this is an academic paper (of sorts) so apologies if it gets boring.
The annals of Pakistani cinema have produced many a bizarre and wonderful film. Yet few can match the harmonious balance between surreal farce and aesthetic ambition found in “Aurat Raj” (Women’s Rule)
The film works on several levels – as a scathing political satire, as a film layered in intertextual references to the industry and its aesthetics and as a provocative commentary on sexual relations. From a technical standpoint though, the film’s most striking feature is its use of voice, and that is what this paper will be focusing on.
It is the aim of this paper to show that the use of voice in Aurat Raj serves to convey the film’s message through disembodying the voice from the body, and using that disconnect to rearticulate methods of gender representation on screen.
Before we begin to understand how voice is used in such a manner, we must first break down what this paper refers to as the ‘message’ of this film. To understand that, it is vital to contextualize this cinematic text.
The plot of Aurat Raj is delightfully fantastic – a young wife (played by Rani) gets tired of her philandering husband’s shenanigans, and decides to take revenge. She rounds up like-minded feminists, who break hell on their male counterparts, leading to riots. Peace is brokered through the promise of elections, which are promptly won by the women’s party. Upon assuming power, the wife acquires a bomb, which can reverse genders – making men into women and women into men. The bomb is detonated, and society is turned on its head, as men learn about the ignominies faced by women on a daily basis.
Ostensibly then, this film is about celebrating women, highlighting the injustices meted out to them, and asserting their right to equality and power. But that wouldn’t be an accurate reading.
Khurram Shafique, one of Pakistani cinema’s most noted critics and historians, writes that
“The cinema of woman has yet to be born in Pakistan. Our films, as they come, are fantasies created by me… I would consider our cinema as a manifestation of the male unconscious because all movies are fashioned by men’s choices and all female roles appearing within them are “male-identified”, or “women as perceived by men rather than women as they really are”.”
This is the first important part to keep in mind when trying to understand this film – it is not made for women, even though it is about them. The film actually uses women to make a statement to men. However, before I explain this further, another distinction has to be made.
The staple product of South Asian cinema is the masala film. As a generalized term used to describe a vast body of cinematic work, its definition can be unwieldy. However, two basic criteria for such films can be fleshed out, which are also relevant to our discussion here.
Firstly, as Nayar explains,
“… such movies do not take the form of a literacy-driven object. Instead, the conventional [masala] film possesses clear characteristics of oral performance and orally transmitted narratives, conspicuously sharing traits with, for example, Homeric epic and the Indian Mahabharata. It is a cultural product that has been historically circumscribed by the psychodynamics of orality – that is, by the thought processes and personality structures that distinguish a non-writing mindset, and, as such, it is a product that employs specific devices and motifs that are traditionally part of orally based storytelling.”
With regards to narrative in particular, we turn to Vasudevan, who writes that
“masala films represent a moral universe, the disruption of which initiates the narrative action… [and] restoring order or resolving the disruption is usually the goal of the narrative.”
Aurat Raj is firmly within the realms of the masala film, and as such, the intended message of the film has to be interpreted within these constraints.
I will posit here that the purpose of the film is to show to men how women are dealt with in a patriarchal society. It serves to explain to men what it would be like to walk in a woman’s shoes.
The basis for this claim lies firstly in the fact that this film, like others before and after it, is not showing women in any other manner than the way they are portrayed in society and on screen. It is a view of society through male eyes. Secondly, the moral rupture in the film arises from the actions of the playboy husband, and as such the film’s resolution lies in him understanding, accepting and resolving his follies.
Both points are further emphasised by the fact that almost the entire film exists as the husband’s dream – a dream that shows him the error of his ways. At the end of the film, the husband wakes up, and immediately begs his wife for forgiveness. Thus, we can safely say that the entire narrative is one viewed by a man, and serves to educate man about his responsibilities.
This point is further strengthened by the fact that after the bomb’s detonation, society itself remains the same. Men (the new woman) are teased, exploited and continuously treated as properties and objects. Therefore, the film is not seeking to extrapolate the nature of a society ruled by women, or how women would react to being handed over the power held by men.
It is also important to also realise that in contrast to western ideas about gender, the masala film equates gender equality through a system where both genders are constrained in their choices. The contours of those constraints are provided by the boundaries of the moral universe within which these films reside. Thus, it would be unwise and futile to try and find ways in which the film could service intellectual feminism as it is defined in the west, simply because that is a subject matter alien to such films. This point is showcased at the film’s climatic battle scene, where the genders are reversed to their original settings, and both men and women decide to battle together to defeat the foreign armies invading their country.
We can now turn our conversation towards the use of voice within this film. How does Aurat Raj employ the idea of voice? The main clue is provided by the fact that the notorious bomb that inflicts a gender-bender on the entire society is named the “Awaz Bomb” (Voice Bomb).
The choice of names makes it explicitly clear that voice is the primary link to gender. The switching of the voices then, is the most definable characteristic of the new gender equation in the film. Although men find themselves dressed as women and vice versa, the criteria for defining gender representation on screen is deemed to be the voice, which is also switched for both genders. Thus for most of the film, male actors dubbed the dialogue for females, and their female counterparts dubbed the male actors’ lines. In terms of power politics, this is very important. The bodies of the actors trade positions within society, but the voices retain those places – the oppressed men speak with the voices of women, and vice versa. Hence, the film’s articulation of its message is through voice, and its position in society.
