Love will tear us apart

By Usman Ghafoor

Cross-border narratives have always made for popular cinema. Whether it is pre-unification East and West Germany, “akhand Bharat” split into two countries, East Pakistan breaking away to form an independent state, these stories often romanticise the past. But mostly, they dole out generic stereotypes: the aggressor-versus-victim rhetoric, extreme jingoism, exoticising minorities, even though the subtext of the film reiterates that borders are the cause of human tragedy.

The cinema of the subcontinent is no different. Both India and Pakistan are guilty of producing war films, the (more contemporary) terrorist/agent genre, and period pieces that only served to demonise the other. Plain, simple love stories involving an Indian and a Pakistani have been few and far between — Bollywood offered Henna (1991), Veer Zara (2004) and Total Siyapa (2013), while Lollywood produced Tere Pyar Mein (1999), Lakhon Mein Ek (1967) and Kartar Singh (1959). Last month, Bachaana, a new Pakistani film served audiences a new love story with a twist.

Lahore-based filmmaker Nasir Khan’s debut feature film is the story of Aalia, a girl from Aligarh who is framed by her husband, a drug pusher, and how a Pakistani taxi driver, Waqqas aka Vicky, saves her life. Set in Mauritius, the film is more a thriller than a romance, with its chase sequences and dreaded villain. Sanam Saeed, known for her performance in the popular Pakistani TV serial Zindagi Gulzar Hai, plays Aalia with aplomb. “She’s a modern girl and the language they speak (in Aligarh) is very similar to ours. And, their talaffuz (pronunciation) is spot-on. So it didn’t feel any ‘different’ playing her. If it was a south Indian or Maharashtrian character, I might’ve had to work harder on it,” she says. Mohib Mirza, an award-winning TV and film actor, plays Waqqas.

Khan, a McGill alum, formerly directed telefilms and a sitcom for Hum TV, before he rose to prominence with his documentary, Made In Pakistan (2009), which toured the festival circuit. “I have always been inclined towards the silver screen but it requires the kind of funds I didn’t have. I have been saving for years to make my first film,” he says.

The film has been received well in Pakistan but Khan is determined to see the film release in India as well. Khan and his co-producer Rizwan Saeed, together with Eveready Pictures, wanted a simultaneous release for Bachaana in Pakistan and India but the sub distributors in Mumbai feared backlash from right groups. “They wanted to be sure if the political climate was favourable. Indian media had started comparing Bachaana with Bajrangi Bhaijaan. That held them back,” says Khan, who had the option to release the film in other parts of India but he was not interested. “If your film isn’t released in Mumbai, then your film doesn’t exist for India; it won’t get noticed, and no broadcast channel would want to give it air time,” he says.

Originally published in The Indian Express on March 19, 2016

Click here to go to the article on The Indian Express’s official website



A hit that’s somewhat amiss

By Usman Ghafoor

Box office loves ‘four-quadrant’ movies — those that interest a range of audience demographics, men and women, under and above 25. A coming-of-age story, packaged with a great-looking cast of characters, a fair dose of glamour, and chartbusting tracks that include an extended but well-choreographed wedding number, is, then, pre-qualified to do well at the ticket windows. Ad film maker and music video director Asim Reza’s cinematic debut Ho Mann Jahaan looked one such feel-good, family affair, right from the day its first teaser came out.

But while you cannot question its appeal, especially among the Pakistani youth, the film falls short on a number of accounts which is a worrying fact indeed.

To begin with, the plot is not gripping enough, and you are starved for that one big hook, that climactic high point which would never happen. The pace of the film is inconsistent — very slow at places.

The intermission is, well, just a loo break; it doesn’t give you a lot to anticipate. The ending, too, follows no proper resolution of a conflict, perhaps because there’s no real conflict, in the first place.

Arhaan (Shehryar Siddiqui), Maneeza aka “Muni” (Mahira Khan) and Nadir (Adeel Hussain) are quite a trio in what is described as “the best business college” around. They share a passion for music and also famously perform at university events. (That their pop band is never named might be forgivable at this point.)

Ho Mann Jahaan 3
Mahira Khan (R) and Adeel Hussain, in a still from Ho Mann Jahaan.

Maneeza and Nadir are romantically inclined, though they have never really considered it, not until the college is over. Muni accepts his proposal in the first given instance, and the two are set for marriage, despite Nadir’s mother (Bushra Ansari) expressing a conventional concern about her bahu-to-be pursuing a career in music.

Meanwhile, Nadir has given up on the band to join the family business, on the insistence of his parents who didn’t see music as a wise career choice. Likewise for Arhaan, the lesser privileged of the three friends, albeit for different reasons — he must seek job security, his middle-class father (played by Shehryar’s real-life daddy Munawwar Siddiqui) tells him.

Muni has had better luck with her artist mother (Nimra Bucha). Though, her father “Max” (Jamal Shah), it is revealed, was himself a singer but he left music because “moseeqi, painting mana hain mazhab mein!”

So far so good.

The film strikes an important note that every youngster entering the practical world can relate to: Should you follow your heart in choosing a career path? Sadly, this core issue is dealt with rather too simplistically. The message gets diluted in a great deal of fluff — banal dialogues, a dozen star cameos, an extra love angle between Arhaan and an elderly and lonely Sabina (Sonya Jehan) thrown in, all culminating in a fairytale conclusion.

Not that we expected Asim Reza to push boundaries or necessarily set a benchmark in his very first feature film, but this one is pure candyfloss. Even his telefilm Be Hadd (2014) was far grittier.

Reza’s narrative lacks depth and intensity. Besides, several subplots that are introduced are left midstream. For instance, it is not successfully established as to why Maneeza’s parents went separate ways. At one point in the film, Nadir encounters Arhaan, asking him to let Muni out of the band, and the two come to blows even before you’ve known it. The buildup to their fight is conveniently missed and the whole sequence appears as funny as the way it has been choreographed. Action, it seems, isn’t Reza’s strong point.

The setting of classroom also had a lot of potential for humour, which is not fully tapped.

Ho Mann Jahaan 2
‘Shakar wandaan’ is a rage already.

Where Reza scores, however, is in the music department, the montages, and certain long-distance and aerial shots (he is perhaps the only big-screen director in the country so far to have used drone camera!). Ho Mann Jahaan boasts a superlative OST featuring a stellar lineup — Atif Aslam, Zeb Bangash, Asrar, Mai Dhai Band, Zoheb Hasan and Tina Sani. The songs are a delight to watch on screen as much as they are pleasing on the ears. ‘Shakar wandaan’ is a rage already. The reprisal of Nazia-Zoheb’s cult ‘Dosti’ is pure joy. Every time the movie dips, the songs lift it up.

Of course, the contribution of the actors cannot be overlooked. As much as Ho Mann Jahaan leverages Mahira’s star power, the film actually permits more shades to Shehryar’s Arhaan than to anyone else. (This may be because Shehryar is the co-producer of the film!). When the film opens, he comes across as a bit of a brat, the prankster in the college. But soon you meet the sensitive soul in him, the silent sufferer who is duty-bound by friendship not to express his feelings for Maneeza. You see him trying to hold back tears, immersing himself in music, binge-smoking and ruminating on life in the backstreets of the city, on lonely nights. And, Siddiqui junior delivers every time. He has clearly worked on his diction (that is, if you compare it with his earlier performances on TV).

Adeel Hussain brings his cool, composed Nadir to life like a complete pro. And, Mahira Khan pulls off the various avatars of Maneeza — the bubbly girl-next-door; the swaying, swinging pop artist; the ravishing bride who also shakes some sexy leg to the film’s best songs — with supreme confidence, and predictably so.

From among the supporting cast, Sonya Jehan leaves some impact. Jamal Shah, Nimra Bucha, Munawwar Siddiqui and Arshad Mehmood also acquit themselves fairly well. Unfortunately, Bushra Ansari is a letdown. The very versatile, seasoned actor seems to have it got it wrong this time around: She tries hard to add a nuance or two to her one-dimensional character of a doting mother, and the effort shows.

And, then, there is the much-tomtommed ‘special’ appearance by Fawad Khan which turns out to be a huge bore. In comparison, model Mira Ansari (Bushra Ansari’s younger daughter) who enters the frame with Fawad and stays on for only a fraction of a minute, walks away with some credit.

Sangeeta’s cameo is sure to perk you up (though, the same can’t be said for the audiences in UAE, UK and the US who might not be familiar with this senior film actor-director). The lady looks radiant as a Punjabi aunty. Her heartwarming screen presence is best matched by singer-composer Zeb Bangash’s playful coquette.

You also spot a graceful Uzma Gillani staring down from a portrait from yesteryears (she gets a mention in the opening titles, too). Then there is Pyare Afzal Hamza Ali Abbasi as the grey-haired, reflective fakir that should shock the daylight out of his fans, and Syra Shehroze’s endearing rebound-girl act in the film’s final few moments.

Eventually, there is no taking away from the film’s fresh and youthful appeal, and especially its music that is already ruling the charts — all of which make it a crowd-pleasing fare. If only there was more meat to its plot and the characters were less sketchy!

Originally published in Instep Today, The News International — January 9, 2016

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

Einstein comes to life

By Usman Ghafoor

Albert Einstein has just turned 70. That’s the time in his life when the play, titled Einstein, opens. It’s a time when one of the world’s most celebrated physicists who claims to be a “pacifist” and a “Zionist” is compelled to look back on days past.

Formally, the play is a long, extended monologue, in the tradition of a one-man show, with the main protagonist — incidentally, the only character who appears before the audience; the rest are only mentioned in fleeting references or, as in the case of Elsa, Einstein’s second (and best loved) wife, or “Charlie” Chaplin (his friend), with a certain wistfulness — reflecting on his life’s experiences that have impacted him in some way or the other.

But the play is clearly more than just a first-person account; it’s a little journey into the heart of an essentially simple man where you meet his loves, his peeves, his pet hates. It’s here that you get to see the compassionate side of a scientist who is gnawed by guilt because the very theories that earned him the title of a ‘genius’ are now being used to fight wars on humanity. “My creation is about energy, not bombs,” he says, at one point in the play. On another occasion, he asks, “Killing is not a murder because it occurs in war?”

This remorse deepens, as the play moves on, amid references and cross-references to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Germany, Einstein’s homeland that he gave up many years ago, the Nobel Prize that means nothing much to him, and his celebrity status in America that he has no care for.

You have to hand it to Canadian born, Jewish playwright Gabriel Emanuel for permitting the cult of Einstein a degree of everyday humour and vitality that saves this 20th-century script from becoming boggy at any given instance. Be it the genius’s deliberation that “socks are an unnecessary complication,” or his rationale behind not travelling first-class — “it doesn’t arrive any sooner!” — or smoking (“The doctor forbade me to buy tobacco but not to steal it,” he quips).

When he recalls how he was expelled from school because he would ask too many questions — “or I looked like I was ready to ask questions”; his apathy to rote learning (“I hate to memorise!”); and that his teachers were like “sergeants,” the audience is amused because it knows that Einstein had troubles with his school’s teaching methods but he was exceptionally good in mathematics and physics.

Meanwhile, he is constantly reassuring himself: “I believe I am sane,” he says, at the outset. Later, “It is never a mistake to question.”

The bathos in his musings is unmistakable. Consider his apology to Newton for replacing his belief and for proposing that gravity is a field and not a force. And his final declaration, “Time is relative to the motion of the observer… One man’s now is another man’s then.”

When the play opens, Einstein is getting ready to receive an award from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His apartment room is stacked with books, a violin case, and a blackboard that is littered with scientific equations. Barefoot and anxious, he shuffles through the clutter, sporting suspenders, ruminating on his life between puffs on a cigar and the dressing-up drill.

Portraying the Theory of Relativity’s highly feted creator whose multi-dimensional person is but lesser known, wouldn’t be an easy task for an actor. India’s Naseeruddin Shah brings the house down, literally, for not just showing a curious resemblance to Einstein but, more importantly, for slipping under his skin to a tee.

Like most solo shows, Einstein breaks the fourth wall that would conventionally separate the audience from the performer on stage. While Shah’s character addresses the audiences directly, he also pauses to interact with them in between. This makes for a delightful theatre.

The play is said to have been performed for the first time in 1985, in Toronto, and has since been translated into a number of languages and continues to be a favourite with theatre groups all over the world.

Perhaps, the only weak part of the play is that it lacks any major conflict which it would pivot on.

‘Einstein’ was performed and directed by Naseeruddin Shah, under the banner of his company Motley Productions, on the final two days of the recently concluded Faiz International Festival 2015, at Alhamra, The Mall, Lahore

Originally published in The News On Sunday on November 29, 2015

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

“We are the only Indian channel to be airing Pakistani drama” — Shailja Kejriwal

By Usman Ghafoor

Shailja Kejriwal claims to have watched “almost 8,000 hours” of assorted TV plays that have ever come out of Pakistan. She would stream them online or get their DVDs from Dubai but never missed a single drama. She quickens to mention the time period during which she watched them: “between 2005 and 2014!”

But this little record of sorts isn’t why the Mumbai-based, self-professed Pak TV fanatic, with a Masters degree in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, is recognised in media circles on both sides of the border today; it’s for her vision and efforts to give the curious Indian telly viewers a taste of neighbourly culture and art in Zee TV’s landmark Zindagi channel.

As the Chief Creative Officer, Special Projects, at Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (ZEEL), Kejriwal conceived Zindagi out of her long-standing interest as well as a diverse educational background. For the viewers, routinely fed on daytime soaps, with their long-drawn-out, melodramatic stories about (mostly) scheming women, placed in palatial drawing room settings, the realism of Pakistan TV serials proved to be a breath of fresh air. No wonder, they leapt at Zindagi, and Pakistani actors became their newest heartthrobs.

One year on, as Zindagi continues to be the trailblazer in beaming contemporary Pakistan TV drama to Indian households, Kejriwal has already moved to an even more exclusive territory — joint ventures. Though she wouldn’t spill the beans yet, she hints at the first of these collaborations, a telefilm, titled Lala Begum, which is directed by Mehreen Jabbar and stars Marina Khan in the eponymous role.

Khan is one of Kejriwal’s pet favourites — “from Dhoop Kinare’s times,” she tells The News On Sunday, in an exclusive interview on the phone. Incidentally, their association goes back a decade and half when the two came together for Star Plus’s Tanha, in the year 1999. The serial, which was scripted by Hasina Moin, was soon pulled off air, as tension mounted on the borders at Kargil.

Fortunately for Kejriwal, Zindagi hasn’t had to face such resistance. Not so far, at least. And, she remains sanguine: “These are harmless stories that we are telling; how can these hurt anyone?”

Her confidence stems from her long, successful years in leadership positions at some of India’s top media outlets. One of her earliest job assignments, at Star India, as the network’s senior vice president and programming head, saw Kejriwal introduce Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali and Rajkumar Hirani, all of whom were to become Bollywood’s most celebrated film makers. “We all began our journey together,” she recalls, fondly. “We’ve all come a long way!”

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Zee’s Zindagi TV recently completed its first successful year of airtime. As somebody who conceptualised and oversaw the channel programming, how do you see it moving forward?

Shailja Kejriwal: Well, in the capacity of CCO, Special Projects, at ZEEL, I have recently moved on to my next which is an artistic collaboration with Pakistan. I am not supposed to announce it yet. Meanwhile, there’s a whole new team which is looking after Zindagi channel’s affairs.

Having said that, I believe I grew up on Pakistani drama serials. Initially, we would watch them on videos. In 1999, when I began work as executive producer for Star TV network, I made Tanha with Marina Khan, whom I’ve been a huge fan of. She was invited to India to shoot the soap, along with Behroz Sabzwari and Sajid Hasan.

Unfortunately, Kargil happened and we were asked to take the serial off air. Years later, I happened to watch Zindagi Gulzar Hai, I liked it so much that I contacted its writer Umera Ahmad. I told her I wanted to bring this and other shows to India. I wasn’t sure how the policy makers would react. But my boss Puneet Goenka [CEO and MD, Zee TV network] was quite forthcoming. So, I went to Pakistan in 2013, met Sultana [Siddiqui] aapa in Karachi. I also met Geo’s Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman and Mir Ibrahim, and the chiefs of other media groups. They were pleasantly surprised that we were trying for a TV channel dedicated to Pakistani content.

Ever thought about starting a ‘classics’ segment that would air olden PTV dramas such as Dhoop Kinare and Ankahi?
Of course, I did. I even made a list of the PTV classics I wanted to air on Zindagi. Mera bohat mann tha, and I’m sure the people would love the idea, too. Sadly, the plays weren’t available in good quality prints. As these had been shot on analogue, we tried to restore and digitalise them but could not get the desired results. So we gave up on the idea.

Why the need to re-name certain Pakistani plays? For instance, Dastaan was retitled as Waqt Nai Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam and Akbari Asghari became Aaja Sajna Miliye Juliye.
Well, the current team has a strategy in place about name changes and they would be able to answer this better. I was fine with some changes, where the titles were in verbose Urdu — for instance, Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishaan. But I told tell them to discuss the titles with the drama writers before changing them.

Not all these plays are soaps. Why, then, do you air them five days a week?
See, there’s a thing called ‘binge viewing’; it’s a post cable television and internet phenomenon and is recognised as such all over the world. The understanding is that we’ve become used to daily soaps. People have so much choice at their disposal — internet streaming, 24/7 cable TV, DVDs, cinema etc — they have shorter attention spans; or at least they don’t have the patience to wait for an entire week for the next episode.

A promotional poster of Lala Begum, directed by Mehreen Jabbar.
A promotional poster of Lala Begum, directed by Mehreen Jabbar.

Heading special projects must be your most challenging assignment to date. What, according to you, did it take you to qualify for the job?
Well, I’ve been around for over 15 years now. I was a part of such trendsetting shows as Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki. Earlier, I began with Star Bestsellers where we produced mature telefilms made by some of the most renowned names in Bollywood today — people like Anurag Kashyap, Anurag Basu, Imtiaz Ali and Rajkumar Hirani. They all made their first films for my segment. You can say our journeys began together.

They are all very proud that I started Zindagi TV.

Indian television’s prime-time slot is said to have a very strict censor policy. Do Pakistani shows make for complete family viewing?
Oh, they do. The Indian Broadcasters’ Federation (IBF), which is a federal regulatory authority, has identified ‘Child viewing hours’ from morning till 10:30pm IST. And, Pakistani content is absolutely clean.

Do you agree that Indian TV drama has got stuck in a rut of melodrama whereas your film has become more realistic overtime?
Yes, that’s a correct observation. But there’s a strong socio-psychological reason behind it. Just as Indian TV began to penetrate deeper into the society, the shape of programming changed. Initially, the private channels were available only to those who could afford a dish antenna. This was, largely, the educated, upper middle class. At that time, the pressure of TRPs wasn’t as cut-throat as it is today. So, we could afford to do things the way we wanted to. According to an estimate, in 2000, TV’s penetration was about 20 million homes in India. Earlier, it was even less. Cable and satellite revolutionised things, and today our TV’s penetration is more than 165 million homes.

As you go down, mindsets change. So, TV has started catering to the lowest common denominator. The stories became very basic, built mostly around a stereotypical saas-bahu household.

Besides, I believe that since cinema is very powerful in India, our TV drama producers are hugely influenced by it. In fact, they have not been able to develop their own language, so to say.

Today, the affluent classes in India don’t watch a lot of our soaps; they have lots to choose their content from — internet, cinema, American shows etc.

So, where does Zindagi fit in?
Well, its core audience, to my mind, was the same that watched American shows. To test the waters, we took some of the [Pakistani] plays to 37 small towns, showed them to groups of people, on my laptop etc. We wanted to get the sense of how they would react. To my surprise, the response was very heart-warming.

Eventually, we picked 3,500 hours of content from assorted Pakistani plays that I had watched between 2005 and 2014. Till date, we are the only Indian channel to be airing Pakistani drama.

Originally published in The News On Sunday — August 2, 2015

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

Border Blockbuster

By Usman Ghafoor

Mahira Khan, in a still from Bin Roye.
Mahira Khan, in a still from Bin Roye.

It was pegged as the big Eid clash, with Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees heroine Mahira Khan taking on Salman Khan. Eventually Mahira couldn’t keep her date with India as her Pakistani film Bin Roye wasn’t released, following threats by the Maharashtra NavNirman Sena (MNS). Meanwhile, Salman’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan is writing box-office history, having earned over Rs 100 crore in three days in India. But for Team Bin Roye also, this has been an auspicious Eid-ul-Fitr.

The Pakistani film simultaneously opened in the UAE, UK, US and Canada and till Monday, has grossed $138586 in US/Canada and £165800 in the UK. B4U have released Bin Roye in international markets excluding Pakistan and the Middle-East. Aniket Kawade, Vice-President, B4U, says, “Considering the competition from Bajrangi Bhaijaan, these are great figures. We plan to release Bin Roye in more countries in the coming week.”

Kawade assures of an Indian release too. “We will definitely release the film in India. The fresh date would be announced shortly,” he adds.

In Pakistan, more than the box-office collections, it’s the release that is being celebrated. According to leading film distributor and exhibitor Nadeem Mandviwala, “History is being made, as we speak. Irrespective of the (film’s) box-office result, we should understand that it’s a huge step forward for Pakistani cinema, which is trying to rebuild itself.”

Both Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Bin Roye have recorded huge opening weekend collections in Pakistan. Whereas Bin Roye was billed as a favourite with women and is doing exceedingly well in multiplexes (reportedly, as many as 10-15 shows of Bin Roye are being added each day), Bajrangi Bhaijaan has been able to attract the masses as well as the classes, and is doing equally well in single screens.

Sources at Eveready Pictures in Lahore say that Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s aggregate stands at PKR 40 million (till Monday), compared to Bin Roye’s PKR 23 million. But the difference is also because Bajrangi Bhaijaan opened two days ahead of Bin Roye’s Eid-day release.

For the makers, Bin Roye is likely to emerge the winner in the long run, because of the earnings that are coming in from Dubai, the UK and the US where the film had grand, red-carpet premieres recently.

Humayun Saeed and Mahira Khan.
Humayun Saeed and Mahira Khan.

Broadly speaking, Pakistani cinema aka Lollywood had died its death around 2005, and the process of “rebuilding” took its time but was propelled by the theatrical release of Hindi films in the country, and the government forgoing the entertainment tax. The audience interest was stirred, revenue was generated and state-of-the-art cinemas began to crop up. All this inspired passionate filmmakers to gear up for production.

This ‘new’ film industry borrows profusely from the pool of talent on small screen — actors, directors, and technicians, among others. Bin Roye, too, comes from the house of Momina Duraid, first-time film producer and co-director who is credited with some of Hum TV’s most popular and critically acclaimed shows such as Humsafar and Zindagi Gulzar Hai. That these shows famously crossed over to Zee Zindagi and got their lead actors Mahira Khan and Fawad Khan major roles in Hindi films, is well-known.

Armeena Rana with Humayun Saeed.
Armeena Rana with Humayun Saeed.

Bin Roye — made on a budget of approximately PKR 30-35 million — stars Mahira along with television actor-producer Humayun Saeed (Indian audiences know him from a rather forgettable Mahesh Bhatt film, Jashnn). Providing their onscreen couple a dramatic twist is the character played by Armeena Rana Khan, another film debutant from television. The supporting cast is led by Zeba Bakhtiar (remember RK Films’ Henna?) and Jawed Sheikh, who has just finished work in Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha. A soft, romantic tale, imbued with the emotions of jealousy and distrust, Bin Roye is scripted by Farhat Ishtiaq (of Humsafar fame). Momina is confident of its appeal with the local audience. “Those who enjoy our drama will like Bin Roye. Yeh hamaray mizaj ki film hai (it’s a film that reflects our taste),” she says.

“Somebody in India said to me once, ‘Your drama is closer to our film.’ It’s a huge compliment,” adds Momina.

When quizzed about a clash with Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Momina says, “We are for a level-playing field. Let’s not stop a bigger film in order to push your sales up. We could have postponed Bin Roye but we didn’t, because it is essentially an Eid film. In fact, it opens with an elaborate sequence of chaand raat.”

Mahira says that she has been waiting for the movie to release ever since she read the script. “I felt an instant connection with it,” she says.

Originally published in The Indian Express — July 22, 2015

Click here to go to the article on The Indian Express’s official website

“I took the first step, I jumped over the fire” — Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

By Usman Ghafoor

Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is a bit of a guerilla film maker. When she took up a camera and went to shoot her maiden documentary short, titled Terror’s Children, in the year 2003, she “didn’t have any previous experience in the field” (her own words). She was an investigative journalist back then, having studied Communication and International Policy Studies at Stanford University. Over a decade later, she has just had her big-screen debut with 3 Bahadur, a full-length animated feature. She never trained for cinema nor did she have a clue to 3D animation. But, there she is.

Not only has Chinoy put together a competent production, she has also been able to make a success of it. Reportedly, 3 Bahadur has opened to an overwhelming response at the box office, something that Chinoy confesses to have dreaded the most. “More than the Oscar,” she says, in an exclusive chat with The News on Sunday.

These days, nothing interests Chinoy more than 3 Bahadur, a film she is the creative director of. It’s a position that has entailed working in close coordination with a group of “experts in their fields,” as opposed to what she was used to doing as an independent documentary film maker.

It has also required of her to move out of her comfort zone, after having dealt with gritty social issues, especially those related to women, for which she was awarded a number of coveted national and international honours such as Hilal-e-Imtiaz, Emmy (twice), SAJA (twice), and World Economic Forum’s The Crystal Award. She was also listed by Time among the world’s 100 most influential people in 2012, the same year she clinched the Academy Award for Saving Face, an inspiring tale of two acid attack survivors.

Chinoy says switching gears came naturally to her. Today, SOC Films, her documentary production house, has a big-screen parallel in Waadi Animations that promises more of such features in the future. A sequel to 3 Bahadur is on the cards already.

But her abiding interest in media acting as a social corrective is not to be missed even in the animation film where the protagonists — the kids, named Aamna, Saadi and Kamil — send out a clear message to the underprivileged: luck favours the bold. As a reward for their bravery and honesty, the three are given special powers so that they can fight the evil forces in the fictional Roshan Basti. But they must stay faithful to their native intelligence, they are told, and never misuse the powers.

Of course, it’s a message that is wrapped up in some colourful elements you see on local screen — the dance of jubilation by the Basti people, the haunting clock tower that pokes through the starry night, the hulk-like monster Pateeli who breaks into a hilarious Kathak piece in the middle of the narrative, and so on. It’s a range of characters Chinoy says her young daughters would not have known. “Kids their age have grown up on animation that’s coming out from Europe or America. I wanted to create [for them] our own heroes,” she declares.

Over to Chinoy.

The News On Sunday: A full-length animated feature is an interesting headway in your career as a documentary film maker of hard-hitting social issues. How did you come to it, in the first place? Were you inspired by the success of Burka Avengers?
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy: Well, 3 Bahadur took three years in the making. I actually started working on it when Burka Avengers hadn’t come out. You can say I was inspired by the desire to do something different. I’ve been making documentary films since I was 21 years old. With documentaries, it’s a very niche market. That’s how I came to animation. You know, everybody can sit down and watch animation together. It’s not for the child or the adult only. And, one thing we are lacking immensely in Pakistan is family entertainment.

Then I was looking back at our childhood and what we were inspired by. There were Uncle Sargam and Ainak Wala Jinn on television. Besides, Rafi Peer Theatre had so much stuff. Unfortunately, our children don’t have such an opportunity. They only watch stuff that comes out of Europe or America, or even India; nothing from Pakistan.
This got me wondering who my children’s heroes are. We went out surveying, only to find that they were Power Puff Girls or Ben 10, or Chhota Bean. So, I decided we should create our own cartoon characters.

I wanted to start with the superheroes. We all have some fascination with the superheroes. That’s when the idea of 3 Bahadur was born.

When did you realise you were qualified to take on a ‘specialised’ genre like 3D animation? Or, was it just an adventure for you?
I know nothing — well, I knew nothing — about animation. But then I knew nothing about documentary films when I started. So, what did I do? I closed my eyes and jumped. What did I do with animation? I closed my eyes and jumped.

