Akifa Mian – Pursuing the Art of Storytelling

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Art is a very powerful tool and in the right hands it changes societies and storytelling is one of the oldest art forms and mediums of education. Today we share the journey of one of Pakistan’s storytellers.

Akifa Mian, a Lahore-based writer-director, is a first generation Lahori born to immigrant Kashmiri parents. She survived Crescent Model and Kinnaird College for her early education by mimicking her teachers and getting involved in sports and dramatics. On her parents’ insistence, she opted for pre-medical but after intermediate she got admission in to the National College of Arts (NCA).

“In NCA, my love affair with art began. It is a corner stone of my personality. The institution connected me to the soil of this country and I fell in love with it.”

She completed her Undergrad in fine arts, with a major in painting and minors in sculpture, computer graphics and photography. She picked painting as a major to learn how to compose two dimensional surfaces to tell a story, something she believes she learnt really well through painting.

She wanted to go to NYU for her masters, and even got admission but could not go due to lack of funds so she started working and joined the field of advertising and teaching simultaneously. Later she quit to start her own setup where she along with her team put up their first theater play performance in Lahore back in 2000. Given her enthusiasm and energy at that point, she used to do a new production every year.

“As an artist you need encouragement, otherwise you give up.”

Her play ‘Aadhi Baat’ by Bano Qudsia gave her a lot of encouragement as a director. It was a play set in the 1960s and proved to be a super hit social comedy. They were nominated in eight categories in the Rafi Peer Youth Festival where she won the Best Director Award. “It felt like winning the Oscars.” They took the play to India, where it received standing ovations, radio show slots and a visit to Shabana Azmi’s theater group as well. Akifa was later asked to make a TV adaptation for PTV as well. Some other key prestigious centers where her work has been screened include; London Asian Film Festival, Dhaka Art Summit, UCLA Film School, & Chicago Main Art Centre. She was also part of the Pakistani Academy Selection Committee from 2013 to 2015.

In the meantime, she was invited to attend an Artist residency in Germany that was spread over three months, and did a film installation for it.

“International exposure helps develop your craft and this experience was a lot of help.”

She got to know about the HEC Scholarship through a friend and secured it to complete her Masters degree in TV and film direction from University of Westminster. Here her editing teacher, Barry Vince, is someone she considers to be a lifelong mentor, someone who taught her the craft, how to tell a story, about life and rhythm.

“Film is a vast subject; some people do six month courses and say that they have studied the entire thing. Direction very few people have studied, majority studies the production.”

Given that she was among the handful who has studied the subject, it felt like the world was waiting for her. However, on her return not finding much work gave her second thoughts. When she was at the brim of depleting her funds, she decided to take up teaching and ended up with BeaconHouse National University (BNU) first as a visiting faculty and later heading and revamping the entire department before parting ways with the institution.

Talking about the medium of short film, Akifa shares that it is still a new medium not just in Pakistan but elsewhere as well. Given that there is no funding and screening space dedicated to it in Pakistan, this is truly a labor of love. Film is not a glamorous field. It is the work of people who are really passionate about it, are crazy about it. When you have to work in tough environments for eighteen hours at a stretch, only passion can take you forward since there isn’t much money starting out. Around the globe majority of film makers do side jobs. Despite a weak system there are exceptions who come out and do exceptional work but that brilliance depends on individual capacity, proving there is no dearth of talent.

The aesthetic associated with the medium of film is lacking. Running content on the big screen and labelling it as film doesn’t cut it. For Akifa, Pakistan has a cinema but doesn’t have an industry. Industry means to have an assembly line. We had one in the 70s, which started to deteriorate after that. Until then Pakistan’s industry was strong and in the hands of the creator. Later a less progressive approach was given to storytelling. The result was that our lead heroes turned from chocolate heroes, like Waheed Murad to the uptight brotherly figures and guardians of the morals, resorting to violence. Talking about the role of women in the field of performing arts, Akifa gives credit to female performers that they have survived and continue to do so in a highly misogynist society.

At the end, for Akifa what matters is that you have an end goal in mind for whatever you choose to do with your life. For her, she wants to tell stories and she is willing to take up every opportunity and go anywhere to tell a story. With storytelling you keep your culture and identity alive, which are ever evolving. She is an adherent believer that self-analysis and criticism is the need of the hour and the way forward for success in all creative fields.


Interview by Hammad Anwar | Written by Fatima Arif

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