To understand what this means in terms of film theory, we must look at how voice is employed within cinema.
According to Lyotard,
“… the mise-en-scene turns written signifiers into speech, song and movements executed by bodies… and this transcription is intended for other living bodies – the spectators… The idea of performance… seems linked to the idea of the inscription on the body.”
Doane expounds upon this idea further, writing that
“The value of thinking the deployment of the voice in the cinema by means of its relation to the body (that of the character, that of the spectator) lies in an understanding of the cinema, from the perspective of a topology, as a series of spaces including that of the spectator – spaces which are often hierarchized or masked, one by the other, in the service of a representational illusion.”
As we can see from here, the voice is one aspect of a topology of spaces, which are all creating a representational illusion. It therefore stands to reason that the shuffling of these spaces is not only possible, but that it would necessarily lead to a different representation of a certain illusion.
Doane acknowledges the possibility of such shifts and recognizes them in the writings of Lyotard as well:
“Lyotard speaks of the post-modernist text, which escapes the closure of representation by creating its own addressee, “a disconcerted body, invited to stretch its sensory capacities beyond measure.” Such an approach can be seen as an attempt to create a politics based on erotics.”
As explained before, Aurat Raj is not seeking to explicitly create a new politics, but rather showcasing the discrepancy within existing politics between the genders. As such, we can see that the intellectual, and more importantly, technical possibility of switching voices for genders (a task much more difficult for theatre or literature for example) is used as a device by the film to further its own plot.
Since neither the film’s narrative nor its resolution seeks to challenge the conventional moralities regarding gender, it would be a mistake to see the switching of voices as an attempt at forging new erotic politics. In fact, it is more instructive to realise that the filmmaker (Rangila) is exploiting the topological nature of the cinematic illusion by reordering the existing hierarchal spaces.
Having understood the link between voice, the body and cinema, we now turn our attention to voice, cinema and gender. Hellinger and Bussman draw upon Butler’s ideas to write that
“Butler argues that gender works as a performative, constituting the very act that it performs… For Butler, there is no prediscursive self, as even our understanding of ‘biological sex’ is discursively produced… [therefore] we must turn our focus to the speech event itself, uncovering how speakers manipulate ideologies of femininity and masculinity in the ongoing production of gender.”
An interesting example can be found in the voices of flamenco singers. Labajo writes how critics felt that
“… the “Cante Jondo” (Deep Song) reaches its full expression in bass and baritone voices; women who have practiced a good “cante” owe their success largely to their naturally thick, dark and heavy voices, which give them virility. This means that the “Cante Jondo” is only appropriate for men’s performance. Or, as often said by fans moved by this marked virility: “it’s just right for machos”
She further adds that for a protagonist of this particular genre
“… his voice, as a mere sonic support, can certainly be considered as the only proof of patrimony and customs with which the “cantaor” demonstrates/represents the signified elements of this type of musical expression.”
Scholars such as Tasker have made similar points about action heroes in cinema, and the kind of voice they are supposed to have. A famous example both write about is that of Sylvester Stallone’s decision to change his action-hero image by appearing in Tango & Cash. According her, the most important switch was the decision to make his voice more higher pitched, and less gruff for the new role, in order to emphasize its difference from the previously macho role.
This discursive idea of gender creation through voice is not alien to South Asian cinema either. The most celebrated example is that of playback singer Lata Mangeshkar. Srivastava writes of
“tendencies that come to gather about her singing style [which] attribute to it the characteristic of ‘good’ and ‘authentically’ Indian-feminine.”
He further adds that
“… she has established a specific vocal style, which… became recognised as an aesthetic marker of modern Indian female identity. And if vocal style is the single most important marker of aesthetic identity, then it can be argued that Lata’s singing voice has instituted a very specific identity for Indian womanhood… the ‘woman’ conjured by Lata Mangeshkar’s singing voice is the product of certain development that are peculiar to the processes of Indian modernity.”
What these arguments make explicitly clear is that the voice can come to determine not only gender, but also specific ideas associated with gender. Therefore, it is possible for each gender to have various ideas associated with it which are articulated through a particular voice. The example cited above was Stallone’s gruff Rambo persona, versus his fast-talking, high pitched cop in Tango & Cash. Both voices are male, and yet are capable of creating different discourses about men.
Similarly, a variety of socio-historic reasons have led to Lata Mangeshkar’s voice being identified with a certain idea of a nationalized gender.
Rangila’s use of voice in Aurat Raj suggests that he too is intimate with these ideas, and exploits them for similar purposes. Thus, the character played by Rani is given a stern man’s voice. In contrast, the rogue character of Chakori, who indulges in smuggling and sexual assaults is voiced by the same actor who played the philandering husband. This voice is more lecherous and smoother, hence conjuring up an idea of masculinity distinct from the one represented by Rani’s character.
But perhaps the most explicit, and comedic use of this device is reserved for Sultan Rahi. Rahi spent his entire career playing hyper-macho action heroes. He appears in this film as himself, and therefore also undergoes a voice change when the bomb explodes. In a parodied reference to his on-screen persona, the voice he is provided with is extremely shrill and high-pitched. Again, this decision demonstrates that both the filmmaker, and more importantly, the audience are aware of this quality of voice being identified, or gendered, as hyper-feminine. Thus, it is the ideal counterpoint for the physical frame of Sultan Rahi, as it maximizes the comic potential of the situation.
