Iram Bilal’s new film, I’ll Meet You There, ends with a quote by Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” In a nuanced depiction of a Pakistani American, Muslim family in Chicago, Bilal offers a moving rumination of that field. The film follows Dua (Nikita Tewani), a 17-year-old dancer, and her immigrant father, Majeed (Faran Tahir), as they grapple with their identities in post-9/11 Chicago following a surprise visit by Majeed’s father (Qavi Khan) from Pakistan. Bilal expertly avoids caricatures and tropes of Muslim American family and community life and presents a story that is profound in its realness.
Kajal spoke with Iram Bilal about the film, her journey into filmmaking, and the inspiration behind telling a story that has rarely been represented on screen.
Kajal: I’ll start with the first and very obvious question. How did you go from being an engineer to filmmaker and storyteller? What brought you into directing?
Iram: When we grew up in Nigeria and then in Pakistan, we had a closet full of VHS tapes and all these ripped off Bollywood films. I was always the storyteller. My moms’ a physicist and my dad’s a chemistry professor; they came to Pakistan after Partition. Their families left everything in India and built everything from scratch. It’s just one of those things; if you’re middle class, art is not something you do. You do science, engineering. You do a good profession, and that’s stable. So I had no choice. Science was a thing we did I guess, and I was good at it. I got into CalTech, came to the US, and I realized very quickly that as much as I loved science, I wasn’t in love with the lifestyle of being a scientist. I needed something that was more people oriented and conversation oriented.
When I graduated, I traveled for a year as a Watson Fellow and then applied to film school. I got into USC, and that’s how the switch actually happened. I sometimes wonder, had I not gotten into film school, would I actually have made the switch? I don’t know.
You both wrote and directed the film. What inspired this particular story and what was it like to write it? And then what was it like to bring it to life?
This was the first script I ever wrote in film school, because it was before I knew I could write a script. It was like six, seven years after 9/11 and the Patriot Act was alive and throbbing. A college friend of mine, his father was picked up outside a mosque after morning prayers and was in prison for 2 years; his charges were incorrect filing of taxes. Guys in the East Coast in my dorm rooms were getting calls from the FBI. All this stuff was really happening. I knew I wanted to do something around that.
Over the course of the years, after 9/11, the Muslim community saw a shift – like people wanting to be super conservative or liberal. Suddenly the spotlight was on Islam and you had to know what type of Muslim you were because when you walked into a room, everybody was interested in your religion, whereas before that, it was just like this is one part of my identity. And during that time, my sister, who taught me how to dance, became a born again Muslim, and she really believes that music and dance are not necessarily the best way forward. And so there are a lot of questions I’ve had. With any ideology, there are things we always question. How do people interpret scripture? How do we interpret ideology? My point has always been that we need to keep the dialogue open, as hard as it is. And it’s all these things that really formed in the film and then it was very personal. And then, Trump came into power and I remember after the Muslim ban, I was at the LAX protests, and that’s when it just hit me like a ton of bricks that I had to make this film.
The film had three generations of stories. For me, that was also one of the things that was so compelling about the story, that it was such a unique intergenerational story but also that it felt universal in a way because it was so specific.
You want to call your grandparents after the movie; you want to hug your father or hug your daughter. It was a fight because it’s just the more nuanced you are…there’s a reason you see those caricatures, and it’s because that is what white Hollywood wants to put forward as us. So it’s easy for me to make a horribly evil father figure and this oppressed woman, and I might get more people willing to fund that because that’s the narrative they care to put forward. When I’ll be like well, no one’s a clear good guy or bad guy, there’s a lot of resistance to that. So that has been really hard in terms of financing as well as distribution. So, we’re happy we found a distributor in Level Forward.
So did you feel a responsibility or a burden in terms of writing and representing these three generations of stories?
I felt a responsibility in the fact that there are scenes that talk about the Quran, and I know how people are. So I’ve made sure a lot of scholars looked at it and that I hear people and hear their concerns. So that’s where I feel a bit of responsibility but not in terms of the intergenerational story. I lived with those characters for so many years; I’ve done pages of rewrites on this film. But I think that Islam angle, I just wanted to be very careful to be very nuanced in that.
I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker; I’m an activist at heart. I call myself an artivist. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it’s so freaking difficult for us to find resources to tell our stories, but maybe that’s the responsibility and burden. When I look at this film, I really always feel like I could still have made the script stronger. It’s because I feel like I’m always trying to do too much in my stories and part of it is like, I don’t know if I’m gonna get another shot. And I want to talk about everything. Not everything has to be resolved; it just makes it more vibrant, full, colorful…you just get a window into their lives and you go away.
Something that I loved in the film is the way that it transitions from scenes of prayer to scenes of dance. It made these experiences feel like they’re bleeding into each other. Can you talk to me about that?
A film is made three times: it’s written, it’s directed, it’s edited. So I have to give a shout out to Cari Coughlin and Spence Nicholson, the editors; they just really helped craft this together. So I’m happy that you feel that; there’s a lot of lyricism in the way it’s cut and we definitely wanted the prayer and dance scenes to feel like they mirror each other in the camera language, because those are the two places where Dua feels her soul is elevated and and also because people want to paint dance as taboo, but it isn’t. For this person, she says, “I feel God when I dance.” For a Hindu person dancing is prayer. For a Muslim person, what is dance? Despite all the drafts of the script, the opening sequence has always remained intercut with dancing with them praying, and it being very similar. That is the one thing that has never left; it’s always been something that’s true.
Why was it important for you to represent and have this live dialogue around Kathak dance in the film?
It’s important for multiple reasons. The whole dance taboo in Islam, as you can tell from the film, has always bothered me because I think I wanted to be a professional dancer. But I think that would have been a big taboo. But specifically, Kathak grabs because of the history of Kathak – the devadasis and the women who would worship at the temples through dance were brought in by the Moghul emperors to become courtesans. And so a lot of Kathak is said to come from that. So there’s a conversation of sort of objectifying women in the dance.
Also in Pakistan, you don’t do Bharatanatyam because it is very tied to Hindu worship. But frankly, you could be learning any of the dances, but I think Kathak just has that in its history of objectification, the sort of play with Muslim history. So I thought it would have to be the right choice, and then it’s so funny that Nikita Tewani, the woman who plays Dua, learned Kathak from the age of five to fourteen.
There were multiple lines of tension that were left unresolved in the film. What made you write the story in that way?
It was definitely intentional because I don’t think that these things have answers. These are lifelong journeys. We’re all growing; we’re all evolving, sometimes we’re super religious, sometimes we’re super not religious. That’s life; life is messy. There’s no right or wrong and everything is gray. As long as we keep acknowledging that in ourselves and in others, there’s a chance of coexisting and not judging. That’s what the Rumi quote is: “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there’s a field.” I’ve always been so enamored by his words, and it’s funny because my first film also started with a Rumi quote just coincidentally. I didn’t think I was going to end this one with a Rumi quote, but that actually changed the film. The film was called forbidden steps, which was a terrible title so I’m glad we changed it. And it worked well, so yeah, very intentional.
I’ll Meet You There is now streaming.