Yes, it’s been an adventure for me. If somebody asks me today what are the risks I took in my life, I’d say 3 Bahadur is the one project that I took the most risk in my life for. It wasn’t easy to switch gears. Here I was, doing something completely different from what I had done before.

For me, this movie has been the most rewarding, not only in terms of making it but also in taking it out. I have been going into schools, talking to kids, getting the brands involved, trying to create a franchise. We also took out 3 Bahadur colouring books and video games, McDonald’s prepared its ‘Bahadur Meal,’ Gul Ahmad is coming out with a fashion line based on the film heroes and villains. Kids are downloading the game. It’s been trending on Google Play. We have taken the model of Disney and Pixar.

This was also your first time when the power of your work was going to be judged at the box office? Did that make you edgy?
Absolutely. I had never released a film at the box office per se. But I was confident. With a population whose 65 per cent is under the age of 25, it’s a readymade market that is untapped.

Having said that, the success of 3 Bahadur is not just my success; it’s the success of an entire industry. There are a lot of people who would now be willing to venture into animation. I took the first step, I jumped over the fire.

3 Bahadur has a moral. Having achieved recognition and awards as a socially aware film maker, did you feel obliged to make a didactic rather than an out-and-out commercial movie?
Well, I am now contemplating a romantic comedy, based on animation. (Smiles)
Look, with animation, you can say anything. There’s so much that you can explore. The story of 3 Bahadur is set in a make-believe town, the characters all speak Urdu, but it isn’t necessarily somewhere in Pakistan. The town is called Andher Basti, which used to be Roshan Basti. The villain Mangu heads a band of thugs that include Pateeli, Sanaata, Gudka etc. There’s a lot of humour in the film. Besides, Shiraz Uppal has sung two beautiful songs. For the first time in Pakistan, we’ve shown a 10-minute epic battle between the heroes and the thugs. Months of labour went into this sequence alone. And, just when you think the film has ended, it hasn’t really ended.

Why didn’t you release the film internationally?
We plan to play it at some international festivals and then release it in cinemas. I want people other than the South Asians to watch the film also, and I think festivals are the best place for this.

Was it tough putting together a team for the animated feature?
The thing about animation is that it’s a very male field in Pakistan. Men own animation houses and men work in them. Waadi Animations is the only production house that is run by a woman.

My team people all have the advertising background. So, you can say they were self-taught, as far as animation is concerned. But they are so incredibly gifted and they all wanted to be a part of something that was groundbreaking.

I worked with an in-house team of 15-18 people. It’s a very small team, by global standards.

We don’t have any ‘known’ names in animation in Pakistan, as of now. How did you go about head-hunting?
I head-hunted two or three people and they helped me assemble the team. The Sound Design and the Music Score of the film have been done by Dan Golden and John Angier, both Americans. The Sound Mixing was also done in the US. These are specialised areas and no one had ever ventured into these in Pakistan, so we opted for foreign experts.

You weren’t trained to make a 3D animation movie. Did you have to depend a lot on your team members for the final output?
See, animation involves teams of people. There are different units working together — somebody will draw the characters, somebody else will animate the hair and clothing; then there will be somebody to animate their movements and others to colour-correct. Some people will work on texturing, while some on post-production. So, we have an art director, an animation director, a post-production director, while I’m the creative director.

Animated features are traditionally based on storybooks or comics. 3 Bahadur, is an original script. Didn’t you ever think of going back to our own literature for children such as Tilism-e-Hoshruba and Dastaan-e-Ameer Hamza?
There are a lot of books and stories that we at Waadi Animations are looking to adapt for cinema.

‘Waadi’ is quite an interesting name for a production house.
It means ‘valley’. Our logo starts off at a valley; it’s in a cable car which is going up and up till it reaches the top of a hill. So, it signifies a journey to the top.

India has been making animation films for sometime now. Besides, Disney and Fox have set up offices there. Do you intend to collaborate with them for a future project?
For me, it is relatively easier to reach out to these companies because of the work that I do internationally. There will come a time when I see there is a potential for us to work with them.

What is SOC Films’s next project?
I have two feature-length documentaries due out, one of which — Song of Lahore — just premiered at Tribeca. We are looking to release it in cinemas in the US and, later, in Pakistani cinemas.

Do we have an audience for documentaries?
It’ll be a limited audience, but you know one has to start from somewhere.

Originally published in The News On Sunday — June 7, 2015

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

“Film is about story-telling” — Nabeel Qureshi

By Usman Ghafoor

“I love being the underdog! It’s the best way to win. To come from behind and win is a great feeling!” first-time film director Nabeel Qureshi posted on his Facebook timeline earlier this month. His pun on Lollywood superstar Shaan’s much-tomtommed O21 and the Bollywood blockbuster Bang Bang not cutting it at the box office, compared to his invariably-‘perceived’-as-a-small-fish Na Maloom Afraad, is too obvious to ignore.

But you can’t blame this 29-year-old, Karachi-based former producer of the successful TV show Banana News Network (BNN), with a considerable background in theatre at NAPA, for getting a bit cheeky at the expense of the industry stalwarts and pundits all of whom were literally astounded as Qureshi’s modestly budgeted and advertised feature film raced past the other two simultaneously released biggies on the occasion of Eidul Azha, coming out the winner.

Not only did Na Maloom Afraad (NMA) turn out to be THE money grosser of the year but, perhaps more importantly, it proved once and for all that a movie made well ought to do well, with or without any star padding.

Here was a film that displayed a modern sensibility — a lot of dark humour, bold one-liners et al — placing itself well in the current revival of cinema in Pakistan.
Having collected Rs110 million already, over a course of two and a half months, NMA is still playing at (select) theatres across the country, and continues to hold its own whereas scores of blockbusters from across the border have exhausted their run.

An ecstatic Nabeel Qureshi, together with his able producer Fizza Ali Meerza, took the occasion to test the international audiences. In November this year, the duo had an official screening of NMA at the South Asian International Film Festival (SAIFF) in New York where the film is said to have got “great feedback” (Qureshi’s own words).

Back home, team Na Maloom Afraad is still in a celebratory mood. Though, in an exclusive Q&A with The News On Sunday, Qureshi promises “it’s time to move on.”

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Na Maloom Afraad
(L-R): Ali Mohsin, Fahad Mustafa and Jawed Sheikh, in a still from Na Maloom Afraad.

Congratulations on the success of your debut film. Na Maloom Afraad has been declared a sleeper hit. You literally came in from the cold; the media hadn’t the foggiest idea such a movie was being made till its first promo came out on the internet and instantly became viral. Was this silence intended or you are the kind of person who does not believe in making a noise about your projects?

Nabeel Qureshi: Well, I believe your work should be good enough to make the noise for you. Yes, I like to work silently; under cover, you can say.

You had no background in film per se, and you were coming from two technically very different mediums — TV and theatre. How did you hope to do justice to film direction? How well-versed were you (in film technology and language etc) when you went on set?
Not a lot of people have a background in film in Pakistan, because not a lot of films are made here. Even my ADs (assistant directors) were film-firsts. But I was confident, having some experience with TV commercials and the BNN videos. I had also studied Theatre at Napa and directed a play, though never performed for public. In fact, I was thrown out [of Napa] because I developed differences with the faculty. For me, it was more like a cadet college.

Film is about story-telling, and everyone can tell a story. Some people tell stories in a very interesting way, some don’t. Technology you learn as you go along. But, yes, you have to have a certain level of aesthetics and observation.

Do you agree that the lines are blurring between what is made for cinema and what is for TV?
Well, if you talk about foreign shows, yes, they boast high production values, equal to film. Their shooting style is also film-like. The only difference is that they are episodic.

Why was it important for you to script your film? Does a screenwriter make a better director?
In this case, I co-scripted [Na Maloom Afraad] with my producer Fizza. And both of us agreed that if we hired, say, a TV writer, he might not be able to visualise on a cinematic scale. It could then look like a teleplay.

Nabeel Qureshi 3
Nabeel Qureshi talking to his film’s lead actor Fahad Mustafa on the sets of Na Maloom Afraad.

In film, screenplay is the most important thing. And, my own experience tells me that you are the best person to put down what you have in your mind; that is, if you are able to. There’s no rocket science involved. So, we scripted the film mostly following our gut feeling.

Eventually, you know, similarities were drawn between NMA and Bollywood’s bordering-on-dark-comedy Delhi Belly and even Hera Pheri. There were Tarantino-esque moments in your film. Besides, Salman Shahid’s Gogi seemed to be an extension of his character in the Ishqiya series. How do you respond to such criticism?
I am a huge Quentin Tarantino fan, so any kind of comparison is very flattering for me. I believe Tarantino is a master of dark humour; he can make the most brutal scenes look funny.

If you talk about Delhi Belly and Hera Pheri, yes, our characters may have certain similarities but the situations in which they find themselves are very different.
As far as Salman [Shahid] saheb’s character is concerned, honestly, even while scripting it I was very conscious that comparisons could be drawn. That’s why I initially approached Waseem Abbas [for the role] but he declined.

To our pleasant surprise, Salman sahib didn’t think Gogi was similar to his character in Dedh Isqhiya or Ishqiya.

There are certain shots in the movie, especially the ones where one of your leading ladies (Kubra Khan) is shown sashaying on the beach. These clearly stand out and actually look as if they were shot by a separate director of photography. Is that a correct observation?
I am glad the ‘difference’ was noticed, because that was the purpose. Kubra’s shots are more cinematic, you can say, and we consciously treated and graded them differently [from the rest of the film]. The idea was to say that when life changes for you, the colours around you look brighter. But our DoP was the same.

After the hilariously funny BNN, would you say making people laugh came naturally to you?
Well, I directed the show but never wrote its script. So, it wasn’t a conscious decision [on our part] to make a comic film. Though I definitely believe that through comedy you can say a lot of serious things that you would otherwise not be able to. And, our film attempts to make a serious comment.

Which film genre do you believe might not be your cup of tea, if any?
Horror, for sure. It doesn’t appeal to me and I don’t even watch horror movies. But as a film maker, I would obviously like to experiment and grow.

Do you watch a lot of foreign cinema? What were your early influences or role models?
All kinds of cinema. My influences have been a whole lot of directors — Guy Ritchie, Tarantino, Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj… the list goes on. More recently, I was quite touched by Imtiaz Ali’s Sufism.

Tell us about your (brief) stint with the international audience. You didn’t consider releasing your film in the US, though. Why?
Well, we were invited to hold a special screening [of Na Maloom Afraad] for the closing night of the South Asian International Film Festival. We got great feedback from the audience and the media. Currently, we are in talks with international distributors and should be releasing the film abroad soon.

Why didn’t you have a simultaneous release internationally?
Ideally, it should’ve been that way. But, you know, there is practically no market for Pakistani cinema internationally. There are no Pakistani distributors abroad. You have to generate interest among the foreign distributors in the first place. And this will take time.

NMA has been appreciated, among other things, for its impeccable cast of characters. How did you pull off such an unusual casting? Did you initially have a Shaan or a Fawad Khan in mind for the main leads?
No, we were very clear in our heads that we didn’t want any ‘stars’. Our film is based on everyday characters and I don’t think a Shaan or any other star with a very strong image would be able to play them with fidelity.

Why is a casting director’s job not given its due importance in Pakistan?
Here we only have modeling agencies that provide you with portfolios of people that need to be auditioned etc. We don’t have casting agencies. But I believe this must be institutionalised, as is done internationally. Of course, we lag behind majorly.

Finally, have you moved on to your next project? Care to spill the beans?
We are working on a couple of ideas. But, again, my belief is that ‘content’ is the most important thing.

Originally published in The News On Sunday — Dec 28, 2014

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

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 HIJRAT
Director Farouq Mengal (R) with Rabiya Butt (C) and a crew member, on location of Hijrat.

Over 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

“If it wasn’t for Lahore, Bollywood wouldn’t be Bollywood” — Rachel Dwyer

By Usman Ghafoor

British-born Rachel Dwyer is an absolutely unconfused desi when it comes to her taste in films. An ardent viewer of Bollywood, Dwyer has not only followed Indian cinema through history but also — perhaps, more importantly —published a number of research papers and books. Her works, such as the 2002 biography on Yash Chopra, have endeared her to the Indian film fraternity where she is quite a known face now. Her next book, titled Bollywood’s India: Hindi Cinema as a Guide to Modern India, is due out later this year.

A Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London, Dwyer was recently invited to the three-day Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) ’14 where she conducted a few sessions on Bollywood. The one session, ‘The Rise and Fall of Masala Films’, in particular, was a huge ‘hit’ — to use a film term — with the attendees comprising mostly young film enthusiasts and students.

This, Dwyer told The News On Sunday in an exclusive chat, on the sidelines of the LLF ‘14, was only her second visit to Lahore. Excerpts follow:

For the uninitiated, how did you become interested in Bollywood to the level where you wanted to pursue it academically?
Rachel Dwyer:
Well, I’ve been taught classical Indian Studies — I had Sanskrit in my BA, then I switched to Gujarati for my PhD. Before I was doing my research in Gujarat, I started watching Bollywood. I had seen Satyajit Ray movies and other films on the festival circuit. And, I loved them. When I watched the regular Hindi films, though, they made no sense to me at all. I mean, I didn’t know the language. I don’t, even today.

I started watching the films before I learnt a bit of Hindi. That was the beginning of it. I only got deeper and deeper from that point. And, I liked these movies not only as entertainment but as a way to learn about the Indian culture and the way the people think in India.

How do you view the contemporary cinema of India? In the absence of a clear-cut distinction between ‘art’ and ‘commercial’, do you think the film maker of India today is rather confused? Even when he follows his heart, he has a disturbing eye on the box office? A Shyam Benegal makes a Zubeida now.
See, you can’t make a film if it ain’t going to make any money. It doesn’t have to make you 100 crores, but you have to make enough money to be able to pay the salaries.

Having said that, some film makers genuinely seek to be creative within what we now call Bollywood. There’s a whole range of other cinemas available on different budgets and scales, and people can try to get into those and work in different ways.

I agree that some of the old-school lot have moved closer to Bollywood, perhaps because they are more interested in playing with the set formulae. But I also find new people coming up all the time who are trying. I recently saw this amazing film by Anand Gandhi, Ship of Theseus, which is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before in India; it’s a very different type of film.

You are a film academic who has several books on Bollywood to her credit. Do you write for newspapers also?
I occasionally write op-eds for Indian newspapers. That’s it. I’ve a very informal Facebook page and I don’t even do blogging. I have been an academic all my life.

The books I have written on Bollywood are also academic in some ways; the prose is quite simple, which may not be your idea of a popular book.

In practically none of your sessions at the LLF ’14 did you speak about the Bollywood actresses. Why?
Because I think at the moment the actresses are very beautiful but we haven’t seen an actress who has got the real star power equivalent to any of the men. We saw that with people like Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi but after them there have been big stars but they have not been as important. I mean, for instance, Katrina Kaif is a big star but there isn’t a Katrina Kaif film. There’s usually a Salman Khan or a Shah Rukh Khan film. Maybe there will come an actress shortly who can change that.

Are you working on a book presently?
I’ve got a book that’s coming out later this year. It’s called Bollywood’s India: Hindi Cinema as a Guide to Modern India. I am looking at the films which ought to be or ought not to be addressed because I think what the films talk about, they don’t talk about very importantly. Why do they talk about the national and not the regional? Why don’t they talk about the castes? How they look at people’s lives? How do they look at families? Questions like these are all framed through looking at the cinema, but only from the last 20 years.

What future do you see for Bollywood in the international market? It has a growing audience, no doubt, but isn’t it chiefly among the Asian communities?
That’s partially true. In most of North America and North West Europe, for instance, there isn’t much interest in Bollywood. But in Germany, there is an interest in Shah Rukh Khan in the German-speaking world; otherwise, not really. In Berlin Film Festival, I’ve seen people go mad. I went to a conference at the University of Vienna and the people there were crazy about Shah Rukh Khan.

I think it’s mixed. If I write something in the papers, I get all sorts of reactions. Some of the people even say, ‘You are stupid!’ I would really like to get good critical feedback. That is important. But academically, my university made me a full professor in Indian Cinema — their first. I think that was nice.

Have you ever been tempted to explore the film industry on this side of the border which is but essentially similar?
I am interested in what’s going on now. We’ve certainly seen some films coming out in recent years, like Khuda Kay Liye, Bol and Khamosh Pani. Even The Reluctant Fundamentalist is in some ways Pakistani. And, that’s been interesting. Meenu who co-directed Zinda Bhaag, was my PhD student at SOAS. I have seen Maula Jutt as well, but how many of these ‘gandasa’ movies I can watch is a different matter.

But I believe Pakistan is culturally in the news because of its literature — Hanif, Mohsin, Kamila and a great deal of new writing that’s coming out of the country has grabbed people’s imagination — so why not films?

What I am certainly interested in is what went on in Pakistan before 1947 because Lahore was a hugely important centre for film. When Noor Jehan came and they took over the studio, what happened then, what happened to the old films that were made here; where are they?

Frankly, if it wasn’t for Lahore, Bollywood wouldn’t be Bollywood, because we wouldn’t have the Chopra family, the Anand family, Balraj Sahini who made the film industry very Punjabi. This is really where the similarities lie, because Punjab is Punjab. And, I think when Yashji made Veer Zaara in 2004, he was trying to say that he was born on that side and lived there and that a Punjabi is a Punjabi wherever he or she is. And, I thought that was a very brave film. He got a lot of abuse in India for making that film. He was accused of being pro-Pakistan and all that.

There’s always that Pakistan rhetoric — of all sorts, you know. When I was coming to Lahore, everybody said, ‘How lucky you are! We dream of going to Lahore!’ There’s this huge interest also.

Originally published in The News On Sunday — March 9, 2014

Click here to go to the interview on THE NEWS‘s official website

“You can’t label it as a ‘bad’ trend” — Raja Sen

By Usman Ghafoor

Main Dilli se hoon, bh#$ ch*~!” roars Saif Ali Khan’s character in last year’s Bollywood movie, Go Goa Gone (or GGG). To great amusement of an audience. The film’s other three protagonists — the party-craving, sex-crazy, twenty-something lads from Mumbai — are also never short on swear words and profane jokes that allude generously to human genitals.

For Raja Sen, the scriptwriter of GGG and also one of India’s most popular film critics from the younger crop, “the [abovementioned] gaali is very common in the streets of Delhi today. And, when Saif’s character utters it, an instant connection is established between him and his origins.”

“A Delhi boy” by his own admission, the 32-year-old Sen says he knows the language and mannerisms of the city’s urban-based youth intimately enough to be able to capture it successfully in the film.

Even though it opened to lukewarm response at the box office in India and elsewhere, GGG remains a little milestone in the history of Bollywood by being the first mainstream ‘zombie’ film which borrows from the tradition of the National Lampoon movies, with a dash of dark humour. The result is a fantastical spoof of the ‘horror,’ ‘slasher’ and ‘mystery’ genres. 

Currently based in Mumbai, Sen recently finished work on his first film as a co-director, titled X.  Again, he gets to deal with the part of the film which is “dark and sexy,” he tells The News On Sunday, in an exclusive interview from his hometown in India. 

Having been exposed to films from all parts of the world and of all possible genres, Sen is able to shed light on some of the most interesting trends in language, as it is used in dialogue form, with special reference to the Bollywood of today. 

Excerpts follow.

The movie which has a new-age lingo in dialogue.
The movie which has a new-age lingo in dialogue.

The News On Sunday: How do you look at the ‘trend’ in cinema, especially Bollywood, where the dialogue is increasingly becoming ‘chatty’ and slangy and may easily incorporate expletives that never featured in Hindi cinema till, say, two decades ago?
Raja Sen: I feel that Hindi cinema has always had two kinds of films: those that boasted larger-than-life lines and oft-melodramatic dialogue-baazi, and those that spoke, well, like you and I do. Cinema by the art-house masters of 30 years ago such as Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Sai Paranjpaye had wonderfully natural and relatable conversations. At the same time, the Sholays and Karmas by Ramesh Sippys and Subhash Ghais of the world were always filled with heavy but entertainingly unrealistic dialogues. These weren’t conversations. These were ‘filmi,’ so to say.
What I feel has changed between then and now is the quality of the ‘filmi’ dialogue, not of the conversation as such, which mirrors the spirit of the times anyway. I think those poets and sculptors of words who wrote the formidably ‘filmi’ lines of yore are now gone, and so — in a quest for flavour, perhaps — the filmmakers have all taken to a more conversational style in general.

Isn’t the use of expletives a more recent phenomenon?
Yes, it is. Parinda was a cult ‘gangsta’ movie of late 1980s, and it had none of the gaalis you find in today’s gangster movies of, say, a Ram Gopal Verma or Anurag Kashyap.
Globally also, it wasn’t until Martin Scorsese came to Goodfellas [in 1990] that he began to use the F-word profusely. Godfather had none of it. When [Quentin] Tarantino surfaced during this period, he took swear words to another level of profanity.
But you can’t label it as a ‘bad’ trend. Filmmakers like Vishal Bharadwaj and Dibakar Banerjee use such language where they mean to capture the vernacular in a realistic fashion. And, they are doing it most creatively. Consider Omkara’s opening line, “Bewakoof aur ******* mein dhaage bhar ka farq hota hai!
On the British television of today, a serial like The Thick of It has a character named Malcolm Tucker which has become iconic just because of his twisted swearing. He’s made it into a complete art form.

As a film critic, how different, in your view, would Go Goa Gone be if it was made in, say, the 1970s?
Ha. That’s an interesting question since it is such a modern product in so many ways. But I’d imagine that only someone like Dev Anand could have tackled a topic so unconventional and ahead of its time. Maybe he could have played Saif’s role. Imagine Dev saheb as the zombie hunter! Wow. Agar aisi film bani hoti toh woh meri favourite film hoti. Without question.
Seriously, though, I think a GGG of that time could have been either a zombie film (made earnestly by the Ramsay Brothers) or a comedy, not both — it took the West a long time to crack that combination for us to follow.
In terms of the language, I think there wouldn’t be any of the swearing or profanity, but it would still be colourful and young.

What about the quality of restraint and ethics and conventions? Where to stop?
I think the ‘where to stop’ is indeed the filmmakers’ prerogative, depending on what they are interested in. A tawdry film might bring in single-screen audiences but no appreciation, but that might be what the filmmaker wanted. Also, I believe, when things get truly tasteless or when filmmakers start making films only for themselves — like, say, Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking — the audience gives it its own verdict which can be pretty damning.

How much blame would you place on the cinema audiences for not giving the ‘right’ response?
Well, yahan loag gaaliyon pe hanste hain, in an immature sort of a way. Even if gaali is being used in a violent context, they seem to ‘enjoy’ it. I think our cinema suffers because of this kind of an audience.
Having said that, I firmly believe that we need to be more explicit in our films. Several barriers remain and censoring filmmakers and storytellers is not the answer.

As a dialogue writer, who are the people you think are leading the new pack in India — and why?
Jaideep Sahni is the most consistently competent screenwriter we have today. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an overwritten line of dialogue in a Sahni script — which is an even more remarkable feat when you consider the unsubtle moralising all his films seem to have.
Habib Faisal is quite good as well, and so is Dibakar Banerjee — both present very different sides of the local Dilliwala dialect. And, Vishal’s lines are always a joy.
Internationally, I’d have to say dialogue doesn’t get better than when written by Woody Allen, David Mamet or — once in a while when he decides the line should be sharper than the samurai sword — Quentin Tarantino. Oh, and the great Aaron Sorkin.

Originally published in The News On Sunday — January 5, 2014

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

“Making a film is like giving birth” — Nandita Das

By Usman Ghafoor

Nandita Das’s is a curious case of an accomplished actor with a penchant for serious, issue-based films who, by her own admission, gravitated towards this kind of cinema because of her background in social sector. A Masters in Social Work from Delhi University, Das never studied at a film school but she was always a part of one NGO on human rights or the other. “Most people become celebrities and then get into social work; for me it was the other way round,” she says, in an exclusive chat with The News On Sunday, while on a brief visit to Lahore in connection with the South Asia Conclave. “I wanted to be a part of movies that push the boundaries and tell stories of marginalised communities; stories that I felt needed to be told.”

In other words, Das was an accidental actor, albeit one whose path was well laid out. Her filmography reads like a daunting list of award-winning movies by some of India’s best-known contemporary directors such as Mrinal Sen (Amar Bhuvan; Bengali, 2002), Mani Ratnam (Kannathil Muttha Mitthal; Tamil, 2001), Shyam Benegal (Hari Bhari; Hindi, 1999), Rituparno Ghosh (Shubho Mahurat; Bengali, ’02), Jagmohan Mundhra (Provoked; English, ’06 and Bawandar; Hindi, 2000) and Govind Nihalani (Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa; Hindi, ’98). Invariably, her characters in almost all her movies have been “strong women who had something important to say.” But it was her Sita in 1996’s controversial Hindi-English Fire by internationally recognised film maker Deepa Mehta that truly put Das on the global map. In an eye-poppingly realistic portrayal of a young girl with a budding homosexual interest in her sister-in-law (played by Shabana Azmi), Das had the critics as well as the lay audiences sit up.

But Sita is only one of the many screen roles Nandita Das has brought gloriously to life in a career spanning almost two decades. Bawandar’s Sanwari, based on the true story of a rape victim from Rajasthan, won her the Best Actress award at Santa Monica Film Festival. The following year, she was adjudged the Best Actor for Amar Bhuvan at Cairo Film Festival and, in ’07, for Maati Maay at Madrid International Film Festival. She also won a few awards at the 1st KaraFilm Festival in Karachi, before Mehreen Jabbar booked her as the female protagonist for Ramchand Pakistani, set in the backdrop of a cross-border misadventure by a Hindu minor.

In 2008, Das was to direct as well as script a film (Firaaq) “compelled by the Gujarat riots of ’02.” Interestingly, she says she never cared for the box office ‘requirements’ and would rather a “level-playing field” is permitted to serious, independent film makers.

More recently, she wrote and directed a theatre play, titled Between the Lines, which talks about gender inequality in relationships in the educated, affluent class. This one, she confesses, comes straight from her personal experience in Mumbai where she has moved lately with her husband and a three-year-old son named Rehan.

South Asia Conclave wasn’t her first time in Lahore but, again, she was here to speak on ‘Art for Social Change’ — something Das has long advocated.

Lean and dusky Das is also the official face of the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign. 

Excerpts from the interview follow. 

The News On Sunday: You’ve been coming back to Lahore in recent times. How do you associate with the city?

Nandita Das: Well, on many levels. Broadly, I’ve been coming back because of some kind of a South Asian collaboration or initiative. The first time I came to Pakistan, which was to Lahore, it was as part of the South Asians for Human Rights, in 1996. I’ve been in Karachi for Ramchand Pakistani, twice for KaraFilm and also for a Muzaffar Ali programme on Rumi. It had Abida Perveen singing and me reciting the English translations of some of Rumi’s poems.

On a personal level, it’s always such a pleasure coming to Pakistan. I’ve made many friends here.

We haven’t seen you a lot lately on cinema, why?

Well, I had a son who has kept me busy for the last more than three years now. Besides, I was the chairperson of the Children’s Film Society which involves a lot of work. Last year, I wrote, directed and acted in a theatre play, called Between the Lines. It’s about gender inequality in relationships in the so-called educated, progressive classes.

You haven’t performed it in Pakistan, have you?

No, but I hope to do so sometime soon. Actually, I am not so well connected with the sponsors etc., and this kind of a play needs sponsorship. Let’s hope my next trip would be with that.

Was it your first time writing for theatre?

Yes, it was. But I also write a monthly column for The Week. I write on anything but it invariably becomes something about some social issue. That’s the only space I have since I am not on social media and I don’t seem to have time for it.

As a working woman and a mother I was juggling so many things that the play, in a way, reflects my own life and that of many other women who are working and juggling various roles.