In conclusion then, we can see how Aurat Raj manipulates the relationship between voice and the cinema to not only create, but also reinforce ideas about gender. The film’s context as a masala film with a predetermined set of morals is also vital in understanding where the usage of voice can be seen as a device, and thus what particular message that device seeks to convey.
Our argument has led us to the conclusion that the film is interested in recreating society with the same patriarchal values, only with the bodies of men and women occupying different power roles. It is the voice however, that remains within the same power dynamics, hence implying that voice remains the most potent marker of gender, and the power plays between genders in society. For a film which dabbles in drag dressing, bizarre characters, outlandish plots and twists, its use of voice represents a stunning achievement in managing to bring together such disparate, and seemingly low-brow devices, into such a potent and powerful idea.
Doane, Mary Ann. “The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space.” Yale French Studies 60 (Cinema/Sound.1980): pg 33.
Hellinger, Marlis, and Hadumod Bussmann. Gender across Languages the Linguistic Representation of Women and Men. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins, 2001. Pg 157 Print.
Labajo, Joaquina. “Body and Voice: the Construction of Gender in Flamenco.” UMBC: An Honors University in Maryland. Web. 21 Mar. 2010.
Lyotard, Jean Francois, “The Unconscious as Mise-en-Scene” in Performance in Postmodern culture, ed. Michael Benamou and Charles Caramello (Madison: Coda Press, Inc. 1977) pg 96
Nayar, Sheila J. Invisible Representation: The Oral Contours of a National Popular Cinema,Film Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 3, Spring, 2004, pg 21
Shafique, Khurram. “Importance of Being Eve.” The Republic of Rumi. Web. 21 Mar. 2010..
Shafique, Khurram. “Women and Cinema in Pakistan.” The Republic of Rumi. Web. 21 Mar. 2010..
Srivastava, Sanjay. “Voice, Gender and Space in Time of Five-Year Plans: The Idea of Lata Mangeshkar.” Economic and Political Weekly 39.20 (2004): pg 2019
Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre, and the Action Cinema. London: Routledge, 1993. Print. pg 83
Vasudevan, Ravi. The Melodramatic Mode and the Commercial Hindi Cinema: Notes on Film History, Narrative and Performance in the 1950s Screen 30.3 (1989): 29–50
More than a year ago, when I first started mulling over my proposed thesis for my Film Studies degree, I was interested in creating something “Pakistani.” Around that time, I started researching on films being made by yuppies and burgers like myself, to get an idea of both what topics were being pursued as well as the scale of production that was being achieved.
During that time, I ran into two films – Freedom Sound and Slackistan. The former, despite being advertised several years ago, never seemed to make it beyond a trailer. The latter gained a lot more fame, and a lot more notoriety, hailed for being the renaissance of a new idea of Pakistani cinema, and derided for being another piece of elitist trash.
For me, as a future filmmaker, it was exceedingly difficult to have an objective opinion. When I viewed them as my peers, I felt the need to support them, as their efforts were brave cries in the oppressive barrenness of independent Pakistani cinema. When I viewed them as competitors, or an arm-chair critic, I sneered at their English-medium, insular, trying-too-hard to be hip demeanor. I was struggling however to come to terms with what was wrong about these films without allowing my own insecurities or biases to filter through.
Now if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might have heard me go on about intertextuality. One of the concepts that I came across while reading on this idea was how texts and ideas traveled from the core to the preiphery, or to put it crudely, west to east.
…the first step in this process as one where “the foreign texts which become known in the original language are perceived as “strange” and as belonging to the elite by the domestic audience.” Lotman argues that once the periphery becomes saturated with texts from the center it begins to master the language, create its own adaptations and translations until it begins to “bombard” its own texts at other structures, including the former center.
This was the point the metaphorical penny dropped for me. The problem with Slackistan and Freedom Sound wasn’t entirely that they were in English, or catered only to the elite. It was that they were being presented in genres and visual styles which were as yet alien and foreign to the native audiences, and thus became associated with the elite.
On a personal level, this realisation was critical in conceiving both the plot and style for my own film.
But on a more general level, I felt the need to return to this idea recently. It happened after a chance discovery by @Shahidsaeed sparked a viral epidemic of the youtube kind, and after a little over 500 views in more than two weeks, Asif Khan’s epic “Boom Boom World Cup Song” hit over 3000+ views and counting literally overnight.
When I first started tweeting this enthusiastically, a few people complained that I was taking the piss out of what was an innocent and earnest effort. A trip to the song’s youtube page shows a combination of either condescending reactions, or outright abuse. When the discussion of this song entered the Elite/Almost Elite strata, there were mournful observations of how our population felt the need to make sounds in English. Although I did not come across it personally, I am sure a lot of people would have also despaired about where our proud heritage is going now that the poor/middleclass/masses believe that they need to make such songs in English.
All the reactions betray certain chutyapay (for lack of a better word) amongst us all.
