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Spotlight: An Interview with Producer Nighat Akbar Shah ("Gunjal")


Photo credit: Tammy Zurak Z Photog Studio


Step into the world of cinema's enchantment alongside the passionate storyteller and compassionate advocate, Nighat Akbar Shah. Known for her soul-stirring productions and unwavering commitment to social justice, Nighat's journey as a producer, philanthropist, and founder of Adur Productions is as inspiring as it is impactful.


From the heartfelt depths of "This Bank of the River" to the illuminating narrative of "Gunjal," she weaves tales that resonate deeply with our shared humanity.


Join us as we embark on a heartfelt conversation with Nighat, exploring the boundless realms of storytelling and the profound impact it holds in shaping a better world for all.


Nighat, we're so excited to get to know you better and hear more about your journey. Let's start with your background, growing up in Chitral, Pakistan- how did a service station/convenience store owner become a huge philanthropist and humanitarian, as well as a film producer?


Growing up in the small town of Chitral in Pakistan, I had a comfortable childhood where my parents ensured we received a good education and upbringing. At the same time, they raised us with principles of caring for our community and helping those around us, whether family or friends. When my husband and I started our small convenience store business, we were cognizant that while we worked to support ourselves, we also had a responsibility toward neighbors. I never saw myself as a major philanthropist either, as I was never focused on money itself but rather what impact it could have when used for good causes and assisting others.


When looking at your life story, I can't help but think about the term 'Pay It Forward'. You are such a force for good, and along with your husband, you have done some truly remarkable things, it's inspiring to see. What drove you to do this kind of philanthropy work?


It’s crucially important that we spread kindness and give back to society, otherwise our lives lack deeper purpose and meaning. Having found success ourselves, we feel obligated to serve our community and help where needed. I believe most humans intrinsically desire to help their fellow humans, yet societal pressures often dull this instinct. We strive to nourish such compassion within ourselves and our work.



Photo credit: Tammy Zurak Z Photog Studio



You're involved in so many charities, subsidized healthcare projects in Pakistan, provided high-tech equipment to hospitals and schools and even financed the building of a student hostel. In your opinion, what are some of the most important achievements (or milestones) you've accomplished in recent years?


While I wish I could do more given endless needs, it’s humbling seeing students I’ve supported excel and build bright futures - their success brings me joy.


I'm sure sometimes the road has been rough - what are your tips to stay motivated, and to find success in life, particularly in one's chosen career?


Staying motivated is crucial - you must keep remembering why you started in the first place and ensure that drive remains relevant. Perseverance and passion are key. I tell myself “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”


You hold a M.S. in Business and Finance from the University of Memphis- do you feel your studies helped you get to where you are today?


My studies equipped me with both practical skills and self-assurance well-applicable to my current roles and philanthropic ventures. I’m proud of having pursued and completed my education. Education gives you a sense of accomplishment.



With Husband Rooziman Shah at Gunjal Screening. Photo credit: Abbas Hussain Medialogy PR


Let's dive into your film work. What made you interested in storytelling and film production?


In the years leading up to my short film, “This Bank of the River,” I grew increasingly worried by the rising suicide rates in my small, close-knit hometown of Chitral. As a community where most families had resided for generations, any loss of life heavily impacted our close social fabric. But these tragic occurrences seemed to be growing disturbingly common, with victims spanning all ages from vulnerable youth to elders. Each funeral only underscored how some deeper issue was troubling our people.

My concerns intensified on a personal level when tragedy struck within my own family. Both my young cousin and husband's cousin lost their lives to suicide, leaving our relatives in deep mourning. As I supported my grieving kin, I sought more understanding of what could drive otherwise vibrant individuals to such desperation. Through research, I discovered suicide was actually a rapidly increasing global epidemic, not isolated to our region alone. Furthermore, the severe stigma surrounding mental health precluded candid discussions that may have helped identify risk signs earlier. It became clear we urgently needed open dialogue to normalize addressing emotional struggles before they escalated dangerously. That's when I realized films could raise awareness about this critical issue plaguing our society.


What were your first steps in the entertainment industry?


I entered this industry with my short film. Previously, I was far removed from entertainment and didn't know about any film festivals or how film distributions work.


What drove you to start Adur Productions, and how do you choose the stories you'd like to produce? What does the name 'Adur' mean to you?


My short film’s success motivated me to produce more films addressing issues close to my heart. Through Adur Productions, I could offer impactful stories. Adur is my mother's name. It has Persian origins, referring to strength of character and kindness of spirit - qualities that described my mother and continue to guide the compassionate storytelling I pursue through my namesake production company.


