SOURCE: Illuminare Entertainment

March 01, 2005 15:16 ET

The Movie "Night of Henna," Opening This Weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sparks Controversial Debate on Arranged Marriages

Pakistani Filmmaker Hassan Zee Raises the Voice of Debate on Arranged Marriages

By Mieke Eerkens

SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- (MARKET WIRE) -- March 1, 2005 -- On a planet which is growing more and more politically polarized, it is inevitable that there will be individuals caught in the crossfire of the culture wars, a generation of free-thinkers conflicted about their place on the continuum between extremes.

This has been brought to bear with issues in the US about the new definition of marriage. However, there are arguably none as conflicted as the first generation of immigrants to the Western world from Hindu/Muslim countries.

Carrying on the torch of film-makers such as Gurinder Chadha ("Bend it Like Beckham") Hanif Kureishi ("My Son The Fanatic"), and Mira Nair ("Mississippi Marsala"), Pakistani director Hassan Zee is one of the most recent film-makers to enter this fray with his debut, "Night of Henna," screening at Century Theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationwide, in which he tackles head-on the Pakistani-American cultural divide and the controversial subject of arranged marriages, a practice which is prevalent in the Muslim culture.

In the film, a young woman raised in Pakistan reunites with her family in the United States, where she soon finds herself torn between an American boyfriend and an arranged marriage to a family friend. The film exposes both the positive and negative aspects of both Eastern and Western cultures, and attempts to offer some common ground in which to sow the seeds of harmony.

Zee, thirty-four, was a medical doctor in Pakistan before immigrating to the United States to pursue his lifelong dream of making movies. Says Zee, "As a doctor, I saw women coming into the burn unit because of marital problems. They couldn't speak out. It was heartbreaking. They would set themselves on fire because there was nothing they felt they could do about it."

In his film he openly questions the dogmatic policies of a culture which he clearly also loves, as evidenced by the joyous portrayal of sumptuous Pakistani food, vibrant clothing, and family bonds, all set to beautiful contemporary Pakistani score. However, the film also exposes some concerns about certain aspects of that culture. In one particularly incendiary scene in "Night of Henna," a character lets fly a tirade about the hypocrisy of the Mullahs who preach puritanical values, yet personally deviate from these values, citing Allah's word when justification is needed for certain actions, yet ignoring it in others. Zee also is critical of Muslim parents who raise children in a Western culture, yet expect them to be immune to its influences.

The film is quick to point out that the integration of cultures is also a matter of moderation, however, as the plight of Pakistani women in arranged marriages is juxtaposed with the comic depiction of a lonely, desperate middle-aged American woman in the film who seems to have taken the idea of sexual liberation a step too far in her pursuits of every male within striking range. Likely to also incite irritation in liberal feminist viewers, Zee nonetheless offers this character as an extreme at the other end of the East-West continuum in order to stress the need for balance.

When questioned about the inevitable backlash he will experience from some in the Muslim community as a result of his opinions, Zee is dismissive and resolute. "It saddens me that there will be certain groups who won't be happy with my film. But they will have to consider life from a different perspective."

However, in Pakistan, where Zee also plans to release the film, the government has sought to temper his conviction by editing out the parts of his film that are critical of Islam and adding a postscript which states that the American protagonist in the film later converted to Islam. Zee is impervious to their attempts. He will take whatever small triumphs he can get, as long as he is making inroads into conventional thinking in his home country.

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