When Arshad Khan presented a five-minute video on Abu, as he calls his father, during a memorial in 2012, a year after his demise, the Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker realised that there’s a much bigger story to be told. Khan shared a complex bond with his Abu, Wasi Khan — a former armyman, whom he deeply loved. Khan also “questioned his [father’s] choices”, even as he wished his father would approve of Khan’s homosexuality.
To narrate this deeply personal account, Khan had “a wealth of archival family video footage” at his disposal — his family had almost obsessively recorded every occasion and, at times, regular dinner conversations, over the years. An aspiring filmmaker already by then, Khan started sifting through innumerable VHS tapes, family photographs and mobile phone recordings. Five years later, in June 2017, Khan made his directorial debut with the 80-minute documentary Abu, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June last year.
“It wasn’t until after my father’s death that I realised how deeply our lives were intertwined. That’s why I decided to present this account and examine our complicated relationship,” says the 43-year-old Khan, “Every child wants parental approval. I was no different. Once I realised that I might not live up to the standards my parents have set for me, I moved away from them for my own sanity. But, you cannot cut yourself off from family even if you tried.” After winning a host of international awards, Abu is set to have its theatrical release across Canada on April 13. “For me, it is a huge honour that, for the first time in history, an Urdu/Hindi language documentary will be in theatres across Canada,” says Khan, whose film was also screened at the Dharamshala International Film festival last year to a warm reception.
Talking about the challenges of making such a deeply personal documentary about his family that lays bare several intimate details, Khan says, “It took me five years to make the film. I was very sceptical about making it and exposing myself to the world in such a big way. Also, it was expensive and required a lot of resources. Assembling those resources — from hiring the right crew to paying them — takes time,” says the director, who has also written and produced Abu. Khan worked as a flight attendant before studying cinema from the Concordia University in Montreal. He then worked as a film curator and programmer before deciding to go pro with filmmaking.
The primary material for Khan’s documentary came from the family’s video recordings, which travelled with them when they migrated from Pakistan to Canada more than two decades ago. “My father loved technology and we always had the latest gadgets in our house. We had a big family and my father was an orphan. So I think he wanted to preserve all our memories. We became a family that was quite used to recording and being in front of the camera,” says Khan. So, it was very natural for Khan to record conversations with his father, even at the hospital during his last days. “Never once was I thinking that I would use them in a movie one day,” Khan says.
However, the process of going through these recordings was tedious. “Selecting the right images is the toughest job for an editor, especially sifting through almost 100 hours of footage. Then rewriting and re-editing it,” he says. But, eventually, Khan was “very pleased with the results”. What adds a crucial layer to the documentary is Khan’s first-person narration. “Initially, I did not want any narration. But then, it would’ve been too hard for a lot of audiences, especially in the West, to understand what I was talking about. So I decided to have voice-over narration,” says the director-writer.
Through his narration, and aided by the footage taken from family albums and VHS tapes, Khan acquaints the viewers about the joys of growing up in Islamabad in the ’80s, as his family binged on Hindi cinema and hosted several parties, and his mother danced to film songs (clad in a red salwar-kameez, she grooves to Chalte Chalte from Pakeezah at a family gathering). Khan, with equal honesty, talks about his struggle to come out, his family’s migration to Canada, their struggle to fit in while holding on to their traditional Pakistani values, and, his father’s disapproval of his son’s gay identity. “Migration is the hardest thing in the world. That, and coming out,” says Khan in the film.
Abu’s remarkable candour also gives the documentary one of its most poignant moments. Khan and his elder sister open up about their traumas of sexual abuse that they were subjected to at their home, by close relatives. “It was absolutely not easy to speak about the past and about sexual trauma. However, I believed that it’s time the people in our community started confronting and educating each other about these issues, which are always shoved under the carpet,” says Khan. The documentary also talks about his mother’s life trajectory in Canada — from being a lively person to seeking out the help of religion after years of hardship in Canada. Similarly, his “joyous and cosmopolitan” father, too, became deeply religious after suffering setbacks in his career.
Asked if he plans for a Pakistan release of Abu anytime soon, Khan says, “I don’t know if Pakistan is ready for this film. People in Pakistan are not quite ready for the truth.”