Does writing come naturally to you?

Well, everything in my life has happened by default. I became a writer by default. I wouldn’t call myself a writer, though. In the same way, I don’t think of myself as a director. Even acting-wise, I’ve never gone to an acting school.

Is a ‘serious’ actor and film maker like you essentially an activist?

Well, I’ve done my Masters in Social Work. I was already working with different human rights NGOs when I started acting. Most people become celebrities and then they use that space to raise voice for different social concerns. In my case, it was the other way round. So, automatically, my experiences in social sector impacted my choices in films. I was instinctively drawn towards strong stories and interesting women characters.

Likewise for my first film [Firaaq]. It wasn’t as if I woke up one day and said to myself, ‘Oh, I want to be a director, so let me look for a story!’ After the Gujarat riots I was extremely disturbed about everything that was happening; there was so much prejudice and religion seemed to be used to divide people. I just felt compelled to tell the story. I must confess that as a first film it was a bit of a complex subject and wasn’t an easy shoot.

My talk here at the South Asia Conclave is on ‘Art for Social Change’. And, I am going to be speaking for cinema, music, theatre etc.

Art film actors like Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah made it big in mainstream cinema as well. Where, in your opinion, did you go wrong?

A lot of people have asked me this. But I feel sab ko apne mann ka kaam karma chahiye. That is the biggest freedom you can have. Just because these actors did it, I don’t have to do it.

There are people who are able to compartmentalise what is for money, what is for the love of work, etc. I somehow don’t function that way. And, I don’t think I’d be a happy person if I did something purely for, say, fame or money.

What has been your most challenging work to date?

Making Firaaq. Why, because here so many of my different interests and skills were coming together. I also had a tough time convincing the producers to invest in the project. It was a struggle.

I’ve always maintained that making a film is like giving birth. In that sense, Firaaq was my first baby, even before my son Rehan was born.

What are the projects you are currently occupied with?

I’m doing a Spanish film called Traces of Sandalwood. It has a woman director named Maria Ripoll, a woman producer, a woman editor and a woman cinematographer. Maria has earlier directed Penelope Cruz also. I play an Indian actress in the film and, for the first time, I’ll be doing song and dance stuff as part of my work. Saroj Khan is choreographing the songs.

Is it a tough call?

Honestly speaking, yes. When I was contacted for the role, I told them this was wrong casting, because Indian Bollywood actresses are not so dark and not so old. They are usually in their twenties and fair.

“Not so dark” is an interesting way to describe Bollywood heroines.

Well, I am supporting this campaign called ‘Dark is Beautiful’ which has become huge in India. It’s about us South Asians’ obsession with fair skin. In India, 90 percent women are dark like me and they are all made to feel sort of not-worth-it or small. It really impacts self-esteem and confidence, especially in young girls.

The campaign has taken the form of a movement. We have people writing in from all over the world, validating the campaign and urging girls to be comfortable in their skin. We have also signed a petition against fairness creams. Shah Rukh Khan has also been approached.

There was a time when the line between art and commercial cinema was clearly drawn. Today, even as the lines are blurring, do you feel the serious film makers are loath to make films?

Economics interferes with art a lot, especially in India. Half the time if somebody makes a strong film, the producers don’t have the confidence to back the project. They are, like, ‘logon ko naach gaana chahiye!

Secondly, serious film makers don’t get to market their films properly. When they don’t it, there’s no level-playing field. How do you compare with a film which has so much money gone into it? I remember when My Name Is Khan was up for release, Karan Johar told me that his official marketing budget was Rs10 crore. And I told him our total production budget was less than one-third of it.

In the absence of a level-playing field, how do you hope to compete? A lot of independent cinema suffers because of this aspect and there are less and less films that really push the boundaries or tell stories of the marginalised people.

Has the situation changed for the better with the arrival of the multiplexes?

We thought it would be so, but the multiplexes are also interested in running the same mainstream movies.

Aren’t movies like Lunch Box making good because of these new-age cinemas?

Well, Lunch Box was taken by Fox Studios. You have to pump in money for marketing.

How would you describe the cinema of India as it is today?

Well, I wouldn’t like to describe it in one word. Firstly, Indian cinema is not Bollywood. Often people equate the two, which is wrong. Indian cinema is mainstream Hindi cinema, mainstream Tamil and Telugu cinemas and regional cinema which is much more independent and makes the least compromises.

I have done films in at least 10 different languages and some of those films are unknown to people not only in Pakistan but also in Delhi or Mumbai, because you don’t get to see them in the big cities. Subtitles ka culture nahin hai ziada.

But I must say that these films are much more powerful. I’ve been lucky to get some of the very powerful roles in Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam and Kerala films.

Originally published in The News On Sunday — Dec 8, 2013

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

The show must go on, but how?

By Usman Ghafoor

It may be back-to-square-one for the people associated with Pakistan’s nascent cinema industry that had only just begun to recover from a decades-old phase of depression. An “adjustable withholding tax,” proposed in the recently announced federal budget for the fiscal year 2013-14, is threatening to push the industry back into a period of no business activity.

The said tax, to be levied on the import of all foreign films and TV shows — Rs 1 million on a full-length feature and Rs 0.1m per episode on a foreign-produced drama serial — comes at a time when the revival of the cinema industry seemed after all a possibility. The rise of posh multiplexes, a recent phenomenon in Pakistan, which has given an obvious fillip to our (dying) cinema-going culture and also led many individuals as well as companies to start investing in future screens, has been due primarily to the theatrical release of mainstream Bollywood movies that enjoy a wide viewership on this side of the border. If imposed, the tax could change things for worse.

Leading film distributor and owner of the hugely successful, three-screen Atrium Cineplex, besides the olden Nishat, in Karachi, Nadeem Mandviwala sees it as an “advance tax” which shall toll the death knell for the industry. “It will bring the import of Bollywood and Hollywood movies down by 50 per cent and 70 per cent respectively,” he says, clearly perturbed.

“So, what will you play in your cinemas? In the past two and a half years, only six Pakistani films were exhibited. Out of these, barely two recovered their cost. How can you run the show in this situation?

“A tax shouldn’t be meant to bring a business to a close,” he adds. “How will the government tax us when we won’t be doing any business?

“Our [cinema] industry suffered losses for well over 40 years. It wasn’t until 2007 when the import of Bollywood movies was started that we finally saw people flocking to theatres.”

Nadeem Mandviwala.
Nadeem Mandviwala.

Mandviwala, who was eagerly looking forward to the launch of his first state-of-the-art multiplex at Islamabad’s Centaurus this season, says the tax will throw the potential investor out the window.

However, he declares, the ticket rates shall not be affected in any way, since “this isn’t a tax on cinemas; it mainly targets the importer. And, because it will result in lesser import [of foreign movies], the cinemas are likely to suffer.”

Reportedly, the minimum amount incurred to import a Hollywood film in Pakistan is US$ 15,000; publicity cost, customs duty and censorship fee included. On the other hand, the minimum cost for a Bollywood movie is US$ 25,000.

According to Mandviwala, in order for the (imported) film to break even, it must make double the money expended. “This is after you have paid the [pre-decided] 50 per cent to the exhibitor and the remaining 50 per cent to the distributor, because otherwise the importer is left with nothing in hand. Add to it the Rs10 lac ‘cost’, in the name of a withholding tax, and you can imagine how miserable things can get.”

UPA press conferenceWhereas the importer is the first casualty in this war of survival, in the case of TV, the biggest stakeholders are, of course, the entertainment channels. In the last couple of years, cable TV has taken an increasing recourse to Indian soap operas and dubbed Urdu versions of Turkish serials — a trend kicked off last year by Urdu 1, a freshly launched, Dubai-based channel which aired Ishq e Mamnu (originally, Ask-i Memnu), one of Turkey’s most popular serial, also its biggest TV software export to as many as 70 countries across the world.

As Ishq e Mamnu recorded the highest TRPs in Pakistan’s recent history, it obviously propelled the commerce-driven TV channels to jump the bandwagon and grab as many foreign shows as possible, leaving the local producers to suffer.

The channels’ interest obviously lies in the low price (and novelty value) these shows afford them, compared to the local productions which are far more costly. But the TV channels may still be in a good position. As actor cum producer Humayun Saeed puts it, “I am happy that the government took a step in this direction but I think this [the proposed tax] is still a paltry amount; it should have been at least Rs4 lac per episode of a drama.”

He goes on to explain how the average rate for a local production is Rs7-8 lac per episode, whereas the foreign shows “no matter how lavishly produced” cost the TV channels a maximum of Rs1 lac an episode. An additional lac or two wouldn’t make much difference to them.”

But Saeed is only one of the many drama artists and producers who strongly advocate the need for a sort of “a national policy” to check the broadcast of foreign shows on local TV networks and actually banded together last year under the umbrella of the United Producers’ Association (UPA) to launch a formal campaign. The drama fraternity staged street demos, held media conferences and also got some of the prominent political leaders to throw their weight behind them. The proposed tax is likely to tip the scales in their favour, by proving a deterrent in the import of foreign content.

Nadeem Mandviwala doesn’t buy the argument that by competing with foreign content in cinemas or on TV, local productions run the risk of extinction. “We are very clear that if there are no cinemas in Pakistan, there will be no Pakistani films.

“If the debate is around us going for ‘foreign’ product, then why do you have, for instance, vegetables from India? Why not have a similar withholding tax on these products also?

“The government should understand that all new cinemas that are coming up are being built with our own money; no foreign agency or investor is involved in this.”

Mandviwala also speaks of preparing a case to be presented before the government on behalf of the exhibitors and the importers. Since the tax is currently only at the proposal level, he says there’s still a chance they will win.

Originally published in The News On Sunday — June 23, 2013

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

Yash Chopra’s last film, but nothing more

By Usman Ghafoor

The Chopras are a very interesting house of films. Whereas most great filmmakers anywhere in the world, having achieved a credible body of work, would avoid falling into the trap of becoming ‘repetitive’, the Chopras actually seem to like indulging themselves. And, in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, they are guilty of peaking a cinematic self-love.

Right from the film’s pre-release media hype, which was centred on Jab Tak… being the “swansong” of the “King of romance”, to its first promo that was more of a tribute to the (late) Bollywood filmmaker, to the way the entire production was designed — it is hard to miss the strong Yash Chopra stamp, which is too strong for those who are familiar with Chopra’s oeuvre.

Sadly, Jab Tak… has little merit outside of its distinguished film pedigree. And, neither the much tom-tommed ‘fresh’ pairing of Katrina Kaif and Shahrukh Khan nor the coming together of maestros Gulzar and A R Rehman for the very first time on a Chopra movie can help to lift a jaded — and, at places, unconvincing — plot to the makers’ self-proclaimed level of greatness. Even though the hype has paid incredible dividends at the box office in the film’s opening week, the audiences’ response varies between “awesome” and “hugely disappointing”.

Here is a film that embarks on a familiar (read unoriginal) track right from the beginning. Major Samar Anand (Shahrukh Khan), an intense and brooding officer in Indian Army, tasked with disarming bombs, is reminiscent of Staff Sgt James from last year’s award-winning Hollywood movie, The Hurt Locker. His lady love Meera (Katrina Kaif), we learn from a diary which he writes, was engaged to be married when they first met in the London of 2002. Samar was 26 years old at that time and earned a living by working as a busker as well as a fishmonger and a waiter in a local café. Till a road accident turned his world upside down.

In a plot twist that looks straight out of the Ralph Fiennes-Julianne Moore starrer The End of the Affair, Meera has a pact with God whereby she will give up Samar if he is granted life. Samar survives but he cannot escape the heartbreak that leads him out of England and right into the war-hit Kashmir.

When the film opens, ten years have passed since Samar and Meera went separate ways. Samar has spent all these years hating Meera who has, in another part of the world, successfully resisted an arranged marriage because she still loves Samar.

Anushka Sharma and Shahrukh Khan.

Enter the spunky Akira (Anushka Sharma), a firebrand intern at the Discovery channel, who has flown down, all the way from London, to shoot a documentary on Samar, the death-defying soldier who puts himself, almost compulsively, in harm’s way, defusing one bomb after another, day after day.

Predictably, Akira provides the third angle to the love story, though it is evident that her love will be unreturned.

She is also privy to Samar’s deepest secret — Meera. When Samar returns to London, in connection with the documentary, he is again hit by an accident on the road that leaves him with retrograde amnesia. As a result, he has no memory of anything beyond 2002.

How Akira searches out Meera and convinces her to forget about the ‘pact’ with God and help Samar in his recovery instead, is what makes up the rest of the film’s story.

It’s a film which has all the ingredients you expect in a Yash Chopra movie, except that it is overrun with glitches. Or, how do you explain Samar’s recruitment in the (Indian) Army at age 25? An anglicised Meera requests Samar to teach her to sing in Punjabi but the other minute she is spouting lyrics laden with pure Urdu/Arabic words such as “Marhabba” and “Khush amdeed”. The two leading stars Shahrukh Khan and Katrina Kaif are often seen playing guitar in an awkward sort of a way. The London police allows a plain-clothed Indian to jaywalk into the scene of the bomb.

The choice of 47 years old Shahrukh Khan to play the 25-year-old lover boy, in the first half of the film, is a faux pas Chopra cannot easily absolve himself of. Two decades ago, this may have been forgivable but in today’s age of computer generated effects and great advancements in the field of makeup, this ought to be regarded as a glaring oversight. If Shahrukh could manage to look soft and fresh in Ra One, why can’t he make it work in what he has regarded as his best ever film with Chopra.

Katrina’s melancholy confession, in the quiet isolation of the church, is too bland and fails to strike a chord with the audience, the way, for instance, Rekha’s complaint to God, “Neela aasman so gya” did in Silsila. Later, her cutesy act also seems contrived and lacks the spontaneity of Sridevi’s Chandni and Pallavi/Pooja (in Lamhe).

Again, when she appears in a white (a Chopra hallmark) shalwar kameez, in the final scene of the film, Katrina looks rather out of place and not half as pretty as Madhuri Dixit in Dil Toh Pagal Hai or as graceful as Rakhee in Kabhi Kabhie.

Interestingly, it is Anushka Sharma, in a smallish role, who adds the much-needed zing to the film. Not only does Anushka look fresh, she is one actor in Jab Tak… who never lets anyone else in the frame steal the show.

The stars of yesteryears Neetu and Rishi Kapoor have also been underused (read wasted) in peripheral roles, so much so that the film could have done as well without them. They do not seem to fit into the scheme of things. Consider Neetu’s sentimental spiel to daughter Meera, on the power of love, which cuts no ice with the audience.

Anupam Kher has also been reduced to the size of an extra. It seems he — as well as Neetu and Rishi — felt obliged to be in a Chopra film.

In the final analysis, Jab Tak… is a glowing example of a beautifully shot film that is low on substance but will go down in history as Chopra’s last (if not his best) work.

Originally published in Instep, The News On Sunday — Nov 25, 2012

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

A Lahori in LA

By Usman Ghafoor

First, a confession. Like most urban-based Pakistanis, fed on Hollywood movies and American TV shows, I found myself inanely distracted by this huge picture of glamour I had in my mind when I was preparing to leave for Los Angeles — for the very first time in my life — as part of a fellowship programme with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

Hollywood Blvd.

As I boarded the flight, my mind went into overdrive thinking excitedly through images of beaches, skyscrapers and highways; the rich and the famous going about town in their Bogatis, Hummers and Fords; and, of course, the intriguing nightlife of the city. I couldn’t wait to hit the Beverly Hills and check out if life there was any different from what I had seen in 90210. I was eager to tour the Walk of Fame and also take the Rodeo Drive, in the hope that I’d catch a glimpse of a Julia Roberts or an Angelina Jolie. It would be awesome to head out to Santa Monica beach and, if I am lucky enough, get a slice of the Baywatch life. Interestingly, the LA where I landed was a bit different.

Essentially calm and quiet, this downtown called Santa Ana, in LA’s Orange County, seemed to have more in common with our very own Islamabad. It had clean, wide roads and very little traffic; and its multiple-track freeways ran along the impeccably-pruned, lush-green ridges on either side. To somebody who was coming from a boisterous (read noisy) city like Lahore, it appeared quite like an extended weekend retreat.

Just as in Islamabad, here I found a lot of government offices but virtually no high-rises — the newspaper office where I was placed for the three-and-a-half-week long attachment had one of the tallest structures in the entire neighbourhood, at mere five storeys!

My office happened to be at ten minutes’ drive from my accommodation. While every day I would think of calling in a taxi — because the public transport system seemed a tad too complicated to me and I didn’t want to be late to work — my hosts at the private house where I was staying at that time suggested I should walk to my office.

That I eventually went on foot is another story, but I did realise now that the Americans love to walk and that three miles (they don’t measure in kilometres like we do!) is only “a walking distance”.

I had witnessed the same enthusiasm — in fact, more of this — back in Washington DC where I and my group mates from Pakistan had spent a few days taking training sessions in journalism. Early in the morning (their day starts 6-ish), the pavements on the main streets would be full of people trotting their way to their destinations, all dressed up and with their office bags slung neatly over their shoulders.

The crowd never thinned in the evenings, not even when it was raining, and I saw that those who must jog would follow their workout regime, come rain or shine.

Venice in LA.

A common American’s civic sense is legendary. They are known to wait patiently in long queues, whether it’s at an airport check-in or outside a restaurant takeaway. If a customer at a shopping mall’s register (we call it ‘counter’!) is taking too long, you don’t find anyone squirming or cribbing.

The first time I went shopping to a popular department store, I noticed that the customers in the line stood a few steps away from the person who was paying at the register. I kept wondering why, till I realised it is considered basic etiquette — the people like to give privacy to the customer while he completes his payment transaction.

Honking on your car horns is rude behaviour and the people seemed to know it fully well. The young are often seen roller-blading and cycling, but they keep to the side and do not switch lanes. The Californian law prohibits smoking in public places and, boy, did I ever see anyone violate this? Never.

What appealed to me the most was the fact that nobody came across as if they were doing it for fear of punishment or something; they just seemed to be ‘wired’ that way.

Of course, they are helped by the ‘system’ they function in. Everywhere I went, I saw trash bins so that nobody should have to litter. You don’t find anyone jaywalking and it is thanks also to the proper pedestrian paths you meet at every single road and cross-street. The mind-blowing GPS (Global Positioning System) helps the police track down the violator without involving a traffic warden. And, the ticket you get is for $300.

Public display of affection isn’t deemed offensive, but staring at a stranger is. And, sure, you must not doubt the other person’s intentions; it can lead to a brawl. I happened to ask a Black driver twice whether he had got the destination address right, and the next moment he had pulled the taxi on a side and told me — in no vague terms — that I could hop off and take some other cab.

In Lahore we are used to haggling over rickshaw fares and prices of different items at any given shop, in sometimes humiliating ways, so it was a very pleasant surprise to see people show — and demand — respect, whether the other person was a taxi driver or part of the hotel housekeeping. This may have to do with the fact that most lower-income people in Santa Ana have their day jobs but they moonlight as, for instance, taxi drivers or bar tenders — a lot of blue-collar workers I spoke to were school graduates. Hence, they won’t take any nonsense — bargaining or arguing over taxi fare amounts to the same.

The metro buses have it specified that they do not make the change, so you have to have the exact amount (in nickels, cents or quarters) on you. The metros also have special racks for bikes, while people with disabilities are allowed to bring in service animals. At the time when I was preparing to return to Washington, the Santa Ana city administration had announced a plan to create a noise-free zone in metros for those commuters who wanted to travel in quiet.

Will Smith’s house on Rodeo Drive.

Santa Ana is quite green and its people have been conditioned to practise eco-friendly activities — they routinely trash their plastic disposables in separate containers outside their homes to be picked up by municipal trucks for recycling purposes. Things such as egg shells and banana skins are reused as compost for kitchen gardening.

The 99 Cent stores are a relief for the lower-income lot, and so are thrift shops (equivalent to Lahore’s ‘Landa bazaar’).

It’s a very rights-driven society. No one snoops on your private affairs and, alternately, no one lets you invade their personal space. People are polite but they don’t necessarily mean to become friends with you. If you want to visit somebody, it has to follow a prior intimation — because everybody has plans. Asking a colleague for a ride won’t necessarily get you one, and if the people around you are at work you are not supposed to bother them even if you need help with something.

To a typical Lahori, all this can be hard to identify with — he is used to an environment where people would go out of their way to accommodate a guest, sometimes at the cost of their own work schedules even. So, the chances are that you will end up branding the common American as distant and ‘self-centred’. My suggestion is: do not rush to conclusions. You will soon realise that their attitude is basically because they are a self-reliant people — for instance, they don’t have a domestic help to wash their dishes and do their laundry, and they don’t have a chauffer to drive their cars. So they expect you to help yourself rather than ask for it.

There’s a downside to it. Most senior citizens and physically impaired you come across have been left to fend for themselves. As the country’s economy experiences a recession, the average American finds himself getting more and more concerned about the job market. The mortgage system works for some, but a lot of lower-income people who leased their flats are afraid they will soon be out of funds.

Santa Ana’s tourism industry depends more on places around the city rather than within the city — Disneyland in the adjoining Anaheim being one such attraction. If you want to visit an Islamic Centre, the closest one is in Irvine, a city to the North of Santa Ana.

Like the rest of LA, Santa Ana is defined by its multi-ethnicity. Presently, 50 percent of the city’s population is said to be Latino, 33 percent Caucasian, 12 percent Asian or Pacific Islanders and 10 percent African-American. Natives make up only a fraction of 1 percent.

Diversity has its drawbacks. Minority groups’ major grouse is that they are not treated on par. Mexican and Latin American workers still do most of the farm labour and domestic chores in the region.

The city’s weather is tropical. It does not receive many rains — according to an estimate, it averages 329 days of sunshine a year. But when it rains, there isn’t an effective drainage system to manage the waters.

Public transport is another sector that begs the city counsel’s attention. The distances are huge and the metro routes are limited, so the people prefer private cars.

Like most America, Santa Ana’s favourite sport is Baseball. People here are largely health conscious — they have a great knowledge of proteins and carbs and they also care for organic food — yet obesity is common. Hospitals mostly get patients with flu or some sort of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases); there are virtually no cases of diarrhea — something a Lahori like me found incredible.

On my last weekend in Santa Ana, I booked a tour bus to ‘the LA’ I had known before coming to America. I visited the Beverly Hills, toured around the bungalows of Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Tailor, Johnny Depp, Michael Jackson and Will Smith on the famous Rodeo Drive, breathing an air of opulence. I also went to the fabled Santa Monica and Venice beaches. But, the ‘real’ America, I must say, was what I had seen — albeit in bits and parts — in Santa Ana.

Originally published in The News International, on Nov 13, 2011

Click here to go to the article on THE NEWS official site

Reverse culture shock?

By Usman Ghafoor

The glorious, several feet tall minaret of Khalid Masjid, in one of Lahore’s peaceful residential areas, looks over a courtyard that once used to be a calm parking space for the namazi (prayer men). But today, it is populated by armed watchmen, posted in different corners of the mosque like flagpoles. The place still appears ‘calm’ (read quiet), but the presence of guards with their double-barreled guns pointed in the air and the sight of barricades at entry and exit points is menacing, to say the least.

Occasionally, the quiet is stirred by the noise of the engine of a random military jeep patrolling the streets in the distance. This is my first Friday back home from Washington, D.C. — where I went on a 5-week training fellowship with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) — and it marks my re-introduction to some of the bitter facts about living in my own country, i.e., Pakistan.

As I see the namazi getting into the mosque through the sprawl of the iron fence and the prying eyes of the security men, I wonder if meditation is still possible when fear is struck in your heart. And, I am reminded how a common Pakistani’s peace of mind has been near-hijacked by an ‘imminent’ threat of a terrorist attack at just about any public venue, a worship place being no exception.

At any given street in the city, you meet a check-post every few yards, with security personnel ready to stop your vehicle and frisk whoever they deem ‘suspicious’ (of possessing illegal weapons or something). But, suspicious or not, it is not possible for you to drive through without worrying about getting late to work or just incurring an inconvenience.

Unfortunately, the worship places have come to be recognized as having an even greater likelihood of a terrorist incident. Pakistan has a history of sectarian violence that has roots in the basic conflict of beliefs between the Sunni Muslims and the Shia minority in the country. Of late, this has meant life attacks on religious leaders of one community that led to attacks on the leaders of the other community as part of revenge. Last year, we topped our records when a bunch of unidentified militants fired guns and hurled grenades at the namazi inside a prominent Ahmadiyya worship place in Lahore, quickly followed by three suicide blasts in its premises, which killed at least 80 innocent people and wounded many. Ahmaddiya is a religious sect that has been ghettoized by the extremists as “infidels” and also victimized for its claims to Islam.

Khalid Masjid in the cantonment area was never really considered vulnerable, because of its location and also because its imams (prayer leaders) aren’t known to have taken any controversial leads on religious matters. Yet, for the mosque administration to have to beef up security — in just over a month’s time — does not bode too well for the common people living in the neighborhood.

Indeed, these are emergency times for Pakistan. Wistfully, my mind drifts back to my visit to the ADAMS Center in Virginia with my group mates, during the course of our fellowship, in early October this year. Nestled comfortably among the Blue Ridge mountains, the mosque looked a complete picture of serenity. And, when its operation supervisor, Mr. Tanweer Khan, told us how the Center receives faithfuls from practically all sects of Islam and that the administration has to organize two Jumma (Friday) congregations every week in order to accommodate a large number of namazi, it all seemed too good to be true.

Originally published on the ICFJ blog – Oct 25, 2011

Click here to go to the blog on ICFJ official site

“We started to sell…education, in the name of progress” — Dr Arfa Sayeda Zehra

By Usman Ghafoor & Waqar Gillani

Dr Arfa Sayeda Zehra, academic

The News on Sunday: How do you view the private education system and the absence of a regulatory authority?
Dr Arfa Sayeda Zehra: Our constitution promises that education, especially early education, is the responsibility of the state. But we find that education has never been its priority.

So, when the state dragged its feet, a vacuum was created. It was a very ‘fertile’ vacuum, so the people jumped to it, thinking it was a ‘business’. And, in a consumer society, where consumerism is scaling one height after another, it is the easiest thing to sell. Hence, the first thing we started to sell was education — in the name of progress and development and English medium — so that we could be considered very forward-looking and future-oriented.

The people who came into the business of schools were not all educationists; they were basically interested in setting up an industry. For me, education is not an industry, because an industry does not have a moral perspective. In an industry, you are not developing a human being; you are developing a commodity. Education shapes the human being.

I am not against studying in a good ambience; it gives you a sense of comfort and a kind of a respect within and outside your institution; but that is not everything. Development is wonderful, but we have to realise what the cost of this development is. If it is bifurcating and fragmenting the society it can’t be called ‘education’.

Then it was assumed that we could only make advancement if we knew English. Well, if that was true, the Chinese would not have progressed. Language is never a barrier. I am a product of a government high school and I am very proud of that.

Do you think the situation has worsened today?
It is worsening, because the gap is widening between the haves and the have-nots. For instance, the fees of a child going to the playgroup is around Rs 30,000 per month. My question is, how are the salaried, middle-class people sending their children to these schools? I know for a fact that our child could very easily do with studying at a public school if the government had been a little serious about education as a federal subject.

The worst thing about public institutions is their curriculum. It is rot. period. It doesn’t teach anything to students. Thanks to Gen Ziaul Haq, you studied Islamiat in not just Islamiat but also in Geography and History and Economics and what not. That was the boon of the late general. Private educational institutions were able to depart from this dogmatic approach and they brought in some knowledge and some creativity. Their cost may be high, but they are delivering. Let’s give the devil its due. Private education all over the world is known for a certain standard, a certain competition level and a very rigorous academic environment. Consider Ivy League, for instance.

But isn’t their cost a tad too high?
Well, that’s because these are commercial ventures. They aren’t here for benevolence. Education, right from Ibne Khuldun, has been seen as a matter of social benevolence. Though it isn’t really the tag of Oxford or Cambridge that gives you accreditation; it is your work?

