Producer Mahak Jiwani’s ‘Yume’ explores our secret selves and gender stereotypes

I met producer Mahak Jiwani at the 2019 Girl Power Film + Media Summit in Brooklyn, New York, where the short film she produced, “Yume,” was screened.” Yume” is about a Japanese student, played by actress Atsuko Kikuchi, who lives a double life as a prostitute to assuage the jadedness she feels in life. The powerful film, directed by Grace Swee, explores the themes of self-image, judgment, control, and gender roles. “Yume” won Best Director at the Girl Power Film + Media Showcase. “Yume” has also been screened at the Regina International Film Festival, Women’s Voices Now online film festival, and Long Beach International Film Festival.

Mahak’s story fascinated me because of where her inspiration came from growing up in Pakistan and her passion for telling stories—real, authentic stories—of women.  Now she produces films that stay close to her mission. “Stories are so important, and it’s important that we don’t just listen to a single voice, that we have a variety of voices,” Mahak said. “Because that is one of the most important ways to get other perspectives and to start to accept them and to start to live with them and be more tolerant of things.”

Mahak has produced films in Chile, the US, Japan, and Pakistan, one being  “Premonition” in Chile in 2017, which screened at fifteen-plus international film festivals including Huesca International Film Festival (Cacho Perello Award), Aspen Film Festival, and Palm Springs ShortFest. Currently based in NYC, Mahak is a graduate of the MFA program at Columbia University, working for Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions and developing her first features “Shadow” and “Gulaab.” She is also in post-production for her shorts “Congratulations” and “The Night of the Goat,” which was awarded the Katharina Otto-Bernstein Production Grant. I hope you’re inspired by her story as I was. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

GROWING UP

Mahak Jiwani

REBECCA MARTIN: Where did you grow up?

MAHAK JIWANI: I grew up in Pakistan, Karachi, which is the biggest city and the financial center. When I was growing up we didn’t really have a film industry. There wasn’t anyone asking, “Do you want to make films?” That was not to happen in this country. But it kind of changed as I grew up. I started with advertising. It was kind of the closest you could get to film. Then I came here (NYC) to study film, because there’s just no way to do it back home. … I came here specifically for Columbia, to study producing. That’s how I actually started making films.

MARTIN: In terms of what got you passionate about filming, was there some experiences that you had that drew you to filmmaking?

For me, when I was growing up I was a big fan of Pakistani drama series. We just had one TV channel, and it would air before the 9 p.m. news and you had to wait for an episode every week.

JIWANI: For me, when I was growing up I was a big fan of Pakistani drama series. We just had one TV channel, and it would air before the 9 p.m. news and you had to wait for an episode every week.

MARTIN: That’s interesting.

Initially when I wanted to make films or TV shows, it was because I wanted those older dramas back. I wanted those characters back and I wanted to see those women again on TV.

JIWANI: Yeah, we just didn’t have a lot of options. In the ’90s, even in the early 2000s, these drama series were so ahead of their time: you had these female characters who were amazing, who’d constantly defy their circumstances and their society, and Pakistani society can be regressive! Not all of them hold up now but it was pretty amazing back in the day.

But then commercial channels came into being and Bollywood content with its glamorous but regressive characters started to be more in demand. So, these dramas with their modest budgets were no longer competitive and their creators and characters disappeared from mainstream and all you saw on TV were these weeping women who had no agency. There were exceptions but they tended to get lost. Initially when I wanted to make films or TV shows, it was because I wanted those older dramas back. I wanted those characters back and I wanted to see those women again on TV. And it wasn’t like you could just find them. Even in western content, we are now seeing amazing characters, before it was still rare. So that’s why I was like OK, this is what I’m going to do.

MARTIN: That’s awesome! Was there a name for this series or was it just a different show every time?

There were some creators who were behind most of these characters like Haseena Moin and Anwar Maqsood. Haseena Moin created a lot of them and is known for her feisty characters. Their work had an opinion and there was a lot of cultural commentary, but they were still entertaining and had a large following. And because these dramas only aired at one time, you would not see people out in the streets. Everything would just shut down.

JIWANI: There were some creators who were behind most of these characters like Haseena Moin and Anwar Maqsood. Haseena Moin created a lot of them and is known for her feisty characters. Their work had an opinion and there was a lot of cultural commentary, but they were still entertaining and had a large following. And because these dramas only aired at one time, you would not see people out in the streets. Everything would just shut down.

