Operation21

Pakistan’s ‘new age’ cinema

A breed of new, independent film makers is successfully filling the void left by an obsolete industry known as ‘Lollywood’

By Usman Ghafoor

In many ways, 2013 was an era-defining year for Pakistan’s near-extinct film industry. While Waar and Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (MHSA) together raked in a staggering Rs 260 million at the box office, the kind of collections that hadn’t been seen in a long time — since 1998’s Choodiyan, to be precise — a Zinda Bhaag qualified as our first official entry to the Oscars in decades and Seedlings won many a prestigious award at different international film festivals. All this was enough to galvanise aspiring film makers, especially those who had always wanted to make movies but were forced to work on TV or adverts because they had no takers.

Rabia Butt with director Farouq Mengal on the sets of HIJRATOver two dozen films are currently either in the works or being readied for release. And to think that a lot of these are expensive propositions and have huge amounts of money gone into them — whether it is Waar producer-cum-storywriter Dr Hasan Waqas Rana’s multi-crore Yalghaar and Waar II, Shaan’s home production Mission 5, Zeba Bakhtiar and Azaan Sami’s maiden venture Operation 21 (also called O21), TV director Farouq Mengal’s film debut Hijrat; soap specialist Syed Faisal Bokhari’s Indo-Pak co-production Sultanat (opening on Eidul Fitr), or Bilal Lashari’s modern-day spin on the 70s’ cult Punjabi Maula Jutt.

There are some moderately budgeted projects in the pipeline too, such as fresh-from-the-success-of-MHSA Humayun Saeed’s comic caper Jawani Phir Nai Aani starring Ayesha Khan, Humaima Malick, Saba Qamar, Ahmed Ali Butt, Wasay Chaudhry and Saeed himself; Hamza Ali Abbasi’s farcical Kambakht, with TV’s newest heartthrob Sheheryar Munawwar Siddiqi in the lead alongside Sohai Abro; ad film maker Jamshed Mehmood aka Jami’s Moor; and serial director Anjum Shahzad’s Iman-Ali-Fahad-Mustafa-starrer Mah e Meer, scripted and produced by well renowned poet-writer Sarmad Sehbai.

Anjum Shahzad’s ex-wife Fizza Ali Meerza is also winding up her first big-screen outing, titled Na Maloom Afraad, which is directed by Nabeel Qureshi, the man behind the hilariously funny TV show BNN. As much as its title is intriguing, the film’s rib-tickling trailer is already creating plenty of buzz on popular social media. The toast of the promo is a ‘naughty’ item number performed by TV’s nice girl Mehwish Hayat.

This is decidedly a new film industry that we are witnessing — one which has virtually nothing to do with the good ol’ Lahore-based ‘Lollywood’. It is largely composed of independent film makers who, mercifully, have little or no care for any pre-set formulas for BO success. Most of these are young, educated individuals who are truly global in their outlook and are ready to experiment. The best part is that they are also able to reach out to the right financiers.

This fast emerging industry may not have made it to the stocks yet, it is evident that more and more private companies and individuals are willing to invest in movies now. Needless to say, all this has been made possible because of our films’ recent successes. Big media groups are getting into production or backing passionate film makers. Geo Films, for instance, has a number of projects underway, including an untitled romantic comedy directed by Haissam Hussain (earlier credits include critically acclaimed TV serials Durre Shahwar, Aunn Zara and Dastaan). The film pairs Sheharyar Siddiqi opposite a new girl who is from the UK.

In the past, Geo Films backed an entire series in collaboration with a leading milk product. It also distributed such off-beat films as Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani (released in 2007) and, not to forget, Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol (2011) and Khuda Ke Liye (2007). Up next is Columbia University graduate in Film Afia Nathanial’s Dukhtar which is said to be a poignant tale of a mother who is on the run with her little daughter because she wants to save the child from a forced marriage in a rigid, patriarchal society somewhere in the northwestern Pakistan. The film which boasts a wrenching performance by Samia Mumtaz, releases on August 14 this year.

Hum TV is also making a foray into mainstream cinema with Bin Roye, a family drama that marks the return of Bol- and Humsafar-famed Mahira Khan to silver screen. Propelled by Momina Duraid, the project has Khan sharing credits with Humayun Saeed and a fresh import from TV Armeena Rana. A month-long shooting spell of the film was recently finished in the US. (The film is due out on Eidul Azha.)

Interestingly, even the (former?) masters of the film universe are looking at funds from the ‘outside’. Evernew Studios’s owner Shahzad Gul, who is returning to films after a gap of almost a decade, with Imaan, a period love story between a Rajasthani girl and a Pakistani boy, says he might get the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) to pump money into the project. Gul is hopeful of a contract because the film’s subject has an obvious streak of patriotism.