But private schools have blind followers. Even in villages, your dear old farmer would like his son to go to a Brightway rather than a small-time public school if he wants to become officer somewhere in Islamabad.

We are consciously playing havoc with the trust of the people. Let me tell you, government teachers still enjoy a lot of guarantees and securities, whereas in private institutions, if you are absent for one day, it may cost you a fortune.

Could the government be accused of being neglectful of the public sector schools?
Very much so. The neglect of the government is a very conscious and purposeful one and it is creating a clear social divide between education for the ruled and education for the ruler. We are still talking about educational budget whereas even the 1.8 percent which is given by the 31st of May every year is not totally consumed. That’s alarming.

Many people think that education and even health should not be the responsibility of the state and should be regulated privately. Do you agree?
I’ve a question to this: what, then, should the responsibility of the state be? The state is lagging behind in both the sectors.

Don’t you think private institutions take the lead by also serving up opportunities of advancement in foreign countries, etc?
To me they are an interest group: you come out of one institution and there’s a job market for you, you come out of another institution and there’s another kind of a job market for you.

How, in your view, can the government help the situation?
The government can help the situation if it realises the gravity of it — the colossal damage that is being done by its neglect. The government has a lot of damage control to do. It can start small. There are many public schools which have been taken over by the NGOs and they are doing wonderfully well. This brought changes in two important things: the fee and salary structure, and the curriculum. And, let me say that it is the curriculum and the books that make all the difference.

Do you find a lack of a regulatory body in private sector?
Yes, completely. There may be very conscientious education managers, but that’s their own personal bearings. There’s no regulatory body.

What kind of a system of regulation would you propose?
Well, if laws could regulate people, we would be angels by now, because we have so many laws. Private education system should not be catering only to the moneyed; it should be the government’s responsibility somehow or the other. Some NGOs have taken the step; the government should also come forward. Secondly, the government should explore the financial cost-effectiveness. Don’t let everybody do as they wish. Checks and balances should be in place. Good education does not mean that only a privileged few can afford it.

Can the parents play a part as a pressure group?
Big, posh schools play on the society’s insecurities. When the parents feel their child should not feel inferior to others, they are compelled to send him or her to these expensive schools, even if they have to pay through the nose. I am sorry to say that things are beyond their control.

So, what’s the solution?
Leadership. We need leaders and visionaries. We have enough of politicians, we don’t have a statesman. Sometimes I feel that the government is leaning towards the private education by simply shrinking away from its own responsibility. It’s just giving room to others. If the government is unable to deliver on the promise as stated in the constitution, it should at least make some kind of an arrangement where the private sector’s efforts could be disciplined and regulated, and where quality education is not the privilege of a few.

Originally published in The News International, on Oct 31, 2010

Click here to go to the interview on THE NEWS official site

…what they did last summer!

By Usman Ghafoor

The Naked Tyrants’ trio.

Your very first introduction to this barely year-old amateur production group — bizarrely named Naked Tyrant — had to have some element of shock, as all online invites to the screening of their videoed skits told you to ‘Stay Naked’. Well, this was just their way of beckoning you and it seemed to work, judging from the 100-plus crowd of excited young girls and boys that had stormed inside Nairang Art Gallery, the venue for the event, recently.

Put together by a bunch of 20-something homeys — Akber Ali Khan (alias Hackbah), a BNU graduate in Architecture; Abdul Nusrat, a talented photographer and Economics student at City University, London; Haroon Mannoo from McGill; Amal and Rahema from NCA; Imaad, Shibli and the popular Gas Mask Guy, Abdul Rehman — the hour-and-10-minute-long screening had everybody in stitches, as it jumped from one funny video to another, intercut with soundbytes from the production team itself. Akber’s zany impersonation as Zardari and the episode of Atif Aslam’s abduction by a gang who threatens to kill the pop singer because of the way he botched up Michael Jackson’s cover (‘Billie Jean’) got big laughs from the audience.

According to Akber, a “casual musician”-turned-comic-wizard who features in all the skits as the lead, the idea struck him “last summer, after we’d shot our three music videos. I was always interested in comedy but never tried it on stage or TV. So, we thought of making some general skits, basically the social-satire kind. And, this year we compiled them into a single screening,” he tells TNS.

The name ‘Naked Tyrant’, Akber says, came from the nick he would use while gaming online.

Akber Ali Khan aka Hackbah.

It was a ticketed event, meant for raising funds for the flood victims but, in Akber’s words, an auditorium space was hard to find: “LUMS didn’t allow outsiders, BNU’s is in the back of beyond and most people wouldn’t be willing to drive all the way to its Tarogil campus. Other auditoriums were charging us whereas Nairang was free, so we went for it.”

Encouraged by the response from the audiences, both at the venue as well as online — all Naked Tyrant videos are famously doing the Facebook rounds! — Akber is planning another few screenings, this time outside Lahore. He also speaks of “so many young, enterprising people [who] have showed their keenness to be a part of NTP. Right now, we are just getting back to our normal lives, but I promise to come back next summer, with more of such stuff!”

Originally published in The News International, on Sep 19, 2010

Click here to go to the article on THE NEWS official site

Less is MOORE

By Usman Ghafoor

Steve Moore. (Photo by Fazal Ahmad)
Steve Moore. (Photo by Fazal Ahmad)

He’s an academic, so it’s no surprise that any conversation with Steve Moore will easily turn into a long-winded, albeit well-argued, spiel — in this case, on Film, his graduation subject at Bournemouth (in 2005) before he came to Pakistan and started teaching at BNU and, more recently, at SAFMA. In between, he also landed a small part in Shoaib Mansoor’s then in-the-making Khuda Key Liye, an experience he has not-so-great memories of.

Currently finishing work on his first feature, titled Tamanna, with “pros” like Salman Shahid and Feryal Gauhar and his co-producer cum friend from Safma days, Sarah Tarin, besides a script by Munnu Bhai and music by Yousaf Salahuddin, Rahat Fateh Ali and Bagga, Steve is loath to dub the project as a “British-Pakistani collaboration… because it’s more Pakistani than anything else. I mean, we could’ve made it in English or Minglish, as everyone does, but it’s principally an Urdu film. In fact, the language is central to the subject, since the film is about linguistic differences and class distinctions in this country,” he contends.

A very thin but earnest-looking, 45-year-old film-maker from South East London, Steve has no qualms about admitting: “If I was a huge director in UK, if I was Danny Boyle, would I be making films here? No. I’d be making Slumdog Millionnaire.

“But I am different,” he adds quickly, mincing no words. “I consider Pakistan and the culture here to be a part of my life. People have got to realise that there are foreigners here who are not spooks.”

On the heels of their formal collaboration with Yousaf Salli’s music company, Tradition Plus, TNS caught up with Steve and Sarah for an exclusive tête-à-tête. Here’s what the producer-director duo had to say:

Tell us about Tamanna as a film project.
Steve Moore: We aren’t giving out much here. At least we learnt ‘something’ from Shoaib Mansoor. (Winks).

On a serious note, Tamanna is based on a local narrative. But it’s not a propaganda film and it isn’t part of a political campaign. That’s why it was very tough for us to seek out interested financers. Eventually, we had to go it alone.

It was tough also to get professional actors without giving them a lot of money. Thankfully, we got people who are pros and also believed in the project.

Sarah Tarin: Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Yousaf Salahuddin were also very helpful.

Steve: When we set about it, our primary objective was to find a good story which it would be possible for us to film without huge resources. We couldn’t have any car chases. We couldn’t have big explosions. We couldn’t have hundreds of locations or hundreds of actors. We couldn’t afford a big crew. So, we started with a list of things we couldn’t and could have. And, it still had to be worth making.

Sarah: Such films have a long shelf life, too.

Steve: Yeah, because these are intellectual. Action films get dated very quickly. You have an explosion scene from a 1957 movie and the kids are not going to believe it now. A Kung fu movie from the 1970s would look like a joke today. But if you have a drama film from, say, the 1950s, it’ll still be relevant now. Look at Sunset Boulevard. It is considered an all-time Hollywood classic, but it has only four characters and one location. Dogville is one of the most amazing films ever made, but it is made like a theatre play. Every student of Film should watch it, and they will know that you don’t need a million pounds to make a good movie.

Why would a gora want to come to Pakistan and make a film here?
Steve: Why not? There are goras in Islamabad. You may ask them if they are scared or comfortable, locked in their hotel rooms. But they are making films with government agencies. Why? For the sake of money! Why am I making this film? Because I love the art. As to why I am doing it in Pakistan, there are a million reasons. Simply put, as a film-maker I thought why make a film in UK where there are a million other people making films already. Why not go to an interesting country like Pakistan and make films there.

It’s a popular perception that the West is interested in portraying Pakistan as a ‘dangerous’ country — inhabited by terrorists and feudals and people who kill women in the name of honour, et al. How differently is Tamanna going to depict Pakistan?
Steve: Well, for somebody like me who doesn’t care about politics, the truth is quite different. Pakistan is a nice country; it has its problems, but generally it’s not what it’s made out to be. I’ve made a lot of friends here, I see a lot of modern people here, not the crude, terrorist kind, you know.

Did you encounter any language problems working on the project?
Steve: Not really. Although Munnu Bhai wrote the film, we all had a part in scripting it.

Are you aware of the sensibilities of local audiences, or you would be happy if Tamanna ended up in film festivals?
Steve: Listen, you can’t please all the people all the time. Shaan has a bigger audience than anyone else does, but his Gujjar films are not watched by 150 million people in this country; they are watched by a small minority. For Tamanna I hope to be able to create a new audience.

Let me tell you, this film is about clever dialogue, like Woody Allen’s films. On some levels, it’s a battle between an intelligent, well educated, more elitist character and an intelligent, badmaash, less educated lower-class character.

One thing is for sure, if I don’t make it, no one is going to watch it.

Originally published in The News International – July 4, 2010

He is ‘Very Live’ and ‘Real’

By Usman Ghafoor

Ever thought what you would do if you were “bored with comedy”? Saad Haroon sure did and his plan is to switch over to Film — a ‘lesser’ discussed passion of his that also recently led him to take part in the World Wide Jam, a BBC film project. Besides, he took up Communication and Film at the University of Massachusetts. He scripted a BBC radio play, titled Boria Bistra, among other things. But, of course, the world knows him best as a standup wizard — the hilarious host as well as the creator of what is Pakistan’s first English language comedy show on TV, The Real News. (Those who followed the series know where the ‘real’ in the news was coming from. Here’s to Saad’s inimitable play on words!)

In between, Saad flexed his improvisational muscles, through Black Fish that later evolved into Shark. He laughs off the idea that it could now turn into “whale” or something, especially since he has gone solo and Very Live (the title of his last few shows!).

The News On Sunday caught up with the Hong Kong-returned, 32-year-old gifted comedian from Karachi, while he was visiting Lahore.

The News On Sunday: Real News and then Very Live. Do we see a pattern here?
Saad Haroon: (Laughs.) I think it’s just to highlight the difference. By the way, I didn’t come up with the second title. We were doing a show in Dubai where a friend of mine suggested that I should call my live shows as “Very Live”. It sounded fun. That’s it.

How do you structure a standup show? Do you pre-plan an opening gag, a mid-point and a climax etc?
Well, I’ve a definite structure. For instance, I’ve four or five opening jokes up my sleeve. They take me about five minutes to tell. I move on to fun and quick jokes, on to the songs and, then, to the longer bit, because I know the audience has now settled in and I have their full attention. I whip out the pollution joke. Then I start talking about culture. In fact, the songs are also interspersed in a way that they naturally relate to every joke they follow. Such as, I was talking about weddings on a show recently when I broke into the ‘Salam’ song.

I usually end on a political joke, because politics is currently the most entertaining thing in Pakistan. (smiles)

The songs are a unique part of your shows. Do you agree?
Well, I love doing the songs. Amin [his guitarist] helps me write and compose them.

How do you generate material for your shows?
For me it’s fun coming up with an interesting joke or a song. As they say, comedians can see life in a way that other people can’t see. It’s the same life but you just have a certain angle you see it from.

Have you ever encountered a situation where a certain gag that looked funny on paper came across as lame when it was performed?
Many times. That’s why we do ‘test shows’ on friends, family or acquaintances — basically anyone who is willing to sit down and listen. Then we go back to the drawing board and tweak our script a bit. Even when a tour has started, if we find that a certain joke didn’t work in front of an audience, we throw it out.

Then there are times when, in the middle of a tour, I have randomly come up with jokes that weren’t part of the script but since they seemed to work I put them in. So, it’s a constant process.

Do you have any ‘stock’ jokes or gags that you use on a regular show?
Absolutely. I’ve written two [standup] shows so far. The Lahore one was the second hour-long show. What people saw here was completely scripted, and it’s the same show I’m going to be doing in Islamabad. Though, we are always adding and subtracting bits here and there.

Unfortunately, since the show is in English, there’s only a number of times you can do it before you run out of audiences who can speak [or understand] English and who want to come to the show. In countries like England, you can do the same show for years. America’s Seinfeld is a very good example of someone who publicly ‘retired’ his material. He had performed it so many times that on one standup tour he actually announced he would not use any old material ever again. This is a very brave thing for a comedian to do, because you have all these jokes you know work and you are now going to lay them to rest.

You studied Improvisation formally, as a university subject. Tell us a bit about it.
I studied it very recently. So far, I’ve finished three levels only. The entire course is based on four levels. Then there is the Masters which is the fifth level, and the sixth level is meant for teachers and trainers.

Having said that, with comedy, it’s not like you can go to a school and master it.

We have had our local standup geniuses such as Amanullah and Shakil Siddiqui who are untutored.
There you are.

Any comedian(s) who inspired you?
Well, I’ve been inspired mostly by comedy writers like Anwar Maqsood. Aangan Terha is one of my favourite TV shows.

Most standup acts incorporate crude jokes. What is your take on that?
I don’t think you have to be crude in order to be funny. A lot of comedians aren’t. We do talk about things that other people might not be talking about in public, but we talk about them in a certain way; that’s what make us comedians.

Have you generally found a ‘tolerant’ audience?
Mostly. See, we modify our material according to the place and the audience. For instance, when we go to New York or England, if we aren’t doing it for desi crowds, we take out the desi jokes — no jokes about paan and stuff!

Most standup comedians play on popular stereotypes, don’t they?
They have to, because comedy requires a common knowledge base. If I have a joke about Meera, it will work only if everybody knows about her.

Are there any things about our society that you would spare from satirising?
Religion, obviously.

See, we are here to make people have a good time and not to offend anybody.

Do you think televised shows get you the desired response?
No. The live shows are fantastic. But, we shot The Real News shows in front of a live studio audience, so the laugh track was there and it worked.

Lastly, do you do comedy for a living?
I do. This is my only job and it pay my bills.

Are you very expensive?
I try to be! (laughs out loud)

Ten years down the line, do you see yourself doing the same?
I’ll always continue to do comedy of a certain type, but hopefully I’ll have got into production by then, for television and certainly film. Why, because I fear I’ll get bored with comedy for a while!

Originally published in The News On Sunday – June 20, 2010

Is it curtains for cinema?

With 65 percent entertainment tax back in effect in Punjab, the already frail cinema industry finds itself going to the dogs

By Usman Ghafoor

April this year saw the much-dreaded 65 percent entertainment duty, levied by the Punjab government, come back in effect (it was an olden tax but the government had regularly been offering relaxation and exemption). As a natural corollary, almost all cinema houses across the province jacked up their ticket rates, leaving the common film buff to grumble.

Though the angst of the film viewer cannot be overlooked in this scenario, cinema owners (or exhibitors) like to believe that the imposition of tax is their issue primarily, since it translates into a major drop in business, especially at a time when the industry was barely surviving. One of Lahore’s most popular — and most prosperous — cinema houses, DHA alone registered a sharp drop in audience turnout of up to 30 percent, ever since the hike in ticket rate — from Rs 350 to now Rs 500. Pindi’s multi-screen Cinepax, considered to be the crowning glory of theatre halls in the entire region (including twin city Islamabad), suffered likewise with tickets now priced at Rs 250 for pre-5pm shows and Rs 350 for post-5pm as well as weekend shows — an obvious jump from only about a month-old Rs 200 and Rs 300 respectively. As for smaller centres like Kamonke’s Neelum, Gujranwala’s Zinco Palace and Sargodha’s Shaheen, the current rates are higher by at least Rs 30 and the exhibitors can’t stop complaining.

According to Jahanzeb Baig, the owner of Plaza and Mehfil theatres in Lahore and also the chairman of Pakistan Film Exhibitors Association, “[the tax has meant] total or partial loss to exhibitors all over [Punjab].

The story so far
Early this year, Jahanzeb led a delegation to meet Mian Shahbaz Sharif, requesting him to review the situation. The CM formed a committee that was headed by Senator Pervez Bashir. The committee agreed, in principle, that there ought to be no tax on entertainment, while the secretary finance said there should be 15 percent tax and the secretary excise put it down to 20 percent. Finally, it was decided that the screening of Pakistani films would be exempted from tax but it would remain 65 percent as before, on Indian and English movies, as per the (Punjab) Entertainments Duty Act, 1958.

“The world has changed drastically since 1958,” contends Zoraiz Lashari, the owner of Lahore’s Sozo cinema, talking to TNS. “It is ironic that restaurants which are a booming industry should get away with only 15 percent tax but cinema, despite being a near-finished industry, has to put up with 65 percent.”

According to Lashari, “Basically, the government wants to target the business of four elite cinemas in the region — Lahore’s Cinestar, DHA and Sozo and Pindi’s Cinepax. But it’s the small centres that have ended up suffering the most; they have no choice but to stop screening Indian and English products.”

In April 2010, the cinemas in Punjab were issued notices of arrears of the previous months (starting July 1, 2009), whereby Cinestar had to pay approx Rs 90 lakhs, Gulistan Rs 55 lakhs, and so on. Current tax recovery also began, forcing most cinema owners to readjust their ticket prices. Jahanzeb moved court and took stay order that was to expire on May 15. Eventually, the case was deferred to the larger bench that allowed staggering of arrears.

On the other hand, the projects of new multiplexes that were in the pipeline were now stalled, because the investors saw their margin of profit as reducing by 65 percent.

Zoraiz says the tax was imposed “at the behest of a certain group of [Lollywood] actors and directors who have long contested the import of Bollywood movies. They know they don’t have anything to lose if the tax is imposed; it’s either us or the public that has to suffer.”

There’s another stakeholder in the scheme of things — the importer/distributor. “His cost has increased correspondingly,” says Zoraiz. “If the decision is not reviewed, no distributor will commit to a product, and there will be a vacuum.”

Closely related to this is the fact that Lollywood is not producing many (read any) movies. This year so far, only one film — Channa Suchi Muchi — was released, which proved a washout at the box office. To quote Imran Mumtaz, Head of Operations, Cinepax, the “government has exempted from tax an industry that is not producing any film. So, who gets to benefit actually?”

“These are tough times for cinema. The public has no buying power either. So, the taxation should be reasonable,” he pleads.

Price positioning
Defending the hike in ticket rates, Jahanzeb says, “It’s the dynamic of the business. For instance, Plaza was charging Rs 150, but now it’s charging Rs 200; so, on the face of it, you will say that we raised our ticket fare, but the reality is that we actually only reduced it to Rs 131; the remaining Rs 69 being the tax portion that we’ve had to add. My take-home is Rs 131 now, whereas earlier it was Rs 150. Cinestar and DHA have done the same.”

There’s the rub: the public gets to buy the ticket at the same rate for a Pakistani film, even though the latter is exempted from duty. Jahanzeb has an explanation: “The price positioning is not that of the film, it’s that of the cinema.

“See, if we are a high-end cinema and we are offering exclusive services and charging Rs 400, we are doing so for a blockbuster film as well as for a film that is a dead flop.

“So, strategically and technically, it is always the cinema that creates a price. Those who say why not reduce the rate for a Pakistani film do not understand the business norm.

“However, in this case, the share of profit will be greater for the distributor of a Pakistani film, which means that actually the loss is that of the importer as well as the exhibitor.”

Not cine-goer friendly
As the picture emerges, the entire package deal remains anything but cine-goer friendly. Both Jahanzeb and Imran agree but they insist that the direct effect that the government wanted to achieve –that if Pakistani films are declared tax-free, they will begin to prosper — is only “a misappropriation”.

“You can say that this way we may be able to discourage the importers of Indian and English product, but I can assure you we are not exactly promoting our own cinema,” says Jahanzeb. “For us, for many years, the biggest issue has been the fact that people had stopped going to the cinemas. We chose Indian product only to help the situation and to keep the ball rolling, not to create a bad situation for local films. In any case, Lollywood today is kaput; so that should explain our standpoint.

Originally published in The News On Sunday – May 30, 2010

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

Sons not lovers

The next generation of most big film houses in Pakistan is loath to get into the business of cinema. And, they have their reasons

By Usman Ghafoor

Imran Islam, son of the late filmmaker Nazrul Islam. (Photo courtesy: Facebook)
Imran Islam, son of the late filmmaker Nazrul Islam. (Photo courtesy: Facebook)

Raj Kapoor’s RK Films is considered to be one of the Indo-Pak subcontinent’s oldest and most prestigious movie banners. Founded in the year 1948, the banner that produced cult romantics like Barsaat, Awara, Shri 420, Sangam, Mera Naam Joker, Bobby, Prem Rog and Ram Teri Ganga Maili would have died its natural death after Kapoor’s demise in ’88 if it wasn’t for his sons — Randhir, Rishi and Rajiv — who took over the directorial reins like true heirs and have kept the RK flag flying (although not as high) since.

There are numerous other examples of film ‘dynasties’ on the other side of the border, but Pakistan has not been too fortunate here. Consider this: Late Nazrul Islam, Lollywood’s prize import from Calcutta and certainly a proud chapter (spanning 36 long, productive years) in our movie history, left behind a cache of memorable films like Aina, Zindagi, Bandish, Nahin Abhi Nahin, Love Story and Khwahish, but his son Imran Islam was to only get into television and not cinema. The granddaddy of film production in Pakistan, Agha G A Gul’s proud scions — Shahzad Gul and Sajjad Gul — were handed down one of Lahore’s most prominent Evernew Studios but not quite a passion for cinema. Or, so it seems. While Shahzad has said an unofficial goodbye to films (his last Chalo Ishq Larraen happened in 2002!) in favour of a more lucrative hardware import business, big brother Sajjad is busy churning out TV serials. Shabab Kairanvi’s is an even sadder story. Zafar Shabab and Nazar Shabab, the two sons of Lollywood’s first official ‘showman’ were actively involved in film during Kairanvi’s lifetime, not later. While Zafar passed away in oblivion, Nazar has been lying low, away from the media glare as well as the industry. Both S Suleman and Shamim Ara, on the other hand, never got their children into films, so they cannot expect their banners to remain alive, post-retirement.

The question arises: could the next generation of Lollywood’s big film houses be accused of not carrying forward the glorious legacy of their forefathers?

The argument, Imran Islam points out, is rooted in the very fact that Lollywood is presently “dead and buried. In fact, it’s been dead and buried for the past almost two decades now. No sane producer will invest his money in films today.” An occasional actor and a busy TV producer, Islam says he does not feel “obliged” to make films “just because I am Nazrul Islam’s son”.

Though, he claims he has “the potential to make Pakistan’s best film ever”. “I am not going to get into the business of films until the ground is prepared for it,” he declares, mincing no words. Imran Malik, one of the two sons of late Pervez Malik, another film giant in the 1970s and 80s, puts it more succinctly, “In order for somebody to make a film in these times, he/she has got to be really crazy [about films].”

Malik’s last big-screen outing, Tere Bin Jiya Na Jaaye(2005), was a box-office washout that caused him a huge loss — “Rs 20 million, to be precise”. No wonder he returned to the small screen which his father had also gotten into in his later days. Today, he is a successful producer of drama serials.

However, Malik says he hasn’t given up on cinema. “We’re toying with two film ideas. We hope to be able to generate funds for them.” Was the situation completely different in earlier times, or was the former generation more passionate about films?

Lollywood producer Agha Shahzad Gul, on location in Manila, during the shoot of GHAR KAB AAO GE.
Agha Shahzad Gul, the inheritor of Agha G A Gul’s legacy. Seen here on location in Manila, during the shoot of  ‘Ghar Kab Aao Ge.’

According to Malik, it was a bit of both, “whereas the new generation [of film makers] “thinks more in terms of profit and loss. It is hung up on instant rewards. Our elders weren’t.”

“Give me one person who is ‘dreaming it’ and not interested to know how much he’ll be paid for the job!” says Imran Islam. “My father lived from hand to mouth but he never gave up on films. I sometimes curse myself for not sharing that kind of passion and not taking the initiative.”

Islam also shares a little secret: “All ideas that I generate for my plays are better suited to cinema. I can’t help it. I can think only in cinema’s language; I am so fascinated by it. But I must consume my ideas on TV. The reason, again, is my bread and butter and my comfort. If I collapse financially [after one film], I will not be able to make both ends meet, let alone make another film.”

Originally published in The News On Sunday – May 2, 2010

Mamma… don’t preach

No serious theatre, it may just be feel-good musical extravaganza. But that’s what Nida Butt’s Mamma Mia! means to be

By Usman Ghafoor

Mamma Mia!It’s about the pre-DNA-test times., clearly. Twenty-year-old Sophie is not sure who — of the “100” former lovers of her mom Donna — is her (biological) father. Neither can Donna know. But Sophie must find him out soon, because her big day is round the corner and she wants her father to give her away. Through a secret diary of Donna, Sophie learns that it could be one of three men — Sam, Harry and Bill. So she writes to all of them, inviting them to attend the wedding. Again, the men are also not sure if she’s their child. But they show up at the fairytale “island” where the young, squeaky-voiced Sophie and her feisty, dungarees-sporting mom have a hedonistic existence. Thus begins some conflict and drama.

But that’s not precisely why the play would be titled Mamma Mia! A feel-good Broadway musical of 1999 whose roaring success spawned a number of British and American theatrical productions before it made its way into cinema in 2008, the play obviously has a lot to do with the seventies’ cult disco band Abba, whose timeless hits have perhaps the biggest part in the concept as well as the success of the play. It is said that writer Catherine Johnson crafted the plot to string together as many as 22 songs of Abba, most of which were used with lyrics unaltered. The prize catch was live singing, by all actors on stage. No wonder when our very own Nida Butt decided to bring Mamma Mia! home, it grabbed popular attention. More so because people remembered her from 2008’s Chicago which was also an adaptation of a Hollywood musical and incorporated live singing. (Chicago had 37-odd performances in Lahore and Karachi put together!). Today, her production house — ‘Made for Stage’ — has earned itself a place in the English-language theatre in Pakistan, and how.

A few months after its successful run at a theatre in Karachi, Nida recently staged Mamma Mia! in Lahore, to an expectedly overwhelming response. Though, an all-Abba musical also meant that those who weren’t fans of the group might choose to stay away. Besides, trying to recreate a lavish Broadway production at the technically impoverished Alhamra had its set of problems. As she bounded up the stage, right after the curtain call, a very agile and articulate Nida spoke to the audience seated inside Hall 1 about how the set had to be manually driven “which is a limitation Broadway wouldn’t have!” and how the mics had to be stuck to the actors’ cheeks, and so on.

Getting together a cast of characters who could also sing — and sing well — was another major concern for Nida. But with Chicago behind her, she had a good measure of confidence. Karachi-based model and actor Sanam Saeed (Donna’s friend Rosie in Mamma Mia!) had had her singing ‘debut’ on stage in Chicago where she had played the lead role of Roxie Hart. Zoe Viccaji as the luscious Tanya was another Chicago-veteran. And so were Osman Mumtaz — Mamma Mia!’s Bill — and Akbar Merchant as Harry. But the three main leads — Kiran Chaudhry, Zahshanne Malik and Omair Rana as Donna, Sophie and Sam respectively — were all working with Nida for the first time. And, it was these three actors who poured some heart and soul into the otherwise all-fluff, sometimes klutzy, plot proceedings.