One of the short films you've produced is the acclaimed, award-winning film "This Bank of the River," which tackles very heavy topics such as suicide and mental health. What are you most proud of about this film?


I'm proud that "This Bank of the River" helped advance much-needed conversations around suicide and mental health in our community. When we started, addressing these topics openly faced resistance. But by persevering and allowing the story to spread, it contributed to destigmatizing discussions to some degree. Where hesitancy once existed, the film helped foster more willingness to talk candidly. It offered hope and honored the memories of those struggling in silence by empowering more to seek help without shame. While full normalization takes prolonged grassroots efforts, the film played a part in moving in a positive direction. I'm grateful for its role in raising awareness, and hopeful its message of perseverance in the fight against stigma continues reaching wider audiences through screenings and discussions. There is still progress to be made, but it's rewarding to support dialogue that can save lives





Let's talk about Gunjal, your latest narrative project. Why was it important for you to tell this powerful story, that sheds light on child labor?


As a mother myself, I can empathize with the pain felt by mothers who are forced to send their young children to work. In many developing nations, it's common practice to hire very young children as domestic help. Unfortunately, this often results in those kids being ill-treated while working in other people's homes. Without proper care and education during their developmental years, it can seriously hinder their mental and physical growth, giving them low self-esteem as adults. I wanted to use my platform to shed light on this important issue, as children are used in farms to factories to produce tirelessly for consumer. I chose to feature the inspirational story of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani hero who fought against child labor. By celebrating local heroes through films like “Gunjal,” their impactful messages can spread even further and motivate more positive change. Iqbal's brave activism embodies the spirit of persevering to help vulnerable children despite facing obstacles.


What were your main responsibilities as the creative producer of the film?


As producer of "Gunjal,” I was involved at every stage, from initial research through distribution. In the early phases, we conducted interviews to understand the issue thoroughly. My roles included overseeing sensitive story development, securing financing, and marketing. Throughout, I collaborated closely with our screenwriters, director and team, utilizing their diverse strengths to guide our culturally sensitive story from page to screen. Witnessing the full process reinforced my commitment to using film as a tool for positive change.


How did you work with director Shoaib Sultan to create the hero of the film?


Director Shoaib Sultan and I shared a vision of authentically portraying Iqbal Masih's story. In our research, we spoke to people who knew or had met Iqbal to deeply understand his experiences. Shoaib worked closely with writers to craft the leading actor's compelling character arc.

During production, Shoaib played a key role in casting the ideal actor to embody the spirit of our film. On set, he skillfully guided the script and performance. In editing, we collaborated intensely to craft the narrative journey in an informative yet celebratory way.

Throughout, Shoaib's direction and commitment to authenticity were instrumental in bringing the films powerful message to life on screen. Our close collaboration ensured "Gunjal" captured the soul of this local hero and his message of hope.


Of course, it takes a village to create a film as meaningful as this. Who are some of the people who helped you bring this project to life?


Filmmaking truly is a team effort with professionals in each department. Though we faced new challenges, we overcame them with the help of a great team and under the visionary direction of Shoaib Sultan. We also received the best performances from our actors Ahmed Ai Akbar, Amna Ilyas, Resham, Syed Muhammad Ali, and Ahmed Ali Butt, thanks to Shoaib's direction.

I've been incredibly lucky to have wonderful friends support this project as well. When post-production began, Shelby Elwood and Zinnia Sheikh joined me to help. Anuradha Singh has immense talent and helped by supervising the editing. Zara Adams connected me to many in similar fields due to our shared interests - interacting with such dedicated colleagues was enriching. I'm deeply grateful to each person who contributed their talents to help "Gunjal" to life.



Nighat Shah at the Gunjal press junket in Karachi. Photo credit: Sarim Ali Medialogy PR


What challenges did you encounter during production, and how did you overcome them?


As new filmmakers, there were many challenges producing "Gunjal." A major issue was underestimating the production budget. When costs grew midway through filming, I had my team stop the production to reassess.

However, as sole producer and financier, I was committed to telling Iqbal's story. To keep shooting on schedule, I invested more of my own money to cover the budget shortfall.

It was a risk, but I believed in our team and the importance of this story. Their passion motivated me to overcome the financial obstacles through additional personal funding. This allowed us to stay on track creatively. It was a learning experience about the budget realities of independent films, but we persevered to complete our vision of honoring Iqbal.


This film spreads the word to end child labor globally. What message are you hoping to convert to audiences?


With "Gunjal," we aim to raise awareness of the harsh realities many children face being forced into labor instead of school. By humanizing Iqbal's experience, our hope is for audiences to feel personally connected to and outraged by this issue.