The ISPR is also said to have sponsored debutant director Umair Fazli’s Saaya e Khuda e Zuljilal and Dr Rana’s next two blockbusters.

All these films are expected to push Pakistani cinema into the international limelight, what with their diverse genres and daring themes that are also socially relevant. If Na Maloom Afraad is a dark comedy based on the lives of ordinary citizens caught in a strike-torn Karachi, Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s Main Manto will be Pakistan’s first true biopic. Jawani Phir Nai Aani is supposedly a ‘buddy’ flick and O21 a stylish spy thriller. Yasir M Jaswal’s Jalaibee introduces elements of animation and has been shot on ARRI Alexa HD camera which was used in Hollywood films like Skyfall and Gravity, whereas Ali Zafar and Ahsan Rahim’s joint production is supposed to be a coming-of-age love story.

Shoaib Mansoor nearly crossed over to India when he was invited to discuss a biggie with Eros International. But the director who likes to work at his own pace and on his own terms has decided to start a movie at the local level for now. If sources are to be believed, his next will feature pop artist and the lead vocalist of Symt band, Haroon Shahid, who shall also (expectedly) be composing and singing a few melodies. But this isn’t official yet.

Meanwhile, Mansoor’s assistant director from KKL and popular TV actor Adeel Hashmi has begun work on a film script “with friends”. He wouldn’t reveal much on the project, though.

These are indeed interesting times for cinema in Pakistan. The rise of the multiplexes, which was made possible primarily because of Bollywood movies, has created a film audience which is more accepting of unconventional subjects. Case in point: Waar which turned out to be a huge money-grosser even though it had no item songs and its language was chiefly English.

As Bilal Lashari continues to lap up awards and accolades for his record-smashing debut, the 33-year-old New York University grad is twice as charged about his next film that he promises will find a wider market around the globe. He is already eyeing a “1000-screen” (his own words) release for the film.

Lashari plans to send his lead cast (being kept confidential) abroad for an intensive course in martial arts. The man responsible for bringing the high-end RED Epic movie camera to Pakistan shall also be sourcing technicians from Hollywood. (Recently, Azaan Sami Khan also got a couple of small-time actors from Hollywood to work on O21.)

Given this scenario, Lollywood has been clearly edged out. Forget the risqué ‘Gujjar’ movies that the Multan Road studios continue to churn out, even a Syed Noor — once dubbed the ‘Showman’ — can’t seem to grasp the sensibility of today’s cinema. Though he is still the best among the old guard, his deep conditioning in melodrama and an eternal obsession about casting Saima where she doesn’t fit have only led him to make unwise career moves, especially post-Majajan. And the trend is likely to continue into Bhai Wanted and Teri Meri Love Story, both starring his lady love.

Sangeeta, another veteran, has long hung up her boots as a film maker — that is, if you discount her recent filling in for ‘dropout’ director Adeel P.K. on Ishq Positive. She is working mostly as an actor on the small screen these days. And the kind of duds that her later generation Shehzad Rafiq and Ghafur Butt have delivered recently in the strictly old-school Ishq Khuda (2013) and the misadventure The System (2014) respectively, it is obvious that Lollywood shall have to do a lot more if it means to catch up.

If there is one prominent film person who can act as a bridge between Lollywood and the (shall we say) ‘new’ cinema of Pakistan, it has to be Shaan (rechristened Shaan Shahid). Not only is Shaan happy working with indie directors, most of who may be absolute film-firsts but they have given him his career’s highest points (Khuda Ke Liye and Waar), he is still also considered the most saleable star back in Lollywood. And Shaan is every bit conscious of his status and appeal among the masses as well as the ‘classes’. His future projects are mostly films that combine the best of talents from both the worlds.

Before he begins filming his much-talked-about remake of the 1982’s Hindi classic Arth in December this year, with veteran Lollywood scriptwriter Pervez Kaleem at the helm, Shaan will already have moved on to a very “special” project which is inspired by the 20th century Turkish novel ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ and developed by none other than the popular Urdu novelist turned playwright Umera Ahmad.

According to reports, Shaan and his co-producer Sajjad Gul (of Evernew Concepts) were keen on having Umera on board, even though the writer has never scripted a film before. Like his younger brother Shahzad, Sajjad Gul has also been away from films for a long time — his last release was No Paisa No Problem, a washout, in ’99. His company has been producing drama serials for television all this while.

In the final analysis, things are looking up for what ought to be a new film industry of Pakistan. And this industry is likely to last, for the very fact that it rests on a fresh crop of educated and dynamic film makers who know how to keep up with the Joneses. If only the box office remains kind enough, there is no stopping them.

Originally published in The News On Sunday — July 27, 2014

Click here to go to the article on THE NEWS’s official website

 

 

A Journalist by admission, a Critic by default.

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