Saturday, 23 March 2013

Brace yourselves for this Pakistani spy movie

It’s obvious that something incredible is cooking when a seasoned actor like Zeba Bakhtiar collaborates with Jamshed Mahmood Ansari (Jami) – one of the finest music directors in Pakistan. Add young Azan Sami Khan to lead the production front and Pakistan-based Australian Summer Nicks as the director, and it will get people talking.
According to Khan, their project, a film which was initially titled The Extortionist, remains untitled. The story revolves around international espionage, set in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Serbia, Egypt and America. It is partly based on real life events that took place in Sangam (Afghanistan), when Nato tankers were bombed a few years back. The film highlights the role of a Norwegian mining company that is after lithium reserves in Afghanistan; it also touches on the life of Cash Siddiqui (Shaan), a decommissioned CIA agent who is all set to rescue his family.
At the set of this untitled project, The Express Tribune meets Nicks — writer of the international award-winning Seedlings, for an insight into the film. He compares his new directorial venture to Seedlings and says: “This is another baby of mine; it’s almost in the ending phase and is turning out to be something really amazing.”
Nicks says it’s important to consider the type of audience the film will have. “In terms of the story and treatment, the film is a cross between Syriana and the Bourne series,” says Nicks. “You have to make films by keeping foreign audiences and foreign films in mind.”
“The film has to be on the same level as that of the Bourne series or any other mainstream Hollywood film to compete in an international market or else the film won’t work at all,” he adds.
The film stars Shaan as the protagonist and Shamoon Abbasi as Romano Jillani. Aaminah Sheikh has the role of Shaan’s wife and apart from the stunning Iman Ali and the veteran Ayub Khoso, a number of American actors are also part of the cast.
On the sets, the handsome Shaan appears in a pair of cargo pants as a CIA agent. As he aimed a gun into the camera, we caught him with a candid question: how does it feel to play a CIA agent and do action sequences at this point of your career?
“If you’re saying that I am getting old, you’re wrong,” says Shaan, as he glances at Nicks and laughs. “I am certainly not getting old.”
“It’s all a matter of getting the hook of the character,” shares Shaan. “If I am able to do that (in a typical Lollywood film or something like this), the director’s satisfaction is all that matters at the end of the day.”
He was impressed by the way Nicks works and the professionalism that was maintained throughout the shoots. “I have worked with so many people around the word but this guy has a totally different approach to direction altogether,” says Shaan. “There is a fine line between behaving on the set and off the set and he makes sure that the actors are comfortable in both the places.”
The new kid on the block Azan, who hails from a multi-talented family, believes that it is the change in attitude towards the cinema industry that is needed for the rebirth of cinema in Pakistan.
“The main goal was to get specialised people to do their jobs,” says Azan “As my mother says ‘it’s a plague that Pakistanis can do anything’. I completely agree [with her] because everyone in Pakistan wants to become a director; no one wants to do anything else. This needs to change and we have tried to accomplish that on our sets.”
For the yet untitled project, CIA headquarters were replicated and Pakistani roads were converted into European roads. From the teaser and talk, the big budget film seems like a high-octane, action-thriller complemented with intellect. Let’s hope it makes it to the cinemas.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The horror film Siyaah is old wine in a new bottle, but its worth a watch

