By Usman Ghafoor
It wasn’t John Abraham of Bollywood. Quite interestingly, Shaan became the first mainstream film actor in the subcontinent to strip before the camera — remember the detention sequences in Khuda Kay Liye? New York’s John and the upcoming Jail’s Neil Nitin Mukesh in nude shots have all followed much later.
Bait him with that and Shaan near blushes. “Hey, it wasn’t me,” he chortles. “It was Mansoor Khan. By the way, I don’t carry my characters home.”
He doesn’t. For someone who jumps from set to set and juggles a slew of films, it wouldn’t be humanly possible.
The stripping and juggling bits aside, Shaan is undoubtedly the glamour world’s biggest star: a brand, to put it like it is. Everything he attaches himself to, becomes Big with a capital B whether it’s a TV commercial, a music video or a film. His brooding good looks give him that extra edge. And to think that Shaan alone has shown the star power to survive the worst of films and times in Lollywood.
On a personal level too, there was a time in the early 1990s, when he became disenchanted with the industry, his interests dwindled and he started (allegedly) doing drugs, which led him to the US. Though his passion for cinema — something he had inherited from his late father, Riaz Shahid — wasn’t to go away. Shaan got into a film school before returning home a few years later, a more confident person and actor.
He says he “didn’t have to unlearn” what he had learnt at the film school, in order to fit back into Lollywood. “But yes, I had to put my education on hold, because it wasn’t required here.”
Much of his banter is strictly close-to-the-bone. But it is intelligent humour. A smart talker, Shaan’s analogies can be too spontaneous and shocking for a first-time listener. When asked how he ensures quality when working on 15 films together, he retorts, “Doesn’t a doctor attend 15 patients in a day and still give each one of them their due time and attention?”
Today, Shaan is on the verge of reinventing himself. He isn’t ready to squander his talent and time in run-of-the-mill stuff. He now wants to “carve out a fresh place for my film industry” so we can “beat competition from Bollywood”. And, he has already started working towards it by announcing as many as four films — for which he is hiring “the best of fashion, film and music”.
“This is my vision,” he declares. Over to Shaan…
Instep: Tell us about your latest projects which are the talk of the town already.
Shaan: I’m working on four projects right now. One of them is called Chup and it’s been scripted by Mashal Peerzada who is a film graduate from the US, and the basic storyline is mine. I’m basically producing, directing, acting and writing for all these projects.
See, I’ve a vision for our film industry, which is that it should break free of its shackles. My films will be an hour-and-half long which has never been tried in Pakistan. I believe three hours is a limitation we’ve unnecessarily imposed on our cinema. We don’t have the finances to do justice to 10 minutes of film footage, let alone three hours.
Instep: What about the casting and other areas?
Shaan: I’ve signed up Juggun Kazim for now. I’m also looking at people who aren’t from the film industry but can be perfectly carved and fitted into that world. For instance, I am talking to Natasha and Vinnie. These are great looking women who have a lot of acting potential too, and I think they deserve more from life. You see them on TV or on the ramp, so what’s stopping them from getting into films?
Instep: Perhaps it’s Lollywood filmmakers’ own inhibitions, because they fear models will come with a certain starry baggage?
Shaan: That’s not true at all. The point is, who are the film makers you are talking about. People like Rasheed Dogar?
Unfortunately, in Pakistan, fashion, films and music — despite being related fields — are not supporting each other in any way. Whereas in Hollywood for example, fashion, film and music all have to collaborate and bring out a product that suits all of them.
Hence, I am considering fashion models. For music, I am trying to get hold of people like Zeb and Haniya, Mekaal, Gumby and Omran Shafique. So, you can say, these films will not have ‘filmi’ music. (smiles)
Instep: In a global recession when most new, aspiring filmmakers can’t muster the guts to start their projects, how come you planned four films in a row?
Shaan: The thing is, if you want to be at the pinnacle of this art, film can afford you that place. People like Asim Reza, Saqib Malik, Jami and Ahsan Rahim will one day wake up and realise they have to do more than just make commercials and videos. They have to stop calling a commercial a film. They have to make a film to call it a film. And they have the potential, finances, vision and equipment to do so. But they aren’t attempting film. I don’t know why. Perhaps they don’t want to come out of their comfort zones.
Instep: What do you have to say about people like Mehreen Jabbar?
Shaan: Mehreen is an excellent film maker. She can do wonders, provided she has a good script. Do you think Sanjay Leela Bhansali is less educated than her? They are on the same level as far as I am concerned, but where he’s making Devdas she’s content with Ramchand Pakistani. My point is that you shouldn’t restrict yourself to a genre. You must get into romantic, commercial or semi-commercial subjects. People like her only need to take the initiative. The finances are there.
Instep: You must be the first person who claims they have the finances…
Shaan: Yes, they are all very well off, mashallah. Saqib and Ahsan and Asim have made enough money. (Talking about Saqib here) If you can buy four cameras, costing two crore rupees each, you can always invest half the amount into a film. Then you have floors, your own production house, your own lights, etc. You’re not one of those people who came to Karachi with the dream of making it big. You also have an understanding with the Bangkok labs where you get the processing for your TVCs and videos done. They can give you subsidies. If you can ask me to charge you less for ‘Khamaj’, you always can ask others too.
Instep: So you did ‘Khamaj’ for lesser remuneration?
Shaan: (grins) I did it for free. But that’s ok, because it was for a cause – to support a new, aspiring film maker who has something creative to offer but who can’t afford my market price. I saw Saqib’s passion.
Instep: Are you for self financing?