We want viewers to be motivated to help however possible - whether supporting nonprofits ending child labor, pressing governments and companies to strengthen protections, or spreading awareness in their own communities.

Most importantly, through Iqbal's resilience in pursuing his dreams, we hope to leave audiences with a message of hope and inspiration - that one courageous individual can make a positive difference. By bringing attention to his story, we believe our film can help catalyze meaningful change for children suffering under child labor globally.


Photo credit: Ray Rico Freelance


How do you usually choose your collaborators?


When choosing people to help make a movie, there are some important things to think about. You want people who have the right skills and experience for their job. It's good to pick a director who made movies before because they know what to do. It's also important everyone wants to tell the same story in a similar way. Staying on schedule and budget is difficult, so reliable people who finished similar projects on time and budget before are better. Asking others who worked with them can help know if they work well as a team. Good chemistry where everyone talks freely is also good. Picking collaborators who get along makes the teamwork better and helps make the best movie possible.


Alongside your work as a producer and a humanitarian, you're a mother. In your opinion, how do these 'titles', or parts of your identity, impact each other?


Being a mother has had the biggest impact on me, taking on the role of humanitarian and producer. As a parent, you want the best for your children and to make the world a little bit better for them. That's what drives me in all of my work.

Parenting taught me skills like empathy, collaboration, and time management that serve me well. Juggling family prepared me for the demands of filming.

I also find purpose and fulfillment in role modeling a career I'm passionate about for my children. While challenging at times, their pride in what I do keeps me motivated.

Most importantly, having a varied identity shows my kids you can pursue your dreams while also helping others. I hope it inspires them to combine purpose and passion in their own lives. Being a mom shapes all that I do professionally and personally.


Some of the causes you're involved with, that are close to your heart are pressing social issues such as women's empowerment, youth skill development, mental health, and breast cancer. What makes you passionate about these topics?


The causes closest to my heart are ones I've experienced firsthand or seen affect people in my community. While I'm passionate about helping solve social issues, I know as an individual I can only do so much.

Rather than trying to take on every problem, I find it better to carefully select a few areas I feel most called to support, where my strengths may best contribute - such as empowering women, developing youth, /addressing child labor and supporting mental health/cancer research.

My goal is modest - to do what I can through creative work, volunteerism, and advocacy to bring more attention and aid to the problems facing everyday people. If I can help generate more compassion or resources, even on a small scale, that gives me purpose.

I don't see myself as some heroic figure but rather someone committed to paying forward kindness shown to me through helping address social challenges in grounded, realistic ways. Any positive impact achieved would be a team effort, not a solo accomplishment.


As part of your work as an Impact Investor and a Humanitarian, you've been invited to be a speaker at TEDx, such a great honor! How did you prepare for this chat?


I was honored and a bit nervous to be invited to speak at TEDx. Giving an impactful talk on such a big stage required thorough preparation.

First, I reflected deeply on my experiences and what message or lessons I most wanted to share. I drafted an outline highlighting the key ideas and stories I thought would resonate.

I worked to distill my experience down to a compelling narrative while keeping the time constraints in mind. Making each word and phrase count was important.

I rehearsed the talk numerous times, getting feedback from the TEDx coach provided. Tweaking parts that didn't flow well and strengthening my delivery helped build confidence.

The rigorous preparation process required by TEDx leading up to such an opportunity helped ensure I could do justice to an impact-focused chat on a prestigious global stage. I'm thankful for the learning experience.


Would you like to add anything or thank anyone?


This has been a wonderful conversation and I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to share more about my experiences and passions.


Where can our readers follow more of your work?



ABOUT NIGHAT


Nighat Shah is an impact investor, philanthropist, and founder of Adur Productions. She is known for producing the award-winning short film "This Bank of the River," which has received critical acclaim for its stark portrayal of suicide and mental health.

Nighat's upcoming social justice narrative "Gunjal" (aka "Entangled") is a powerful story that sheds light on child labor. As a producer, she has worked tirelessly to bring this important film to worldwide audiences.

Through her humanitarian projects, Nighat has focused on pressing social issues, including mental health, breast cancer, youth skill development, and women's financial empowerment.

Nighat and her husband have subsidized education and healthcare projects in Pakistan, providing high-tech equipment to hospitals and schools and financing the building of a student hostel. She established "Chitral EXE," a digital marketing and e-commerce instruction program for students, teaching them to leverage technology for social good. The program was a great success, providing valuable skills and opportunities for students in the region.

In addition to her film and philanthropic work, Nighat holds an M.S. in Business and Finance from the University of Memphis.



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