MARTIN: Wow, that’s crazy.

JIWANI: It was an interesting thing to see, but then they kind of started disappearing; it was very sad.

“YUME”

MARTIN: Can you talk about how you got into making “Yume” (2017)? What inspired you?

I could relate to this girl (the main character) who is completely trapped in this life, in this present, and this future, because everything is decided for her. And it’s an unusual way to rebel against all of that. Like something that could potentially destroy everything that she is working for. That’s what makes it so sad to watch but also so much more powerful.

“Yume”

JIWANI: I met [director] Grace Swee at Columbia, and we decided to work together on each others’ films. When she showed me the script, I thought it was fascinating. Also, some elements of East Asian culture are very similar to South Asian culture. I could relate to this girl (the main character) who is completely trapped in this life, in this present, and this future, because everything is decided for her. And it’s an unusual way to rebel against all of that. Like something that could potentially destroy everything that she is working for. That’s what makes it so sad to watch but also so much more powerful. Women’s lives are so decided, and they are constantly judged and put into boxes for their choices. With “Yume,” you see this specific to her character: she is getting a good education and has a future similar to her mother’s or maybe even her father’s but somebody else is controlling everything that she’s doing, and she is judged for her grades, her clothes, her manners, everything. This film, the script specifically addressed those things in such a different way than what I had seen, that I wanted to be a part of the film.

Women’s lives are so decided, and they are constantly judged and put into boxes for their choices. With “Yume,” you see this specific to her character: she is getting a good education and has a future similar to her mother’s or maybe even her father’s but somebody else is controlling everything that she’s doing, and she is judged for her grades, her clothes, her manners, everything.

MARTIN: Yes, the film is very good, very original. I loved the different facets of it.

JIWANI: I loved the script. The original idea of the story was by Minami Goto. She’s also a producer on it and then Grace took it on and worked on it some more, then we decided to just go and do it in Japan.

MARTIN: Did you all go to Japan to shoot the film?

JIWANI: Grace and our other producer went to Japan. I was working from New York at that point. It was interesting just because we were all in New York when we started doing this film, and basically two of us did not speak the language. Grace didn’t speak the language, both of us are not Japanese. So we were basically casting and hiring crew from New York over Skype and looking at locations on Skype. It was definitely challenging.

MARTIN: With the provocative subject matter of the film, how was it shooting in Japan? Did you film in Tokyo or somewhere else?

JIWANI: It was in Tokyo. We were definitely concerned, and debated about how much to tell the locations or how much to reveal while securing permits. It was also difficult to cast for the film because of the subject matter. Our final location ended up being this decommissioned Love Hotel.

“PREMONITION”

MARTIN: What projects are you currently working on?

JIWANI: Just before this film, I worked on a film [“Premonition”] in Chile. The director was from Chile, and again, we connected on the story about a hypermasculine farming community in Chile and I could really relate to it because of how similar the people were to what I had seen in Pakistan. Plus, [director] Leticia Akel has this way of writing the emotional worlds of men that is very impressive to see from a woman’s point of view.

MARTIN: Is the film available now?

JIWANI: We’re planning on releasing it online soon, hopefully through Seed & Spark. It went to a few film festivals and that was a great experience.

[The film is] about this newcomer, Javier, who’s looking for a job, and he faces this really hostile farming community. Javier is also a part of the indigenous population in Chile, so there’s an element of discrimination there. and it’s just his struggle to get accepted in a place that doesn’t necessarily want to accept him.

CHANGE

MARTIN: Do you feel that there is positive change that is being made for women in film?

JIWANI: I think so. But I do feel we have a long way to go. It’s good to see that there are all these initiatives, and everyone, it seems, has finally learned that if you have diverse characters on-screen, you are going to make money.

MARTIN: Yeah, they should fund that!

JIWANI:  I know, it’s like the most obvious thing. But I do think that there are so many places where we are still not looking, like the change behind the camera is still slow. When it comes to executives, our financiers, and even with festivals, it’s still slow but it’s getting there! It makes a difference because if everyone has grown up watching the same European cinema, it does take a while to get familiar with another cinematic language. However, the great thing now is definitely the access that we are getting to a lot more foreign content because of streaming.

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