For starters, a vast majority of us consume such fluffy, trivial and low-brow entertainment by the busload, be it Shakira’s songs or Kim Kardarshian’s life. Those who don’t do so, believe that unless it is to do with revolutions and poverty, ANY low-brow art is worthy of derision. Thus when there is a local version of low-brow tripe such as Mr. Asif’s entry, there is a coalescing of opinion seeking to condemn it.
What such condemnation obfuscates is the real value of this song.
Cricket is a colonial sport, and its adoption, assimilation and transformation by the colonised is well documented. Young boys on Pakistani streets don’t yell “Howzat” they yell “Awutzayyy!” They have changed “Well played” to “Well shot” “Well Ball” or simply, just “Well.” The sport’s commentary, regulations, jargon are all in English, and are (at least in pakistan’s case) not translated into local languages, but taken as is. Cricket is also one of the few cross-cutting, hierarchy defying features of Pakistani life.
Which means that Asif’s song is written in English not because it is an attempt to enter the Billboard 100, but because it seeks to speak in the language of cricket as it is understood in Pakistan.
More importantly, it is a great example of the periphery ‘bombarding’ the center with its own texts, returned after an attempt to master them. In that context, we can’t start judging this song against Faiz’s poetry or Beethoven’s Fifth, because that would be comparing high-brow apples with low-brow oranges. Instead, this song has to be viewed within the genre of the “Official Tournament Song” which are pop ditties created for every major sporting event. By and large, these songs are nothing special. The greatest cricket world cup song is perhaps Jazba Junoon, which perhaps because of its overuse, generally ranks as one of Junoon’s worst songs for me. But that is only when I judge that song against the rest of Junoon’s output.
Tournament songs are not meant to be works of art, they are meant to be a celebration of the event, a condiment to the meal, an extension to the emotions, expectations and excitement surrounding the tournament itself. It is for that reason that most Pakistanis still weep at the opening chords of Europe’s “It’s the final countdown” something which even the genius expropriation of the song by Gob does not diminish.
It is why the otherwise supremely annoying Mr. jeem has a special place in my heart when he sings his World Cup 2009 song. And it is here where BHOOM BHOOM WORLD CUP fits in. Because it is an intimate expression of world cup joy.
But, and this is my final point, where this song truly makes its mark is its very existence. This is not some corporate paid, heartless single composed by nameless autobots and sung by some global superstar who couldn’t give two fucks about the sport. This isn’t some soulless exercise aimed at brand exposure and cheap publicity. (ok maybe a little cheap publicity) This isn’t some super-slick, super-fine production churned out by the machine.
This is an awkward guy, surrounded by endearingly earnest men, performing this whole scene in a rather dilapidated wedding hall with little to no hope of any financial gains, of any fifteen-minute fame, of any recognition or awards.
This, my friends, is art.
It might not be art for its lyrics, its production, its idea or execution. Its art for its heart. (see what i did there)
In a country where the only people capable of affording to create culture are forever aching for foreign acclaim and validation, in a culture where artistic endeavors are routinely dismissed and disparaged for not providing social security, in a country where batshit crazy archaic ideas are blowing up in maidans and marketplaces, BHOOM BHOOM WORLD CUP is not just extraordinary, its miraculous.
in a few days, i’ll be posting another piece on sasti masti and its reaction.
but first, check out the greatest review i’ve read about anything i’ve ever done. its got some of the most apt yet entertaining captions you’ll find on the interwebs.
so if you didn’t ‘get’ sasti masti, read this.
if you haven’t already, watch sasti masti here!
and there is a part two so please watch it.
and finally, here are the final bits of my blogs on the film. enjooooyyyy!!!
“Shooting the Moon – Day 1”
The first day of the shoot was meant to be the fight scene. i had envisioned shooting it in a fast paced style reminiscent of Far Eastern cinema. to choreograph it, i had sought out a variety of martial arts experts. after several no-shows and failed meetings, i found a small dojo run by a recent reverse emigre from the US. with their help, we managed to choreograph an elaborate, yet easy-to-shoot scene. the plan was to use the martial artists to do all the stunts and flying about, while for zafar – my hero – to swat them away in the traditional pakistani fight scene style.
the shoot was set at a location on the outer reaches of lahore. it was a house owned by a famous film star, whose gatekeeper now rented it out to shoots for regional television dramas. it had an open space reminiscent of a village. i had rented a track, a set of gloriously gaudy costumes, and lots of fake mustaches and blood. a friend had arranged to provide for several SUVs to be used by the villains, as well as a set of guns. in all there were about 25 people involved.
the night before, it all began to unravel.
first, the martial arts guys called to tell me that several of them couldn’t come. frantically, i shot through all the contacts i had garnered and managed to secure shahbaz, a national champion in karate, as well as several of his students.
but within moments of that crisis temporarily being averted, the monsoons arrived. it kept raining through the night. by eight o-clock, when i was meant to start picking up the various people involved and get to the location, half the city was submerged. an hour later, the anti-climax arrived and the shoot had to be called off.
immediately, a round of frantic calling ensued. the shoot could not be rescheduled for any of the next three days due to scheduling conflicts with the actors. so now i had to hold it for four days later. everyone eventually agreed to the new date, although zafar took an exceptionally long time to be brought around.
