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Inside Context

May 13, 2010

before we begin, let’s have a look at the film itself.

some people tell me that i should stick to writing – my blogs are a lot better than my films. which is true, since i am still learning to make films, while i have been writing forever now. but it also got me thinking about the difference between the two forms. when you want to change something in writing, you press back-space, or use a rubber. you are the person writing, and you can do it whenever you feel like. in contrast, film is not a solo act. it doesn’t have the luxury of being done whenever you feel inspired. and most importantly, you are not the only author.

when this film was assigned to us, we were told to make a film about the concept “This is my story.” i had scribbled down back then that i wanted it to be on a grand scale, with a song and dance. eventually, the grandness of the scale also meant that i could start learning the ins-and-outs of working on a large scale, which i would be doing for my dissertation.
after that, the next decision was to make it about cricket. this was because a lot of people had like the moment in the room when i played imaginary cricket. and since i have always loved cricket, and lamented my lack of talent, this was a perfect opportunity to live out one of my greatest fantasies. immediately though, i knew that my professors and most of my class would not get any cricketing references. as such, i had to be careful about making the film accessible despite that fact.
the second decision was on the advice of a good friend. he had told me that while my movies were fine, there was only so much one could take of watching just a guy on screen – he said get some women in there. it may sound crass, but it was actually a very intelligent understanding of what makes cinema popular. no less a figure than godard had glibly remarked that “all you need to make a film is a gun and a woman.” so i also wanted a scene where there was a beautiful woman.
so now we had cricket, woman and song. but no script. not the kind of process one would expect.
but this was something i had learnt over the year. two my films, foreigner and pakistani sex scene, were both made with a script already in my head. in contrast, the room was made because i wanted to do stop motion, and once i had shot that i constructed a story around it. the former two films were not well understood by most people. while sex scene was a lot better than foreigner, it was still difficult for people to access, and worked because of the brilliant music, which i had nothing to do with. the room however was well received by almost all who saw it, although it was not exactly very cerebral.
what it made me understand was that one should not only think about progressing from a pre-defined story. thinking about something you want to do and figuring out a story around that thing is an extremely useful way of making films, especially if you are new to the art. that is because in such a scenario, there is a greater fidelity between your ideas and their audio-visual representation on the screen.
i then managed to write down a script. the first scene, apart from the cricket stuff, was based largely on a classmate’s earlier work. in pakistan, it would be called cheating. i would like to think its intertextual – that is a reference made to another text or in this case, film. see if you can spot another reference in that scene, made to my own work.
soni played the role wonderfully well. i had just asked her a day before the shoot, after two other actresses had pulled out. she had very few lines to work with, and not a lot of screen time. yet she did a superb job, and also helped direct me for the scene. directing yourself is often a harrowing experience, but without soni’s help, i wouldn’t have thought of doing that tired, exasperated, victim-fantasy look i used for the scene.
the idea of using voice in the particular way i did came from my audiovision class, which had a big influence on my whole approach to this film. i had written a paper on the use of voice in aurat raj, and was intrigued by the idea of how intimate a language is, and how unsettling it would be to find someone else be able to enter that realm. in the film, its unclear whether the voice in urdu is the man’s own conscience, or the woman finding a new way to communicate. i don’t know myself.
but the reason that distinction arose at all was because of safieh’s performance. because it comes in a tone and tempo which is different from soni’s dialogues, it leaves you wondering who it belongs to – the man or the woman. as it is, safieh’s ideas were writ large across most of this film, but that particular act really created a new meaning within the film itself. perhaps it was helped in the haphazard way i shot her dialogue, as we did it just an hour before her train was to leave, and i hadn’t even made her see the recording of the whole scene. she basically had to pull out that performance with out any reference to the scene itself. that could have dragged the whole thing down, but when it comes to the scene itself, the sudden switch really creates such a definitive surprise that it works beautifully.
i then decided to approach jrod for the film. in some ways, this was a bollywood style move – getting the stars before deciding on the script. the idea of woman’s orgasms and unplayable deliveries in cricket was one i had for a while, and wanted to use in a blog. when i thought about using it in a film, there was only one person imaginable for that role. it was also a marketing move – i was well aware of jrod’s legions of dedicated fans. i was sure that a chance to see their idol in action was something that would get, as lalit modi would say, a lot of eyeballs for my film. when jrod agreed, i was able to then write the script with him in mind. however, when the time came to play the role, i asked him to steer clear of the lines. i knew already that the character was an exoticized version of jrod – hence i needed him to act as natural as possible, and use the camera to give an exaggerated aspect to his normalcy. this was an important lesson in direction for me. i think that a strict adherence to the lines is not something i can work with right now. but more importantly, it allowed jrod to really take that role to a new level. he has done a superb job, and it was lovely to see him work himself in a sweat, get nervous and unsure, before finally finding himself and his voice in a truly grand way. in the end, his presence really gives the film so much of its character, since he becomes this unforgettable character.