Pakistani cinema has been lying dormant for the most part ever since the release of Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol, followed by the done-to-death phrase ‘revival of Pakistanicinema’ which surfaced yet again. Pakistani cinema though never picked up as was expected. The number of releases post Shoaib Mansoor’s magnum opus could at best be described as paltry, generally consisting of commercial pot-boilers with gun-wielding thugs being seduced by stout, gaudily clad women gyrating to screechy music.  
However the entertainment industry of late has been abuzz with talks of a number of promising films which are purportedly in the pipeline. Making a film in this part of the world, it goes without saying, is no easy feat. A lack of adequate infrastructure, financial constraints and an absence of a professional industry bereft of any government support impede the process of producing and releasing a film. The high budget multi-starrer Waar still has not seen the light of day, while a film like Lamha – Seedlings, which garnered much international acclaim, is yet to be released nationally.
In light of the non-conducive environment for filmmakers in Pakistan, it comes as a symbolic achievement when an independent, low-budget film such as Siyaah made by a group of youngsters is released commercially. The film has been produced by Imran Kazmi, directed by Azfar Jaffri and written amongst others by Osman Khalid Butt.
The promotions of the film started on social media, with short teaser trailers generating numerous hits. This modest promotion soon gave way to its trailer being played on major television networks, a first for a small-scale venture of this kind.
The title Siyaah aptly embodies the cryptic content of this hair-raising horror flick. The story revolves around a married couple, Bilal (Jabbar Naeem) and Zara (Hareem Farooq) who move into a new house on the outskirts of Islamabad following a personal tragedy. They decide to adopt a child to mitigate their woes and the plot thickens. Little Natasha (Mahnoor Usman), is no regular child and entangles the lives of her foster parents in a web of ominous experiences.
The concept may be old wine in a new bottle, but its screenplay and treatment make it somewhat of a nail-biting rollercoaster ride that keeps you glued to the edge of your seat until the end credits roll.
One would expect film novices namely with a theatre background to be incapable of pulling off an evocative film convincingly, but the team of Siyaah have without a doubt risen to the occasion. They have handled the concept maturely and whipped up moments that leave a lasting impact. The makers have cleverly worked around the handicap of budget constraints and refrained from adding overambitious special effects which could potentially seem substandard. They have instead focused on eerie background music (by Ahmed Ali), long pauses and a tight screenplay which prove highly effective in exacting horror.
Some clever editing with rapid montage sequences make for powerful viewing and leave the viewer shaken up. The director employs unconventional techniques like the use of black frames when the drama is at its pinnacle. With only sound taking the narrative forward for those few seconds, one is left to imagine the unfolding horror. This evokes fear and perplexity in an overpowering manner. While staring at the black screen one is left feeling desolate in the eerie world of Siyaah to experience the trauma the characters are undergoing.
Osman Khalid Butt’s writing is to be lauded for its incredible ability in generating moments of horror, which often jolt you. He constructs the scenes in an unpredictablefashion which leave you twiddling your thumbs in nervous anticipation, eventually leading to a climax that has you stupefied. The writing thankfully steers clear of clich├ęs and employs creativity in fleshing out intimate interactions between the protagonists in unnerving situations which really resonate with the viewer.
Mahnoor Usman stands out as an actor for she is the centerpiece of the atmosphere of horror and lives up to her role. She has an incredible command over her expressions for a girl her age and captures the coy and venomous subtext of her character quite remarkably.
Hareem Farooq, who has many noted theatre projects including Pawnay 14 August to her credit, makes her film debut in Siyaah and has a challenging role at hand as her character finds herself in a predicament. She stars as the harried woman who has the unenviable responsibility of being a mother to a girl who exhibits supernatural tendencies. Hareem in particular is strong at delivering emotional scenes and portrays the peculiar dilemma her character has to face with great honesty. Nonetheless, some of the scenes where she has to express anger or incredulity leave you craving for more.
Bilal is a young and cocky construction worker and a loving husband who provides solace to his anguished wife. His character has some of the meatier sequences in the film which he enacts with the potency that is required from him. One of his scenes to look out for, is the mirror sequence that is gritty and jarring and one of the high points of the film. That said, Jabbar Naeem in some scenes appears to hold back his expression which makes his rendition appear a bit linear.
Ahmed Ali who plays a journalist interviewing Zara, exudes a certain charm on screen and delivers a nuanced performance. He is compelling in his portrayal of a clinical and calculating man and keeps a restraint about himself.
The film’s grotesqueness is nicely balanced with some light moments and witty pop culture references. These seemed to go down well with the cinema audience who for instance were giggling away to an allusion made to pea soup while mocking Hollywood exorcism flicks.
The audience was quite responsive and gasped and screamed at the scary moments and lamented at the sad ones, discussing the film’s developments in whispers. For the duration of the film they were completely engrossed in the world of Zara, Bilal and Natasha.
Though the story of Siyaah is based in an upper-middle class, urban setting, the content of the film is such that it would have a wide outreach since the rousing situations explore universal fears, making you tread those dark corners of your imagination that send a chill down your spine.
It must be underscored that though the film is the work of newcomers who lacked access to state-of-the-art facilities, due attention needs to be paid to technical aspects of film production. Many of the scenes in the first half of the film appear fuzzy, with some falling victim to improper focusing which gives some frames an amateurish look. Moreover some of the shots aren’t composed with a cinematic sensibility and lack the presentation that one would expect from a feature film. There were even some minor inconsistencies on the dubbing front in the initial reels of the film. But even with all its shortcomings Siyaah is far superior to many of the outlandish Bollywood films belonging to the horror genre.
Lollywood has always been under the shadow of Bollywood for all these years as the predominant format of the two industries is similar but India is miles ahead in terms of their films’ production values. The Indian movie industry thus has come to represent South Asian cinema internationally. The only way forward for Pakistani filmmakers to cultivate a distinct identity for Pakistani cinema is by producing independent films which are innovative in terms of script and film technique and carry a unique style that sets then apart. Iranian cinema is perhaps one to look up to as it is known for its hard-hitting storylines and robust production. As far as independent cinema in Pakistan goes, Siyaah will go down in Pakistan’s film history as a triumph for independent filmmakers since it has managed to find distribution nationwide which many other films failed in achieving and thus stands shoulder to shoulder with the Hollywood and Bollywood biggies competing for the same screening slots.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

