Written by; Director, Art Director and Stylist Saira Hussain
Let me take you through a vision; a memory, a story that I wrote to inspire this project. Can you imagine?...
Approaching a whistling field of barley, a distressed and estranged farmer runs in for safety and shelter miles away from his home in what is presently known to us as Gujarat, India. To his surprise he finds an infant; a hungry, wailing girl at the end of a river bank surrounded by broken pieces of a wooden boat. He picked her up with one glance and began to walk away frantically, hushing her, singing to her to keep them safe. What the farmer hadn’t realized is that attached to the soaked kameez (shirt) of the infant was a wet set of handwritten letters in the talisman around her tiny waist - letters from a mother, mentioning the names of her two daughters. The one in his arms was Laila and the other who grew up to be Sahreen.
A few hours later a frightened and hungry four year old girl finds her way back through fields to the dismantled kashti (wooden boat) that had been their refuge after having escaped a civil war over a week ago. Her heart began to race as she couldn’t find her precious baby sister. During sunset, the little girl built the courage to raise one wooden plank and place the heads of barley to create a nest for her tired head to lay on. She believed that the stars would protect her that night and prayed to find her sister again.
After reading a small part of the script, you’re probably thinking how could a mother let go of her two young children?
Why did this estranged farmer take the infant?
What will happen to the isolated four-year old girl?
Azaadi 1981 is an emotionally captivating performance and series that is inspired by the stories of the 1947 India Pakistan partition played by muses Asma Khan (Sahreen) and Shreya Patel (Laila). The partition took the lives of millions of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. Children were separated from their families; many slaughtered and burned alive in a time of immense fear and hatred, which was fueled by the British colonizers and has drastically influenced Pakistani and Indian relations till today. As a second generation Muslim, Pakistani-Canadian, I wanted to highlight the importance of forgiveness for the sake of one’s mental well-being, show love and reunion and of course, moments to fall into the palms of gratitude. Guided by my intuition and the floods of Pakistan that left over 2 million Pakistanis homeless in 2022, ‘Azaadi 1981’ came to life with a curated team of 25 artists and small businesses. Thank you to everyone who confirmed their participation within hours to make this production possible.
If we’ve learned anything about storytelling, it is that they repeat themselves through art and as they are told, we uncover new messages and those that are gold.
3 Key Concepts that one will find in Azaadi 1981
Featuring the heritage collection at Chandan Fashion was an important detail because the collection symbolized heirloom craftsmanship. Within the lenghas, you can visibly see the dancers, enchantments of florals, Mughal and Rajastani architecture in which peace is restored. Many brides are influenced by trends and colours, but what can go overlooked are the details that are intricately woven in the panels of their lenghas. These stories are not just patterns, but symbols of South-Asian history that have been passed down through garments. Gratitude radiated through the gold and silver zardozi work in the outfits and the sequins when hit with the sun’s light. Did you know that it was supposed to rain on September 19th (day of production), and not a drop was in sight? If that’s not a blessing, I don’t know what is. With $30,000.00 hand woven rugs from Kasra Rugs on set, outdoors for the reunion scene - we had Chandan and Arash come in and lay yards of plastic down to protect the rugs - safety measures are always evident on all our sets.
The bridal lenghas can also be seen as heirlooms of healing. I recently lost my eldest maternal uncle, he was 75 when he died last December. Pakistan gained its independence in 1947 - 75 years and there is still much to be done to help this country grow. As a Artist born outside of this very history, the feelings run deep and it is with these emotions that I wrote the poem. The story blooms into a work from trauma unspoken to rediscovering a place in one’s heart to be able to connect and rebuild a life of truth, harmony and accept one’s intersectionalities. What it means to live with Azaadi (freedom).
Technology is advancing and it is important for development and personal growth, but we must not forget the practices that have taught us how to reconnect with our emotions, restore memory and feel human.
Writing is one of the many forms of expressing one’s emotions; in many mediums - it is Art.
Reading a letter from a friend during the holidays or on your birthday can really fill a void in one’s heart. Some envelopes, scented while others were laced with gold embellishments and dried lavender. A letter is a composition of one’s heart; grief and joy. It is a raw and vulnerable form of communication.
The crossing of a ‘t’ or the dancing evoked by the letter ‘s’ in cursive; letters are a part of our original forms of communication. There is movement in the letters; the phrases and pauses for breath and reflection required to read a letter can help rebuild language and provoke memory. I had inquired with my mother in law to write the poem (storyline) for Azaadi in urdu, which I then wrote down on handmade paper. Hearing her voice read my story in the mother tongue addressed more emotions than one can understand in the English language - it was powerful. It carried honesty, vulnerability, courage and urgency. It felt real and moved those individuals who could relate to its context. It was healing on its own. The entirety of the production was fueled, inspired, and directed by them. I never once directed without my emotions - creativity can help with one’s mental health and where there is grief, what more can one ask for than grief mirrored with love?
The hand written letters, the scent of fresh Jasmine, the oud in Laila’s hair, the handmade Persian rugs and the lengths of real hair all help provoke the eternal beauty that is seen in the photographs of our ancestors in their homes. During the course of the pandemic, I spent many nights recollecting my family history through the findings of my parent’s college documents and by listening to the stories told by my uncles and aunts. We weren’t caught up in our usual routines and most dinners, we’d spend time together nourishing our hearts with the tales of our grandparents and learning about their lives. As a second generation South-Asian, I often found myself facing difficulty being accepted by my community and so spent my days learning about other cultures and found many similarities - this was enough.
Azaadi is a story that highlights inclusion in finding the similarities and mirroring love in one another even after a traumatic life event; healing, strength, reconnection, memory, and hope for the generations facing injustice today. They represent eternal peace in places of darkness and light.
‘UNITY is in COMMUNITY’
Azaadi (freedom) represents the space to express.
Azaadi (freedom) represents the ability to speak without fear.
Azaadi (freedom) represents the right to love who you love.
Azaadi (freedom) represents the right to breathe.
Azaadi (freedom) represents a life with safety and protection.
Azaadi (freedom) represents a life with opportunities.
It is important to have a cast and crew that represents the intersectionalities of the South-Asian and South-east Asian demographics. A diverse group of artists and entrepreneurs were brought together to bring this story to life. Behind the scenes we had women from Sri Lanka (Robina and Nithiya), (Asma, Fatima, Shazia and myself) from different regions of Pakistan, (Shreya, Prerna, Sonia, Hasika, Nisha and Mita) and Beata from Poland. We couldn’t have done this without two of my favourite Pakistani creators; Naser (cinematographer) and Wajahut (photographer).
We look forward to seeing the final week of Bollywed on CBC GEM where you can stream our episode and experience how we brought this production to life.
Follow Saira on @worth.and.wellbeing for more behind the scenes.
Postpartum depression, healing from traumatic events is not easy. If you’re ever in need of support, please contact Mental Health Resources.