the next part was the dance. at first i didn’t even know what song i wanted. when i finally agreed upon the hilarious and insanely catchy “Life is a Dance” i thought the best thing would be to use people dancing in as many different styles as possible. i contacted dozens of clubs, who guided me to dozens more. yet after weeks of trying, i was nowhere and getting desperate. eventually i turned to my class for help, and immediately found two young women – cherry and treacle. i did not tell them about the song, its lyrics, or even the film itself until they arrived for the shoot. all i told them was i wanted to reinterpret a pakistani song. when they came, i gave them one listen of the song and asked them to interpret it any way they liked.
once again, like with jrod, this was an example of other people taking the authorship of the film. both the girls came up with this wonderful idea of using animalistic, body based and raw movements while delivering the whole thing in a dead pan, serious manner. it created what i had wanted – a brilliant juxtaposition against the song itself.
more importantly, this scene helped me encounter the use of song-and-dances in films themselves. i had always found them to be unnecessary, over the top and distracting. however, you learn that even with a five minute short, people get tired of the narrative. or they get bored. or they get a call. or they think of their groceries. not everyone would watch a film with the intensity you want them to. and some might watch it with that intensity and still not get the film. that is where i think the song comes in – as a relief, a moment of joy, a moment of relaxation, a moment to gather thoughts, or think new ones. and its important to know that it can lead to “narrative blind alleys” but that’s also just fine. i did try and create a certain connection between the song and the story, but i felt fairly confident that even without it, audiences would still accept it as long as i made it something visually memorable. the song itself is so bizarre that all together, it was a great combination.
for the cricket scenes, i had originally wanted to use my classroom studio, which has this amazing facility called MERL. essentially, its 24 screens that can give you a simultaneous 360 degree view. it was ideal for getting inside a batsman’s head. so i called cricket clubs for permission to shoot at their grounds. i tried surrey first, who told me it would cost too much. then sussex, who accepted before backing out. and finally kent, who never got back. eventually i went to the putney cricket club, a wonderful place straight out an enid blyton novel. unfortunately, the day of the shoot was washed out, and suddenly my film needed to find a way to work without the screens.
that was when sound stepped in. i was wary of being able to use anything but video screens, but that was because i was unaware of the power of sound. sound is such a sly thing – you never notice it when its there. like kaiser-soze, it makes you forget it exists. until it goes wrong, and then you lose all interest in the film. in fact, the easiest way of spotting a student film is listening to the sound quality.  the reason this film really stands out from all my previous ones is due to sound. not just the quality of recordings, or the fancy tricks with the voice. the most important part of the sound is the score – whether its junoon playing on the radio. or the didgeridoo scoring jrod’s epic speech. or the crowd baying in the cricket scenes. it gives character to each scene, allowing you to focus on the words. in a way, sound is the host which gets you feel safe, and open up to the other experiences available to you.
i also needed a commentator, and jrod pointed me to test match sofa, and daniel norcross. visiting the sofa, and talking to its lovely members was a joyous experience. and daniel did a marvelous job as the commentator. once again, i told him to just vaguely adhere to the lines and simply act as a caricature of himself. he brought his own style to the role, and like with the others, ended up authoring the film.
finally it came to the edit. the scenes for the cricket discussion were provided by the admin at i have long been a fan of his ability to create narrative through found footage, and had often told him so. he would instead act majorly modest about his talents. but his commitment and passion really shone through here. i basically described the scene to him, and told him some bowlers who i loved to see bowl those unplayable deliveries. within days, i was given three long compilations of just about every great modern fast bowler as well as apologies for not having found more. it was an incredible gesture, and one that really made the film what it is.
as for the mishi khan bukkake clip, the credit must go to dishoomdishoom, who also had discovered the amazing french rap used for the final credits. the mishi khan clip was ideal because i had wanted all pop culture references in this film to be pakistani. i had originally wanted to film a ketchup bottle being squeezed for that bit, but when i saw this scene, i knew it was perfect. it may have only come for a split second, but ask yourself how different your understanding or enjoyment would have been without it.
also, i must mention my cameramen. both glen who did the bedroom scene, and sam who did the jrod scene as well as its lighting, were given a certain set of vague instructions, but i told them to take the shots where they wanted to. sam had already worked with me before, and is easily the best cameraman i have ever worked with. glen was perhaps not quite as confident in his own abilities, but a little encouragement really allowed him to own his role. and he shot that scene beautifully. and so, both these guys also added to the film’s authorship. as for bastien, his camerawork added to his film being referenced, as well as his help in finding the girls for the dance shoot. as such, he had become a vital author at various points in the film.
in the end, this film really became about my story over this past year. it was a time where i learnt to have enough confidence in myself as a filmmaker to abdicate control, and allow other people to take charge. as i wrote, its very different to writing. and it is certainly infinitely harder to be as profound with film as you can be with words. but at the same time, the multiplicity of authors, collaborators, experiences and moments give film so much breadth and depth, so much joy and so many new possibilities.
perhaps i have bored you enough, but there is so much more left to discuss yet. however, i would just want to ask you to take authorship as well, and tell me what you thought of the film. the audience is perhaps the most defining author of any film, and far too often we forget about it, or treat its opinion with contempt. indeed, chasing after the audience seems to be the kind of thing producers of films with J-Lo in them would resort to. but that is a serious error. a film is made for an audience. and the audience gives its own meanings. thats what keeps the film alive. so let me know what you think in the comments below. and i’ll promise to give you my own views as well.
so, thank you so much for putting up with this whole post, and my film, and everything else. i hope you enjoyed it as much as i did.
16 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2010 01:12