“Shooting the Moon – Day 2”
The next day was the shooting for the song sequence. i had wanted to use lahore’s famous blend of colonial and mughal architecture for the setting of the song, and i was determined to avoid the typical contemporary pakistani film scenario of a posturing macho hero looking gruff while the heroine dry-humped him. i was also not in the mood of heros and heroines chasing each other around gardens and other such cinematic cliches of previous eras.
the original plan envisaged the hero (khitab) in chase of a heroine (sonia) who he can’t find. i wanted to shoot around the whole city, culminating the chase in the magnificent 17th centry lahore fort. over time, the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to gain permission for shooting at the fort, coupled with the assorted dramas elsewhere, meant i decided to abandon my grandiose ambitions of capturing the whole city, and contend myself with the fort alone. i managed to get permission for one day of shooting.
i had decided on which song to choose, a process i described here. once i knew i wouldn’t be shooting the whole city, i wanted to add some other attraction to the shoot. at first, i tried to convince the actual band who had performed the song to appear in the scene, but they happened to be touring the US at that point. i then decided to grab hold of a marching band, and a magician. the ideas were rather random, and their main purpose was to create a sense of wonder, and surprise, at their curious juxtaposition within the historical settings.
but the day of the shoot, the very next day after the damp squib which was day one, also began with heavy rains. only this time, i was determined to shoot come hell or as it were, high water. by noon, the rains abated, and by three o’clock, i had assembled the cast and crew of 15 marching band members in full regalia, two actors, a magician who had brought along two members for a puppet show in case i needed one, two men operating a track normally used for 35mm cameras, and riz and his assistant.
the night before, while i was still fretting about the actual narrative to employ within the song, safieh has a brainwave. she suggested that i represent the heroine with a long, flowing red scarf. instead of seeing her, the hero only sees the scarf which he keeps chasing. in a more relaxed state, i might have tried to reconcile the heavy connotations of a flowing red cloth with the character of the heroine and tied myself up in knots. but that night, it offered a solution, one which ended up having widespread ramifications.
so we began shooting, and immediately it was a nightmare. the fort is an extremely popular tourist spot, especially on a day where the oppressive summer heat has been dissipated due to recent rains. moreover, the fort is absolutely massive. after all, it was a mini-city. these two factors meant that going from one shot to the next was a logistical nightmare, and the process of actually taking a shot was repeatedly thwarted by overenthusiastic onlookers.
at one point, i completely snapped, chasing after a group of cat-calling school girls with the camera, threatening to take pictures of them. as he would do repeatedly during the next few days, riz arose to calm the situation, making me aware of the futility of my bizarre threats.
the late start also meant that we were fast losing light. and for all the rave reviews i had read online about the power of the DSLR cameras in low light, the final shots were very disappointing in terms of the noise on the frame. the fact that the fort is also a UNESCO heritage site meant that using any external lighting was not allowed. and as for the track – it was so heavy it required four men to pick up, who then balanced it using bricks and pebbles. i quickly ditched all the track shots i had planned for this as well as all upcoming shoots.
but at least it got done.
“Shooting the Moon – Day 3”
at the end of the shoot on day two, i was dropping back my heroine, sonia. she began asking me when i planned to pay her. since most of the budget was being used up on actors, i didn’t want to pay them straight away. even if did want that, i couldn’t do it at that moment since i was almost out of cash.
my plan to raise funds for the film was to get money from the news channel i used to work for. i had left for my MA on a one-year unpaid leave, during which time the channel had offloaded nearly half its staff due to various reasons. my plan was to ask them to lay me off as well, and use my severance to pay for the film. i managed to pull that off, but the cheque still hadn’t arrived. so i had ended up borrowing first from my father, then more through his friend, then from my cousin, my aunt and my friends. the only cash i had i needed to pay for daily expenditures.
moreover, my relationship with sonia was not at a good point either. i had been doing several rehearsals with both her and khitab, and was really disappointed. i could not get her to act with any presence. i couldn’t get her to tense up her body, despite making her lift sofas and couches and asking her to observe her tightening muscles. and the chemistry between her and khitab was ponderous and awkward. i was quickly realising that while i could write dialogues and know which shots i wanted to frame, i was clueless about eliciting a performance. mostly because i had believed that actors needed to embrace the roles themselves and bring their own interpretation. but in this case, it was clear that the actors had not managed to embrace the roles, and as a director i had to find a way out.
so far my strategy was to pray for the best, but i was also on a short fuse. so over the course of the ride to sonia’s house, the request for payment and my subsequent denial blew up into a huge fight. by the time i dropped her off, the director in me gave way to the petrified producer. i texted her to let her know that i would pay her tomorrow.
day three’s shoot was at a friend’s house, and was for the dramatic climax where the heroine murders the hero. in order to cut down costs, i was now transporting all the equipment and the technicians myself. i had also spurned several other locations to use my friend’s empty house, which meant that i had no real furniture to use. and lastly, this scene was scripted very late, and thus lacked the solidity of the previous scenes. my plan was to shoot the scene as many times as i could, and use the edits and post-production to gloss over the poor acting.
by noon, i had collected all the equipment. by two o’clock, everyone but sonia had arrived. as a producer, i knew that i was now the guy whose phone no one ever picked up. but this was getting serious. sonia’s phone went from non-responding to being turned off. i was nearly in tears.