How Lollywood was ousted from cinemas

Lollywood has remained a struggling industry for years — not only does it need a loyal audience, large budgets, proper screening and quality scripts but it also yearns for producers’ support.
However, it seems these criteria are still not enough as 2011’s big-budget film Son of Pakistan— touted as the first major release in the industry in ages — failed at the box office. Consequently, the willingness to provide Pakistani films a chance in the local industry has further condensed.
Despite a budget of Rs35 million, director Jarrar Rizvi admits that Son of Pakistan, which stars Meera in a lead role, was simply not up to par; the film was made in the format of ‘90s action thrillers, conspiracies, national narratives and the war on terror. “Maybe if we emphasised on advertising and made sure that people came to watch the film, it might have helped,” he adds, blaming producer Chaudhry Hameed who pushed for a release prior to Muharram at the same time Ra.One and Don 2 were being screened.
“We tried hard to promote Pakistani films but the truth is that film-makers themselves don’t believe in their films,” says manager of PAF Cinema Nadir Minhas, adding that they screened the film for free for two weeks in which they gave 100% of the sales to the film’s producer and not a single ticket was sold. Neither did any of the main actors turn up to promote it, apart from Pakistani film actor Sila Hussain and a few others.
“This will have to change — they don’t even try to promote their films or go an ounce out of their way to make sure the film is screened,” Minhas adds.
The manager explains that a shift has occurred, leaving classically-styled traditional Lollywood films in a rut — they don’t qualify for the big screen and questions regarding where the money invested in these projects goes, have also surfaced. “These are [supposed to be] big budget films but I’ve see them and I wonder what they did with all that money,” Minhas sighs. “The production is shaky and it [the film] just won’t survive.”
Last year, only five films made it to local cinemas in Punjab; Acha Gujjar, Gujjar da Kharak,Shareeka and two other small productions. The real shift however, is that unlike four years ago, old (single) cinemas prefer Bollywood films over Pakistani ones. “I think there are some cinema owners who want to screen Pakistani films but they say they have to meet the competition now,” says Minhas.
Minhas admits that two years ago, Bhai Log earned Rs4.4 million in Lahore and showed there was potential in this industry. He also reveals that certain agreements between film producers and single cinemas are also signed where the cinema buys the rights to a certain film — this means other single cinemas cannot screen the same film.
Other agreements which include lopsided partnerships were also done such as 80-20 (80% profit for one party and 20% for the other) or 70-30. But with the advent of Indian films, cinemas have become business partners in 60-40 and in the next week of screening, turn it into a 50-50 partnership.
“A market for action thrillers has also come about within the city’s single-screen cinemas,” he says, adding, “it has really changed the dynamics of how the market functions.” Only five films released last year (excluding Indian films) and Minhas feels, “There is little to no chance that cinemas would be able to survive — this isn’t six or seven years ago where cinemas could run sub-par films.”

