Sunday 13 October 2013

Zinda Bhaag: Get out while you can

08:34 By Lollywood Online No comments

Three struggling men from a Lahori mohalla make it big, but life may not be as promising for others like them in Pakistan. PHOTO: MALIK SHAFIQ DESIGN: ESSA MALIK
There is something very real about the new Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag. And that should not come as a surprise since the real lives of the actors who play its characters Khaldi, Chitta and Taambi are not very different from the ones shown in the film.
Before the film’s release, hardly anyone knew or recognised actors Khurram Patras, Zohaib Asghar and Salman Ahmed Khan, who breathed life into the characters of the three struggling young men, desperate for a ticket to a better life. For these men, who belong to humble backgrounds themselves, these roles were too close to home. They knew the dejection which comes hand-in-hand with being born into poverty. The struggle, the grind and the lure of the dark side were uncannily reminiscent of their own lives.
By using boys from the neighbourhood itself to tell the story, the filmmakers chose the best way show the essence of a Lahori mohalla — a place where conversations are colourful but dreams have faded.
From tiny mohallas to big screens
Zinda Bhaag is the story of three young men struggling to break free from the shackles of everyday life. For them, leaving Pakistan is the answer to all their problems and they are willing to go to extra-ordinary lengths to achieve that. Something all three young men in the cast could relate to.
“Before I got the call for the audition, I had already been sent back from South Africa and was trying to go abroad again,” says 24-year-old Zohaib Asghar who originally belongs to Samanabad, the location where the film is shot.
But this was not the first time he was deported. In 2004, he was sent back from Kuwait due to paperwork complications. Much like his character Taambi, Zohaib also tried to leave Pakistan repeatedly until he succeeded.
“People ask me why youngsters still risk everything to leave,” says Asghar. “The situation in the country is such that leaving seems to be the only solution for young men who dream of a better life for their families.” He was struggling to make ends meet by selling cell phone accessories, until his debut in the film.
In tight-knit mohallas, like the one shown in the film and where Zohaib grew up, there is immense pressure on young men to make it. They are usually the ticket to a better life for the entire family. And the abysmal conditions in the country leave them little choice but to look for ways to migrate to greener pastures and live the dream. But it doesn’t take too long for those dreams to turn into their worst nightmares when the law is by-passed and shortcuts are taken out of desperation. While in South Africa, Zohaib claims to have seen and heard of many young Pakistani men who ended up behind bars.
His story, as he goes on to reveal, is very similar to the one of his character in Zinda Bhaag. He recalls his travel agent providing him with similar options such as staying in the country without a visa, which he flatly refused and returned to Pakistan. He often hears of friends from his neighbourhood whose families have not heard from them for months — a painful reminder of how he could have ended up too, had he not made the right decision.
Raised in a small, dusty house in one of the katchi abadis in Lahore, Khurram Patras, who plays Khaldi, is no stranger to a tough life either. For Patras, acting and cinema is a luxury he cannot afford while raising a daughter and struggling to make ends meet as a garment salesperson.
“Not many people in our mohallas go to the cinema, especially women are not allowed and not a lot of men go either,” says Patras. “A few relatives went to see this one because of me but generally it is not seen as something positive.”
Following in the footsteps of his father who held a low-paying job in Dubai for nearly 14 years, Patras also tried to migrate abroad. With great difficulty, his parents managed to enroll him in a small neighbourhood school but his heart was never in it.
“There came a point when I told them that I didn’t want to study,” says Patras. “I always felt that I should somehow go abroad since my parents had invested in me but I was never able to achieve that.” But as the film turned into a raving success and his mother beamed with pride, some part of Patras’ payback dream came true.
Chitta played by Salman Ahmed Khan
Patras is not the only one whose dreams shaped into reality through the film. For 26-year-old Salman Ahmed Khan, his job as a news producer at a local channel, was a temporary fix until he got his lucky break as a singer. In fact, the desire to sing was what brought him to the audition but you can’t set a time and date for the tables to turn. He landed the role of Chitta and the rest, as they say, is history.
When lady luck strikes…
