“I’ve never had a family member be at a position of power and influence who I could call and ask for help.”

My career has been an interesting journey, navigating through Pakistan, where “who you know” is more important than most places you know.

I opened a case study talk last week in Boston, on Josh جوش with this intro. Wanted to share it:

Once upon a time, there was a good looking and rich young boy, Bashir, who wanted to be an actor. He ran away from home to Bombay when he was 16. After struggling for years, he returned distraught, and unsuccessful to his family and to comfort. He unwillingly agreed to marry his second cousin, who he joked was ruining his gene pool by her short height and round features. The 1947 heart breaking partition happened. Bashir and his family followed the hoards and crossed the border. They moved to Karachi and became the outsider “muhajirs” or the “newcomer immigrants”. They had lost their wealth during the riots and bloodshed. The family wasn’t able to recover their wealth and riches and perhaps even their peace of mind and happiness. He became a mechanic in Karachi, a skillful one at that. He used his “actorly” charms to float through life. He had nine kids, 6 daughters and 3 sons. The middle son was an amazing artist, he could sketch the world in minutes. But his parents wanted him to become a scientist because they wanted to rebuild their lost empire. No one had time to waste in the arts!

Bashir, almost out of the bitterness that is called poverty and despite seeing how he had to crush his dreams, didn’t recognize his very own son’s talents. His son, Muhammad decided to major in something he was just averagely good at. He chose Chemistry, Even then, studying was hard, as household duties had to be performed.

Bashir scolded Muhammad one fine morning when he was heading to his final exam for his Masters, “We are out of flour, go get a sack of flour before you head to the exam hall!!!” Muhammad abided. He could never say no, to his father or to his futile and almost demonly violent and spoilt older brother. And so, with a heart full of passion but lacking courage, Muhammad also became a man of crushed dreams.

Muhammad got lucky and married a supremely successful physicist, a woman who was a force of nature, who learned to carve her fate. They had three beautiful daughters. But alas…their youngest also had the same stubborn gene of being an artist. The generations of this part Mughal, part Rajput gene pool family, just couldn’t get out of it. She was finally allowed to follow her dreams, not by Muhammad or Bashir, but by herself.

By the smell of broken dreams and broken hearts. By the need to express. She fought and fought and found her way to the screen. But she couldn’t have done it without her grandfather and father’s bugs and without her mother’s zest for life and her resilience. She boarded a plane, alone, from Islamabad straight to Los Angeles, a month after her 17th birthday, to become an engineer at a certified nerd institute of technology. But fate and her will had other plans in store for her. She abided by the safety asian gene. Got her engineering degree but then jumped straight into film. You probably got it already. That little girl was me.

I sat by my grandfather’s grave in Karachi this past August and silently exchanged these words with him. I felt a tingle as I placed my hand on his cold tombstone.

Muhammad Bashir was my grandfather, he was a mechanic. Muhammad Bilal is my father, he is a Chemist. Parveen Bilal is my mother, she is a Physicist. Her father, my maternal grandfather, was a post office master. I’m the lucky one who got to finally break through.

Or perhaps, I’m the stubborn one who stood up to them and just fought through. It’s all perception. Choose what to you may want to believe.