Star Wars Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy Symbolises A Litany of Firsts For Women

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (L) on the set of Ms Marvel, directing actor Mehwish Hayat (R). Credit: Disney/Lucasfilm
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (L) on the set of Ms Marvel, directing actor Mehwish Hayat (R). Credit: Disney/Lucasfilm
  • by Zofeen Ebrahim (karachi)
  • Inter Press Service

But there is another reason for the excitement for many Pakistani Star Wars movie buffs like her. Among the three top-notch directors that Kennedy said her company would be helming the three films is Pakistan’s Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

“This is beyond phenomenal,” said an excited Zia, associate director at the Karachi-based Legal Aid Society, who, by her own unabashed admission, is a life-long Star Wars fan, watching the films since she was four.

Now a mother of three, she religiously watches the original three every year, coercing her 8-year-old to watch with her. “I never imagined that someone from Pakistan would ever get the chance to direct a film from this iconic series,” she added.

What is even more exciting for the lawyer is that she had not even in her wildest of dreams imagined she would actually know someone who would be directing them. “Something so iconic seemed so far away, untouchable and amazing; it’s unbelievable that it seems so much closer now!” She and Chinoy have collaborated for a long time on an animated series on women’s right to property.

The Disney-owned studio may have selected “the best and most passionate filmmakers” in the three directors, including Dave Filoni and James Mangold, but with Chinoy overseeing the final new movie, there will be many firsts.

“She is the only Pakistani, the only South Asian, the only woman, and also the only woman of colour to be helming a Star Wars movie,” said Omair Alavi, a showbiz critic, and a huge Star Wars fan, excited by the news of the three films. Although for him, “the fabulous episodes of The Mandalorian” on the TV screen kept him well appeased during this interim period.

This year’s USC Annenberg (it examines specific demographics  -- gender, race/ethnicity of directors across the 100 top domestic fictional films in North America) study, titled Inclusion in the Director’s Chair, looked at the gender, race and ethnicity of directors across 1600 top films from 2007 to 2022, found a mere 5.6 percent were women, and the ratio of men to women directors across 16 years 11 to 1. In 2022, it was 9 percent — down from 12.7 percent in 2021.

“Hollywood’s image of a woman director is white,” said the study and pointed out that the “think director, think male” phenomenon disregarding the “competence and experience of women and people of color” should be done away with. In addition, instituting checks in the evaluation process of potential directors was also critical.

In a way hiring Chinoy may open the doors for the unrepresented.

She is also the only among the trio to have won two Oscars (for her documentaries denouncing violence against women). In addition, Chinoy has seven Emmys under her belt, aside from being honoured Hilal-i-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s second-highest civilian award.

“So so proud of you, my friend. May the force be with you!” global actor Priyanka Chopra congratulated Chinoy on her Instagram Stories.

Although she is a seasoned documentary filmmaker, having directed and produced the first ever Pakistani 3D computer-animated adventure film Teen Bahadur in 2015 and directing two episodes of the 2022 TV series Ms Marvel, this will be Chinoy’s first stint in Hollywood. Will she be able to handle the big project?

“Sharmeen has a knack of doing things that other people only dream of,” said her former employee, Hussain Qaizar Yunus, a film editor, who, although awestruck, was “unsurprised” to learn of Chinoy’s being selected to direct the Hollywood movie.

And with the last few films not very well received, he said, “A fresh perspective from someone like Sharmeen is exactly what the franchise needs right now.”

Nevertheless, she was an “unusual choice” to be directing a Star Wars film. But her documentary background could work to her advantage, he said. “Her experience of telling real stories of real people would perhaps ground the story with a sense of realism to what is otherwise an epic space opera,” he added and hoped Chinoy would bring South Asian representation to Star Wars, both in front of and behind the camera, “the same way that she did with Ms Marvel”.

Chatting with IPS over WhatsApp, Chinoy said: “As a filmmaker who has championed heroes throughout her career, I think that Star Wars fits in with that mission of a hero's journey of overcoming against all odds.”

“The story I will be bringing into the world is about the rebuilding of the new Jedi Order, the new Jedi academy,” said the newly appointed director, who seems to be a Star Wars fan, having named her dog Chewbacca (after the fictional character in the Star Wars). Chinoy will also be co-writing the film with Damon Lindelof. Set 15 years after the end of the last movie (2019), British actor Daisy Ridley will return to her role of Rey, the heroine of the last trilogy, as she fights to revive the Jedi order.

“She’ll be able to pull it off; she knows her job!” said Alvi confidently.

Kennedy also revealed that these films will take place across vast timelines from the very early days of the Jedi to a future beyond Rise of Skywalker. “Hopefully, this new series will attract both the older and the newer generation; my generation, who watched it as kids, can watch it with their kids or grandparents can take their grandchildren; it will be worth the wait,” anticipated journalist Muna Khan, who watched the first film as a kid back in the late 70s and the memory of which is “seared in my mind”. These films are not just for folks who watched it then; they're “timeless, and each new instalment adds to the timelessness” she pointed out. The first of the three films are slated for release in 2025.

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