Kiran, an Oxford educated lawyer who is also the main vocalist of the up-and-coming, all-girl band called ‘Caramel’, showed a terrific voice, matched only by Omair’s rich baritone. Both actors pulled off high as well as low notes with equal grace and control. While Zahshanne, 17, a trained classical dancer with some acting experience in Karachi’s theatre, was relatively new to singing but she left quite an impact.

The Craze Band boys were responsible for playing live orchestra, while the mammoth task of sound-managing as many as 18 mics simultaneously was handled by music wizard Mekaal Hasan who later termed the theatre hall as “the trickiest”.

Choreographer Wahab Shah’s group also deserves a mention for making the party dances come alive.

Mamma Mia! is not without its share of campy humour. Consider the following dialogue between Tanya and a friend of Sky (Sophie’s love interest):
“I am old enough to be your mother.”
“You can call me Oedipus!”

At another point, the forever-on-a-happy-pill Rosie’s courtship bid to the “spontaneous” Bill where she launches into “Take a chance on me” was charming at the same time as it got numerous laughs and claps from the audience.

Originally published in The News On Sunday — April 25, 2010

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


“I am like putty in the director’s hands” — Zaib Rehman

By Usman Ghafoor

Shoaib Mansoor thinks no one cries as convincingly onscreen as Zaib Rehman does. A lot of her costars in Shoaib’s underproduction Bol regard her as a ‘thinking’ actress. The sequence in the film where she breaks down because her daughter has been given the death sentence is said to be scene stealing. Tell her all this and Zaib squirms, with an obvious sense of unease. “Oh, I’ve absolutely no such illusions about myself as an actor,” she says softly, leaving the interviewer rather intrigued. “I don’t know what is the theory or method of acting; I just try to follow the director’s instructions. Period.

“You can say that I’m a director’s actress,” she concludes, rather defiantly.

As we settle in the exquisitely done, lower-ground drawing room of her large (read luxurious) mansion, led downstairs by a panel of speckless wooden stairs, where everything that meets the eye is satin and silk, one cannot miss a degree of serenity on her face. It’s a quality that should be common only to women of substance. An LLM from the University of Punjab, Zaib is today a successful entrepreneur — the CEO of Memaar Associates (she describes herself as a “builder”!) — but the television audiences know her primarily as the powerhouse performer of such PTV classics of the 1980s as Andhera Ujala, Ragon Mein Andhera, Shikayatein Hikayatein and several other thought-provoking plays. And, it was this penchant for ‘thought-provoking’, meaningful drama that attracted her to such TV geniuses of the time as Muhammad Nisar Hussain (aka MNH), Ayub Khawar and, finally, Dr Enver Sajjad — the man she went on to marry.

A proud wife (“Dr saheb and I are great friends with each other; we aren’t your typical husband-wife!” she enthuses) and mother of two grown-up daughters, Zaib likes to spend time with her family. Socialising isn’t her scene, she says. “When I am free from work, I like to be home. This helps keep my sanity intact. I listen to music, watch a lot of movies and I am a big foodie, too. Of course, I exercise religiously.”

Acting, she adds, was never a priority. But she admits she is open to substantial offers “particularly of films. After MNH’s death, I stopped doing TV”. Her last stint on small screen, Pehli Si Mohabbat, happened eight years ago. It was penned by her scriptwriter cum actor hubby. Later, Zaib famously dubbed for the characters played by Irene Papas, in the Urdu versions of The Message and Lion of the Desert. Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol seems to have come just at the right time “when film is all that interests me”. She is all charged about the character she plays in the film. One has got to see her on the sets to believe it. Her childlike enthusiasm shows through, just like her ageless grace and poise. For Zaib Rehman, life after 40 has only just begun.

It’s after a gap of many years that you’re returning to showbiz. What kept you away all this while?
Well, honestly speaking, I didn’t even realise so many years had passed. I was busy raising my children, managing home and my own business enterprise.

Isn’t acting kind of addictive?
If you ask me, acting was never a priority. So that should explain why I wasn’t ‘addicted’ to it, as you say. I worked for as long as I liked it. After MNH (Muhammad Nisar Hussain)’s death, TV was never the same. So I called it quits.

What tempted you to sign on Shoaib Mansoor’s film?
Obviously, Shoaib Mansoor’s name itself. No question about that. I was thrilled to bits when I got his call. I didn’t even ask about the story line; I said yes rightaway.

How did you find his style of working?
It’s great. Simply. In fact, Shoaib saheb reminded me of MNH. I was ushered on the sets that had the same ambience, the same seriousness about work, the same attention to detail.

Bol is your first film, right?
Right. But I am hoping we have more of such films and film makers here in Pakistan. Bol has been a very refreshing experience. Here I am, working among a bunch of educated, well behaved youngsters most of whom are film graduates from NCA or BNU. Look at the young girls who play my daughters; they’re all doing amazingly well. Finally, there’s a film that doesn’t rely on the infamous ‘bazaar’. This film should prove to be a turning point in the history of our cinema.

Interestingly, you never had a chance to work with Shoaib Mansoor on TV, did you?
No. I worked mostly with MNH and, later, with Yawar Hayat, Ayub Khawar and Rashid Dar.

Do you have any fond reminiscences of MNH that you can share with us?
Well, he was a very organised man. And he knew his scripts like the back of his hand. He wouldn’t overlook a single stress or a single pause in a line. He’d make us rehearse for a good ten to fifteen days before we hit the floors. We were required to carry a pen and a notebook all through the rehearsals. He was an institution for us.

Which was your first acting assignment on TV?
It was Drama 81’s Shikayatein Hikayatein, written by Bano apa.

Almost all the characters you played onscreen were strong, forceful women. Did you ever play lighter roles?
No. But then I don’t know if I can play them at all!

Your plays with Dr Enver Sajjad were mostly surrealistic. Did you ever face any difficulty performing your parts?
Not at all. Sab khud hi ho jata tha!

That means you are a spontaneous performer?
I don’t know. Perhaps, I am, in the sense that I don’t know anything about the art or craft of acting and yet I am acting.

Would you call yourself a director’s actress?
Completely. I am like putty in the director’s hands.

Ever considered doing the kind of soap operas private TV channels are churning out these days?
No way. I am not comfortable doing serials, let alone soaps that go on and on. I am not trained in that format. I think I am good only for single plays. A single, complete play requires a unity of mood; it’s easy for an actor to sustain that mood throughout. Whereas in a serial, the mood is lost. At least, I feel that way.

Are you your worst critic?
I sure am; that is why I never see my performances on TV. This can depress me, you know! (laughs).

What about doctor saheb? Is he critical of your work?
Well, first and foremost, he’s a teacher and an inspiration. He bucks me up every time I am down. But my daughters are my harshest critics.

If you were asked to define your relationship with him, what would you say?
I’d say, he’s a wonderful companion.

Was it easy for you to come out of his shadow?
I love being under his shadow, and I’d not like the situation to change. It gives me a great sense of security. I am not one of those female chauvinists who rant about their individuality and superiority over men, blah blah. I am a mother and a friend. And I am not a typical wife.

Are you a movie buff?
Big-time. The funny thing is, whenever I watch a movie, I watch it from the production point of view.

You were acting at a time when TV was ruled by star performers like Roohi Bano, Khalida Ryasat, Sarwat Ateeq, Uzma Gilani and Tahira Naqvi. Did you socialise with them?
No, unfortunately, I didn’t. I’d be occupied with my own things all the time. Otherwise also, I am not a social person. Whatever socialising I get to do is thanks to doctor saheb because he has guests over. It’s compulsive socialising.

When did you start your own business?
In 2002.

What is your average workday like?
Let this be a secret, please! (smiles) Let me just say I am a gym person. I do cardio regularly. But I don’t diet; I am a big foodie.

Is there a secret of your timelessness?
I think the secret is positivity. I try to stay positive. I mind my own work and don’t indulge in family politics.

Are you a reader?
No. With doctor saheb around, I don’t need to be. He is a walking, talking book. So, I just listen to him. That’s it.

(Photo by Fazal Ahmad)

Originally published in The News On Sunday – March 7, 2010

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

House of music

Hanif Tayyab’s The Music Gallery has some rare features

By Usman Ghafoor

TMG, short for The Music Gallery, a classically done three-roomer, housed in Lahore’s modest Muslim Town, is already a place with a ‘mixed’ identity. It’s a gallery cum music shop cum event & celebrity management company. What’s more, it is a place where you can book DJ Hanif Tayyab’s expert services for a party or an event.

A self-confessed “passionate” “lover of music”, Hanif, 43, is the person behind TMG — it was his idea to convert an old, ground-floor house space that had been lying unused by his family. Launched in December last year, the place today is a haunt — if not a haven — for music lovers from around the city.

Though it’s hard to detect from the outside, the ambience of the place is quite fetching: lines and lines of mounted LP covers and posters of some of the world’s most celebrated music artists (Hanif’s “prize collection”) stare down from the dimly lit walls on the various, geometrical-shaped wooden racks with CDs arranged in order of genres, a high-end music system (boy, it’s a 400-CD changer!) that is perched upon a wrought-iron deck, and a precise, few-people sitting area in the middle. The pattern is repeated in the adjoining rooms. Music is playing here all the time.

Photos by the author.

The place is sure to draw you in and also, depending on your taste in music, transport you mentally into another world. “People walk in and enjoy their favourite artists over a drink or a cup of tea/coffee. It’s both formal and informal environment,” says Hanif, talking to The News.

It’s also a one-stop music shop where you can pick from a wide (“rare”, in Hanif’s words) variety — Jazz, rock, percussion, oldies, classical, original soundtracks (OSTs), unplugged, children’s music, world music, party music and what not — all under one roof. Except that “we don’t do check-CDs-on-head-phones, which some big music stores do. Rather we play our customers’ favourite track/music on the system we’ve installed in the gallery,” he reveals.

Most young clients come in to fill their iPods. There is a ‘Menu’ card laid out on a side table that lists the many services afforded by the gallery, vis-à-vis their prices. A single, 6-minute track filling costs Rs 35, whereas personal music selection on CD is for Rs 800.

Hanif admits that he’s “a little expensive, compared to the market, but when you consider our sound quality and time efficiency — we hand over the CD in half an hour’s time — you’ll notice that it’s actually worth it.

“People select a service and tell us the kind of music they are looking for. Our job is to find them their favourites and, also, to suggest them other interesting variety,” Hanif adds. “There’s no song wanted by an individual which is not found in the gallery. We’ve a ready, off-the-rack collection of 20,000 tracks in addition to over 80,000 that are saved digitally.”

In maintaining the lists, Hanif is aided ably by Hasan Malik, a recent BNU graduate, who also looks after the PR and marketing.

Hanif’s own knowledge of music “which I have inherited from my father” coupled with his extensive research in multiple genres of world music helped him start compiling a collection at what is now TMG and also got him proposals to disc-jockey at his friends’ parties. Soon he was doing both things at a professional level. Today, he is one of the most expensive DJs in the country. “I charge up to Rs 40,000 a party!” he declares.

At TMG, Hanif says, “we also promote music teaching and learning”. There are Guitar classes on offer. As for celebrity management, a couple of new artists have been signed on, such as Massarat Abbas — Zee TV’s Sa Re Ga Ma 2007 finalist from Lahore. “Together we are working on his first album.”

When asked if TMG is modeled after a place he’s seen locally or abroad, Hanif says: “No. It was all created by a random thought. As I went along, doing other things like DJ-ing, event management etc, I created a market for the gallery as well.”

What exactly is his target market?

“I am catering to a class/niche audience basically.”

TMG is open seven days a week, from 3pm to 2am. But there is never a moment when music isn’t playing in the gallery.

Originally published in The News On Sunday – Nov 8, 2009

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

“I have a vision for our film industry, which is that it should break free of its shackles” — Shaan

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)

Can you ‘beat’ that?

A showbiz journalist’s life is no less ordinary

By Usman Ghafoor

Showbiz journalism is strange business. Being a part of it means you are vulnerable to all sorts of situations as well as criticisms – from all kinds of people in the creation. Don’t buy this? Picture this: Your colleagues think you aren’t doing ‘real journalism’ (some of them even brand it as ‘lipstick beat’!); your sister’s in-laws aren’t impressed even if you had the rarest chance to meet and talk to Nandita Das or Madhuri Dixit or that you had a (blink-and-you-miss) appearance in Urmila Mataondker’s music video. For a lot of your cousin siblings, you are only as good as a Meera or a Shaan; perhaps, only slightly, better off if you can tell tales of how you had dinner with Aamir Khan (at Shaukat Khanum’s) or what is (our very own) genius Shoaib Mansoor’s next film about. As for the we’re-into-books crowd, things are fine as long as your articles are carried in Instep, Herald or Khaleej Times.

To cut it short, if you are — or ever have been — a showbiz journalist, you are not much of an achiever. You couldn’t possibly be. So much for our pre-fixed, cut-and-dried notions.

I deem myself a lesser mortal anyway, especially when I compare myself with the more established biz journalists — considering the kind of perks they get to enjoy but I don’t, despite my decade-long association with the ‘beat’. A loser, again!

Call it my incompetence, lack of popularity or whatever, but I’ve never got as many offers of jobs from newspaper organisations as I have from the people I went to see for an interview. From Ali Zafar and Abrarul Haq offering me to become their media manager (and earn big bucks), to Meera’s insistence that I look after her ‘affairs’, to Samina Peerzada wanting me to write the script of her next film, to advertising guy Mukhtar who suggested I should quit journalism and start a modelling agency. And so on.

This has also often put me in an awkward spot and my efforts to weasel out have mostly backfired. And, certainly, I learnt that you cannot possibly change ‘popular’ opinion. It’s hard to convince someone when he’s not listening(!).

But, I have no complaints. This ‘beat’ has been an interesting experience through and through. Every celebrity that I’ve met has amused me in one way or the other, whether it was the raspy-voiced, overenthusiastic Meera tripping variously over her ‘angrezi’ or her desperate attempts to stay in the news (“Please print that I am getting married,” she once requested me, adding quickly that it was “only for print!”); dame Reema KHAN’s ‘holier-than-thou’ acts, or Momi Rana’s Zoom TV-induced obsession to appear ‘with-it’.

Meera’s faux pas are legendary. I can still recall how I once asked if she was in love. This was immediately after Inteha had been released. Meera boomed, “Yes, I am in love. Inteha is my boyfriend!”

Meera-isms I can quote many, but this is no space for a gossip column and, sure, my intention is also only to narrate some odd observations and experiences of mine. My problem with a Meera-interview has usually been that it was hard to quote her and not evoke a few laughs when the purpose of the interview was rather serious.

Trust Lollywood numero uno Shaan to do one-up on all of them. A clever expert at handling media, Shaan once refused to give an interview for Herald “unless you print my photo on the cover”. His carefully-worded argument was, “Why can’t you, when Time can print Aishwarya Rai on its cover?”

I was in for greater shock when Shaan offered to agree to a no-cover interview if he was paid Rs 0.1 million instead. “You know, in India, Salman Khan or Aamir Khan demand more than this amount if a newspaper wants to interview them,” he explained.

I was speechless.

That the interview was eventually done, without Shaan making further ado, is history.

Originally published in The News On Sunday – Dec 14, 2008

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

She’s crude and he doesn’t do dirty!

The queen of standup comedy from UK versus the bearded young man from Chicago who made everyone sit up and notice

By Usman Ghafoor

Both of them are extremely funny. British-born-and-bred Shazia Mirza tells of her mother having a “moustache” and walking “five steps behind my father because he looks better from behind”, while Chicago-based attorney-turned-comedian Azhar Usman mimics the speech inflections of “desi aunties” who are talking sweet nothings. Both have their audiences in stitches.

At another occasion, Shazia busts the popular “myth” about a true Muslim who will be rewarded with “72 virgins” in Paradise, by declaring, “It’s actually 72 raisins!” Like a true standup, she asks the crowd seated in front of her, “Who’s a true Muslim here?”

“Do we have a true Muslim here?” she repeats, completely poker-faced, and evokes great laughs.

No prizes for guessing that any heckler will be publicly faced down — right there and then. And, sure, there’s no way that Shazia would make an exception to the religiously conservative. In fact, she loves to have fun at the expense of the ‘fundos’ and has famously got a plethora of ‘sex’plicit jokes at the ready. She relies less on innuendos and comes out with her shocking impudence and chutzpah.

Bearded Azhar Usman stands (up) in stark contrast to Shazia. He does “not do dirty” (to quote his own words). His subjects are our little, big snobberies and human follies as well as religious misfits, but his humour is never coarse. He is helped by an amazing range of facial expressions and hand and body gestures/movements that are funny, to say the least. He is also superb at using his voice to advantage.

Both Shazia and Azhar were an instant ‘hit’ at Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop’s World Performing Arts Festival (due to close tonight) that also saw an array of participating groups from different parts of the globe. Where the festival had its usual theatre, film, puppetry, dance and music events going on at Lahore’s aesthetically decorated Alhamra Cultural Complex, the standup acts were a fresh induction that made every attendant’s ‘night’. There were those — the regular socialites — who had popped in, perhaps, just ‘to see and be seen’ — but a large chunk of the audience at Shazia and Azhar’s gigs seemed to have a fair idea what was there to enjoy.

Dark-skinned (“they often take me for a Mexican guy,” she quipped during her show) Shazia was sure coming with a ‘reputation’. But, this eventually proved to be her best-selling point at the festival. All of her shows had an unprecedented 600+ people packed like sardines inside the not-so-commodious Hall III, with the result that a lot of late-comers had to sit on the carpeted stairs.

Azhar, on the other hand, was new to most people but he pulled in crowds on the strength of a great word-of-mouth. He was a complete revelation, especially for those who thought stand-up comedy — by its very nature — was about crude jokes and sexual innuendos.

(Originally published in The News International – Nov 23, 2008)

The Prozac realities

Depression is more than just an individual’s personal suffering; it affects his family, his home and his work. That makes going to an expert — in this case, a psychiatrist — all the more important. Sadly, the attitude of an average Pakistani society towards any psychological condition is not helpful at all

By Usman Ghafoor

Ever thought how many times you’ve been called a loser because you were ‘not making an effort’ to ‘snap out of it’? Or, because you were ‘taking yourself too seriously’? Also, because you weren’t ‘occupied enough’ which is why you should be ready to take up more work? You might as well be told you ‘deserved it’ so you got it — that it’s some sort of a comeuppance (read divine justice) for you because you often missed your prayers or never stuck to an exercise regimen. Some might even have you try dope and stuff. The catch is, most patients with mild depression don’t look (or behave) ‘a certain way’, and chances are that they will be discouraged to consider their problem, let alone see a specialist.

According to Dr Abdul Shakoor, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Sheikh Zayed Hospital, Lahore, “It is wrong to assume that depression, however mild, could be cured — just like that.

“To try to deal with your mental conditions on your own or to simply ignore the symptoms can have very serious repercussions in the long run,” he says, talking exclusively to TNS.

“Unfortunately, a great number of depressive patients come to us months and years after they started experiencing episodes (of depression). By that time, it’s quite late, in the sense that the problem has aggravated to a point where a lot of patients tend to be suicidal.”

He blames it on a “general lack of awareness and guidance. A lot of people prefer to consult their GP (general physician) and the very idea of seeing a psychiatrist or even a psychologist makes them cringe with fear.

“It must be remembered that our general practitioner is not sufficiently trained and equipped to deal with mental patients.”

However, ruling out any physical disability or ailment is a pre-requisite to putting a psychiatric patient on a treatment. “We must first find out if the patient has a heart problem or a thyroid issue, or he has a history of hypertension or insomnia, and also whether he’s had some kind of an injury. The vitals are recorded and important tests taken, if so required. Only then do we move forward.”

Dr Shakoor says that a person is clinically diagnosed as having depression on the basis of a)symptoms — morbidity, general apathy, negative thinking, sleep and appetite disturbances, and a lack of concentration; b)duration — the symptoms persist for at least two weeks; and c)suffering — not being able to function ‘normally’ in one’s day-to-day life.

Medication may be the next step. Dr Shakoor identifies three main classes of antidepressants that work by bringing certain brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) into the balance required. These neurotransmitters are responsible for our different emotional and mental states, and it is by achieving the ‘right chemical balance’ that most patients with a mental disorder are treated. The most common antidepressants are of the SSRIs group (major brand names: Prozac, Faverin, Zoloft and Cypralex) that act upon the neurotransmitter ‘serotonin’, said to be a major mood influencer. These are also considered safe in the sense that they have the least side effects.

He distinguishes between antidepressants and tranquillisers by saying that the latter are a short-term solution — lasting only about eight hours — whereas the former are medicines that do not show immediate results but they are long-term therapies.

Because most of these medicines are very expensive, a psychiatrist has to sometimes prescribe brands that are cheaper. However, the effectiveness of these drugs remains an issue.

Commonly, if a single episode of depression has occurred, the patient is put on medication for a six months’ time. “We start with a small dose, maybe half a tablet a day, increasing it to one. Within 2 to 3 weeks, the patient should be symptoms-free. Later, a maintenance dose is required for up to four months.”

These are psychoactive drugs and, therefore, the treatment cannot be put an immediate stop to. The medicines are always tapered off.

Lt Col (retd) Ahmad Farjam, Consultant Psychiatrist at Fauji Foundation Hospital, Peshawar, speaks of a more holistic approach to treating patients with depression — what he calls the “bio-psycho-social model”.

He identifies the effective role of the psychiatrist in collaboration with that of a clinical psychologist, a social worker and an occupational therapist. It’s a multi-disciplinary approach whereby “you are taking care of a patient’s physical health (hormonal factor, injury factor, drugs factor, neurotransmitters factor) together with his psychological factors (personality, grooming, education, childhood etc); and also involving a social worker to guide you in the various external stresses (redundancy, displacement, food inflation, bomb blasts etc). The occupational therapist trains the patients to become useful members of the society.

“A psychiatrist alone cannot do much,” he declares.

By nature, depression is a recurrent disorder, says Dr Shakoor. “Because certain ‘triggering’ elements will always stay in our environment or even in our personality.”

Does that mean depression cannot be cured? “Well, by cure if you mean that a disease should be completely uprooted so that it will never occur again, then there’s no cure for any disease in the world.”

To sum up, depression is more than just an individual’s personal suffering; it affects his family, his home and his work. That makes going to an expert — in this case, a psychiatrist — all the more important. And, treatment should be sought before the ailment becomes chronic and life-threatening.

(Originally published in The News International – Oct 12, 2008)

“Capital punishment is mandatory in two situations…” — Prof Javed Ahmed Ghamidi

A dialogue with Prof. Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, religious scholar and President, Al-Mawrid

By Usman Ghafoor & Aoun Sahi

The News On Sunday: Could you tell us about how Islam views capital punishment?
Prof. Javed Ahmed Ghamidi: Human life, property and honour hold a sacred place not just in Islam and other religions but also in secular societies in general. The whole world agrees that if somebody has committed the heinous crime of taking a human life, he ought to be punished. Now, one might ask, as to what should be the nature and the severity of the punishment. In my opinion, the human mind failed to think up one single formula for that, which is where guidance from Allah’s prophets helped us — so that we could be saved from taking one wrong, extreme position or the other.

The Holy Quran clearly lays down that capital punishment is mandatory in two situations: a)when a person kills the other person, and b)when a person becomes a threat to the society/nation as a whole. For no other crime whatsoever, does Islam award the death penalty.

Since there is the possibility of error of judgement in dealing with cases of murder, Islam retains the punishment so that nobody shall see it as a license to kill.

At the same time, it also shows us the path of ‘afu o darguzar‘ (forgiveness). For instance, it ordains that if the victim’s heirs agree, the murderer can be condoned.

As for crimes against humanity — what the Quran terms as ‘fasaad fil arz‘ — the court of law has the right to award the capital punishment but it also has the option of banishing the offender from the country/state/land.

To sum up, Islam ordains punishment as a deterrent for crime. But it also states how the punishment should be given so that the courts may not take undue advantage. And, finally, it shows the path of forgiveness.

Law informs the extreme options of the punishment, and the judge is bound to consider the circumstances of the offender and give the verdict. History tells us how once Hazrat Umar (RA) forgave a person who had committed theft, considering that the country had seen a period of famine.

Does the state have the right to announce general pardon, maybe in honour of its martyred leader?
No. This used to be the practice of the kings; it’s not the done thing in a civilised and a democratic society/country. The kings would forgive prisoners when there was an occasion of, say, a prince’s coronation or birthday. The idea was to reinforce the sovereignty of the ruler. But in a democratic state/government where the rule of law prevails, an individual does not have the right to make such decisions. And, I am not just talking from the religious point of view. If the court of law has found someone guilty, how can the state announce pardon? This is against the law as well as the norms of a civilised society. If you want to pay tribute to your leader, there can be a hundred other ways of doing so.

The interpretation of ‘fasaad fil arz‘ seems to have varied from time to time. When Pakistan was created, there were precisely two punishments set for the offender; today, we have more than 20. Comment.
See, the punishments that were set in our penal code are not based on the dictates of the Holy Quran. They are an amalgam of contradictions. Islam clearly distinguishes a ‘simple’ crime from ‘fasaad fil arz‘. For example, stealing is a simple offence; if it becomes a dacoity, it falls into the category of ‘fasaad fil arz‘. Likewise, ‘zina‘ is a simple crime but ‘zina bil jabr‘ is ‘fasaad fil arz‘.

The same goes for a simple act of killing — ‘qatl‘ — and acts of terrorism.

Don’t you think that awarding capital punishment projects Islam as a retributive religion?
Islam gives death penalty when there is no room for reformation of the criminal. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) used to especially request the victim’s family to forgive the culprit. If granted, forgiveness can — in a lot of cases — help put an end to age-old differences or feuds between traditional enemies. The idea is to strike a balance in the society.

In Canada, capital punishment has been done away with, which is cited as one reason for the reduction in crime rate. Can we, as a state, introduce similar changes in our judicial system, even if on trial basis?
The purpose is not just to punish the offender — of course, conditions apply — but also to ameliorate the society by setting an example (‘ibrat‘). In Saudi Arabia, murderers are executed in public for the very same reason. This has yielded positive results.

Our social system is faulty to the core. There are so many factors that contribute towards causing crime, such as unemployment and inflation. Life has become hard for the common man. Suppose we choose to amend the punishment, what do you think should the alternative be?

…maybe 25 years’ imprisonment?
That is the most harrowing form of punishment anyone can get; the person is alive but his life has become a living hell. He is at the mercy of the jailors. He is deprived of his children, his wife and his near and dear ones. His children are deprived of their father, his wife her partner. Then the children are condemned to see their father behind bars and must also live with the social ‘stigma’ attached to being imprisoned. I consider this punishment itself against human rights.

On the other hand, when you have buried your dead, you gradually get over the mourning period and move on with life. Life imprisonment is a more recent phenomenon; it became common only in the last couple of centuries.

Is murder a crime against the society/state or the individual?
Both. It’s a crime against the victim and his family as well as against the state or society. So, it has an individual aspect as well as collective. Quran lays down that the opinion of the victim’s family does not count if the state thinks capital punishment is imperative. But if there is the question of seeking forgiveness, the state cannot offer it without the consent of the victim’s family.

In other words, Quran precludes committing a crime thinking that forgiveness can always be got later on.

In our country, the state allows forgiveness if the victim’s family has no issues. Comment.
Again, it is against the principles of Quran.

But we also find that Muslim countries such as Uzbekistan have abolished capital punishment.
Well, this way you are depriving the society of the balance that Allah wants us to maintain. It’s a human folly that man tries to decide things for which he does not have the required logical basis. So, he is always wavering between one extreme and another. Allah gave Shariah in affairs where man was handicapped to decide things. In deciding a punishment for a criminal, 10 different people are likely to come up with 10 entirely different things. So, whose word will be law?

What importance does Fiqah hold in this issue?
Fiqah is a human affair and, like all human affairs, it is affected by circumstances. That is why, whatever law was made by the Islamic jurists had flaws in it. Shariah is the given.