Shaan: Why not? Why shouldn’t I invest my money in my vision? If I can spend a mind-boggling amount on a car, can’t I spend a penny on my brainchild? Ok, if you’re short on finances, sell one camera and make a film. Worse comes to worst, you won’t recover your money? But you will have achieved a lot else.
Instep: You directed music videos for a leading telecom company. What prompted the idea of doing patriotic songs?
Shaan: Actually, I’ve an advertising company called Fifth Element wherein we make videos and commercials. We don’t just do patriotic songs. It depends on the product. For a washing soap you wouldn’t make ‘Yeh Watan Tumhara Hai’.
Instep: As an actor, are you looking forward to breaking fresh grounds in your home productions?
Shaan: Only the script can break fresh grounds for you. If you don’t give me room, I cannot play. In KKL, when Shoaib saheb narrated the character of Mansoor to me, he told me he had two or three different people in mind and I could choose whichever I liked. I said ok.
Instep: You’ve said that an actor is a blank canvas and that it’s up to the director to paint him in whatever colours he likes. By likening yourself to a “blank canvas”, aren’t you taking the credit away from the actor?
Shaan: The canvas I talked about is the canvas of the character I am to play. This calls for your complete involvement.
Instep: How do you manage “complete involvement” jumping between sets?
Shaan: Just as a swimmer develops stamina so that he can stay underwater for a certain measure of time.
Instep: So does it become easier over time?
Shaan: Stangely, it also becomes difficult with time. As you jump from film to film, emoting begins to happen naturally to you; but you become unnatural in life. Your timing for laughter or crying goes wrong.
Instep: You were offered the title role in Aamir Khan’s Ghajini, but you turned it down.
Shaan: Well, I didn’t like the fact that they offered the villain’s part to a Pakistani actor when they could’ve gotten 10,000 actors in India to play the role. I put this question to Aamir Khan also. But all he could say was that he had seen my work and liked it and that Ghajini was a great role, blah blah blah.
Instep: You’ve had other offers from Bollywood by people like David Dhawan. They weren’t all negative roles, were they?
Shaan: They weren’t, but they weren’t as big as one would want them to. Like, I was offered the role of Abhishek Bachchan’s uncle (later played by Rishi Kapoor) in Delhi 6.
Instep: Which are the five performances that you are proud of?
Shaan: (starts counting) Khuda Kay Liye… (pauses) Every film I do is for the love of cinema, whether it’s creating a Gujjar or an icon from Mobilink or KKL.
Instep: Do you agree with the criticism that your starry status wouldn’t be what it is, if ‘Khamaj’ and KKL hadn’t happened?
Shaan: Obviously, if Yousaf Raza Gilani weren’t the prime minister, he would be a common man.
Instep: How do you explain stepping into the late Sultan Rahi’s shoes instead of creating your own cult?
Shaan: Because that’s where the power lies. Period.
Instep: Why did you opt out of Reema’s film?
Shaan: I had scripted her film as a friendly gesture, and was supposed to act in it too. But when I saw that Reema wasn’t doing justice to it, I quit.
Instep: Isn’t the film based on Paulo Coehlo’s Veronica Decides to Die?
Shaan: It is. I took the gora subject and gave it a Pakistani colour.
Instep: So where did Reema go wrong?
Shaan: You need to know the basics – how to handle the script, the characters, the essence of the film. At the film school in New York, we were taught how to adapt short stories and create screenplays from novels. That’s the toughest job possible, because there may be 500 pages in a novel but you have to narrow it down to 78 pages without losing its essence.
Instep: Why 78 pages?
Shaan: 78 pages means 78 scenes. That is two hours.
Instep: Who are the directors you’re inspired by?
Shaan: Tarantino, James Cameron and David Lean.
Instep: Do you think we can make a Tarantino-esque film?
Shaan: Of course. But we have to have an audience for the cult genre. What’s the difference between Kill Bill and Maula Jat? The gore is there. Uma Therman kills tens of men, all by herself. Isn’t this what Sultan Rahi did, too?
Instep: Do you watch a lot of films?
Shaan: No, I don’t, because then it can influence my ideas.
See, when you think ‘film’, you think in terms of visuals. If you watch a lot of films, you end up getting unoriginal ideas. The last time I watched an Indian film must be in the 90s. If I ever watch a Hollywood or a European movie, it’s to catch up on the trends in cinema — what kind of shots they’re taking, what kind of lighting, etc.
Instep: Lollywood film makers always complain about a lack of good scripts. Why don’t they adapt any of the great Urdu fiction classics? What about you?
Shaan: Right now, I’m not getting into anything serious. I want to retain my films’ entertainment value, to compete with the Indian films showing in our theatres. I want to bring our audiences back to the cinema, on the strength of our own films. I don’t want our people to believe in democracy because Indians come here and preach us democracy and then rule us for another 100 years.
Instep: But it comes across as if Lollywood wallahs are mostly scared of competition from India?
Shaan: Not really. I am only scared of my kids growing up to say, ‘Jai Hanuman ki!’ I don’t want to lose the values my forefathers have passed on to us.
Instep: Do you think our movies are promoting the right kind of values?
Shaan: At least we don’t show our daughters going out on a date.
Instep: What about movies like Wehshi Hasina and Saturday Night?
Shaan: These movies don’t represent our film industry. The people who make such movies aren’t one of us. New York is said to be the epitome of film making schools, but they turn out porn as well; so do you say NY’s is porn film industry?
If somebody is making such films, it’s their thing. If you have a law, stop them. You cannot blame the entire film industry because of a few people’s mistakes.
(Originally published in The News International – September 27, 2009)