Jamil Dehlavi was making a documentary on shrines in
Pakistan, tentatively titled "Saints and Sinners" when the idea came
to him for a full-length drama on the same subject.
Shrines, although very much a part of everyday life in Pakistan, are
a little harder to explain to Westerners; Dehlavi says that the nearest
equivalent is a visit to Lourdes. The shrine of Gulab Shah, created
for Immaculate Conception,
is, he says,"... an exaggeration. Shrines in Pakistan are not run by
eunuchs. However, I did come across a shrine whose saint was a eunuch
named Gulab Shah. The rest is dramatic license."
Dehlavi's script follows the increasingly unnerving events that surround
Alistair and Hannah, a young Western couple - she Jewish American, he
British - who are living in Karachi and desperate to conceive a child.
They visit the eunuch shrine of Gulab Shah, which has a reputation for
curing infertility, and sure enough Hannah conceives. But the dangerous
cocktail of clashing cultures and religious beliefs explodes mightily
in their faces, leaving everyone involved damaged in one way or another.
As the script for Immaculate Conception began to come together, Dehlavi
abandoned "Saints and Sinners" and got finance from Film on Four to
make his feature. Casting was surprisingly straightforward. "I'd seen
James WIlby in 'Maurice'", Dehlavi explains, "and although I hadn't
written the part of Alistair with anyone particular in mind, I thought
it would suit him perfectly. To cast Hannah, I went to New York. Melissa
Leo simply did the best test, plus I saw some tapes of her previous
work, which was impressive."
The part of Westernised aristocrat Samira went to Shabana Azmi, who
has won just about every award the Indian cinema has to offer, and RADA
old boy Zia Mohyeddin won the crucial role of Shehzada, leader of the
shrine. There's nothing of the eunuch about Mohyeddin, but most of his
followers are the genuine article recruited by Dehlavi in Karachi. Kamal,
the young boy left to the shrine as a gift by-his grateful mother and
yearning to escape to the West, is played by Ronny Jhutti, an ex-regular
in East-enders. Ronny's natural London accent had to be suppressed for
the part, and he had to brush up his Urdu!
Shooting started on location in Karachi in January 1991, timing that
could hardly have been worse. The Gulf War had just broken out and anti-Western
feeling was reaching fever pitch in Pakistan. Five British members of
the film crew took the next plane home, following the slightly panicky
advice of the British and American embassies, which were telling all
foreign nationals to get out of the country. The American cast decided
to tough it out, Dehlavi replaced the five missing crew, and filming
commenced under extremely difficult conditions.
A crowd of obvious Westerners filming in the streets was an easy target,
and Dehlavi believes that a purely European director could simply not
have made the film at all. Even in normal circumstances, a European
would have been given the complete run around by the Pakistani authorities,
and all the difficulties were made many times worse by the war. It was
a constant battle to get each day's shooting done, and only Dehlavi's
insight into both sides of the culture clash enabled filming to go ahead.
But go ahead it did, and was completed on time and on budget, no mean
Dehlavi set the film in 1988, the year The Satantic Verses caused uproar
in Muslim countries the world over. "It was a very interesting time
politically, because that was also the year that General Zia was killed
and Benazir Bhutto was elected. Hence I was able to go back to Pakistan".
Dehlavi is philosophical about the fact that Immaculate Conception will
never be shown in Pakistan. "I would like to see it screen there, of
course, but I can't see it happening in my lifetime. Cinema in Pakistan
is totally an escapist medium. What the vast cinema-going public wants
is song-and-dance formula films. A film like mine would be appreciated
by the educated Pakistanis who are familiar with the interaction of
Pakistan with the West. They would understand the jokes that I threw
in! But the film deals with too many controversial issues, and might
be suppressed by the government."