Islam also speaks of ‘an eye for an eye’ and so on. Is it to maintain a kind of a proportionality?
It is up to the victim to demand this sort of a punishment. ‘Qisaas‘ means that Allah gives you this right and also wants to teach the offender the importance of human life and human body parts.

What would you say about the concept of ‘wali‘ in our society? There have been cases where, for instance, a man killed his daughter; he held his son guilty while declaring himself as the ‘wali‘ and ordered forgiveness for his son. Don’t such things point to lacunas in our judicial system?
That points to flaws in our judicial system. Here, if somebody has been wronged, it is least likely that he will want to take the matter to the court, because of the various hassles involved.

In my view, the fault with our existing judicial system is that it fails to consider the conditions/circumstances in which the crime was committed.

Originally published in The News On Sunday — July 20, 2008

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

“What’s wrong with this contradiction?” — Sabiha Sumar

By Usman Ghafoor

A routine conversation with multiple award-winning film maker Sabiha Sumar can easily turn into a debate on President Musharraf’s policies being dictatorial or otherwise. “You can’t judge the situation as a blanket thing,” she argues, “Ok, we had one military dictator who was terrible for the country — Gen Ziaul Haq — but I found in President Musharraf a very progressive, benevolent and secular-minded person.”

Her statements gradually take on a more assertive tone, “That’s what the country needs. I don’t believe that ballot box or voting will bring democracy. It’s not going to get us anywhere. We are not a democratic-minded people. We are a feudal minded people.” Period.

We are talking with reference to her latest documentary, titled Dinner With the President, that recently won Sabiha the grand Anasy Documentary Award in Dubai; but back home, it has provoked a mixed response even from those who knew of Sabiha’s works and held her with great regard, especially post-Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters; 2003), her first feature film. One of her earlier works, Who Will Cast the First Stone? — a hard-hitting documentary on women prisoners in Zia’s ‘Islam-ised’ Pakistan — had got her the prestigious Golden Gate Award at San Francisco Film Festival, in the year 1998. Dinner… comes as a ‘surprise’, so to say, because it discusses (read endorses) a military dictator’s “vision of democracy”.

Sabiha accepts the ‘blame’, saying “We have lived for 60 years with the contradiction that a feudal woman or man had a democratic vision. So, tell me what’s wrong with this contradiction?”

Karachi-born Sabiha attended Sarah Lawrence College, New York, where she studied Film making and Political Science, before she went on to make her first film. Later, she attended Cambridge for a course in History.

The News On Sunday: Your documentary, Dinner With the President, has come out at a time when Pervez Musharraf isn’t a very popular person. What kind of response were you expecting for the film?
Sabiha Sumar: Well, the whole film is about a very broad question — that is, how democracy will come to Pakistan. It takes stock of our country which is tribal and feudal. The point is that democracy comes out of the bourgeoisie tradition, it comes out of the French Revolution, and it stands for the primacy of the individual rights. Now, where in Pakistan do you have that concept? What do the people of Pakistan want? Dinner With the President addresses all these questions. So, in my view, the popularity of the President or the lack of it doesn’t have anything to do with the film.

What prompted the idea, in the first place?
Back in 2004, my co-director and I were looking around the country, and we felt that President Musharraf was introducing a lot of changes but he wasn’t finding support among the liberals in Pakistan. For example, he had worked on the Hudood Ordinance, tried to remove the religious column, among other things. But, he didn’t find any support.

On the other hand, we also noticed that before 9/11, President Musharraf had already started banning Taliban and other jihadi outfits. Why would he do that before 9/11 itself? What was the threat he saw to the army, or to the country? It wasn’t at the behest of American policies that he wanted to ban the Islamic extremists. Our question was why. So, that is what prompted the film.

Would you say that the film — directly or indirectly — glorifies Musharraf? Don’t you find discussing a military dictator’s “vision of democracy” to be a contradiction in terms?
Yes, but it’s time we learnt to live with contradictions. We have lived for 60 years with the contradiction that the feudal woman or man had a democratic vision. So, tell me what’s wrong with this very contradiction? We have already told ourselves that we have no choice. We are cheating ourselves as a nation. All we are doing is legitimising feudal rules, corrupt rules, in the name of law and democracy.

See, I can’t have a knee-jerk reaction and say that everybody in uniform is bad. I will never say that. If one military dictator was terrible for the country — Gen Ziaul Haq — I found in President Musharraf a very progressive, benevolent and secular minded person. And I think that is what the country needs.

After the people’s verdict in the Feb 12 elections, would you still maintain your viewpoint?
What verdict of people are you talking about? As far as I know, the people who voted were those who were dragged out in buses and trucks to the polling stations. You know, on Feb 8, this year, I went back to the woman farmer who features in my documentary also, and asked her who she was going to vote for and why. And she said she’d vote for whoever her family people voted for. I asked her what were her expectations? She looked at me blankly, and replied, “I don’t have any expectations. What difference would it make anyway? Our condition has remained the same and it will remain the same.”

So, if you say that the practice of ballot box can establish a democratic system, it’s a huge misunderstanding. You are keeping the entire people in the dark. I don’t believe that ballot box voting could bring democracy. It is not going to get us anywhere. We are not a democratic-minded people. We are a feudal-minded people. That’s what our leaders represent, and that’s what’s happening in the country. Can you not see?

Democracy is a central practice. It’s about individual rights, and it’s about individuals being more important than the State itself. Now, where do you find that importance for individuals in this country?

What do you have to say about Musharraf sacking the Chief Justice of the apex court on March 9 last year?
A lot of these things happen in a democracy, too. Look at what Nawaz Sharif did to the judiciary; look at what he did to the journalists; he put Sethi in jail. A lot of other journalists were threatened. In my film, Khaled Ahmed, a leading journalist, talks very openly about the same. He says that it’s a contradiction but it’s true that this military man has an intellectualised vision for the country. The whole country is full of pseudo-intellectuals who have no understanding of the country, and it’s pointless to go on like this.

How do you justify a military person toppling a democratically-elected prime minister?
It is very much justified. How can you say it’s not justified? If you remember correctly, on Oct 12, 1999, the President was on a plane together with 180 civilian passengers, and while he was in the air, Nawaz Sharif ordered the plane not to land. It kept circling and was lacking fuel. It would have crashed with 180 civilians. But because he was a democratically-elected prime minister, so he could get away with anything.

The film starts with the strong assumption that Musharraf has a “vision of democracy”. Comment.
Very much so. That’s my assumption. I am the film maker. It’s my journey. And, it’s not about having an assumption, it’s about having a curiosity about his vision. The vision was making itself apparent in the kind of changes he wished to bring about.

What is the worst criticism that you have received so far, for Dinner…?
That it’s outdated.

Maybe because you completed the film a few years earlier?
Well, it was shot over a period of three years — 2005, 06 and 07. One version of it was released in October 2007, in 200 countries simultaneously, and 300 million viewers got to see the movie. Then, a larger version — of 82 minutes — was released at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute of Film in January. In America, we’re releasing the film in November this year.

By “release” do you mean a festival or a theatrical screening?
No, it will be a TV broadcast.

When you set out to make Khamosh Pani, your first feature film, what kind of audience did you have in mind? Did you envisage that the film might end up in festivals?
I never make films just for festivals. I always make films for a very broad audience. I believe that if you make a film well, it should have a universal value to it — human values that everybody should be able to identify with. So, this film was really made for a worldwide theatrical release, which it got. It was distributed everywhere in the world and then it was released on some television stations and shown in international film festivals, and it won some 17 awards.

Khamosh Pani was also the first Pakistani film to release in theatres in India in 35 years. It ran side by side with Veer Zara and other major Bollywood blockbusters to full houses for 11 weeks in Mumbai, Delhi and other cities.

Why couldn’t you release it in cinemas in Pakistan?
Well, because the people here weren’t interested in distributing the film.

Who did the funding for Dinner…?
Mainly Sundance Institute. I basically sell my ideas to the commissioning editors and broadcast companies.

Originally published in The News On Sunday – July 13, 2008

The Shoman must go on!

With Khuda Key Liye’s success behind him, Shoaib Mansoor has already moved on to his next celluloid outing – a multi-crore project for Bollywood

By Usman Ghafoor

Shoaib Mansoor.
Shoaib Mansoor.

For his very first cinematic venture, Shoaib Mansoor named his production company as SHOMAN – using the initial letters from his own name. He didn’t have the foggiest idea that soon he’d actually turn out to be one big showman of a film maker Pakistan has ever seen. Khuda Key Liye – the most unexpected hit of last year – soared heights of box office glory while also winning critical appreciation on the home front as well as in India where the film got a standing ovation at Goa’s International Film Festival. Accolades and awards followed Shoaib wherever he took his film for screening – be it at Cairo or Berlin. It also became the first mainstream Pakistani film that had an official – not to mention, a very successful – theatrical release in UAE, USA and India (earlier, Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani had had a limited release abroad). In Mumbai alone, Khuda… secured the status of a ‘hit’ despite it being a very serious movie that was also without any ‘masala’ or popular stars (for Indian audiences) – the kind of ingredients that make a usual, Bollywood blockbuster. No wonder Shoaib was larded with offers to direct films, from across the border.

Being uber-selective that he famously is, Shoaib has so far given his nod only to Percept Pictures, the company that distributed Khuda… in India. Budgeted at a staggering Rs 55 crore, the film (not yet titled) is likely to have stars from both India and Pakistan. In an exclusive interview with Movie Mag International, the celebrated TV-director-turned-film-maker spills the beans on his second celluloid outing and more. Over to Shoaib…

Are you satisfied with the kind of low-key publicity Khuda Key Liye was given in India? There are Indian film critics who have said on record that the film could have fared better at the box office, had it been promoted the way most Bollywood films are. Comment.
Well, my answer to this will be both YES and NO. ‘No’, because there are a great many levels to which a film can be promoted. And, ‘yes’, because my film did not have a Shahrukh Khan or an Aamir Khan. For the Indian audiences, it was a ‘strange’ film that starred ‘aliens’; I mean, they knew only Naseeruddin Shah. And, let me tell you, initially, every big company that we contacted showed little interest in Khuda Key Liye.

Shaan, then, is completely justified when he says that he wouldn’t be a part of such a ‘smallish’ premiere that was supposed to be a historic event?
I am shocked to hear that. It’s very unfortunate that these people can’t estimate themselves realistically. I mean, one should know one’s worth or worthlessness. When Shaan said whatever he did, he should have realised that Pakistan film industry has no image abroad; in fact, it’s an embarrassment to even own it. It was only after we had screened Khuda Key Liye at Goa’s festival that we found takers for us.

Otherwise, no one was interested in a Pakistani film. And, to tell it like it is, this bad image of the industry isn’t my doing.

Secondly, the film’s premiere could have been bigger if our stars had bothered to participate in it. But most of them chose to stay back – for one lame reason or another. At least Shaan should not complain about what the event was like. He should ask himself what could’ve happened if he had attended it. He’d have producers all around him.

Why don’t you sort out differences with Shaan? Or, is it that you don’t want to…?
It’s not like that. In fact, I am extremely impressed with Shaan’s talents. So much so that I’d never want to work with any other actor if only Shaan was a bit wiser and learnt to act more professionally.

There are rumours that you’re going to direct for a big production house in India?
Well, a lot people have been talking to me. I’m still getting calls. But, my answer to all of them is that I don’t take too many projects at a time. So, I signed on one film only with Percept Pictures. I’ve signed the MoU. They were after me since they saw Khuda Key Liye, but I took my time. I told them that I’d work on my own terms.

Aren’t they pressing you to add ‘masala’ to the film?
No way! They’ve assured me that I am free to script whatever I like. They’ve also given me the freedom to choose whichever actors I want.
See, my point is that a film can entertain and also be a hit, without the song-and-dance routine, mindless comedy etc.

What attraction would you have for directing a film for Bollywood?
I’d rather call it ‘incentive’. Well, my major incentive is the fact that for once I’ll be making a film where I’ll be the writer and the director and not have to bother with other jobs such as catering etc. I am happy that all such things will be looked after by a team of professionals.

Have you been approached by any Lollywood producers, too?
None whosoever! (smiles)

What happened to the sequel to Khuda Key Liye?
When I wrote the film, I had envisaged a sequel. I had shaped its ending in such a way. My sequel would take off from the point Iman Ali’s character returns to the tribal village and opens a school for girls. It’s a hostile environment that she has gone back to. But, after the kind of attitude I’ve had to put up with, through the filming of Khuda Key Liye, I can’t even think of attempting a sequel, because that would mean working with the same team and inviting the same sort of troubles all over again.

You also script your productions. Would you be comfortable if you were to film somebody else’s script?
Never. (Period)

Who are the actors you’d love to work with, in the future?
I haven’t seen a lot of films, so I wouldn’t know a lot of them. But, I am impressed by Naseer(uddin Shah) and Aamir Khan.

Originally published in Movie Mag International — July 2008

“A good film is a story well told” — Mehreen Jabbar

Mehreen Jabbar talks about Ramchand Pakistani and more

By Usman Ghafoor

The global success of Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Key Liye, Mehreen Jabbar contends, has “given a fresh hope for the revival of cinema in Pakistan”.

Herself an acclaimed TV producer of such serials as Kahaniyaan, New York Stories, Pehchan and Putli Ghar, and an educated director, Mehreen is now claiming spotlight for her first big-screen venture, titled Ramchand Pakistani.

The film is a Pak-US coproduction, inspired from a true story that was developed for cinema by popular playwright Muhammad Ahmed.

Due for an international release, Ramchand… was recently screened at Robert De Niro’s Tribecca Film Festival, NY, besides having had special showings at Seattle and Locarno Film fests.

The film’s global appeal lies, aside from its story, in its unique casting that brings together critically acclaimed Indian actress Nandita Das with seasoned Pakistani actors like Nouman Ejaz and Maria Wasti. Khaleej Times had an exclusive interview with her, excerpts from which follow:

Can we call your film art-meets-commercial?

I generally avoid putting films in boxes or labelling them as art or commercial. I think a good film is a story well told, that engages and moves people. I do hope that Ramchand Pakistani fulfils that definition.

What kind of cinema did you set out to make, when you started in films?

I started work as a television director. In the last 10 years and more, working as a director and producer, I’ve developed a number of themes and story lines focusing more on tele films than serials, because I prefer stories that end in 30-120 mints and don’t go on endlessly for months.

What kind of films do you consider as your ‘competition’?

I don’t regard films as competition. The more films there are, the better it is for the film industry and for the audiences. At this stage, Pakistan is in dire need of all kinds of cinema and there needs to be a consistent stream of films coming out from the country in order for there to be a revival of sorts.

Was film a technically different medium from TV plays that you’d shot with a single camera?

Our film was shot on a F900 Cinealta HDCAM which is a top-of-the-line HD camera. It will be transferred to 35mm to be projected in cinemas. Many films like The Collateral, Star Wars, Once Upon A Time in Mexico, etc were shot on HD. The reason we went for this format was that I wanted to shoot in sync sound and not dub. Besides, we were filming in remote parts of the country where it would have been very difficult to get the film developed to be checked daily. The post production was done in New York.

Ramchand Pakistani has an interesting mix of actors from TV and film. Was that a conscious choice?

All the actors in the film were cast according to the roles, and I respect each and every one of them. Nandita Das is the only actress from India, the rest are all noted TV actors from Pakistan.

You have worked with Nandita Das earlier also. How was the experience?

Nandita and I have been friends for a while now. We bonded famously well when she visited Pakistan for the first KaraFilm Festival in 2001, and since then we’d been wanting to work together. It was effortless working with her and I really value all the input she gave during the process of the making of the film.

Tell us something about the film’s real hero – the wonder child.

Syed Fazal Hussain, who plays Ramchand, is a mischievous and naughty child, full of energy and curiosity while also having a very high intelligence level. It was very important to find the right face for this part and we are so blessed that we found Fazal who is a natural talent.

For your very first celluloid venture, why did you choose Ramchand’s story? What kind of cinematic appeal did you find in it?

My father, Javed Jabbar, who is also the producer of the film met this father and son in Thar where he has worked on a voluntary basis for the last few decades. He (Javed Jabbar) wrote the first draft of the story himself, and showed it to me after which Muhammad Ahmed came on board and wrote the screenplay. I found the story so compelling and powerful that my interest in making this film was immediate.

My mother, Shabnam, also encouraged me a great deal and supported us through the project by investing a considerable amount in the film and by being an active and valuable member of the team. The story while being a simple tale of a family that is separated for no fault of theirs is also about the politics of the region, and deals with the very contemporary and tragic story of forgotten prisoners who cross into India or Pakistan by accident and end up lost in the system.

Tell us briefly about the kind of films you grew up on?

I grew up on a lot of European films and later Iranian films. But what first inspired me to make a film was Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay as well as this Italian director called Vittorio De Sica who made The Bicycle Thieves.

Currently, I follow a lot of Iranian, Turkish and German directors.

There are such incredible films being made all over the world. I hope they become easily accessible to more and more people in Pakistan. I also love Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal.

Give us your honest opinion on Khuda Key Liye?

I think Khuda Key Liye is a very important film and I admire and deeply respect Shoaib Mansoor for having had the courage and the vision to tell a story like this. It has given us hope for the true revival of Pakistani cinema.

Who are the actors you’d love to work with?

There are so many all over the world and in Pakistan. The list would be too long for this interview!

You’re currently shooting another TV serial. How come you haven’t moved on to another film?

Making a film is not an easy venture anywhere in the world, and especially in Pakistan. I started work from television and I always go back to it. Meanwhile, planning has started for the second film, but it will take time to materialise. I would love to make another film, and another one after that.

Do you feel attracted towards the entertainmentfilled, complete ‘masala’ movies?

I am open to doing any story or film that moves me. It’s pure instinct when deciding on what story to tell; so whether it has ‘masala’ or not really doesn’t matter.

What kind of an audience are you hoping to get for Ramchand…?

All kinds! Because this is such a universal story; any one can relate to it. I hope that people from all walks of life will come and watch the film.

(Originally published in Khaleej Times – June 30, 2008)

Who’s that guy?

By Usman Ghafoor

Fawad Khan.
Fawad Khan.

Those who have seen Khuda Key Liye think of Fawad Khan as the suave but strong-headed, no-nonsense kind of a person. This image took effect from his convincing portrayal of the budding musician Sarmad who is pulled into the dangerous world of religious extremism. A lot of his fans started associating him with Sarmad and vice versa.

A musician in real life, Fawad first came into limelight as the lead vocalist of Entity-Paradigm (EP), a popular rock band of early 2000s. Later, he appeared in a small-time sitcom, titled Jutt & Bond, where he proved that he had a natural flair for comedy. Khuda Key Liye was a complete departure for this 30-year-old musician-turned-actor who made everyone sit up and notice his uninhibited performance even as he shared screen space – in his very first film – with Lollywood’s undisputed numero uno, Shaan. Fawad’s understated but well-nuanced portrayal of a young, impressionable youth was pitted competently against Shaan’s stellar histrionics. And, the result was a winner. Movie Mag International met with the ‘other hero’ of KKL who was described by renowned Bollywood trade analyst Komal Nahta as “cute” and “instantly likeable”.

What keeps you occupied these days?
I’m running my recording studio. Besides, there are a couple of TV projects that I finished recently. One of them has got to do with public awareness message. It’s titled Satrangi. Otherwise I am lying low.

How come you missed the glorious chance of attending the KKL premiere show in India? Wasn’t it a special occasion for you?
It definitely was. KKL took our cinema to international level. It is also different from the Indian formula. But, I was caught up with some domestic engagements, which required my immediate attention. That’s why I couldn’t make it to India. If I had gone, I would be very honoured to represent my country.

Shaan has come on record to say that he gave the premiere a miss on purpose. He had issues with director Shoaib Mansoor who, he said, didn’t bother to invite him to the show.
Well, as far as I am concerned, Shoaib sahib definitely contacted me. In fact, he insisted that I come along. But, my sister in law was getting married. I couldn’t possibly not attend her wedding.

Indian media has lavished praises on the performances by all actors of KKL. Don’t you think your presence at the premiere would have got you some interesting film project in Bollywood?
See, I’ll repeat that family for me comes first. Opportunities will come. I’ve been really lazy in my eight years of media career. I left the industry three times and came back. So, I don’t think this was THE only chance and I missed it.

Are you ambitious about acting?
I love whatever I do. You don’t always get the kind of work you want to do, but I love acting. I also love music. Whatever I do, I do it from my heart.

Tell us a bit about your band EP. How did it split, in the first place?
When I joined college to do Computers, it wasn’t to my liking. I had joined under some pressure, which is a different story altogether. So, I started a band with friends in college. It was called Paradigm. We used to do underground gigs and cover songs. I suddenly realised that I loved to do vocals. While I was doing Jutt & Bond, I told Zain that we should do the soundtrack for the play. He suggested that I do it in collaboration with Ahmed Ali Butt and Xulfi, my costars in Jutt… That’s when we sat down, made a few songs, and released them as Entity-Paradigm. We began in 2003 and released one album, titled Irtiqa. We toured and held concerts heavily for one year. Then we had some conflicts and decided to split the band.

Were you approached for KKL after Ali Zafar opted out?
My friend Bilal Lashari was in the 1st unit of Shoaib saheb’s assistant directors. One day he told me that they were finalising the cast. I went with him to Shoaib saheb’s office. The latter had a couple of pictures on the table. They were screen-test shots of Ali Zafar and Junaid Jamshed (who was later replaced by Shaan). The film’s shooting hadn’t started yet. Back then, I was really fat. My waist was 38″. Shoaib sahib joked that I’d look like Junaid’s elder brother. So, maybe, next time. I said ok.

A few months later, Ali Zafar left and I was called back by Shoaib sahib. That’s that. !

Originally published in Movie Mag International — June 2008

Only if you can set the cash registers ringing!

First-time film makers in Pakistan complain about facing a horde of issues — from lack of funds and technical infrastructure to red-tape. But their real test begins at the ticket window of the merciless box office

By Usman Ghafoor

Picture this: Moammar Rana shelves his much-tomtommed celluloid debut as director, after a grand opening and having actually shot a few reels. Humayun Saeed can’t decide whether to rework the script he’s famously got from celebrated Bollywood writer Javed Siddiqi, for his (admittedly) “most ambitious” home production. Saqib Malik’s on-again-off-again interest in his now-four-year-old film is no secret. Marina Khan is off to Canada on a two-week break from her morning show for ARY, and the discussions on her supposedly ‘light, romantic, masala movie’ with pet scriptwriter Muhammad Ahmed can wait. Azfar Ali — popular for his improvisational Sub Set Hai — is said to have an ‘amazing’ one-liner on a film for youth, but no one to develop it for celluloid. Kollege Jeans-veteran Nini hasn’t progressed a millimetre beyond the teaser he shot on 35mm over two years ago, despite having a bound script as well as a dependable producer (Nadeem Mandviwala) in his kitty. God knows there is a whole lot of other first-timers who are raring to make films — and have also made their intentions public — but they can’t seem to get it together.

“There is a huge element of uncertainty involved in the process, which is what keeps most people from venturing out,” opines Hasan Zaidi, CEO Karafilm Festival and an aspiring film maker whose first cinematic dream was literally shattered when he produced and directed Raat Chali Hai Jhoom Key, a sensitive and realistic film starring Faisal Rehman and Nadia Jameel. The film found no takers among distributors and exhibitors, and had to do with festival screenings. Obviously distressed and frustrated Hasan moved on to another project and has been at it since.

Done with the script for the past almost eight months now, Hasan is on the look-out for what he calls “a technically proficient and efficient producer” who also shares his vision. He says he can’t find such as producer in ‘Lollywood’ — the Lahore-based film industry on the verge of extinction — because “it’s mostly occupied by people who invest for their own personal interests. And when I say ‘personal’ I’m trying not to be graphic about it,” he tells TNS.

Unfortunately, the opportunities for funds for new film makers in private sector are even fewer. There’s no institutional way of procuring financing. Banks do not give credits for films because they consider it bad investment. In the same way, there is no precedence of getting insurance for films in Pakistan, though it is now common practice in countries like Canada and UK.

“As a matter of fact, we have not been able to develop a business model for films and people think cinema is about throwing money down the drain. They see no returns on that.”

Hasan is quick to add that it’s not for want of entertainment value alone that the investor is not interested. “Their experience with the unscrupulous sort of people is one major reason” that shoos them away.

Adnan Malik seconds Hasan Zaidi, adding that it’s likely that the producer doesn’t agree with your aesthetic, even if your film is an entertaining fare.

Himself a qualified documentary film maker, Adnan is better known as Saqib Malik’s sibling who is currently working as assistant director for big brother’s long-delayed film. “We were only two weeks short of taking our film to the floors when our producer backed out,” he tells TNS. Since then it’s been one wild goose chase for the ‘right’ producer, he says on behalf of Saqib who was tucked away shooting.

Saqib’s film project also suffers from a lack of script, Adnan reveals, adding that they had to scrap the previous script “because it had become dated”.

For Syed Nini, on the other hand, funds and script have never been an issue, but putting a competent technical crew together has. Reason: “You don’t find a film cinematographer who has skill as well as a creative imagination,” he says, “That’s why, even Shoaib Mansoor had to hire Ali Muhammad who is a DoP of music videos and TV commercials. The result is the jumps in lighting that you see in the movie (Khuda Key Liye). Besides, Ali’s taking is not that of cinema.

“The problem persists because everybody here wants to start in films straightaway as a director or an actor and maybe, if you’re into writing, as a scriptwriter. So where do we get, for instance, trained and educated cameramen?”

To quote Hasan Zaidi, again, “The infrastructure is simply not there for a new person to set out on.”

Interestingly, for all these people, Lahore’s dilapidated Multan Road studios are the last option because of their antiquated equipment, people who are not trained in modern technology, and poor lab quality. There are no proper dollies or tracks that won’t jiggle while you’re shooting. Sending the film abroad for processing and telecine-ing is an expensive proposition that most independent film makers cannot afford to consider. Shoaib Mansoor and Mehreen Jabbar remain exceptions because they managed funds and went to Bangkok and India for post.

In the given circumstances, people like Saqib, Jami and Ahsan Rahim have been forced to buy their own equipment — most of it from abroad. This spares them some misery. But, again, this is no consolation for an average, new film maker who cannot hope to rent the equipment. Hasan recalls how an acquaintance of his bought ARRI-3 camera for independent film makers. “I asked him how much he was going to rent it out for, and he said, ‘Rs. 75,000 a shift!’ That’s a staggering amount, especially if you consider that your average film needs 30 to 40 shifts to shoot.

“Compare this with India and you find that there you can get an entire 35mm shift with technicians in about Rs. 20,000. That’s a huge difference.”

Then there are issues of facilitation. In the words of Hasan, “For any production happening, there are thousands of things that are required. Our bureaucratic structure is such that it does not facilitate, rather it tries to block things. Eventually, getting ‘permissions’ alone causes big-time delays.

“Suppose you’re bringing in crews from abroad. You need visas for that. And, if you’re to shoot at a particular place, you need NOC. Then there are hordes of government departments that will suddenly butt in and remind you that it can’t be done.”

To counter the menace, Hasan offers his “one-window film office” theory whereby “you contact just one department and tell the people there what and where you want to shoot, and it’s up to them to manage the permissions from all related departments. The producer or the director should not to be running around to the offices of cantonment boards or culture ministry or intelligence agencies. This can kill you creatively.”

Hasan also suggests that foreign crews should be facilitated “because these are trained people who you can learn from”. Almost every one has learnt on the job in Pakistan, he adds, “You get a few, occasional gems in the process, but on a regular basis, it’s a very small pool of people you’re working with.

“If the government means to promote films and film making, it ought to sort out these issues.”

In the final analysis, when all is said and done, “the real test of a film maker will come once his film is released,” insists Nini. He gives the example of Khuda Key Liye, again, and says, “If the film clicked in a big way, that means Shoaib Mansoor struck the right chords with the cinema-goers, whether or not the film meets international standards of production.