riz took me aside and started asking me to consider getting someone else in. for the longest time, this suggestion refused to make any sense. how could i find someone to come in and shoot the most important scene of my film at a moment’s notice? how could i find a replacement for someone i had already shot a scene with? but as sonia’s phone continued to elude me, i had no choice left. a few days previously, i had hired an actress, nadia, to do a small role for the second scene. i now called her and asked her to take up the MOST important role in the film. as i dialed, i feared that the acids churning in my stomach would soon rupture its linings and poison me. i was rapidly descending into a nervous breakdown.
but then nadia came to the rescue.
somehow, she agreed. by seven o’clock she arrived and saw the script for the first time. by the time we began shooting, everyone on set had officially gone into double overtime.
but then something strange happened. if you don’t believe what i am about to tell you, see the film again and judge for yourself. somehow nadia became the character. despite the fact that khitab had rehearsed the scene for weeks now, her presence continued to swell with each take. by six in the morning, after delays due to power failures, booming azaans and a dog which just wouldn’t shut up, nadia had done the scene several times better than i could have imagined sonia ever doing it. my flaws as a director to the actors were suddenly being papered up, as both khitab and nadia began to enjoy their roles, and i found my instructions being responded to. and any time i began losing concentration, or control, riz’s calming presence made the crucial difference.
and if you hadn’t pieced it together already, this was where the red scarf came in. for had i used sonia’s face or body in any of the shots during the song sequence, either the whole sequence would have to be scrapped, or re-shot. neither scenario was a financial or logistical possibility.
somehow, fate had conspired to give me another day…
“Shooting the Moon – Day 4”
i had originally planned for a break between the shoots, but the rain-out on day one meant back to back shoots for everyone. as a producer, my horrible task had just become worse, as i now had to get my crew together at noon after having released them from the shoot only four hours previously. on top of that, i now had to find a replacement for the role i had originally reserved for nadia. in a perverse bit of luck, the absolute constant dread i was filled with meant that i wasn’t able to sleep much for once in my life. i spent the morning convincing and cajoling one of my cousins to take up the role of the secretary vacated by nadia, and also getting two of her friends to play as extras.
once again, to cut costs i was using a relative’s office as the location. this was now the third place that i was shooting at free of cost, after having gained permission for the fort due to being a student, and calling in favors for the next two. it also meant shooting during what was a work day for the employees at the location, because of which i had to spend time briefing them not to stare at the camera, and apologizing for the disturbance we would be causing.
however, for all the planning the day began as another mortifying deja vu. for the second day running, my actress was not picking up her phone. once again, all the other crew was present, and i was losing money. by this time, the producer in me had gone completely senile, as the act of replacing the replacement actress was only producing a maniacal laughter from within me.
thankfully though, she was not meaning to bail out on me, but rather was just struggling to wake up after the extra long shoot the night before. and when she arrived, the smoothest shoot of the entire film unfolded.
for starters, both the fight scene and the song were more ideas of montages than narrative structures grounded in script. the final scene was dialogue heavy, but had been written much later after the other scenes, and was nowhere near as detailed or reworked and solidified. but this scene had remained largely the way it was and contained possibly my strongest writing. khitab gave what was easily his most assured performance of the film, while monty, one of the last-minute extras really stole the scene with what was meant as a minor role. we only had one power failure, and we were done with the shoot by nine at night.
“Shooting the Moon – Day 5”
The final day of the shoot was the rescheduled fight scene. as i drove back from the fourth day’s shoot to drop off my technicians, i began my routine of calling everyone who was meant to show up for the next day’s shoot. once again, zafar refused to pick up my calls. as i neared the studios where i was dropping off my light and sound men, i began to fear the worst. eventually zafar picked up.
he told me that he was driving, and was on the outskirts of islamabad. he was planning to stay there for the next week before he flew out to europe. he was not going to be in my film.
when he said that, it meant that khitab was the only person remaining from my original team that was meant to meet at mcdonald’s.
perhaps that was why i managed to swing into action straight away. the wonders of the pakistani studio system meant that i had a replacement actor within five minutes. arif gondal was a stuntman who had done countless fight scenes in films. and he ended up being the star of the show.
when day 5 began and each of the cogs began to fall into place, i began to feel a giddy sense of excitement. as the shoot began, my continuous feeling of nausea and fear, which had enveloped me for at least two weeks now, began to slowly abate. at that moment, around the time we took our first shot, i was informed that one of my friend’s from university had died in a freak fire accident.
utterly failing to know how to deal with the situation, i completely immersed myself in the shoot. any happiness was replaced by a strenuous focus. but at the same time, the tension also abated. suddenly, none of my travails felt quite so drastic anymore – the tragedy had thrown that much into sharp relief, despite the denial of my emotions.
mercifully, i was also in charge of people who knew what they were doing. arif was immense – there was no need for direction. because the role was such a staple, he managed to enter it seamlessly. but where he took it to the next level was how he interacted with the martial artists. i saw first hand the difference between shooting a fight for films, versus staging a mock fight. arif’s reactions, his grunts and groans, his stares and licks make that scene cinematic. without him, all the flying kicks and rotating chops would have been reduced to campy kitsch. despite not having a single line of dialogue, his performance is easily the strongest in the film.
despite the huge number of shots, and the fact that the third scene also had to be shot on the same location, we managed to get done in really quick time. this was also helped by being at a professional location. the marvelous naimat – the aforementioned gatekeeper – was constantly at hand to provide water bottles, arrange for a large pot of biryani, find random extras, to ferry actors to and from the location in his weathered motorcycle, to arrange for a battered television set at a moment’s notice, to do anything i needed.
by seven pm, i had finished my last day of shooting as the first one to end on time.
