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Reviewing Sasti Masti or Sasti Masti for Dummies

October 22, 2010

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.

http://www.shahid-saeed.com/2010/10/sasti-masti-pathetic-attempt-at-a-review/

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Shooting the Moon/Post It All/The Inevitable Sequel

October 10, 2010

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.

 

Post-it-all

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.

 

 

Its Alive!!!!

October 10, 2010

The Taming of the Crew

October 7, 2010

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.

Read more…

Identity or the most overused word about Pakistan

October 6, 2010

if there is one word which can make you a philosopher about pakistan, it is identity. everyone, from the global caliphate dreaming moulvi to the trotsky-channeling leftist, from the undergraduate to the professor, from the banker to the bhikari, from the militant to the military man, can talk ad nauseam about this issue.

pakistan has an identity crisis.

what most people forget, or rather fail to acknowledge, is that pakistanis (also) have an identity crisis.

and at the risk of sounding trivial, by refusing to acknowledge said crisis within themselves, they perpetuate the national crisis, by failing to come up with something to identify with.

instead of trying to understand ourselves, we seek to present a certain image. an image which even a casual glance of something as banal as facebook statuses would reveal inherent contradictions.

the problem is that confronting your insecurities is a particularly difficult challenge.

but like deepak chopra will tell you, its also healing.

so when i decided that my thesis film would be about pakistan, i had to face up to the fact that i knew next to nothing about pakistani cinema.

so i started reading, and i started watching.

the reading was limited.  the only book i found online on a history of pakistani cinema was not available in pakistan, and cost 300 pounds on amazon! so i turned to academic writings on bollywood cinema, where happily i found an abundance of passionate and work done largely by indian researchers. i am going to hope that the cliche of realising how similar certain things are for both cinemas is going to be self-evident here.

the watching however, was a different kettle of fish. for starters, it was very exhaustive, since i was very aware of the act of watching the film. i was looking for meanings and answers everywhere. watching them with safieh didn’t help either, because we were both getting caught in the same trap.

but once we got over that, we started realising something else.

this wasn’t foreign. this wasn’t something else. this was stuff that was all around us, in a thousand parodies, in sms jokes, in poster art, in religious and political sermons, trucks and rickshaws, an ice cream parlour and a fake village, in songs and  stories.

and this was where something else kicked in.

because as much as i was watching lollywood films – films made in studios – i was also trying to watch independent films. films which ran mostly in festivals or the odd tv channel. films which were often made by pakistanis like me – who were approaching cinema as students, who were well-off but largely disconnected from the film industry, who were attempting to be different.

what i kept seeing was one of two films. either you saw people showing poverty porn, or people doing genre films. inevitably, the trailers, or some aspect of the promotion, for either kind of film would involve some variation of “If you think you know Pakistan, think again…”

now i am not speaking of ALL independent pakistani films, only the ones i saw or even caught trailers of. (also i know there are many films you can think of here, but i don’t want to be picking fights or bitching people out here, so won’t be naming names)

around that time, i had to submit the idea for my thesis. and so, as i worked over it, i came up with a simplistic theory.

pakistani cinema had seen its last hurrah around the 80s. it had since then failed to grow physically, financially and even, some would argue, creatively. however, even if we are to write off the last 30 years, there is still a cinematic tradition of several decades still to content with. what had seemed to happen was that many of the cinema’s arts had wandered off elsewhere.

the birth of pakistani pop music can almost directly be traced to the time when studios began providing musicians with a variety of equipment to play with in the mid-70s. the music industry managed to grow enormously as the cinema withered. similarly, the golden age of television dramas occurred a few years after the infamous Motion Picture Ordinance, when a raft of the acting, directing and script-writing talent emigrated from the cinema to the smaller screen.

my theory therefore, was that in order for pakistani cinema to be revived it had to re-connect with its own tradition. at the same time, this resurrection had to be for modern audiences and society, which meant that it had to evolve from that re-connection, rather than mimic it.

ironically, for someone my age in pakistan, the wealth of cultural reference comes from television and music. and so, those forms which had evolved from cinema would now be used to bring the cinema back.

this was when i began to start writing my script.

There is a Star in My Hand

October 5, 2010

a close friend told me this year that i had always made plans of being a filmmaker. apparently, during our first year of university, i had showed him a poster of a film i wanted to make in karachi.

what he probably didn’t remember was that i had also long harbored dreams of captaining the national cricket team, of writing the Great Pakistani Novel, of being a desi Jim Morrison, of doing and dreaming all the things that young people dream of doing.

filmmaking was not some passion or obsession for me. i was more interested in being famous – not in a paris hilton kind of way, but being famous for having done something spectacular. to be an artist. my mother would tell me that the lines in my hands crossed to make a star. her father, a famous poet had the same star. she would tell me i was fated to be great.

it didn’t take me long to realise that all mothers have such ambitions for their children. but the whole idea of fate was not something which readily escaped me. and in fact, this story is as much about fate as anything else.

because while i never seriously planned to make a career out of films, i did care enough about them that when i met a girl who liked a movie i was crazy about, i decided to marry her. when i graduated from university, i had no plans either, but that same girl convinced her brother to get a job for me at the news channel he worked for.