    Loved it and had it mentioned at my little place. Keep up the good work, JRod is you know what he is 😀

  2. May 14, 2010 21:27


    Well, definitely a bit more challenging than the previous work, because it seems that this film needed the audience to make the linkages between the ideas and/or imagery… whereas in the previous work that room for interpretation was somewhat limited (even though the pakistani sex scene did go in that realm, a bit).

    but I liked it! I did see a “story”, though I dont know how much of what i understand of your film is “my” story, and how much of it would be “your” story. Oh I love ambiguities!

    As for the song and dance sequence, I also am a late convert to the pro-songs camp! And it is quite effective here! For a bit, I thought the girls had a burqa on, which would have been awesome, come to think of it!

    Best of luck with your dissertation, and looking forward to see how you approach the “grand scale”

    • May 14, 2010 22:43

      spot on with the insight that the audience needs to make the connections. in one sense that is why its called context, because it truly works for a pakistani audience.

      in terms of “my” story, it is best understood if the main character is taken to be an allegory (?) for the pakistani nation. in a sense, it is our story – the need to treat the weak better, to remove our hypocrisies, and to learn to love ourselves.

      glad you enjoyed the song!

      thanks a lot for everything

  3. Beggy G permalink
    May 15, 2010 09:08

    I’m really impressed with the sound. And it’s nice to hear a director giving sound it’s due, it really is 50% of the emotional experience. Sound guys like me would often say more 🙂

    • May 17, 2010 22:47

      thanks a lot man!

      sound was a revelation for me – i never realised how important it was, and now i wonder how i didn’t see it before. i wouldn’t doubt that in some parts it takes more than 50% of the credit either.

      i feel especially excited about your compliment because my last film that you saw (the room) was clearly a student effort, and now i hope that i have moved beyond it…

  4. May 18, 2010 22:50

    Bravo! This was a pleasure to watch. Certainly an improvement over the last one. You’re spot on about the song routine too. After the jrod’s monologue I switched back to my work, with the movie on in the background but switched back to see what the song was about. Like dishoom, I also thought it was a burqa at first too. The clothes in the dance sequence were not ideal but the make up and interpretative dance movements made it work. I would’ve liked to see hijabs (with the flowers) and make-up as it was on the video and similar neutral outfits.

    The sound is brilliant. Its good enough to convey the story without the visual, not that the visual does not enhance it further.

    Oh, and the voice over in the first scene. Good stuff.