“For all the problems you faced or you didn’t face, and for all your film’s own flaws and strengths that you may know of, it’s eventually the box office that is the final decider — the ultimate barometre.”

(Originally published in The News International – April 6, 2008)

“I know why most writers lose their sanity” — Syed Mohammad Ahmad

When the characters of his stories become putty in his hands, Syed Mohammad Ahmad says a writer achieves his catharsis

By Usman Ghafoor

Ahmed sitting in int
Mohammad Ahmad, on the sets of ‘Ramchand Pakistani.’

Not so much by a twist of fate than a ‘quirkiness’ of mind that young Mohammad Ahmad — growing up in a conservative middle class home in 70s’ Karachi — landed a diploma course in fashion design at a local institute. His father wanted him to take up medicine. “It went against the grain,” he says getting reflective. But, Ahmad says, his heart has always ruled him. A few years after he got married, he was learning Bharatnatyam at Sheema Kirmani’s dance school. Dance, again, would be a complete taboo. More so, for a married man. “I must say, I began to see life after marriage,” he goes on, “I had had a very protected adolescence. I was never allowed mistakes that actually teach you things about life.”

But he was a precocious child, anyway, and was drawn to classical music and theatre and arts at an age “when kids are mostly out in the field, playing some sport”. He was a big reader and an avid film buff. Interestingly, however, Ahmad hadn’t tried his hand at creative writing, till a few friends in television pushed him “to scribble something”. A Mystery Theatre play for the freshly launched Indus TV happened in early ’90s. But it was Tum Se Kehna Tha — a light-hearted, dramatic adaptation of the Hollywood movie While You Were Sleeping for Sahira Kazmi — that got Ahmad big-time notices.

Today, he is one of the most sought-after playwrights on TV, having worked with some of the best producers and directors around — chiefly Mehreen Jabbar, Humayun Saeed and Marina Khan. He is also famously writing his way towards the silver screen, with Mehreen’s debut celluloid venture, Ramchand Pakistani, the first film projects of Humayun, Marina and music video director Saqib Malik and now an untitled Bollywood movie.

Ahmad was recently in Mumbai where he had been invited by leading film company Adlabs to script dialogues when The News caught up with him for an interview. He spoke at length on writing being a cathartic experience and also about having to contribute “dialogues for a pre-scripted screenplay”. Excerpts follow.

Is it your first experience of writing dialogues for some one else’s script?
Yes, very much so. Though I never thought it’d turn out so well, something for which I must give credit to the team I got to work with. They were a very professional lot and gave me a brilliant screenplay to work on. But, yes, it did seem to be a task, initially.

How did you prepare yourself for the task? Did it require you to go over the script again and again and have long discussions with the story writer and director?
Well, we had to have long discussions because I needed to get into the skin of the characters that had been conceived by some one else. But, like I said, I was fortunate to be working with the people who knew their script like the back of their hand. They gave whatever details I asked for. Eventually, every character came alive in front of me.

Were you a passive listener in all these sessions?
No way. I’d give my own inputs wherever I wanted. And, they’d comply gladly.

See, I didn’t reach that stage of understanding overnight. It was gradual and it took me a good deal of talking with them (the screenplay writer and the director) on the phone, even before I was to leave for Mumbai. Finally, I was game. But I wanted to test myself, so I scribbled dialogues for one character, initially, and went ahead only after they (dialogues) were approved.

Back home, you are said to be a ‘camper’; you work only with a certain group of people such as Mehreen Jabbar, Humayun Saeed and Marina Khan. Comment.
See, film as an art form is a collaborative effort. Film makers the world over like to work in their specific teams, because it means less hassle and stress and more creative output. A good team is about a great rapport. So, if I have worked more frequently with the people you just mentioned it’s because of the lovely equation that we have enjoyed.

When writing a script, do you generally insist on being provided an absolute creative freedom?
It’s not that I insist, though certainly one would like to be given a free hand. It becomes difficult when the director gives you a oneliner and expects you to develop a script accordingly. For me, writing is an emotionally consuming experience; I live the characters I create.

As such, can a writer afford to get involved in a number of projects at the same time?
Certainly not. That’s why I like to finish with one project and then take up another.

See, when you create a character on paper, you take leave of a part of you that was so intrinsic and integral to you. I’ve experienced this myself and now I know why most writers end up losing their sanity.

What is the best part of writing?
The fact that you can shape the destinies of your characters (laughs). It’s very cathartic. And, it’s almost god-like.

They say a film is made 70 per cent on paper. Why, then, do the writers not usually get enough recognition and it’s the director and actors who walk away with all the credit?
That’s very true. But, I won’t say it’s very unfair, because I have seen directors at work and I know that their job is decidedly the toughest. You may have written the best of scripts, but it needs a good director to translate it into great visuals that also evoke the intended emotion.

How many ‘stages’ does your script usually go through — in terms of storyline, drafts, dialogues, screenplay, etc?
When I started writing plays, I just followed my instinct and listened to my heart. I never thought I needed to break it up in stages. I’d just put pen to paper whenever an idea prompted me, and take off from there. It’s like being on a free-wheeling, unconsious ride.

You trained as a classical dancer and also taught Bharatnatyam for a while. Ever thought of teaching ‘script writing’ at a film school?
I had a chance to take Script classes at a university, but to my horror I found that they had a very confused syllabus for the course. It couldn’t possibly bring out the writer in you.

I personally believe students should be asked to write, and their works should be exhibited frequently so that they feel encouraged and inspired.

In your early plays, especially Tum Se Kehna Tha, you seemed heavily influenced by Hasina Moeen’s brand of humour.
That’s a very correct observation. See, my introduction to the world of TV drama was through Hasina Moeen. The impact of her plays was so huge that whenever I attempted comedy, it was as if she was holding my finger through.

Creatively speaking, which has been your most satisfying play to date?
Khamoshi, which was directed by Irum Bint e Shahid. Unfortunately, it landed problems with the censorwallahs and never went on air. But it’s reality still haunts me.

Originally published in The News International – February 17, 2008

Married to the mob

Although the customary ‘election fever’ or ‘hysteria’ is still missing, the campaigning is expected to get a shot in the arm with some innovation in style and design

By Usman Ghafoor

Audio and video CDs of PPP’s slogans and Benazir’s speeches on sale at a local shop.

Main beti hoon Zulfikar ki, mera naam hai Benazir!’ goes a paid TV advert, launched on air a day prior to the Chehlum of the slain Pakistan People’s Party leader. A surefire tearjerker, this 30-second spot serves up a melange of images depicting Benazir Bhutto in all her political glory — addressing mammoth rallies, waving vivaciously to the mobs, cheering them with her very warm, alluring smile; holding on to her consistently white dopatta draped gracefully around her broad shoulders; wiping a tear from her face as she alights from the airplane (on her Oct-18 homecoming); gliding through a horde of minders and supporters with the posture of a brave, gallant leader. It also offers glimpses of the young, slender Benazir from her early days in politics through the late-80s when she famously wed Asif Ali Zardari and, more recently, as a doting mother of three children being raised in a protected, family environment. Finally, images of a hauntingly quiet Bakhtawar, a clueless Asifa and the 19-year-old, bespectacled Bilawal, looking a picture of sorrow, follow each other in a slow-motion dissolve. The mournful ditty in the background comes to a close.

Certainly, there’s no overt, strictly ‘political’ message here. Not even that of “democracy” being PPP’s “best revenge”. The ad is a little tribute to the ‘martyred’ leader and, of course, the Bhutto ‘dynasty’, and it is meant to elicit an emotional reaction.

In fair contrast, the PML-Q’s longest-running TV advert, with its unabashed ‘Farq toh parrta hai achhi soch sey, achhi qiadat sey‘ slogan ends up looking like a road map of the party’s little, big achievements. A rather desperate attempt at self-glorification by a party that is losing credibility by the day. For, the people, directly or indirectly, hold the government (aka the King’s Party) responsible for the current crisis of atta, gas and power. The opposition parties accuse PML-Q of using state machinery and money for its campaign which, they insist, is a very expensive proposition in today’s times. The party is also held guilty of pre-poll rigging in the name of postal balloting.

PML-Q’s earlier campaign was famously designed to malign the opponent in order to inspire support for its own candidates. It resulted in a fierce blame game in print media, rumouredly forcing Chaudhry Shujaat to later render an apology. The catchily composed ballad ‘Merey desh ka pahiyya‘ is proof of the party’s modified campaign policy.

The Sharifs, on the other hand, were lying low post-Benazir’s killing on Dec 27, 2007, as a gesture of solidarity with her family, but now their campaign has picked up steam. Suddenly, you see a greater number of slogan-ripped banners, posters and hoardings on the streets, flashing PML-N’s election symbol with life-size portraits of a party candidate or two staring down. And, even though what one would call ‘election fever’ or ‘hysteria’ is still missing, the campaigning is expected to get a shot in the arm with Zardari stepping into the arena.

Security is another major issue that has lately kept most political leaders from holding rallies. The opposition blames the Musharraf government for talking up the threat to candidates in order to stifle the electioneering.

Sherry Rehman, Secretary General PPP, tells TNS, “We’ve been struck by a tragedy that can actually change the entire course for political parties. We don’t want to put the lives of our people in danger. (Hence, no rallies).

“But, we are not an armchair party. The very fact that we’re going to participate in elections under protest shows that we don’t want to leave the field open for anti-democratic forces.”

Ahsan Iqbal, Secretary Information PML-N and a party candidate from Narowal, voices a similar note, “Because of security reasons, no party is willing to announce its movement.

“The government is cleverly using terrorism as a political card to keep the voters indoors,” he says, talking exclusively to TNS.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman recently made headlines when he addressed a rally in Peshawar on telephone. Maulana is also said to be using compact discs for the purpose.

VCDs carrying Benazir Bhutto’s public speeches — recorded overtime — can also be found in the market.

The use of mobile phone to influence the people’s opinion — in favour of or against a party — is a newer phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common. Political jokes also make popular sms material. For the most part, the sender’s source is not identified, but the wisecrack is designed in a way that it amuses and also imparts a certain political message.

PPP is not quite pushed. “We’re banking on our ideological vote,” declares Prof Ijazul Hassan, former secretary general of the party’s Punjab chapter and a close Zardari aide.

“Our campaign needs not be a party advertisement of sorts. It revolves around the party manifesto. Period.”

PML-N has already embarked on a three-tier campaign for the polls. To quote Ahsan Iqbal, “We have the advantage of our leadership being very much around. Secondly, our message is that of change since we are the only party that has never wanted to strike a deal with the existing president. And, thirdly, we’re talking about our performance in the past, the economic reforms we introduced. That speaks volumes for us.”

He also speaks of a fresh, “approved” ad campaign that would be launched on the electronic media a few days ahead of the polls.

‘Taranas’ (theme songs) have always marked a PPP election campaign. These polls are no exception. But this time most of the ditties are carry-overs — recorded in Benazir’s hey days, by folk singer Shaukat Ali and Afshan. The few new tracks that have hit the airwaves are an obvious stint to cash in on the sympathy wave.

Originally published in The News International – Feb 10, 2008

“The real divide in Pakistan is that of status quo and anti-status quo” — Imran Khan

By Usman Ghafoor

The past 11 years, Imran Khan admits, have taught him ‘the hardest way’ that politics is ‘no cricket’. When he formed his political party, back in 1996, the sporting legend of the country and also the celebrated philanthropist suddenly found himself in the midst of a crowd of detractors who were ready to rake up his ‘scandalous past’ and tear him down. A failed marriage with Jemima only added to his woes, at a time when he had taken on his life’s most challenging assignment since, perhaps, the World Cup of ’92 and even the mega-budgeted Shaukat Khanum Cancer Memorial Hospital and Trust.

Proverbially put, a lot of water has passed since. From being a nonentity in the ’97 elections to securing a seat in 2002 to suddenly becoming one of the most visible and easily the most prominent political figures of the country, Imran has sure made significant political strides. 2007 saw Tehrik-e-Insaaf’s stocks rising further. Although his fierce diatribe against MQM leader Altaf Husain – that led him to  England’s Court Of Law – came to a naught, and his student movement had a short life, too, Imran rode the sympathy wave following his arrest from the Punjab University premises. All through the lawyers’ movement, he claimed considerable spotlight. Incidentally, Tehrik-e-Insaaf’s principal stance on ‘the independence of judiciary’ and an overemphasis on the reinstatement of judges deposed in Nov-3 emergency – and a lesser mention of other issues – also earned the former skipper sniggers from various quarters. And, when he famously tore up the election nomination papers in public, it was largely branded as an unwise political move that alienated Imran from his potential allies in opposition against the Musharraf regime.

But, Imran remains characteristically defiant and unapologetic. A few days ahead of Jan 8 which the PTI had declared as a Black Day, Imran looked as upbeat about his party’s rising status as he did about launching a fresh movement on the election day itself. Talking exclusively to The News on Sunday, he also dared any one to secure half the number of votes he had done in his Mianwali constituency. Excerpts from the interview are as follows:

The News On Sunday: Rana Bhagwan Das said in a recent interview that your decision to boycott elections wasn’t a wise move. Comment.
Imran Khan: I don’t agree with this assessment. See, we recently had a rubber-stamp assembly and even though we were a part of the system we couldn’t achieve anything. Needless to say, the Jan-8, rigged elections will only throw up another rubber-stamp assembly. Taking part would have meant that we were endorsing a PCO-held election that has no constitutional, legal or moral bearing. It would also mean legitimising an unconstitutional act of Pervez Musharraf and, in the process, legitimising him.

The Americans want Musharraf to be the Husni Mubarak of Pakistan. In other words, as long as he toes their line, he can hold rigged elections. Husni Mubarak has been doing the same for as long as 27 years. In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov has been holding rigged elections for 14 years. I think it would be criminal to participate in the elections when 60 per cent of your most valued judges is sent home which actually means your judiciary has been destroyed. The judges who took the oath under the PCO aren’t ‘judges’; I’d call them collaborators of the military dictator, and they have no legal, constitutional or moral standards.

With only a bunch of small parties by your side, how do you hope to achieve your goals?
See, even if I was alone I would not have participated in the elections. It’s a matter of my ideology. Tehrik-e-Insaaf or movement for justice has always stood for that. How could I abandon the judges and go for my personal gains, although this was the best time that we were prepared to fight the elections. In Frontier, today, according to the IRA survey of Nov 27, Tehrik-e-Insaaf has 20 per cent bigger vote bank and viability to match. In Mianwali, I have challenged my opponents that they cannot win with half as many votes as I did, because to my knowledge no one in the history of Pakistan has even done so much in his constituency. In Balochistan, there’s an increase by 6 per cent. Rural Punjab has its own dynamics, but in urban Punjab we have a clearly high vote bank.

Do you agree with the popular opinion that Tehrik-e-Insaaf talks mainly about judiciary and overlooks other issues of national import?
Well, the bedrock of good governance is a strong, credible, independent judiciary. Look at Transparency International’s list of the countries with the cleanest governments, and you’ll find that they’ve the best judicial systems. It has to be independent, because only an independent judiciary checks a corrupt government. In Pakistan, what you have are criminals going into government to either plunder the country or protect their plundered world. Our other two very important issues, inflation and unemployment are indirectly related to the governing system. Therefore, we’ve always talked about good governance and a welfare state.

Do you have any regrets about having stayed out of the elections?
I have absolutely no regrets. And, time will prove that what I and the APDM stands for is the best thing for Pakistan, because these elections will be the most rigged elections in our history. Apart from the fact that they are illegal and unconstitutional, they will be the most rigged elections. Again, according to the IRA survey, 75 per cent of people want Musharraf out.

Your party has announced Jan 8 a Black Day?
Yes, we have. Everyone should wear black that day, in protest of the destruction of Pakistan’s judicial system.

Do you think that will make any worthwhile dent into the election process?
See, I am very sure that the elections will have the lowest turnout ever. Our protest will mark the beginning of a much bigger movement which will go on till the judges are reinstated.

What, in your view, will be the post-election political scenario?
I see chaos. And, I see, on the 9th (Jan), major opposition parties all crying out because of the rigged elections.

Initially, you and Mian Nawaz Sharif were in line with each other on the judiciary issue. What went wrong?
I can’t say what all the reasons were; I can only speculate. And, my speculation is that he (Nawaz Sharif) was put under a lot of pressure from his own workers, voters and candidates, all demanding that he shouldn’t stay out of elections.

Was there no such pressure on you from within your party?
Of course, there was pressure, especially because we were in a position to fight elections. But, a leader’s job is to lead, not to follow. I should tell them what is the right thing, rather than them telling me what is right. Otherwise, I am not a leader.

Your image as a political leader isn’t strong. What do you have to say about that?
Look at my history. I am the first one who talked about corruption and accountability. This was in 1996. Later, every party adopted my stance. Then, I have been talking about independent judiciary; today everyone talks about it. I was also the first one who said that sending troops to Waziristan was wrong; almost all parties except Benazir agreed. Perhaps, my image has to do with the fact that I am not one of those leaders who are actually ‘power politicians’. My reason for coming into polities was never power, because I knew that one has to compromise to stay in power, and that is what gives birth to ‘lotacracy.’ Look at Maulana Fazlur Rehman who talks about Islam and against America; yet he watches on as the Pushtoons are butchered, and also doesn’t leave the government.

Is it really the politician lot that can change things, rather than philanthropists or social workers?
It’s not that you can’t change things without getting into politics. The reason why we are floundering as a failed state is we don’t have the rule of law, rather we have the law of the jungle. This country is ruled by a tiny elite that has usurped the resources, education, water, housing, taxation, etc. A majority of the people are deprived of their basic necessities. They have no justice, no housing, no jobs and no health facilities.

The election you’ll see is a clear divide between status quo and anti status quo.

You’ve been regarded as a symbol of modernism, but lately you’ve leaned towards the right-wing parties and supported ‘jirga’ system. Care to explain?
Firstly, ‘jirga’ or ‘panchyat’ is basically a local government system that provides justice for the village people. People can’t afford lawyers. In England, you have small courts. Similarly, my recommendation is that there should be a system whereby you give a man justice at his doorstep through these juries.

Secondly, ‘modernity’ doesn’t mean ‘westernisation.’ This pseudo-westernised nation, in the name of enlightened moderation, is causing fundamentalism which is actually a reaction. The real westernisation we should follow is the democratic rule of law, quest for knowledge, and freedom of expression   these are what made the west what it is now not this pop culture of wearing jeans and showing women. This is just the veneer of westernisation for the sake of telling the west that Musharraf is some sort of a liberal — but actually he has been exposed.

I keep hearing that I am sitting with the religious people. Remember one thing, if someone wants to reform Pakistan, and give people a common vision, he has to carry everyone together — he has to carry the rightists, the leftists. This artificial divide — of liberal versus religious sponsored by Washington is simply ridiculous. It does not represent the ground realities of Pakistan. The real divide in Pakistan is that of status quo and anti-status quo.

You are the only face of Tehrik-e-Insaaf. Why don’t we see any strong, well known faces in your party?
We have probably the best people around, and my challenge is that once the team comes into the forefront, we’ll be the best team. For instance; we have Hamid Khan, leading lawyer who has written the best book in Pakistan’s constitutional history. Then, we have Dr Arif Alvi who is a known politician.

Originally published in The News International – Dec 30, 2007

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

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For an industry that thrives on commerce, to remain ignorant to the fruits of web is no bliss

By Usman Ghafoor

Ace ad film maker and music video director Saqib Malik thinks he can do well without it. His younger brother, Adnan Malik — a model, a documentary film maker and a TV celebrity show host — is admittedly “considering” the idea. Their common acquaintance and the country’s highest-paid actor Shaan has long been “dreaming it”, while the lesser Lollywood mortals — the likes of Momi Rana, Saud, Babar and the entire heroines’ lot — can wait. Last year’s winner of the Best Model for the LUX Style Awards, Abdullah hasn’t got one either, though he deems it “a must” for aspiring fashion models. They are all talking about ‘web’ and the fruits of putting “one’s portfolio and stuff” (in the words of the prize KR model) online. Or, the lack of it.

Top-league fashion designer — and a brand name in himself — Hasan Shehryar Yasin (aka HSY) is quick to extol the virtues of having an official website: “You get to advertise your work on a global level,” he declares, talking to TNS. “Internet comes in handy, otherwise jungle mein mor naacha, kis ney dekha!”

Hasan’s website ( has also won the designer two major international awards. A revamped version is up already, and a qualified team takes care of it in addition to HSY’s personal blog on facebook.

But, HSY is an exception in an industry that, in his own words, is “not really web-savvy”. Period.

“Website is still a niche marketing tool in Pakistan,” adds Adnan Malik.

A lot of our designers, photographers as well as hair and makeup artists don’t have an official website of their own. Nikkie & Nina, for instance, do not. Khawar Riaz or his KR Crew — or even his much-tomtommed Ocular — does not. Ather-Shahzad’s is under construction. Deepak Perwani’s is not updated. Tapu Javeri’s is not his official. And, to think that these are the kingmakers of our teenie-weenie showbiz-dom.

Likewise for the television moguls most of whom don’t have an online presence. Saqib Malik defends himself by announcing, “I am not an actor or a model, an a web page ought to have a face to market itself.”

HSY disagrees, “Models aren’t required to have websites of their own. It’s the agencies they represent that should do the job.

“Have you ever seen a Naomi Campbell site?” he asks.

By that very dictum, supermodels Iman Ali, ZQ, Vinnie, and Mehreen Syed can escape the blame (of not being web savvy).

In Mar 2004, Meera famously launched her official website ( in a crowded press-meet at her posh residence in DHA, before heading off to Mumbai to shoot her first Bollywood venture, Nazar. Over three years later, her most ‘ambitious’ project — what she had flaunted as “the first of its kind for a Lollywood girl!” — is a picture of neglect and datedness. The creator of her website, Dr Saqib has a point: “Unfortunately, our film stars don’t understand the potential of having a website. They are confined within their small, little shells. They don’t realise that if they want to market themselves well, they must think out of the box,” he tells TNS.

Medical doctor turned IT expert who now heads a media acquisition company, Dr Saqib is, perhaps, the only person who was ever approached by a film actor or producer in the country to create websites for them. Rashid Khawaja brought him in at the time when he was making Salakhain. Soon, Saqib was doing the official site for the film as well as for its lead actors Veena Malik and Ahmed Butt. His next few all went off air, barring

The TVwallahs are no different. Humayun Saeed — easily the biggest ‘showman’ of the small screen — boasts no website on himself or his production house, 7th Sky.

Doesn’t that mean losing out on a potential market internationally? According to Sahira Kazmi, “Yes, we do suffer on that account.

“Quite frankly, we don’t have a culture of keeping our records,” she says, talking to TNS. “Ok, it’s about self projection, but I honestly feel the new generations should know what their elders have done or haven’t done. It would be wonderful if we could promote our work and generate funds thereof.”

Interestingly, our pop stars take the lead, when it comes to reaping the benefits of internet. According to an estimate, is one star site that receives the greatest number of hits every day. Ditto for Atif Aslam’s, Strings’ and Faakhir’s

No wonder, most emerging bands have created their websites before they even cut an album. Raeth’s is one prominent case in point.

Like the rest of them, Ali Zafar has a small but full-time team that looks after his website. The prince of pop also occasionally posts his blogs.

“I’d even upload an unfinished melody, just to test my fans’ reaction,” he reveals to TNS.

While most of our showbiz celebrities are yet to wake up to the web phenomenon, it is unlikely that they can stay oblivious in the future and also put themselves on the map. As Adnan Malik puts it, “There are sites such as MySpace that lend themselves more organically to career building. They’re just set up that way, and a lot of people I know are using them as a tool to create awareness for their respective talents, whether it’s in film, writing, or music.

“I also plan to have a website soon where I shall upload my documentaries. It’s phenomenal in that way!”

(Originally published in The News International – Dec 16, 2007)

“Cinema for me is a very sensuous experience” — Govind Nihalani

By Usman Ghafoor

Govind Nihalani has a way with dark themes. Whether it’s Aakrosh (1980), his debut feature that strikes you for its frighteningly realistic depiction of a victim of the faulty judicial system, Ardh Satya (’83) that exteriorises the moral dilemma of an honest police officer in a corrupt system; Tamas (’88), a hard-hitting chronicle of the travails of a Hindu family forced to leave Pakistan at the time of partition; Drohkaal (’94) – set in the backdrop of terrorism; or Hazaar Churasi Ki Maan (’97), about the awakening of self of a revolutionary’s mother – this celebrated Indian film director-cum-cinematographer has mostly addressed strong social and political issues impacting an individual. Even his comedy – Party (’85) – was in the Black genre. All these movies remain his career milestones.

As a cinematographer, he has worked on Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning epic, Gandhi, and Shyam Benegal’s National Award-winning Junoon.

Once an avowed part of the so-called ‘parallel cinema’ movement in the 70s and the 80s – that was a reaction against the popular mainstream Bollywood – and having worked with its doyen “Shyam babu”, Govind is today raring to “move on and explore the other genres of film making”. Though 2000’s Thakshak and, more recently, Dev, have already seen him make a departure from his ‘usual’ style. Up next is a colourful animation. He is also planning a musical and a thriller.

Govind was recently in Lahore to attend the RPTW’s World Performing Arts Festival 2007, where he had been especially invited by the Peerzadas to showcase some of his best works, when he took time out to speak to us.

The News On Sunday: Is this your first time in Lahore?
Govind Nihalani: Yes; and also my first time in Pakistan. Though, I was born in Karachi (in pre-partition India), I could never go back. In fact, I’ve been thinking about a film with Lahore as the backdrop, which was basically the idea of Usman Peerzada whom I met early this year in Delhi where he was performing Patay Khan. The idea couldn’t materialise, but when Usman invited me to attend the festival I jumped to the occasion.

What are your early memories of the place?
Unfortunately, my first memory is that of fear and blood. It’s more of an emotional memory than a logical sequence of events. I must be six or seven at that time. Much later, when I was making Tamas, these were the haunting images that formed the backdrop of the film, and provided me with my much-needed catharsis.

You grew up to enroll at a film institute?
Well, I knew I had a film maker in me, but I didn’t want to get into films untrained. So, I enrolled at S J C Film Institute in Bangalore, graduating in Cinematography.

What were your early cinematic influences?
Chiefly Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and the neo-realist European cinema. On home ground, I was inspired by the works of Satyajit Ray, Hritik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Arvindan and Shyam babu. I was excited by the possibilities of media, the scope of aesthetics that they employed, and the way they treated the stories. Then, Gulzar’s movies have a lyrical quality that appealed to me a lot.

What does cinema mean to you?
That’s actually a very difficult thing to answer. But, I can safely say that cinema for me is always a very sensuous experience – both as a film maker and as a viewer. I don’t look at a film as just a medium to tell a story. I want to create an experience for my audience. That experience starts with me, as an individual, and I am the first viewer of my film. So, the film has to first excite me, and only then I’d want to share that excitement with the viewer. I don’t look at film as an exercise which is exclusive.

What kind of audience do you generally find for your kind of movies in India?
I think my audience is the educated middle-class, mostly urban-based and comprising students and professionals.
See, I’ve never tried to make a movie that should please everybody. It’s an exercise that dilutes the intensity because then you simplify things beyond a point where they become simplistic.

So, you would rather intellectualise a concept?
If by intellectualising, you mean that an issue is analysed at the cost of drama or emotion, then that’s not what I do. If I’m making a film based on a certain social or political issue, there is a certain amount of research that goes into it, and there is a certain point of view that I like to introduce in the film, but I also try to see that my contact with the audience is not disturbed. That contact comes about basically when I create empathy for the characters and I can get my audience emotionally involved.

