When she was a little girl in Pakistan, Iram Parveen Bilal, MFA (BS ’04) used to crawl in between her parents while they were watching Bollywood movies in bed. She’d pretend to sleep so as not to be sent to her own bed. Eventually, she’d drift to sleep to the sound of passionate dialogue, garish musical numbers, and in the quiet moments, the tinkling sound of chimes. The next day, re-watching the movie with her sister, she could remember all the dialogue.
But it wasn’t Bollywood that brought her to Hollywood — it was Caltech.
In 2000, she received admission and a generous scholarship. It was a difficult transition for the 17-year-old. Although she was focused on studying environmental science, engineering, and business management, movies were never far from her mind.
She recalls a favorite professor who taught a senior film class that she wanted to take her first year at Caltech. “He kept saying no,” she says, “And I kept going back. I finally convinced him. I got an A in that class. He would roll his eyes when I said, ‘I’m going to be a director one day.’” She cringe-laughs at the memory, but now, she’s a director with three feature films, and an assortment of shorts and TV projects on her IMDB page. A fellow successful screenwriter/director even named a secret agent character after her. Her projects address her many deep concerns: the reality of post-9/11 America, and how it manifests into extremism, racism, and misogyny.
Caltech was enormously significant in helping the filmmaker get her messages to the world.
“What Caltech prepared me to do,” she says, “was to learn how to problem-solve and not be scared of new realities. I already had a burgeoning desire for storytelling, but being in an atmosphere where curiosity and imagination and problem-solving were encouraged, where you weren’t scared of jumping into things you didn’t know… all of that primed me to take the leap I was ultimately set to take.”
There are also practical uses to what she learned.
“Being an engineer, I definitely have a very structural mind,” she adds. “When I’m talking to my cinematographer I’m very comfortable discussing depth of field, lens choice, all those things, because it’s easy. It’s physics.
"But in terms of writing and storytelling, I understand structure. What’s hard for me, are dialogue and the nuances of character. As an artist, I’m growing.“
Her work is evidence that she has grown enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with other acclaimed film artists. Her new feature, I’ll Meet You There, a beautifully rendered, multigenerational family drama with a Pakistani-American teenage girl as the lead, was one of 10 chosen from 1,305 submissions for the 2020 South by Southwest narrative feature competition. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the in-person portion of entertainment and technology’s hippest festival. The movie recently debuted to great fanfare on streaming apps — where her previous work, including Josh: Independence Through Unity (2013), is also available.
It was a hard blow for Bilal, but ever the scientist, she’s taking a rational approach. “I’m trying to detach myself from both failure and success,” she says.
Undeniably, acceptance into the festival and subsequent distribution deals are confirmation that when she answered what she calls “the chimes of Bollywood,” she was saying yes to her destiny.