One of the students in the film says creating a counseling environment is a tertiary
step. But the problem has already happened. You need to create an environment
where the problem doesn’t happen.
I have a personal question to ask you that
you bring up in the film. When your brother
had the accident you decided to stay back
and make the film instead of accompanying
him home. In the film your brother confronts you about that.
In hindsight I now realize the problem
stemmed from lack of communication. I
thought he had gone through a physical
challenge, but he didn’t want me to be
overtly supportive. I was treating him very
normally, because he was having the backlash affect when people would try to help
But then filmmakers are parasites. We
have a tunnel-minded vision of achieving
the goal. So my roles of a brother and a
filmmaker went in different directions. I
was clear of my intentions. I was clear that
this film is something that is needed. It
came from a personal space. It was a cathartic feeling for me since I had also gone
through these issues when I was younger. I
had a bigger picture in my mind.
It was eventually the issue of communication. He was not communicating to me
what he wanted and I wanted to give him
Are you at a better place as brothers?
Yes definitely. I was 24 when I started
making this film.
How old are you now?
I am 29. It’s like this guy went into a tunnel and came out as I am today. I wonder
where the other guy went. It’s taken so
much from us. It has numbed us a lot, but
we are also sensitive about how fragile we
all are. My brother can’t use his right hand.
So he is writing his exams using his left
What’s he studying now?
He has given his IAS exams.
I find it interesting how you father was
troubled by watching the film.
We always thought the film has to be
shown on campuses, but when I showed it to
Kiran Rao (a filmmaker who has supported
independent films like Ship Of Theseus) —
she has been very supportive of it — she said
that it needs to be seen by parents.
You should see the pressures in the coaching classes. In smaller towns the parents
take their children to the classes before
school. The parents stand outside while the
classes are on. I have seen the sort of expectations they have in their eyes. They keep
piling small, small burdens on their children. The coaching classes have a very
assembly line production thought.
Individual thinking is not encouraged. Most
of these don’t even know that they don’t
want to become doctors. They always say
They just learn to take tests.
Take tests and manipulate the exams to
get higher numbers. n
went back in the closet as a filmmaker — what was that sense like?
You were challenging the system with your cell phone on...
I was terrified when I was in Saudi Arabia. I was living moment
to moment. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. In the
early stages of the Haj some of my footage was deleted. But later
on — and I think it is some kind of divine intervention — I got
more and more confident about filming the rest of the journey.
How was the footage deleted?
The religious police took my phone away from me because they
saw me filming. It’s different when you are filming as compared
to when you are taking a quick photograph, which pilgrims take.
They take selfies, but those are over in a couple of seconds. When
you are filming and you are a filmmaker, you have to think in
terms of a sequence. You have to stand in a particular spot for
some time, you have to tilt, you have pan. So it becomes obvious
to anyone watching that you doing something that is more careful.
That’s why I got into trouble a few times, but I was never
hauled away to a prison.
At all times, you were there as a Muslim performing the Haj,
which is a personal experience, but you were also thinking as a
My natural instinct as a filmmaker is to document. I was going
on the greatest journey of my entire life and there was no way I
was not going to document that journey. I was there for personal
reasons, but I was also following my natural instincts.
I knew I would never get this opportunity again to perform this
journey. What I did not know at that time was whether it would
become a film or not.
Because you did not know how the story would unfold?
I didn’t know that and whether the footage would make out
safely. But I was doing my best.
So you shot all of it on your iPhone?
And two other HD cameras that look like phones basically. It’s
good quality footage but some of it is a bit grainy, which led to
some reviews to say the film has an abstract quality to it.
Then you come back and you felt that to complete this story you
had to go back to India. What did you achieve from that journey?
It was important for me to go back to India, to my birthplace
and to finish the journey I had started.
You wanted to connect with the city you were born in and your
childhood. Did you feel you were able to make that connection?
Then there is your life in New York. I
want to understand how you achieved
this balance as a filmmaker.
There is nothing harder for a filmmaker than to turn the camera upon
himself. It is one of the hardest forms
of documentary storytelling. You feel
vulnerable and exposed. But you also
want to allow that to happen so that
in future an audience will relate to
what you are trying to tell.
I was not going to make a trave-
What did you learn about yourself in the process?
logue. I needed the audience to feel
something for the protagonist of the film, which in this case hap-
pens to be me, in order to be willing to go on this journey with
the protagonist. That’s why all these different strands of my life
had to be connected in the film.
That I am a better Muslim and that I now have the ability to
take on some of the urgent questions that Islam needs to take on.
The challenge you pose to Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism — is
that conversation making sense to the audience, journalists?
Very much so. I think both audience and journalists are getting
that message through the film. There is a powerful message that
the most destructive ideology in Islam is born in Saudi Arabia
and the biggest Saudi project of the last two centuries has been
the export of this Wahhabi Islam to all corners of the world. You
see it also in India where the Muslim society is becoming increasingly conservative because it is influenced by the Saudi version of
In this post-9/11 world, when you are trying to explain all of this,
how much of the message gets to the audience, especially in the
West when you also talk about the Saudi Arabia? There are people
out there who think everything about Islam is evil; you say in the
film that it is religion of peace.
I never attended my own screenings, but I was looking at social
media. One of the most interesting tweets I saw said that this was
one of the most morally complex films they had ever seen. This
idea of the film being morally complex was repeated to me by
many in the audience, where they felt the film had so many layers. It was like peeling an onion, and it would still need time to
I think I have been successful in making a film that is complicated and it requires a lot of thinking on the part of the audience.
This film does not offer any easy answers. I think it is way more
complex than my previous film.
Do you have a sense of relief now since the film is with the audi-
Well the baby is born but it has to be nurtured carefully. This
was just one festival. I am concerned about the narrative around
the film. A lot of it is not in my control now. n
CINEMA WITH A SOUL/HOT DOCS M14 THE MAGAZINE
‘This film does not offer any easy answers’
To save India’s
A Sinner In Mecca, glimpses above, is seen as a direct challenge to the government of Saudi Arabia, says filmmaker Parvez Sharma.