of “experts in their fields,” as opposed to what she was used to doing as an independent documentary film maker.
It has also required of her to move out of her comfort zone, after having dealt with gritty social issues, especially those related to women, for which she was awarded a number of coveted national and international honours such as Hilal-e-Imtiaz, Emmy (twice), SAJA (twice), and World Economic Forum’s The Crystal Award. She was also listed by Time among the world’s 100 most influential people in 2012, the same year she clinched the Academy Award for Saving Face, an inspiring tale of two acid attack survivors.
Chinoy says switching gears came naturally to her. Today, SOC Films, her documentary production house, has a big-screen parallel in Waadi Animations that promises more of such features in the future. A sequel to 3 Bahadur is on the cards already.
But her abiding interest in media acting as a social corrective is not to be missed even in the animation film where the protagonists — the kids, named Aamna, Saadi and Kamil — send out a clear message to the underprivileged: luck favours the bold. As a reward for their bravery and honesty, the three are given special powers so that they can fight the evil forces in the fictional Roshan Basti. But they must stay faithful to their native intelligence, they are told, and never misuse the powers.
Of course, it’s a message that is wrapped up in some colourful elements you see on local screen — the dance of jubilation by the Basti people, the haunting clock tower that pokes through the starry night, the hulk-like monster Pateeli who breaks into a hilarious Kathak piece in the middle of the narrative, and so on. It’s a range of characters Chinoy says her young daughters would not have known. “Kids their age have grown up on animation that’s coming out from Europe or America. I wanted to create [for them] our own heroes,” she declares.
Over to Chinoy.
The News on Sunday [TNS]: A full-length animated feature is an interesting headway in your career as a documentary film maker of hard-hitting social issues. How did you come to it, in the first place? Were you inspired by the success of Burka Avengers?
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy [SOC]: Well, 3 Bahadur took three years in the making. I actually started working on it when Burka Avengers hadn’t come out. You can say I was inspired by the desire to do something different. I’ve been making documentary films since I was 21 years old. With documentaries, it’s a very niche market. That’s how I came to animation. You know, everybody can sit down and watch animation together. It’s not for the child or the adult only. And, one thing we are lacking immensely in Pakistan is family entertainment.
Then I was looking back at our childhood and what we were inspired by. There were Uncle Sargam and Ainak Wala Jinn on television. Besides, Rafi Peer Theatre had so much stuff. Unfortunately, our children don’t have such an opportunity. They only watch stuff that comes out of Europe or America, or even India; nothing from Pakistan.
This got me wondering who my children’s heroes are. We went out surveying, only to find that they were Power Puff Girls or Ben 10, or Chhota Bean. So, I decided we should create our own cartoon characters.
I wanted to start with the superheroes. We all have some fascination with the superheroes. That’s when the idea of 3 Bahadur was born.
TNS: When did you realise you were qualified to take on a ‘specialised’ genre like 3D animation? Or, was it just an adventure for you?
SOC: I know nothing — well, I knew nothing — about animation. But then I knew nothing about documentary films when I started. So, what did I do? I closed my eyes and jumped. What did I do with animation? I closed my eyes and jumped.
Yes, it’s been an adventure for me. If somebody asks me today what are the risks I took in my life, I’d say 3 Bahadur is the one project that I took the most risk in my life for. It wasn’t easy to switch gears. Here I was, doing something completely different from what I had done before.
For me, this movie has been the most rewarding, not only in terms of making it but also in taking it out. I have been going into schools, talking to kids, getting the brands involved, trying to create a franchise. We also took out 3 Bahadur colouring books and video games, McDonald’s prepared its ‘Bahadur Meal,’ Gul Ahmad is coming out with a fashion line based on the film heroes and villains. Kids are downloading the game. It’s been trending on Google Play. We have taken the model of Disney and Pixar.
TNS: This was also your first time when the power of your work was going to be judged at the box office? Did that make you edgy?
SOC: Absolutely. I had never released a film at the box office per se. But I was confident. With a population whose 65 per cent is under the age of 25, it’s a readymade market that is untapped.
Having said that, the success of 3 Bahadur is not just my success; it’s the success of an entire industry. There are a lot of people who would now be willing to venture into animation. I took the first step, I jumped over the fire.
TNS: 3 Bahadur has a moral. Having achieved recognition and awards as a socially aware film maker, did you feel obliged to make a didactic rather than an out-and-out commercial movie?
SOC: Well, I am now contemplating a romantic comedy, based on animation. (Smiles)
Look, with animation, you can say anything. There’s so much that you can explore. The story of 3 Bahadur is set in a make-believe town, the characters all speak Urdu, but it isn’t necessarily somewhere in Pakistan. The town is called Andher Basti, which used to be Roshan Basti. The villain Mangu heads a band of thugs that include Pateeli, Sanaata, Gudka etc. There’s a lot of humour in the film. Besides, Shiraz Uppal has sung two beautiful songs. For the first time in Pakistan, we’ve shown a 10-minute epic battle between the heroes and the thugs. Months of labour went into this sequence alone. And, just when you think the film has ended, it hasn’t really ended.
TNS: Why didn’t you release the film internationally?
SOC: We plan to play it at some international festivals and then release it in cinemas. I want people other than the South Asians to watch the film also, and I think festivals are the best place for this.
TNS: Was it tough putting together a team for the animated feature?
SOC: The thing about animation is that it’s a very male field in Pakistan. Men own animation houses and men work in them. Waadi Animations is the only production house that is run by a woman.
My team people all have the advertising background. So, you can say they were self-taught, as far as animation is concerned. But they are so incredibly gifted and they all wanted to be a part of something that was groundbreaking.
I worked with an in-house team of 15-18 people. It’s a very small team, by global standards.
TNS: We don’t have any ‘known’ names in animation in Pakistan, as of now. How did you go about head-hunting?
SOC: I head-hunted two or three people and they helped me assemble the team.
The Sound Design and the Music Score of the film have been done by Dan Golden and John Angier, both Americans. The Sound Mixing was also done in the US. These are specialised areas and no one had ever ventured into these in Pakistan, so we opted for foreign experts.
TNS: You weren’t trained to make a 3D animation movie. Did you have to depend a lot on your team members for the final output?
SOC: See, animation involves teams of people. There are different units working together — somebody will draw the characters, somebody else will animate the hair and clothing; then there will be somebody to animate their movements and others to colour-correct. Some people will work on texturing, while some on post-production. So, we have an art director, an animation director, a post-production director, while I’m the creative director.
TNS: Animated features are traditionally based on storybooks or comics. 3 Bahadur, is an original script. Didn’t you ever think of going back to our own literature for children such as Tilism-e-Hoshruba and Dastaan-e-Ameer Hamza?
SOC: There are a lot of books and stories that we at Waadi Animations are looking to adapt for cinema.
TNS: ‘Waadi’ is quite an interesting name for a production house.
SOC: It means ‘valley’. Our logo starts off at a valley; it’s in a cable car which is going up and up till it reaches the top of a hill. So, it signifies a journey to the top.
TNS: India has been making animation films for sometime now. Besides, Disney and Fox have set up offices there. Do you intend to collaborate with them for a future project?
SOC: For me, it is relatively easier to reach out to these companies because of the work that I do internationally. There will come a time when I see there is a potential for us to work with them.
TNS: What is SOC Films’s next project?
SOC: I have two feature-length documentaries due out, one of which — Song of Lahore — just premiered at Tribeca. We are looking to release it in cinemas in the US and, later, in Pakistani cinemas.
TNS: Do we have an audience for documentaries?
SOC: It’ll be a limited audience, but you know one has to start from somewhere.