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When Oscar-winning director Hemal Trivedi disguised herself as a Muslim woman in Pakistan

“I would have been killed then and there had clerics at the Madrassa in Islamabad found out that an Indian Hindu woman was roaming inside to shoot a documentary” 
— HEMAL TRIVEDI, Emmy and Academy Award-winning editor and director

The documentary film-maker is now receving death threats. By Karan Bhardwaj

Hemal Trivedi

A still from Among The Believers

Hemal Trivedi, India-born Oscar-winning film-maker, now living in New Jersey, risked her career and life to make her latest documentary Among The Believers. The 84-minute film, which is now receiving global attention at several prestigious film festivals, studies ideological conflicts in modern Pakistan. For her film, Hemal lived in Islamabad for a long time and disguised herself as a Muslim woman, to enter into madrassas in Islamabad and even the controversial Red Mosque (Lal Masjid). She told Born of Web, “I became Hina Khan from Dubai. I named Dubai because they would have caught me easily due to my Urdu accent had I pretended to be a Pakistan’s national.”

The documentary introduces the audience to two different branches of education in Pakistan. Hemal and her crew spent days in madrassas and other regular schools, shooting daily routine of students. “My co-producers were Pakistanis and they had already warned me not to open mouth. They were like ‘If they (Madrassa keepers) find out that there was an Indian Hindu woman in their Madrassa, they will kill you. And we’ll leave you and run away’,” she said.

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Hemal Trivedi

Hemal Trivedi poses for Born of Web in Delhi

However, the biggest challenge or call it threat was to get through to the “one of the most feared men in Pakistan” and the main cleric of the Red Mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz. “In no way I would have been allowed inside the headquarters of the Red Mosque. So I collaborated with my co-director Mohammed Naqvi, an award-winning film-maker from Pakistan. He’s a Shia Muslim and obviously he would have been the first one to get killed in case we were caught. But Mohammad took eight months to be friends with security guards at the Masjid, and then get access to the personal secretary of Maulana. Finally we did series of interviews with Maulana in 2013 and 2014,” she told us.

Now that the documentary is out and is being screened at international film festivals, the directors are also receiving death threats. “Mohammed got death threats from anonymous callers immediately after we premiered the documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. We had to halt the film’s screenings to deal with the situation,” she said.

The film-maker who calls Pakistan’s government ‘corrupt and responsible for domestic mayhem’ and America ‘the mastermind of terrorism’, feels sorry for ordinary citizens of Pakistan. “Like us in India, they too are struggling to survive and square meal. But the government has fallen prey to the West,” she says.

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