I think that the kind of filmmaker you are, in an essentialist manner of speaking, depends on the part of the process where you feel simultaneously most at control, as well as terrified of failure.
i began as an editor in terms of the technical aspects, and so my approach has been defined by this area of expertise. during shoots, i prefer taking as many shots as possible so that the editor retains the possibility to become God.
thus when i began my edit the constant sense of anxiety i had faced during the shoot had abated. as a director, i had felt increasingly out of control – partly because i struggled to impose myself or my outlook on a personal level, and partly because the production was so harrowing. in fact, the producer inside me faced a true baptism of fire – each moment of drama was nerve-shredding, but also left for no time to dither.
but now as an editor, i felt in control. i began with the scenes largely chronologically, and the edit was quite ambitious. i decided to make heavy use of split screens and rapid cuts, and was particularly keen on creating a lot of fluidity and pace.
however, once the time came to score the film, my confidence vanished. at that point, i had to choose songs for the fight scene, and cut the entire song sequence with a song i had already chosen.
the problem was that the fight scene had been choreographed in a certain narrative, and because there were a lot of fake punches or slowed down moves, i had also edited it very precisely already. so i now had to find a song which managed to line up to the pace and the rhythms of the edit, with no room to maneuver.
this was when safieh came to my rescue, and ended up owning the edit for these crucial parts of the film. to begin with, we had two songs in mind; Choli ke Peeche – a rock cover by a Pakistani band of a classic, and scandalous for its time Bollywood song. the second was Paanch Chuhay/Machli Ka Bacha – a metal version of two famous nursery rhymes from Pakistan. in an intertextual sense, and so in the spirit of the whole film, they were quite appropriate. however, neither one fit with the edit. certain parts of one song would slow down right when the pace of the fight picked up, or there would be lyrics playing at times when a lead was needed.
i knew it was theoretically possible to chop up the songs, but my ears lacked the ability needed to translate music from being pleasurable to technical as well. safieh however, a piano player from a young age, helped identify the beats and the tempo and consequently the moments where i could snip out a whole passage from a song, and attach it to another part, and then add that to a completely different song.
i had already chosen the song – Chup – for the fact that it was a non-masala type song, and so an interesting choice for a film. its lyrics, which begin with “baatein khatam hueen/ab to pyar ka waqt hua” (end the talking/its time for love) and are being sung by a woman to a man, was also in line with the theme of the film. but the narrative of the hero chasing a dupatta did not have enough shots for me to make anything longer than 50 seconds. and i had a lot of footage, beautiful footage, of the fort which i did not know how to use. this time, safieh took over completely – going through the song bit by bit, and then deciding which shot to take and how to treat it with effects. and the reason she had to do so was that more so than the fight sequence, this point had left me completely paralyzed with fear. i realised it was because the lack of narrative meant that i had to completely create one. its like taking a jackson pollack painting and trying to use it to create a carvaggio. and thus at this point, it was crucial that safieh stepped in and helped bring the whole thing to a completion.
i had known once the shoot was over that these two areas would be the shining points of the film, and the most obvious ways of showcasing the updating of cinematic language. but perhaps that’s why it also felt more daunting. the reason safieh managed to succeed, and end up doing a spectacular job by doing justice to both the songs and the footage, was that she was unencumbered by the experience of the director and the producer. and more importantly, she brought with her the joy of the viewer. i think this was what was the definitive moment, because her enthusiasm was precisely what the sequences needed. unlike dialogue, where the rhythm is primarily set by the actors and the script, in these cases the performances were meant to be about the camera and the music just as much as the actors and the words. and as such, the response of the editor has to be very organic, very open to the body’s reaction to the sights and the sounds. i think that’s what i learnt from this experience through safieh’s approach, and it is something that i later tried to bring to the rest of the score through out the film as well.
The inevitable sequel
so what do i take away?
to begin with, independent filmmaking in pakistan is very much a possibility. i had arrived for this course as someone curious, and unsure of what to do with what i was going to learn. for personal reasons, i knew i wanted to go back to pakistan, but i had no idea how it was going to be possible to make a career out of films in the country. and so this thesis was my way of answering that question.
what i learnt was what everyone knows about the third world – the labor is dirt cheap, and the professionalism is abysmal. i came to know of both truths quite vividly. but the very fact that i had experienced these ideas as truth was what was important.
what i realised was that the technical staff was highly dedicated and professional. with the exception of the cameraman fiasco, each of my technical crew were magnificent. they were least liable to argue and put forth their own opinions, the least likely to renege or even show up late, and also the cheapest facets of the budget.
almost all my trouble came from people in front of the camera. its easy to blame it on actors being prima donnas, but i think it’s also because the person on-screen is the only instrument within the mis-en-scene which has a consciousness. the lighting doesn’t wonder if its garish, the camera doesn’t question the zooms. but the actor realises that and responds to it. and it was my failing as a director which fed to the problem. because while lighting, sounds, frames are all chosen using the aesthetic judging parts of the brain, the actors are worked using the part of your brain which is a manager.