Monday, 18 March 2013

With Chambaili, a colony of workers gets a facelift

Who would have thought that the simple lives of workers in a colony owned by Pakistan Railways would change with the shooting of one film? When Chambaili was filmed in October last year, major scenes were shot and developed in the Gari Shahu area, where a tiny old structure has now been christened Chambaili Chowk.
Earlier this week, director Shahzad Nawaz returned to the location to inaugurate Chambaili Chowk as a token to the residents who played a role in the film’s shooting.
“This area was not worth living in,” says Shakeel Ahmed, a resident whose excitement about the film is bubbling. “They cleaned up the place and infused energy and excitement that we have never seen before. They took the whole neighbourhood on board with this project.”
The crew had spent nearly 10 to 12 days shooting major portions of the film. Residents of the colony helped with security and other minor roles in the film, making it a learning experience for everyone involved. Like other residents, Ahmed is pleased about being connected to the project.
“Many of the actors were new, but there were a lot of scenes shot here,” says Nasir Raza, an elderly gentleman from the area. “I remember this one scene in which everyone was gathered together. The police was cracking down on [people] and there was a baton charge— it was quite entertaining for a lot of us,” he adds.
With the film in its promotional phase after the recently released OST soundtrack in Karachi last week, the inauguration of the chowk is Nawaz’s attempt to go back to where the film started.“The people who lived here had become a part of the making of this film, so this is our way of thanking the people,” says Nawaz.
Nawaz says that the film is a patriotic one and will appeal to everyone who feels anything for the country. “The concept of loving Pakistan has declined,” says Nawaz. “The land is missing its patriots and the concept of being nationalist has become outdated — this film will really help that.”
Despite its reputation, the Pakistan Railways has done a service to the country by allowing the film to be shot on its property, Nawaz explained. Such initiatives help promote positive culture and arts. Nawaz also said that the film’s total crew had almost 8,000 people and hoped that the film would turn around the fortunes for the film industry.
He explained that the film would be released in 25 multiplexes and cineplexes in the county, in what he calls the A-circuit. He says that the environment is set for a film that will show a “positive image” of the country, while also being entertaining.
The film stars Mehreen Syed, Umair Rana, Salmaan Peerzada, Shafqat Cheema and an array of other actors. It is expected to release sometime in April but a confirmed date will be announced at the end of the month.
CEO of Meta-tags Shahzad Saheb, explained that accessories for the film would be available online. He said that since Chambaili is the national flower of Pakistan, merchandising will let fans see it as a symbol of nationalism.
“Making this flower into a symbol is where I come in,” says Saheb. “There is a sort of suspense of what the movie is about. Merchandising will be very important after the release, as it helps in making it into a symbol that is long-lasting and not forgotten.”

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Did you know? Horror flick Siyaah hits theaters March 15

Pakistani horror flick Siyaah will be screened at select cinemas in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad on March 15.
 Siyaah, which revolves around the use of black magic, has been directed by Asfar Jafri and written by Islamabad’s local celebrity, comedian Osman Khalid Butt. Producer Imran Raza Kazmi said, “Our entire team is extremely passionate about Siyaah and we have put our 110%into it. We believe that its success will push Pakistani cinema in a new direction and support the efforts of new local film-makers like us who put everything they have into their projects.”
Kazmi hopes that Siyaah will revive our film industry and we will see many new movies in cinemas in the future.
The Islamabad-based cast consists of Hareem Farooq, Qazi Jabbar, Mahnoor Usman, Ahmed Ali Akbar, Aslam Rana, Sofia Wanchoo Mir, Rizwana, Sarwar Salimi, and Amy Saleh — aspiring young actors that are aiming to make a mark with the release of this film.
The movie ticket is priced between Rs350 to Rs400, while the film is expected to run for two weeks. A red carpet event, featuring the cast and crew, will be held in Karachi on March 16. Go buy your tickets to support Pakistani cinema!

