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'I'll Meet You There': A Dancer Finds New Rhythm In Her Culture

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Iram Parveen Bilal's new film "I'll Meet You There" opens with scenes that depict two of the worlds 17-year-old Dua navigates as she grows up on the bustling South Asian Devon Avenue neighborhood on the north side of Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I'LL MEET YOU THERE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, non-English language spoken).

SIMON: The leaps and bows of her life as a ballet student shown against the bowing and prayers of men at a local mosque, where women are on the other side of a divide, and there's a verse of the Quran that says women should not stamp their feet to draw attention to their hidden charms. "I'll Meet You There" premiered to raves when screened digitally by the 2020 South by Southwest Festival.

Iram Parveen Bilal, who is both the film's writer and director, joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

IRAM PARVEEN BILAL: It is such an honor, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: And I gather, at least to a degree, this is a film that the story flows from your own life.

BILAL: You know, a lot of people would think that I'd identify more with Dua, the teenager, but I actually identify more with the middle-aged Muslim cop (laughter) because I...

SIMON: Oh, Majeed. Majeed, her father, is a Chicago cop.

BILAL: Absolutely, because, you know, I came to this country when I was 17, and I left behind aging parents and just the notion of trying to assimilate versus integrate. So yes, there are elements from my life in both these characters.

SIMON: Majeed, Dua's father, is a Chicago cop. He still mourns the death of his wife. Dua senses there's something unexplained there. Does that secret kind of put up a wall between father and daughter sometimes?

BILAL: I think this family absolutely is dancing around secrets. In some ways, the dance is a metaphor between ideology, identity, truth. This is - at the heart of it, it's a film about a family trying to reconnect.

SIMON: What does Dua find in dance, do you think?

BILAL: I think that Dua finds, especially in Kathak, the soul of her mother.

SIMON: Which - we should explain Kathak, which is a...

BILAL: Kathak is one of the very celebrated South Asian classical dances. So Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak - these are all different types. And Kathak has a little more of its roots in the Mughal, you know, sort of empire, the history of that. And so Dua finds her mother in Kathak. But I think at the bottom level, she is talented as a dancer and I think, like all dancers, find a lot of freedom and expression in dance. So it is in some ways a very direct chord to her ancestry. And in other ways, it is also new evolution for her to dance.

SIMON: Dua loves dance, wants to go to Juilliard. There's a party scene where - I know it's going to sound strange for me to repeat the word, but she says we're brown, and we like to dirty dance.

BILAL: (Laughter).

SIMON: And - excuse me. You're the director. How did I deliver that?

BILAL: I think we should recast.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: But tell us about that moment in the movie and what it represents.

BILAL: You know, I'm a fun dancer, and I have seen, you know, people at a party or club, other South Asians, you know, there's a bit of a judgment. Or there is judgment in the community. You have this, like, weight of other people's eyes on how you should be behaving and how you should be. And so sometimes, though, we often also, I think, overlook, and we paint our community with one brush and we presume that they all judge you a certain way. So there's - in some ways, Dua's preemptively saying that. But I think it points to a bigger sort of underlying issue, which as communities, as we're evolving, you know, there's a constant balance of traditionalism versus just free expressionism. And I think that being immigrant communities, being sort of more niche communities, it is just amplified.

SIMON: You were a physics Olympian.

BILAL: I was. I'm a very proud nerd (laughter).

SIMON: Caltech, I gather, right?

BILAL: I did come to Caltech. I used my way to be an engineer to come to this country. And then I very quickly changed course (laughter).

SIMON: It was quick. I mean, what happened? Help us understand.

BILAL: So basically, I'm the daughter of a physicist mother and a chemistry professor father. In fact, in the '70s, my mother and all her sisters had masters in 1970s Pakistan. So it is a story of a middle-class Pakistani family where the biggest resource is education. So we were told from the get-go that education is your passport. And when I came to Caltech, I realized that even though I was good at science, it came naturally to me, it wasn't ticking the passion clock. I wanted to interact with people. I was in the subbasement of an applied physics lab in Caltech, you know, streaming DNA strands on semiconductor chips. And it was really just (laughter)...

SIMON: The way you're making it sound, yes.

BILAL: So I said, you know what? And I grew up loving Bollywood. And it was - honestly, I feel I was just very young and ignorance was a bliss. And I thought it would be easy in the film industry. So (laughter) I applied to film school.

SIMON: May I ask - I mean, I'm sure your family loves you and is proud of you, but did they ever say to you - well, I'm sure you can finish that sentence in your mind.

BILAL: (Laughter).

SIMON: Why aren't you an engineer? Why aren't you a scientist?

BILAL: I think that there's still hope that I will pivot (laughter). I mean, you know, it's more than 10 years in film, but, you know, it comes out of love. It comes out of this desire for stability. And they're not wrong. My mother said to me when I wanted to become a filmmaker, she said, honey, we're not rich, and we don't know anybody (laughter). And you need to know people and have resources. And I think it's about, you know, sticking to what you know. And science and engineering is what they know. And tomorrow, if I end up getting a corporate job, my mother would sleep with peace because she would know that I'm OK. You know, I'm not struggling in the freelance climate of Hollywood.

SIMON: There's - the relationship between grandfather and granddaughter is a wonderful thing to see. They - well, they discover each other. There's a wonderful moment when he admonishes her, when you flaunt your body, people don't see your soul. And she says, when I dance, I feel connected to God. They don't reject each other, do they?

BILAL: They don't. There's a lot of hope. And it's - that is why I think using the Rumi quote to name the film just crystallizes it, which is out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there's a field. I'll meet you there. And quite often with loved ones, you know, you don't have to necessarily convert the other side. You know, there's room to coexist, and there's room to just be open to evolution and growth. And I think that that notion of reconnection can be drawn from the small suburban family in Chicago all the way to the streets of Main Street America, which is the constant divide. I mean, we need to kind of learn to coexist and hear each other out and understand that there's a common ground beyond our differences.

SIMON: Iram Parveen Bilal's new film, "I'll Meet You There," now on VOD and premium cable. Thanks so much for being with us.

BILAL: Thank you so much, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX HEFFES AND ANOUSHKA SHANKAR'S "THE RAILWAY THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.