however, now begins another interesting chapter in this story, and thus one more step that needs to be completed before i can honestly reflect upon this film as an experience. that of course is the release to the public. i am going to put the film on Facebook, Youtube and Vimeo on 10.10.10. to promote the launch, i am going to be posting blogs on my own websites, as well as on the blog for a national newspaper. i am also going to release clips and screen shots from the film through my twitter page and the film’s personal facebook and vimeo pages to generate interest, particularly amongst the loyal group of readers on the sasti masti blog. my aim is to try and reach 10,000 consolidated views. in the process, i plan to learn on how people respond to the film, and what sort of impact it generates.
in other words, we’re now leaving base camp, and setting off for the summit.
i had just left mcdonald’s, and the happy meal hadn’t done much for my mood.
i had come to lahore naively imagining a crew awaiting my vision and ambition, a cast eager to inhabit their characters and abundant, convenient locations. i had rehearsed many versions of my opening speech the first time the whole team assembled, where i would lay out the plan that would be forever immortalized by future historians.
instead, after three weeks in the city, and one week before the shoot, this was the first time i had managed to get my cast to come together. and while the very setting of mcdonald’s spoke volumes about the lack of inspiration, the subsequent squabbling over finding dates suitable for everyone had left me even more despondent.
i had insisted on finding professional actors, but after all, i still wasn’t paying any of them a lot of money, and i was not someone who was going to make them into big stars. so even though i had given each person an individualised and well-received spiel when i had recruited them, once the veneer was off the magnitude of my task became clear to me.
moreover, my rehearsals had not been going well. i believe that actors, especially less experienced ones work best when they’re playing a role close to their personal lives. so for the rich playboy, i had recruited khitab, a graduate from a new york acting school. for the imporverished heroine, i had found a young actress, sonia who was working on stage and television, who was decidedly middle class. but while they seemed to do their stand alone parts well enough, their chemistry together was awful. my own limitations as a director were becoming patently obvious. i was clueless on how to coax a performance from either of the two. as for the other role, i hadn’t even met the actor, zafar, since the day i had got him to promise to work with me.
but at that moment, what was really bothering me was that my cameraman sikandar was not picking up my calls.
sikandar had been very helpful since my produer mustafa had introduced us, but had lately been busy due to another shoot. however, he had promised to come for this meeting. all through the evening, he had kept cutting my calls, messaging to tell me he was at a shoot, but promising that he would show up soon. now he hadn’t shown up, and all the actors had drawn up their dates.
the next day, he texted to inform me that he would not be working with me, and that i should find someone else. this was now six days before the shoot. for which at least two locations he was setting up and i had no idea about.
what followed was a pattern which would become a terrifying routine within the next few weeks.
i called him repeatedly, but he wouldn’t pick up. i then called mustafa, and proceeded to vent my abuse at him. i got him to get in touch with sikandar. my reaction left me shocked. i exploded not only in rage, but also in a strange desperation, simultaneously berating him for the shoddy manner in which he had acted while also professing that without him i was ruined. in the end, i spent a lot of time screaming and crying on the phone, and a lot of time afterwards curled up in a ball.
a few days later, this pattern repeated itself, or at least threatened to do so. zafar, my actor for the other hero, had not been picking my calls for a few days. one day, he also texted to tell me he couldn’t work with me anymore. again, i couldn’t get through to him, but rather a friend of his. again, i vented at a proxy. again, i was left stunned by the ferocity of my emotions, as i spewed out a death threat and a pained cry for help within pretty much the same sentence. and with zafar, it was a lot more destructive on a personal level. after all, he was the only person i knew coming to lahore. i had met him as a reporter while covering a ban on stage dances. he was a veteran of the local theater scene, and had spoken to me with great wit and intelligence. he was the first person i had recruited and i had high hopes of where we would go. i eventually managed to get zafar to agree to one day of shooting, but despite the good news the entire process was extremely harrowing, and i was left rather dejected.
both cases also revealed something about the entertainment industry in pakistan. like much else, it represents a microcosm of sorts of the country itself. small time operatives like sikandar and zafar lie at the mercy of entrenched power centers. both of them had left my team not due to any conflicts with me, but because both had been asked at the last minute to leave whatever they were doing and work elsewhere. sikandar was asked to leave by an important music video director, zafar by a producer who was promising a tour in europe. both times, it wasn’t just about the money. both of them made it very clear that if they refused the powers-that-be, their entire careers would be deliberately sabotaged, as those men would use their influence to ensure that no one else ever worked with them.
it was a rather naked assertion of the facts.
because while there is an abundance of highly talented people working in pakistan who can be hired for extremely cheap rates, they are treated like serfs by those at the top. there is widespread job insecurity, and professionals are rarely treated professionally. independent filmmaking faces institutional biases.
what these people controlling the reins don’t understand yet is that their time has come, because i soon discovered that these biases are also easy to circumvent.
the impetus for this change came when i met riz, the eventual DOP for the shoot. despite his young age, riz was already a veteran of the music video scene. pretty soon he had helped me secure several locations. he also introduced me to the wonderful and tragic world of the pakistani studios.