Friday, 8 March 2013

Chocolate hero’s Armaan has big plans for small screen

Seventh Sky Entertainment is preparing to release the remake of 1966 classic film Armaan as a tele-film, featuring heartthrob Fawad Khan and gorgeous, award-winning actor Aamina Sheikh this April.
Produced by Abdullah Kadwani and directed by Anjum Shahzad, the big budget tele-film is meant to reconnect the audience with Pakistani cinema, culture and society.
The soon-to-be released venture is part of a larger project conducted by Engro Foods, which hopes to revive some Lollywood classic hits and bring them to life for the young generation. It is set to be 90 minutes long and will include four songs, including a rendition of Ahmed Rushdi’s Akele Na Jana by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.
The original film was directed by Pervaiz Malik and produced and penned by Waheed Murad, who also played the lead role opposite Zeba. Armaan was the defining moment for the legendary actor and the film industry.
Abdullah Kadwani
“Whether it was his hairstyle, grooming or fashion sense, Waheed Murad is a legacy when it comes to Pakistani films,” says Kadwani. “It was through Armaan that he also solidified his status as chocolate boy.”
While it was launched at the time when the industry was dominated by rom-coms, the film was a huge success for Murad. The black-and-white movie won six awards and went on to become Pakistan’s first platinum jubilee film.
“The idea was to remake Armaan for today’s audience,” says Kadwani. “Also, to make sure that the essence and the charm of the original still remains.”
Selecting two main characters was the easiest part for Kadwani. Excited about the prospect of on-screen chemistry between Fawad and Aamina, Kadwani says they are similar to the classic Waheed-Zeba duo. “Fawad is the closest actor to Waheed Murad,” says Kadwani. “They are similar in looks and style and Aamina is brilliant in her acting.” He also feels that they will also do justice to their roles.
“When we first started making dramas, we had always felt that there were very few objective-based dramas,” says Kadwani. “At the time we thought that we would do something different, from the sensationalised and fantasy that was being promoted. We wanted to make something more relevant and that connected with our culture and society.”
Marking the completion of seven years for Seventh Sky Entertainment, founded by Humayun Saeed and Kadwani, the production company is ready to move onto bigger projects. Kadwani explains that Seventh Sky Entertainment’s purpose is to bring a different form of content for the viewers. Following their success, the production company now wants to go into film.
Kadwani, also involved in the production of Chambaili, says Seventh Sky Entertainment made a promise to support the Pakistani film industry. He feels that Armaan is a positive attempt to give viewers what they want: good entertainment with relevance.
“We have tried to do our part and the next big thing for us is film and digital media,” explains Kadwani. “The film industry has disintegrated over the years and it’s important that we do our part.”
“We are confident about this initiative, and now it’s up to the audience,” says Kadwani. “We have more projects similar in the pipeline.” Kadwani and Saeed say that their production company is dedicated to its part to revive Pakistani film industry.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Siyaah - A project backed by theatre artists

Siyaah will be the actors’ first feature film.
Theatre actors stick to theatre and movie stars tend to stick to movies but such isn’t the case with small-budget horror flick Siyaah, which has witnessed the journey of local theatre actors shifting to the sets of a feature film. Set to release nationwide on March 15, Siyaah revolves around the existence of exorcism, black magic and superstitious minds in our society.
Produced by Imran Raza Kazmi, the film includes actors from the local circuit in Islamabad such as Hareem Farooq, Qazi Jabbar and Ahmed Ali Akbar amongst several others. The screenplay has been written by Osman Khalid Butt, owner of Living Picture Productions.
Siyaah will be the actors’ first feature film.
In the actors’ shoes
“I have predominantly done comedy roles and for me, it’s always been more natural,” says Hareem Farooq, who is playing a serious role for the first time — a wife who cannot bear a child. “When I met Imran, I was sure that this film would be worthwhile — it’s because he had a plan, which is very important.” Farooq is a known name in theatre and has been acting for nearly five years. Her recent plays include Act 144 and Aangan Terrha.
Farooq admits the popularity she gained through her work in theatre and Siyaah have opened more doors for her, as well as for her co-stars. “Being an actor, it’s important for me to do character roles. It gives me space to play with and this has been the case in theatre as well,” she says. She has received TV show offers but will only jump into that stream of entertainment if the production quality is good.
When comparing theatre with cinema, Farooq feels that stage performances are much more exaggerated than those in films — acting in a film was more natural for her as it didn’t focus too much on body movements.
Another actor starring in the film is Qazi Jabbar whose first major play was in 2009; he has been involved in theatre since he was in school and reveals he featured in a couple of music videos as well.
“Everyone in this project is a newcomer but I know that each person has put in a lot of hard work,” says Jabbar, who plays the role of Farooq’s loving husband who is an architect by profession. “It was a collaborative effort — we all had to contribute whatever acting experience we had to ensure that the characters came out right.”
Jabbar explains the film plays on emotions; it shows a struggling couple who adopt a child and then eerie things begin to happen. “The Pakistani public is very emotional — the movie shows how relationships get strained by black magic and possessions by spirits,” he continues. “So there are different elements in the film.”
Ahmed Ali Akbar, who has worked closely with the play’s screenwriter Butt on a number on instances, has been doing theatre for some time now; he also appeared in the Urdu adaptation of Taming of the Shrew.
“If you look historically, a thriller has the longest shelf life when it comes to films,” says Akbar, adding that people normally pick up horror flicks at DVD stores. He plays the role of a young journalist who goes on X-Files like investigations and interviews Farooq, who has adopted a young girl.
“For a theatre actor, it’s always a little difficult to do films because you go in and out of characters so fast,” he adds.
Akbar feels the film’s biggest achievement is that it is releasing nationwide. “The problem is that we don’t have producers — people who can take films to the cinema,” he admits, adding that at least 15 to 20 films are currently under production in the country which shows that there isn’t a shortage of actors. “We are just short on producers.”