It wasn’t just good karma that allowed these young men to become part of a mainstream box-office blockbuster. The openness of directors Farjad Nabi and Meenu Gaur to explore raw talent and give them a fair chance was a critical factor. By tapping into local neighborhoods through acquaintances, they unearthed several fresh faces, including Patras, Khan and Zohaib, who turned out to be the stars of the film.
“People actually don’t know us. Initially, a lot of them assumed that we were from India and had returned to India,” Khan admits with a chuckle.
Not only does the unconventional cast add a strong aesthetic to the film, it lends a sense of originality to the characters. But a lot of hard work and effort went into accomplishing that. The three young men had to go through individual acting workshops with seasoned actor Naseeruddin Shah (who plays Pehelwan in the film), working primarily on concentration and confidence-building techniques to bring the characters to life.
“Naseeruddin saheb was very willing to work with new talent,” says Khan. “He said he wanted to work with new actors and that is a very positive sign for the youth.”
The training and encouragement from Shah along with the support of the directors and the production team helped the new actors gain confidence and grow from strength to strength. The film has not only discovered fresh talent but also created space for veteran actors such as Naghma Begum (Khaldi’s mother) who had abandoned acting due to dearth of quality roles.
“No one could relate to the films that our industry was producing,” she says. ”They had become routine and I was looking for a change.” And the realistic plot and treatment of Zinda Bhaag provided her with just that.
Model Amna Ilyas, who plays Khaldi’s love interest and the moral compass in the film, also feels that the diversity of the actors enhances the film’s richness.
Not every slum dog becomes a millionaire
As much as everyone loves rooting for a happily ever after, some rags never turn to riches.
In the face of a crumbling system, which has failed to provide for the youth of the country, the dreams of countless Khaldis, Chittas and Taambis are crushed every day in Pakistan. While politicians continue to pay lip service to youth development, there has been no real change. Inequality, a class divide, unemployment and poverty continue to fracture and weaken social infrastructures.
According to Patras, unemployment is the biggest curse. Stronger currencies, better jobs and the promise of a better life bait young men to go to any lengths to leave the country which is the central theme of the film as well. And when the pressure is so intense, the distinction between right and wrong becomes murky.
“When you are desperate enough to put your life at risk to make ends meet, the question of good and bad becomes less and less important,” says Zohaib. More and more young men will be forced to resort to this trajectory of short cuts if this situation continues.
Singer Jawad Ahmed, who runs “Rise for Pakistan”, a youth-advocacy organisation, says that the youth has a minimal role in the economic process, and that is reflected in the country’s dismal condition.
“Even though we have a massive proportion of young people in the country, the young male in the middle to lower-middle classes is both unemployed and underemployed,” he says.
Talking specifically about Lahore, which is often thought to have fared better than the rest of the country, Ahmad says that the government and ruling class has promoted a fa├žade of development.
“There is widespread depression and when you look at ground realities, especially with the recent lay-offs, there are countless stories of people wanting to leave,” he says.
Actor Salman Shahid feels that Zinda Bhaag is a very reasonable attempt at articulating the angst of such young people. The idea of the angry young man, as portrayed in Hollywood or Bollywood, has a different tradition and background. He feels that in Pakistani cinema, there will be more of an attempt to connect with real and everyday issues.
“You are seeing more films attempting to represent local issues and the portrayal of the young men has become gritty and realistic,” explains Shahid. And while Pakistani cinema maybe one step closer to reality, the reality of the country leaves a lot to be desired.
With the film doing record business in Pakistani theaters and also set for release in the USA mid-October, the three young men are bracing for the multiple opportunities that have now opened up for them. While Khan has gone back to his old job, Patras and Asghar are testing the waters and hope to continue playing diverse roles.
Qismat say ziyada nahin, waqt se pehlay nahin,” says Shah’s character, Pehelwan during the film. Loosely translated it means ‘Not more than what is destined, not before the time is right’. But for Khaldi, Chitta and Taambi, this is their moment.


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