    • May 19, 2010 20:24

      thanks a lot – i definitely feel that overall it was my best work to date. so its great to hear others appreciate it in a similar vein.

      the girls brought their own clothes for the dance sequence and it was a surprise at all that their version of hoods turned out to be some kind of burqa or hijab look alikes. i wasn’t really intending to make that sort of statement, but as i said this was why there was more than one author for the whole work.

      thanks also for picking up on the sound. a major problem for most people is that they fail to see things beyond the plot. they forget that there are other clues and narrations are not their that do no comprise of words.

  5. vics permalink
    May 29, 2010 19:42

    Wow! This was terrific stuff. At first, I couldn’t believe my ears when the words (paraphrasing here) “4 runs off 2 balls”, which sparked an instant Misbah reverie, were followed by “inaugural World Test Championship final” (I so thought it would be T20!) and from that point on I knew that we, the audience, was in for a treat. You have not disappointed, dear sir.

    The sound was brilliant, almost a character in the movie itself. The female voice in Urdu (which I have interpreted as the man’s conscience), the jRod speech adorned with its delectable cusswords, the omg-is-that-Mishi-Khan? seconds, the well-edited unplayables and the whole “woman’s orgasm” theme were all simply ingenious. Great script, even better execution.

    I would have liked a little more light in the dance sequence and maybe a different costume but boy, excellent choice of song.

    And I think it’s the end that really makes it “your story” (because you have definitely scored with this one) and not “mine” because in my story I, a poor off-ka-player, would always get caught at deep mid-wicket playing that shot. Well done and like my maths teacher would have said, “Keep it up!”

    • May 30, 2010 13:27

      i have been showing this video to people ever since i have been back home. what is obvious is that a lot of people get so caught up in the obscenities that they fail to digest the whole movie.

      so its a real delight to hear from someone who managed to take away so much from the film, and read it beyond the obvious levels. the cricket part is one that gets past a lot of viewers not in to the game, but i made sure it had a lot of layers to it. the misbah reference was one i meant to play up even more, by playing the same shot he did, only for the ball to edge past the keeper, hit the helmet kept there and thus get the team five penalty runs and the win. but eventually, i was happy with the shot that i had, because i could at least show up batting for the vulgar shallow aesthetic that it is, where even something ugly can lead to glory. hehe.

      thank you so much for appreciating the film, and also bringing your own context to it, which as i said is what helps complete the whole experience. 🙂

  6. May 31, 2010 00:33

    KK, this was brilliant. Keep on fighting the good fight. They’ll always have their gold-medal winning ACF majors but we have you and your movies!

  7. Nadir permalink
    June 3, 2010 14:50


    You’re right about the importance of sound. It’s paramount when it comes to film, and in fact the more detail oriented you get the further you manage to immerse the audience and suspend their disbelief; so that they stop noticing the picture quality and lights and instead start focusing on the characters and events inside the film. Though achieving this is a very basic step in film-making I personally think it’s the most challenging for student-filmmakers, specially since you work with a small fraction of the equipment and capital that is used in the industry, but your audience still holds you to that standard subconsciously.

    That said, I think you achieved that in many places during this film. My favorite part was the shift in language that happens with the girl in the bedroom, and the interesting ambiguity that follows (is it him reasoning his head or did she really just start speaking Urdu?). Also I noticed you used an English Junoon song, with Ali Azmat trying desperately to sound like a gora… very clever haha.

    I still don’t know how I feel about song and dance interludes in films, but this one was quite interesting I think, in the beginning the clothes and dance-moves reminded me of wuzu’ and namaz haha 😛 and I wonder what the dancers are silently mouthing in the middle there?

    • June 4, 2010 01:15

      hi nadir

      thanks for the insights – you are thought provoking as always. really glad that you were amongst several people to appreciate sound through this – and i think your point about being subconsciously held to the same standard as a cinema production is very true.

      the language bit and that whole scene was very theoretical in its application. the woman-orgasm bit was inspired largely from a theory about the use of sound in pornography, but there was no application of it as such. the first scene really works if you immediately understand the urdu i think, because the shock becomes greater. had you heard that junoon song before btw? truly epic 🙂

      i don’t remember what the girls were mouthing, since they weren’t saying any words during the shoot. safieh thinks that they’re saying lollywood, but i have no guesses. hope to see you on sunday!


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