Monday, 4 March 2013

Chambaili crew all set to launch OST

With a scheduled launch of its original sound track (OST) on March 8 in Karachi, Mehreen Syed and Umair Rana starrer Chambaili is finally making headway.
The big budget Urdu film is a political feature film that is centred on several themes and will include a mix of veteran and prominent actors. It is a collaborative production by Abdullah Kadwani and Shahzad Nawaz under the banners 7th Sky Films and Couple Films, and has been directed by Ismail Jilani.
“Passion has inspired us to make this film,” says Nawaz. The film-makers hope to provide a series of firsts to the new commercial cinema scene that has been developing over the last year. Nawaz has a prominent role in the film, from being the writer, lyricist and actor to also putting together a talented cast and producing the film.
“I believe if the team you are working with has credibility, people will support the film,” explains Nawaz. “We have the technology but right now we are limited when it comes to post-production.”
Chambaili 01
He also shares that it was important to complete Chambaili in Pakistan because the film circuit for multi-plexes is limited to 25 cinemas and distribution opportunities are relatively limited. Nawaz also says that Chambaili’s release date will be announced later this month.
“We wanted to make sure that when the public sees the film, our characters  remain bigger than the actors,” he says. “This is an independent film — a small effort to bring a bigger idea to life; it’s two years of work.”
Chambaili 02
The film is about a group of friends who find themselves at crossroads. It is set in a fictitious country and revolves around the themes of change and struggle. Without being specific to issues in Pakistan, the film hopes to connect with issues facing the region as whole. Highlighting the notion of freedom, Chambaili promises to be a modern day patriotic film.
“I remember the time when August 14 used to be a big thing; we would see a lot more flags. Even today, I have observed that it has somehow become fashionable to be unpatriotic,” says Nawaz. “I see this as a project of hope.”
Chambaili 03
The film has included several new actors, such as model Mehreen Syed who is also playing a role alongside Nawaz. The star-studded cast includes distinguished theatre actor Umair Rana and several veteran actors such as Shafqat Cheema and Hamza Abbasi. The surprise inclusion in the film is Salmaan Peerzada, who will be acting in a Pakistani film for the first time in his long career. He was signed on following an audition.
“Since it [Chambaili] is our first feature film, we had funds to bring in new faces,” says Jilani. “We have a good balance between some known faces and some new ones.” Jilani explains that while there are several issues with the infrastructure of the Pakistani film industry, he is sure that the audiences will like the film.
“Like most film-makers, we also had to start from scratch,” says Jilani. “But this is definitely not an ordinary film, it will give hope to other film-makers.”
Meanwhile, the film’s OST launch is looking to connect with a global audience as it will be streamed live via the internet. The recent release of music video Dil Bolay, sung by Kamran Saggu featuring Salwa and directed by Najam Sheraz, has created a stir in the music scene.Chambaili is also one of the few films in which qawwali has been included on the soundtrack.
“There will be no picturised songs, instead we will have montages and music that is part of the film itself — not the way its seen in Bollywood,” says Nawaz.