malcolm gladwell argues that the truly great spend at least 10,000 hours honing their skills before they make it big. i may not have spent that much time editing, shooting and producing at the channel, but they were the best thing that could have happened to me.

too many filmmakers are film students, who arrive at the trade as students, not apprentices. their heads are crammed with theories and inspirations from famous directors, cinematographers, sound designers, editors. they forever approach these tools – these cameras and editing suites – as something to venerate, something where every gesture must have a meaning. and soon, they drown themselves in a morass of smug, boring, insufferable films which relate only to other ‘insider’ films.

but for me, i was editing for other people, producing and directing according to the dictates of the program, following the highly restrictive paradigms of the news package. and so i kept learning new things not because sven nyqivist or woody allen swore by them, but because they were tools i was learning to use.

perhaps it is churlish to describe this as fate, but this is my story, not yours. also, if you’re still not convinced. wait till you hear the next one.

after two years, i had begun to grow frustrated. frustrated by the state of journalism, frustrated of watching so much i was meant to care for but couldn’t, frustrated of being trapped in 40 minute shows and 3 minute packages, frustrated of thinking about the ‘message’ and frustrated by the internal politics of the organization.

safieh, who was now my fiance, got both of us to apply for our masters. only i didn’t know what to do, so i chose journalism courses. i figured that being a journalist in one of the most happening countries – news-wise – in the world, would probably mean the acceptances would come rolling in. after all, colleagues had gotten into prestigious ivy league schools with a lot less experience. but safieh told me to widen the horizon a bit, so i applied to two other places for fun.

despite letters of recommendations from some of the top journalists in the country, i didn’t get into a single school out of the dozen or so i applied to. the only places which accepted me were the only two film programs i applied to.

what was it you were saying about fate?

Read more…

The Curse of the Roti

October 4, 2010

On 10.10.10 I will be releasing Sasti Masti online. As part of the pre-release hype, I will be posting new blogs, pictures and assorted goodies (just about) every day till then. So here it is, the first installment of the Sasti Masti festival!

Ashiq and i are sitting in a small, blue room in Atta’s equipment rental store. the gathering aandhi outside means that i can’t shoot my credit sequence – but to be honest, Ashiq bhai’s rapid joint rolling has an influential say in this decision. and after all, we’re done with the main shooting, which had lasted for four hellish days. so i am relaxing now, and Ashiq is rolling.

slowly, he turns to me and asks me through his walrus mustache, in his gruff baritone voice, “do you know why this industry failed?”

do i? who doesn’t?

the question has been filling column spaces and the occasional dissertation for over two decades now. people blame Zia, Islamization, falling standards, social apathy, the crumbling economy, VCRs, Indian influences, television, the death of culture, vulgarity, sultan rahi’s murder, sultan rahi’s career, commercialization, a lack of commercialization – basically just about anything and everything.

so i asked “why?”

“iss industry ko roti ki la’ant ne tabah kiya hai”

(this industry was destroyed because of a curse from a bread”)

“huh?”

Ashiq and i stare at each other for a few seconds. outside, Atta is feverishly setting up his prized possession – a 30 feet jig with automatic controls – excited that it might appear in the credit sequence of a obscure student film. various dogs that have lived inside shahnoor studios for as long as these men laze about around him. it looks like it would rain any moment now.

“roti ki la’anat?” i ask him, wondering if he is in the mood to add more to this wondrous statement.

he is.

Ashiq tells me a story of how they once went to a shoot in Kashmir. like Liaqat, my dress master Ashiq had run away from home many decades ago to join the film industry. it took him 30 years before he became a cameraman, who worked on several Sultan Rahi films, including one of the five he was shooting when he was murdered. Ashiq mentioned Rahi saab’s murder often, and ruefully noted how it had ended everything. but this story was not about the late Rahi saab.

they went to the location in kashmir, and met the man who was in charge there. he was very excited to have them all over. around one pm, he arrived to tell them that he had brought over lunch for the whole crew. this was no mean feat – there were over 60 people there.

Ashiq gets visibly animated when he tells me about the feast that man had laid out for them. he repeatedly swears to every god he can remember, promising me that he had never seen better food in his life – roasted quails, aromatic biryanis, kebabs, handis, kulchays, parathays…

but they couldn’t eat then. the star, who was only free for a few hours, had not yet arrived.

they were waiting. and it was hot. much hotter there than in the plains, Ashiq promises me, with the sun beating down on them relentlessly. the food lay there, in the heat, and the director kept assuring everyone the star was arriving. he couldn’t and wouldn’t let them eat, because he wanted to make sure the crew wasn’t busy feasting when the star showed up.

and the food lay there in the heat.

eventually, the star showed up sometime in the evening. by then, all that food had rotted in the heat. the chickens, whose smell continues to haunt Ashiq to this day, were now festering carcasses swamped with flies.

“You see, we all have to wait for people in this life. But roti, roti waits for no one. unfortunately, our blasted industry didn’t respect that. so when we made the roti wait, it cursed us…

… and you can be spared of many terrible curses in this life, but no one, NO ONE, can survive the curse of the roti!”