When you started in films, there was a movement of the so-called ‘parallel’ or ‘art’ cinema gaining popularity. Did you feel a sense of affiliation with that? Were you part of the group that looked down upon Bollywood?
No, we didn’t look down upon Bollywood. We just found that there was some disconnect between the popular cinema and the way we were thinking. So, we were rejecting their norms. They wanted stars and songs, but we didn’t. They wanted happy endings, but we didn’t.
Much later, though, I realised that one could not constantly be in a state of confrontation. You cannot create a film thinking that you don’t want such-and-such elements. For me it was like a painter who said he wouldn’t use bright colours, but later realised that he shouldn’t limit himself to just the gray tones. You can say that first it was a total anti-thesis of popular cinema, and now it’s drawing towards a happy synthesis.

Was this the time when you made Thakshak, your first ‘commercial’ film?
In Thakshak, I made a conscious effort to use the popular format. Though, the story here wasn’t typical of the popular genre. The only elements we had in common were stars and songs.
See, I have nothing against popular cinema. In fact, I believe that popular cinema is the product of our own narrative, folk lore and theatrical traditions, Raas Leela, Ram Leela, nautanki, and tamasha. All the stylistic elements, songs, enactment, melodrama, dialogue and the like form part of the popular cinema. Then we have the old Sanskrit treatise on performing arts – the nine ‘rasas’ that include comedy (hasaya), fear (bhaya), eroticism (shinghaar) etc. According to the theory, in every work of art, you must have these ‘rasas’. But, one ‘rasa’ has got to dominate. If you arrive at a work where all the rasas are balanced, that’s when you create the epic.

You’ve never attempted a comedy, have you?
No, but I’d love to. I’d also love to make a musical. Even a thriller. As a student of cinema, I want to explore all genres. I appreciate the concern of the viewer and the critic who think that perhaps my work is getting diluted, but they should also consider the fact that I am trying to challenge myself.

Today, when ‘crossover’ is the buzzword in Indian cinema and all big production houses are eyeing global market and getting rid of the old-fashioned Bollywood cliches, is there a need for ‘art’ cinema at all?
See, we have to get rid of these definitions, to begin with. These terms are the legacy of the 70s and 80s when such terms were created in an effort to understand the new kind of cinema (parallel).

Some critics believe that you are a better cinematographer than a director. Comment.
I cannot fault those who think that way. The subjects that I choose are not very glamorous anyway. But, when I was working with Shyam babu, I could afford to indulge myself because my concentration would completely be on camera work. Whenever there’s a conflict between the cameraman and the director, it’s the latter who wins.

Any recent works you’ve truly admired?
A few films that I have liked recently, apart from my own film Dev which is very dear to me, are Omkara, Rang De Basanti and Life In A Metro. I also enjoy David Dhawan and Priyadarshan movies. The good thing about their films is that they are not pretentious. Here, I’d like to quote Bernard Shaw, “As normal people we need trash and classics at the same time.” (laughs)

Ever had a chance to see a Pakistani film?
Unfortunately, no. I’ve just seen Khamosh Pani and I liked it a lot. Actually, we don’t have access to your movies in India.

Currently, is there an idea that’s exciting you the most?
I am working on a film which is a 3-D animation called Kamlu. It’s about a baby camel and its adventures in the desert.

Originally published in The News On Sunday – Dec 9, 2007

“It is a satisfying experience” — Pappu Samrat

Proud scion of one of the subcontinent’s famous dance gharanas, Pappu Samrat is loath to peg his better known Indian counterparts above himself

By Usman Ghafoor

For 37 years old Shaukat Husain Samrat, life is about living — or, perhaps, dancing — for the moment. There is no room for regrets, and certainly no time to pause and ponder. Every day is a new day, loaded with new challenges but also fresh opportunities. And, having a royal pedigree always helps. Shaukat alias Pappu is every bit conscious of being a Samrat scion. His grandfather Master Aashiq Husain, who hailed from Rajasthan, was awarded the prestigious title of ‘Samrat’ by the state in the pre-partition India. Later, the family migrated to Pakistan, where Pappu’s father Akbar Husain and uncle Raju carried on with classical dance, and also ventured into films. Pappu learnt Kathak at home. And, even though he forayed into films as a choreographer which meant that he had to give up on much of his classical training and acquire a filmi ‘ang’, Pappu had no issues.

One of the most famous choreographers in the film industry today — and admittedly “the most expensive” — Pappu has been variously criticised for being a part of the rut and for popularising the kitsch in the form of pelvic thrusts, chest-thumping, et al. Pappu, again, has no issues.

“I am here to deliver what is asked of me; that’s my calling,” he declares, with a complacent grin.

Of course, he doesn’t see the Saroj Khans and Ganeshs of Bollywood as a threat to his supremacy on home turf — even though these stalwarts of the big, bad film neighbourhood are now increasingly being hired by the Lollywoodwallas. But, Pappu is not pushed.

We are in the midst of an outdoor shoot for Zill e Shah, Shan’s home production, at Sheesh Mahal (Lahore Fort). The place is being lit up with the enormous Hydrargyrum Medium arc Iodide (HMIs), while a backlight with blue filter is used for the solarising effect. It is supposed to be a mujra sequence. A few minutes from now, Pappu will have an entire group of his trainee extras (girls) matching steps with him — to near perfection. Well, until the camera starts rolling, he is on a frenzied trip, laying down moves, checking even the lights and the props, and working up an eye-popping performance.

You trained in Kathak. How satisfying is the experience of choreographing dances for films, for somebody like you?

Well, my elders have also directed dances for films. So, it wasn’t a radical thing for me to do. Besides, film is the ultimate medium. It involves a lot of imagination and creativity. One gets to meet new artistes, go to new locations, and do a variety of things with the ‘gat’ and ‘paran’ of dance, At the end of the day, it is a satisfying experience.

Film is a tedious business, no?

I don’t think so. It’s just that film is made at its own pace. So, those who aren’t intimate with this world indulge nitpicking.

enc4How would you define your style?

My style is a mix of eastern classical and modern western. I think this is the kind of a fusion that no one in Pakistan is doing.

Have you trained in modern dance, too?

Yes, I have, when I went to England a few years back and later at an academy in the US also. Though I must say, I’ve not been able to bring a lot of my knowledge of modern dance in use here in movies. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do that in my own film.

Are you in the process of making one?

Oh yes, I am. It’s an Urdu film, and will have all the superstars of Pakistan.

Can a dance choreographer make a film director?

Well, in my case, I have assisted Riaz Butt sahib who happens to be the leading cinematographer of the industry, for a good few years. Besides, this is the kind of work I am passionate about.

You choreograph for shows and private weddings also?

I do shows regularly, but mehndis I do only for friends.

You train your own boys and girls, right?

Yes, I do. Mashallah, all the people I’ve trained are doing very well.

Where do you train them, since you don’t have an academy of your own?

I have to train them in the studios. Basically, they learn by assisting me on the sets. It’s an art but also a craft that you have to master with practice.

Film dances are mostly known for sleaze. Comment.

See, it’s eventually the director who calls the shots. We cannot argue beyond a point.

Do you put your foot down ever?

I sure do, when a certain sequence is not to my taste or it doesn’t suit me.

What kind of feedback have you got from your home front?

My family is completely with me there.

See, it’s wrong to put everything in the same bracket. I have also done such clean, family films as Mukhra, Chooriyan, and Majajan.

Do you have any regrets?

No. I think I’ve done well for myself. I’ve won a number of awards for best dance director, from National to Graduate to Bolan and Nigar. They mean a lot to me.

What do you consider your weaknesses, if any?

Weaknesses I don’t know, but, yes, I do believe that my major handicap is the fact that I am not working with the kind of equipment the Bollywood choreographers are doing. Besides, I don’t get to work with educated, properly trained and qualified people. Then, budget also counts.

So, it all boils down to the producer/financer?

Well, we must not forget that the producer also has his limitations. He can’t invest Rs 10 crore in a project which will not earn him even half the amount. He’d be insane if he does that.

Coming back to dance, tell us about the criterion for admission to your ‘academy’?

No criterion as such. I am ready to train anybody who is passionate about dance and who doesn’t have two left feet. (smiles)

Originally published in The News On Sunday – Oct 28, 2007

“If you can make people dance, you’re a hit” — Uttam Singh

By Usman Ghafoor

Not many people who know Uttam Singh from his very popular Dil Toh Pagal Hai and Gaddar ditties are aware of the fact that this award-winning Bollywood composer started in music as an arranger, with much-revered qawwal Shankar Shambhu, back in 1965. Together this mentor-protégé duo would famously open the Ajmer Shareef Urs, with their performance. A few years later, young Uttam Singh joined veteran composer Naushad (late), assisting him for well over 35 years. Till date, he has arranged music and played violin for films made in “practically all languages of India, be it Tamil, Marathi, Haryanvi etc,” he tells in an exclusive interview. Some of his career milestones remain Main Ne Pyar Kiya (1989) and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994).

In between, Uttam Singh also tried his hand at compositions, creating some memorable albums for films like Manoj Kumar’s Painter Babu (1983) and Ravindra Peepat’s Waaris (1986). Till then he was working in collaboration with Jagdish. A very humble person, and a deeply religious man, Uttam Singh is not afraid to admit that his real claim to fame is Yash Chopra’s 1997 blockbuster Dil Toh Pagal Hai. Not only did the film bring this maestro into the so-called limelight, it also got him all the Best Music awards that year, not to forget offers of big projects. Sadly, however, Uttam Singh couldn’t sustain his popularity graph, despite Dushman, Gaddar and, more recently, Pinjar and Hero. Khaleej Times finds out why.

You touched the pinnacle of your career as a music composer, with Yash Chopra’s Dil Toh Pagal Hai. You couldn’t re-work your magic since, with the result that you have very few films on hand. Even Yash Chopra hasn’t repeated you. Comment.

Uttam Singh: I ought to be blamed for all this, because I don’t like asking for work. That’s not my scene. Besides, I must say that if I am currently less saleable, it’s because times have changed for Bollywood music. I can’t see myself becoming a part of it.

Do you mean to say that you were left behind because you couldn’t keep up with the changing times?
US: No, that’s not it. I believe the music of Dil Toh Pagal Hai and even Hero is very much contemporary and modern. But, yes, of course, I can’t possibly churn out the kind of cheap stuff that’s coming out. Today, ‘sangeet’ has been downgraded into a mish-mash of sounds. There was a time when the music of the Bombay film industry would cut across borders and reach even Afghanistan. Today, we are copying their music and, in fact, we are borrowing from the entire world.

What, in your view, is wrong with the Bollywood music today?
US: Our film music is hot today, gone tomorrow. It’s a thing of the moment, whereas the melodies of such greats as Naushad sahib, O P Nayyar, K L Sehgal, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Shankar-Jaikishen, S D Burman, Madan Mohan and R D Burman are timeless. It hurts me to see people not creating anything original and borrowing from ‘sources’, so to say. Besides, today’s music is based on dance; if you can make people dance, you’re a hit.

But, you also made people dance in Dil Toh Pagal Hai.
US: Yes, but there was no vulgarity in the sound of the film’s music. It was melody-based.

What is your personal opinion on Veer-Zara‘s music?
US: Excellent! Sanjeev Kohli did a good job of Madan Mohanji’s tunes, though I felt that the soul of the maestro was still missing. Perhaps, because they had to contemporarise the melodies.

Could you tell us about your forthcoming projects?
US: I am composing music for a couple of films by new directors. They are titled Mirza Sahibaan and Laila Majnu.

Originally published in Khaleej Times – Sep 12, 2007

“No political party can revamp itself” — Dr Mubashir Hasan

Dr Mubashir HasanAn interview with Dr Mubashir Hasan, the founding member of Pakistan People’s Party and, currently, President Punjab Chapter, Pakistan People’s Party-Shaheed Bhutto Group

By Usman Ghafoor

What is the more important issue Pakistan is facing today — extremism or civil and military imbalance?
Dr Mubashir Hasan: I personally think that Pakistan suffers from three major crises. First is the threat from those who have taken guns in their own hands and are attacking the state structure. The second crisis is that of our defense, because of the growing unpopularity of our military. In the field of battle, a military that is unpopular cannot meet with success. So, the unpopularity of the military is a danger to Pakistan. Third crisis is the loss of credibility of political parties and political leaders. These crises cannot be tackled unless there is cooperation from the public.

How would you compare the present-day People’s Party and the one you were a part of, in Bhutto days?
During the last six years or so, the problems of the people have not been articulated by any political party. The politicans are terribly worried about the constitution and the usurpers in the government. Or, they are worried about the illegitimacy of the government. But, they are not bothered about the people. Now, that is the difference between the present-day parties and the parties of 1967 or 68 — chiefly Pakistan People’s Party.

See, people are always prepared to respond, provided what the leadership says strikes a chord in their heart. In 1967, Mr Bhutto articulated what was in the bosom of the Pakistanis, mostly in Punjab — their feelings against India. And, when he gave his programme for the people, they rallied behind him. Then, there were other things. You can’t win the support of the people unless you point out to them their principal enemy. We became popular in ’67 because our stance was anti-imperialist. We spoke about Vietnam, Palestine, and other countries that were the victims of Imperialism. And, the people realised that we were on the right lines, not only nationally, but internationally. Today, even though America is rated as an adversary and is very unpopular, yet the political parties are keeping mum. They aren’t ready to say a word, except our party — that is, the PP-Shaheed Bhutto.

In Bhutto’s time, we were for state control of key industries and centres, such as energy and transport. When we came into government, we taxed the rich people heavily. Other parties, whenever they were in power — Benazir, Nawaz Sharif, Junejo, Zia ul Haq and others — all steadily decreased taxes on the rich. In fact, we introduced a tax called ‘Death duty’ which meant that when a rich man died, the government had a share in what he would leave behind. The idea was essentially taken from the pre-Partition British India. I was the finance minister at that time.

Your views on personality-driven politics and the Bhutto dynasty?
I think this whole dynasty business is central mainly to our feudal culture, and the culture of mizaars and piri fakiri.

See, earlier, a lot of people were in PPP because it was not possible for them to join another party; it would be considered betrayal. But, then, those generations are dying. Where are the people who remember Zulfikar Ali Bhutto? And, therefore, the number of those who would like to transfer the mantle from Z A Bhutto to Benazir or to Bhutto’s grandson or grand daughter — Fatima and Zulfikar junior, you know — is reducing.

Do you think that political parties today need to revamp themselves?
No political party can revamp itself. Mao Tse-Tung, the great Chinese leader, once told Mr Bhutto that if your party is not performing, do not try to reform it; make a new party instead. I firmly believe that old parties cannot be reformed.

But, can a new party be born out of an old party, as in your case?
Not at all. A new party requires a new platform which is popular among the people. It requires an entire body of workers, cadre and intellectuals to elaborate and articulate its platform. It is not a one-time affair. It is a continuous process.

Who do you think is responsible for de-politicising the country?
First of all, the kind of politicisation that we had was wrong. It couldn’t be sustained. So, it got de-politicised on its own. Of course, the real power in Pakistan, that is the combine of civil and military services, is always against the growth of political power and the politicians. But, then, I would not blame them. I would say that the political people did not understand then and they do not understand today the basic problems of governance and the people’s participation in this.

What should be the agenda for a secular and democratic party?
The agenda has to be that there should be a state which is capable of performing its functions. Now, the foremost function of the state is the protection of life, property and dignity of individuals. We know that the present system has failed in this regard. The second most important function is the provision of justice. We know that our system of justice, our courts and kutcheris have miserably failed in this. So, unless these two things are re-modelled, there can be no successful State. Thirdly, the people of Pakistan, especially of Sindh, Balochistan and Frontier, yearn for their self-determination. But, it is wrong to assume that they want independence in the sense of a separate homeland. All they want is to settle their own affairs. They are against interference by the federal government.

Originally published in The News On Sunday – July 29, 2007


By Usman Ghafoor

Those who think life comes to an end for a Lollywood film heroine in her 40s ought to think again. Babra Sharif still grabs headlines when she makes one of those rare appearances on Lux Style Awards night to perform on a medley. Fashion glossies still chase her as they would a nubile beauty. Offers of acting are the order of the day, and a decade since she left films the ever so curious journos keep tabs on Babra’s whereabouts as if she was still a hot cake.

Call it her magic that never wanes, her infinite variety that age cannot wither, or whatever. The fact is, Babra still enjoys mass popularity even though she has kept deliberately out of limelight. The live wire of the 1970s and ‘80s, Babra has the spunk to refuse leading Bollywood film maker N Tezaab Chandra a role in his next blockbuster.

What makes Babra THE BABRA is the fact that she defied all possible norms of the film industry with its narrow take on age, height and even the kind of roles an actress could do onscreen. At only four-feet-something, this diminutive young girl of ‘70s accomplished a rare feat by towering above the stalwarts and giants of them all, by dint of her amazing range. Whether it was Mera Naam Hai Mohabbat’s dying cancer patient, Aashi’s eponymous, funny little girl with a big mouth, Playboy’s faithful and feisty wife-in-search-of-her-missing-husband, Miss Hong Kong’s avenging karate kid or Maazi Haal Mustaqbil’s ciggy-smoking tragic victim of cirumstance, she delivered each time. Lollywood got its first, truly versatile artist in her.

After a glorious two-decade-plus reign at the box office, Babra quit films. Though she could never be away from media glare. She continued to reinvent herself, achieving one stunning makeover milestone after another. For one of her post-retirement shoots with Karachi-based fashion photographer Tapu Javeri, Babra stepped oh-so-comfortably into the elegant stilettos of Marilyn Minroe, Audury Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. The result was an amazing tribute to the Hollywood divas of yesteryears.

Babra also dabbled with the small screen as just as an opportunity to perform comedy – admittedly her first passion – with her favourite writer Anwar Maqsood, came up. Babra’s first-ever acting assignment was also a comedy serial, titled Miss 4 O’ Clock (1974). Nadaan Nadia (1994) happened after a gap of 20-odd years, but Babra carried off the goofy office executive with great panache. Her fresh looks in to-die-for pant-suits and a streaked bob also became the talk of the town. She even made the younger actors in the serial look pale and stale in comparison.

In an exclusive interview with The Nation, the diva divulges her mantra for staying young forever.

Lollywood's all-rounder.
Lollywood’s all-rounder.

The Nation: You were hailed for being a spontaneous actor, especially when it comes to comedy. Do you think you were a natural comedienne?
Babra Sharif: I think so. Comedy is a part of my personality. You can catch me cracking jokes anytime at home. In fact, the character of Aashi was also drawn from my real life image as a naughty prankster on the sets. I remember, the director of the film (Aashi) told me that he had seen me tease and play pranks on one of our old recordists in the studio. He enjoyed our banter so much that he planned a movie on a character similar to that.
But, then, I believe it’s all thanks to Allah. I can’t take credit for any of my achievements or success.

What is your reaction when you watch your performances on TV now?
I laugh at my funny acts, the kind of faces I’d make, the variety of ways in which I used my voice, and stuff.

Do you feel you got Nadaan Nadia because of your flair for comedy?
Anwar Maqsood saheb always tried to persuade me to do plays, and each time I told him that I’d do TV again only if he wrote a comedy for me. That’s how Nadaan Nadia happened.

It was a situational comedy, which is a difficult genre. But I loved the challenge. I don’t consider crying and shedding a tear as serious acting. The difficult thing is to be able to play subtle, to act natural.

Even today, if I ever think about coming back to acting, I know it would have to be comedy.

You know, a lot of scenes in Nadaan Nadia were conceived by me. I feel I could even script a comedy play.

Why didn’t the serial become very successful?
I think it dragged towards the end. They introduced several characters, and the comedy also faded into the background.

Still, a lot of people today know me more by this serial of mine than by the films I’ve done.

Which of your performances are close to your heart?
Apart from the comedy roles, I’d say it was quite tough playing a call girl in Maazi Haal Mustaqbil. I was supposed to mouth lengthy dialogues that were also quite difficult for me to understand (smiles). Then, I played a teenager in Aag that was another challenging role. I did the film without makeup.

You brought a revolution in Lollywood in the art of makeup. The rest of the actresses followed trends set by you. Comment.
I used to study a lot of foreign magazines. Besides, I think, one has a natural sense of something. I had that of makeup.

Initially, the film people made me wear all those weird wigs. I was a newcomer then and wouldn’t say a word. But, later, I started putting my foot down. I’d also insist on a no-makeup look such as when I was playing a teenager, but the directors wouldn’t easily let me.

Film industry's first true style icon.
Film industry’s first true style icon.

Didn’t you ever think of opening a salon of your own?
I must admit that I have great interest in it, but not the temperament to run a business. That’s not my scene. I am at an age when I want to relax. I am fond of interiors and dress designing, though.

You did a few Punjabi films as well, right?
Right. Mukhda is my most memorable Punjabi film.

It must be quite flattering to have all the top directors of that era repeating you in their movies?
I never looked at it that way. In fact, it’s also because there were only a few actors in the industry at that time.

Shamim Ara and (late) Nazrul Islam made great films in the ‘70s, but there was a considerable decline of quality in their later films. You agree?
Earlier they had a wonderful producer like Shamsi. The man was extremely passionate about creating good cinema. Later, I am sure these directors got bad producers.

See, if the producer forces you to finish six scenes in one shift, quality is bound to suffer, even if you are a Nazrul Islam. Even good actors cannot help that.

On the other hand, we see that Bollywood veterans have gone from strength to strength?
See, we should resist the temptation of comparing ourselves with Indians. For instance, Yash Chopra works with a brilliant team of assistants. Besides, he has got a tough competition on home turf. I am sure all that keeps him on his toes.

Talking about our own dependable lot, I feel Syed Noor is a good director. He is quite passionate about his work. I remember, he would eagerly shoot for Shamim Ara on the foreign locations of Miss Hong Kong or Miss Columbo whenever she got ill or something.

You were said to be quite temperamental and moody on the sets?
(Smiles) They called me moody because I took my work very seriously. Sometimes I’d be too stubborn about doing a scene in a certain way, wearing the right stuff, and all. If a director didn’t listen to me, I’d throw a tantrum and the media would blow this out of proportion.

Do you approve of the way our actors are falling over themselves to find work in India?
I just don’t. In fact, I don’t like that they should perform bits on Indian shows.

Have you ever got any offers from across the border?
Lots. But, see, now I won’t do films for the love of it. If I do anything it will have to be something really worthwhile. Such as when N Chandra (the director who made the Madhuri-starrer Tezaab) approached me for a supporting role in his next film that he said he was making on the lines of Baghban, I told him frankly that I wasn’t interested.
See, I don’t think I have the physical structure to play a mother of grownups on screen. But I told N Chandra that I’d be willing to play a mother only if he gave me a ‘Mother India’.

Give us a taste of your personal life. How do you spend your average day?
Time flies! I am mostly home, but I also travel a lot. I want to give time to myself, play, enjoy little little things that I couldn’t earlier because I would be shooting.

You avoid public appearances, right?
I don’t have the craving for public exposure. Simple. That’s also why I don’t like to give interviews every now and then. I am a private person.

Lux Style Awards 2006 was the first time you ever performed on stage. How come you had a sudden change of heart?
It’s not about having a change of heart. I performed on the medley on the insistence of a whole lot of friends who were part of the Lux Style show. That’s it.

Do you watch movies a lot?
Quite a lot, yes. I specially like art movies.

Recent performances that you admired?
In Pakistan, none really. As for Bollywood, I don’t think I’m impressed by any of the performances lately. I saw ‘Black’ recently, and thought Rani wasn’t inspiring enough. I mean, when you tilt your head and look and mutter noises in a certain way, you’ve already got a few props that will help you in your performance. Aap ka apna kya kamal hai?

So who are the actors you are impressed by?
I am a big fan of Aaliya begum. I had a chance to see some of her films and I was simply shocked. She was so natural and spontaneous. Her comic timing, her dance, everything was superb. I think she is one of our under-rated actresses. I don’t like anybody from the current lot. But, in India, I like Kajol. I think she’s a complete natural. She has raised the status of a woman performer in commercial cinema.

What do you feel when a woman director like Sangeeta disrobes her women actors on screen?
I happened to see Wehshi Hasina and thought it was downright loud and vulgar. I think being a woman director Sangeeta should not become a part of such cinema.

Ever thought of directing a film?
No way. It’s a Herculean task, as far as I am concerned. It’s not a woman’s job. When a woman works in this field, she morphs into a man.

What about fragile, feminine directors like Shamim Ara?
Unka jo haal hota tha, woh hum hi jaante hain! (smiles). She was very fragile and would often fall sick on location. But she was very disciplined. Besides, her ideas were very contemporary. I think she exposed London in Playboy like no one else in Lollywood has done.

Roles you’d love to do?
See, if I say I want to play an Umrao Jan I’d be foolish if I don’t realise that it won’t suit my structure or my personality. No matter how much effort, heart and soul you put into your performance, if you don’t look a character you will never look convincing. You will only affect your image in a bad way.

Originally published in The Nation — February 26, 2006

“I’ve found my direction” — Marina Khan

The impish, bubbly Saniya of mid-1980s’ phenomenally successful TV serial Tanhaiyan had such a big shadow, it seemed to linger over nearly all of Marina Khan’s later performances. So much so that people started to identify Marina with Saniya and vice versa.

But Marina was not Saniya alone. She was a lot more. She was, to use a showbiz cliche, versatile. And, soon she proved that, too.

Today, Marina cannot be pigeon-holed as an actress who is good only for a particular style of acting; light comedy, to be precise. Her repertoire of roles might not be too wide-ranging, she has proved her detractors wrong with plays like Amma, Abba Aur Ali, Tum Hee To Ho and Mehreen Jabbar’s Farar, to name only a few. 

Recently, Marina has taken on the most challenging of all roles: direction. In an exclusive interview, she talks of how she developed as a director.

By Usman Ghafoor

Would you say that you ‘reinvented’ yourself by stepping into direction? Or, was it a natural development?
Marina Khan: I would say that it has been quite a natural development. It took me 14 years of being part of, and observing, the production process. I was very fascinated by (late) Shehzad Khalil’s way of working, how he managed to keep his cool and keep the production together [during Tanhaiyan‘s shoot].

Besides, I have been a great TV and movie buff all my life. I could sit and watch the production process in a biscuit factory all day or, for that matter, a car assembly line.

Another factor that contributed towards my transition was the fact that around the 1990s there was a general decline in the quality of work on TV, or at least the stuff that was being offered to me. I just felt that the best way that I could challenge myself was by producing a play or two. Now I love it so much, I’m hooked. I believe, I have found my direction (no pun intended).

Which was your first play as a director?
It was a long play, a romantic comedy, featuring Qazi Wajid, Badar Khalil and Ishrat Hashmi, titled Ghar Tou Aakhir Apna Hai. It was written by Muhammad Ahmed, with whom I found I could work very well.

(Marina’s other directorial ventures include Na Janay Kya Ho Gaya, Adhuray Khwaab, both long plays, and a serial, Tum Hee Tou Ho, which was shot in Los Angeles.)

What kind of subjects generally appeal to you, as a director?
I am not the one who usually picks the theme. But then I do work with my writer as the story progresses. I am an all-rounder as a film viewer, but I love commercial cinema, and romantic comedies are my favourite too. I naturally tend to always keep the light romantic comedy aspect in the plays that I direct. I feel that there is just too little love and humour in our lives.

As a director, who are the actors you get along best with?
I hope and should get along with all actors.

Which are the writers you are most comfortable working with? Whose temperament goes along with yours the best?
I have worked almost only with Ahmed, with the exception of one play which was with Dr Dennis Isaac. I have to say that it was quite an honour to work with the latter, as one has grown up seeing and admiring his work.

Ahmed has an easy style of writing. He writes for today.

Any directors who have inspired you?
The only person I could say I’m inspired by is Shehzad Khalil. However, there are several directors whose work has impressed me over the years, such as Oliver Stone, John Woo, Gregory Hoblit [of Fallen and Frequency fame], and Roger Michell [of Notting Hill].

Which are the projects you are working on these days?
I am working on a serial for ARY, it’s in the planning stages. It’s a sort of a soap opera. Besides, I am putting together a Dennis Isaac play, to be shot in Toronto, and another which is a collaboration with Farahnaz Usman and Mohammad Ahmed as writers.

Originally published in The Nation – Nov 15, 2002