Bridging Worlds – Iram Parveen Bilal (BS ’04)

After screenings around the world, filmmaker
Iram Parveen Bilal (BS ’04) returns to Caltech to speak about her first feature, Josh: Against the Grain.

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Following Caltech, Iram Parveen Bilal traversed disciplines to become a filmmaker and activist. For her first feature, Bilal returned to her home country to film Josh: Against the Grain, a mystery thriller set in Karachi. The award-winning film comments on class structures, social movements, and patriotism in Pakistan. Since its first showing in Mumbai in 2012, the film has screened around the world. Bilal speaks about her unique story, and the surprising connections she finds between science and art.

Caltech Alumni Association: What was it like to attend Caltech as an international student?

Iram Parveen Bilal: I came to Caltech when I had just turned seventeen. It was a huge culture shock. I remember going back home after the first term and saying “I want to transfer out,” because it was really hard. I was alone and had no family in the US. But I usually put myself against the harder odds and then I try to win people over. It’s just how my life has been. And Caltech is the kind of place that if you rise to the challenge, it makes you stronger. I eventually found my place at Caltech.

CAA: How did you make the leap from engineering to filmmaking?

IPB: I got into USC and I didn’t know what I was in for. Being this kid who had grown up on Bollywood, and then sitting alongside classmates talking about Citizen Kane, I had this steep learning curve. 

And now I’ve gotten to a point where I think, “You don’t have to know all the classic films in order to be a filmmaker. You have to make films.” That’s not arrogant; I just feel like I have my own point of view, now. 

CAA: Tell us about the film.

IPB: I was working on a documentary about Benazir Bhutto [the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan] when I heard about a woman who runs food kitchens in Karachi. My producing partner at the time wanted to also make a documentary about her, but I I felt Pakistan had enough documentaries—I wanted to make a fiction film. The script eventually evolved into something different, but that was the genesis.

Josh is a mystery thriller set in Karachi that follows an upper class woman who becomes determined to find out what happened to her missing caretaker. Her journey takes her to a nearby village run by a feudal lord, and in the process endangers herself and others. The story tackles themes of feudalism, youth movements, poverty, and the challenges of trying to do good amidst social unrest.


CAA: What was it like to film in Pakistan?

IPB: It was tough because there was no infrastructure for film, really. There were no equipment houses where you could easily rent. I had access to resources in the US. But as a Pakistani, I was tired of people coming in with foreign crews only to leave. So we took a lot of local media students and trained them. After we wrapped, a lot of films started shooting, hiring many of the crew members we trained. I’m proud that Josh is at the forefront of a new Pakistani wave.

CAA: How have audiences responded to the film?

IPB: When our film was screened in Melbourne, one audience member was so moved by the story of the food kitchen (and the woman who was the genesis of the film), that he launched a fundraiser. He solicited donations from around the world, enough to provide food for a 140 families in Pakistan. I was able to go and help ditribute the food. It was a powerful moment of real humility. I thought, “I had no idea where this story would go and here it is actually translating into change. Here are all these women who are going to be feeding their kids and they have no idea or care who I am. They just want their food ration bags.” That’s the power of story. 

CAA: You started in science, but transitioned to art. Do you see any connections between them?

IPB: Both science and art are really about curiosity of the world, and curiosity of human behavior. I think that in making a film—just like in science—your gut instinct is very important. The research that you go through when you’re writing a screenplay, when you’re thinking about characters, and when you’re thinking about emotions, is so similar. You’re absorbing from the world around you. Your evidence is the people you interact with. And then you put forth a hypothesis, which is a character in this environment and this circumstance. What happens? On that level, I feel that writing is very similar to research.

CAA: What advice can you offer to current Caltech students?

IPB: I think when one comes to an institute like Caltech, it’s important to give yourself space and the leverage to study a variety of things. Try and strive for as balanced of an education as you can get here and to expose yourself to as diverse an environment as you can. You never know what will ultimately resonate the most with you.

 

Bilal on the set.

Bilal on the set.