The Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival took place in rainy Gastown just last weekend. In its sixth year, this innovative film festival highlights the artistic and creative achievements of the South Asian film community. I know what you’re thinking. Bollywood is already a multi-billion-dollar international industry with superstars akin to Hollywood A-listers and a reputation that conquers the globe. So why do we need VISAFF? First of all, it creates space for non-commercial, indie, and socially innovative movies. It brings filmmakers and artists previously not well known to the forefront. The event is also a method to bring together the South Asian diaspora living in Vancouver. The platform VISAFF provides allows for the community to come together and address important issues in our society. Furthermore, the festival also showcases South Asian works that often get ignored since they don’t fit into the “Bollywood” category.
Case in point, I was thrilled to attend the VISAFF screening of “Mah e Mir” (ماہ میر), a Pakistani movie tackling the state of contemporary Urdu (اردو) poetry. The film addresses the life and impact of Mir Taqi Mir, an 18th century poet who lived during the Mughal Empire and who would later be called the “God of Poetry”. Urdu poetry is a staple in South Asian culture as Urdu is often the language of choice for many writers. In the 17th century, Urdu was declared the official language of the court and so started becoming popular. A mixture of Persian, Turkish, and Arabic, Urdu poetry, or shayeri (شاعری), became the method of communicating social and political issues. Urdu poetry is usually recited in gatherings where a live audience is necessary. This stems from the fact that its inception is rooted in mushairas (مشاعرہ), gatherings that took place in the 18th century for the purpose of presenting shayeri. Urdu poetry was and still is competitive, often initiating a battle of wits. Instead of applause, one will often hear a chorus of “wah wahs” (واہ واہ), indicating admiration. With beautiful sounds and flowing rhythms, shayeri is an ancient and renowned form of art.
O Mir, he came to my grave after I’d died; My messiah thought of a medicine after I’d died.” – Mir Taqi Mir
It was in similar gatherings that Mir Taqi Mir proved his talents. He was a man who not only reinvigorated Urdu poetry in royal courts, but also made it accessible to the masses. He would often be found, as the movie also acknowledges, reciting poetry at the steps of the Jama Mosque ( جامع مسجد) in Delhi. Known for their rich imagery and simplicity, Mir’s works have stood the test of time. “Mah e Mir” addresses this timelessness of Mir’s works through the eyes of a contemporary poet named Jamal. To him, classical poetry is outdated and modern poetry is a “circus.” He is unimpressed by both, only believing himself to be a true poet. Yet, through the duration of the movie, Jamal is taken on a journey where he learns to not only appreciate Mir’s work but also embrace his mad passion. The discussions and battles fought with rich diction and complicated metaphors on screen turned the theater of VISAFF into a mushaira itself. In the audience, we witnessed some of the best Urdu poetry the language has produced. And that is exactly what events like VISAFF have the power to do.