The Taming of the Crew
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.
“The Film Studios of Pakistan”
The first time i entered a pakistani film studio, i had just driven several miles on a road so ravaged that my car had navigated several pot-hole almost completely vertical. when i entered, there were few lights, broken gates and a lot of very aimless looking people. there was no metalled road, there were stray dogs roaming the area and a lot of the studio masqueraded as an overflowing pool of waste and refurse.
i am not sure how studios work elsewhere, but i was pretty surprised nonetheless by what i saw. apparently, there are 18 disciplines within filmmaking, and the three remaining studios in lahore each have 18 different kinds of shops for each of the disciplines. its like walking in to a smurf village dedicated to the cinema.
there are dressmakers sitting in rooms crammed with items ranging from viking helmets to policemen uniforms, from racy, skimpy dresses for vamps to sequined gowns for ghouls. there are hairdressers with a plethora of wigs, makeup men churning fake blood, stuntmen with tricked-out cars, equipment rentals, extra providers, light men, sound men, camera men, musicians with dancers at the ready and choreographers and set designers and prop makers, each with their own tiny shop.
each one has a thousand tragic tales – of days gone by spent touring the country’s mountains and valleys, of shoots in deserts and by the sea, of glamorous stars and big-budget releases. all of them can no longer rely on the studios, whose own sets are used almost exclusively for television shows. consequently, they eke out livings by providing music at weddings, costumes at school plays, lights at a school awards day, speakers at a concert.
what it also means is the availability for a vast variety of resources at fractional prices. the first time i visited the studios, i realised that i could match the scale of my ambitions despite my meagre resources.