Canadian filmmaker Arshad Khan was working as a flight attendant on a trip from New Dehli to Toronto in 1999, when he spotted a quiet, dignified woman in executive class.
"Do you know who that is?" he asked his fellow flight attendants. They did not. "Oh, my God, this lady is a famous filmmaker," he gushed. Khan was referring to Deepa Mehta, best known (then) for her Elements trilogy of films, including Fire, Earth and Water (the latter Oscar-nominated for best foreign-language film in 2007).
Mehta and the gregarious flight attendant – subsequently turned filmmaker – struck up a conversation and exchanged e-mails. Twenty years later, they remain fast friends, with Mehta collaborating (as narrative director) with Khan on his first full-length feature, the documentary ABU, which premieres in Canada at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal on July 16.
ABU is the story of Khan's life and the challenges of growing up a gay man in a close-knit Muslim family in Pakistan, where homosexuals are regarded as sexual deviants and a shame to a family. The film is called ABU (the Urdu word for father) because Khan decided to make this documentary after his father – whom he deeply loved and deeply resented – died.
"I was working on another feature film and this story just kept getting in the way," says Khan, who studied film at Concordia University in Montreal. "It all started after I made a five-minute video for his memorial. But his death opened up so much more for me. I was very scared. I was laying bare my personal life – and all the trauma, heartbreak, joy and confusion that goes with it."
It's no small feat to tell your life story (Khan is 42) in 80 minutes. Throw in multigenerational family dysfunction, sexual abuse, homophobia, xenophobia – all from the viewpoint of a sensitive, young, brown, gay man struggling to be accepted in his native Pakistan and later, adopted homeland, Canada – and it's no wonder it took Khan more than five years to make this film, which was shortlisted as a work-in-progress (but ultimately, rejected) at Sundance.
"[The rejection] was very difficult on my ego, but then I realized just getting shortlisted is a big deal," says Khan, who lives with his partner in Montreal. "It forced me to go back to the drawing board. It was all there, but it just wasn't coming out right. I showed it to Deepa. And she told me, 'You need to remove your director's hat, and put on your actor's hat.'"
They laid down the narration in one day in a Toronto studio. Mehta – who has always been drawn to subjects marginalized by society – loved the film's myriad layers. "I said to Arshad, 'You're looking back in the past to what happened – what you experienced – what do you want to say? The narration has to come through with a calm voice, not an angry one. You were four-and-a-half years old, and you were sexually molested in a bathroom – everyone can understand your anger. But when anger is directed right into your [audience's] face, it can be too much. You have to get down behind your anger to tell your story properly.'"
ABU is an amalgam of VHS family home videos, animation, flipcam and iPhone footage, interviews with Khan's mom, dad and siblings, as well as Bollywood clips. He believes the documentary began as a quest to understand his devout Muslim father, Wasi, and turned into a journey of self-discovery. "The film was like therapy for me," Khan says. "It was like bringing a child into this world. I was really quite fed up with the secrets and lies in my life."
By the final credits, Mehta says she believes ABU is as much about Khan's mother, Bina, as his father. "After watching it again recently, I was captivated by the mom. Here is this [younger] woman in Pakistan, lovely and graceful, and not at all self-conscious, dancing. And not caring at all if anyone is watching. By the end of the film, she is all wrapped up [in traditional Pakistani dress]. She ended up more fundamentalist than her husband ever was.
"On a whole, other level, the film just explodes and embraces every aspect of Indigenous and gender rights, immigration, religion and the whole issue of sexuality. It's complicated, and universal."
Filmmaking is stressful, Khan says, but doubly so when the topic is so personal. "It was very difficult to rewatch footage of my father in the hospital, dying. And I was very frightened throughout because I had to make a film that didn't destroy or compromise the integrity of our family, while at the same time, being sincere and true to myself."
After a screening of ABU at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco last month, Khan says someone came up to him and asked what his father would say if he saw this film.
"First of all, my father would have been very happy I made, and completed, a film," he laughs. "Secondly, he would have loved the attention. So he would have liked it."