How exactly are Mahira Khan, Sheheryar Munawar, Adeel Hussain, Sonya Jehan, Fawad Khan, Hamza Ali Abbasi, Atif Aslam, Asrar, Zeb Bangash and many more coming together for Ho Mann Jahaan?
The Zen, slate grey exterior of Asim Raza’s studio on Ittehad belies the effervescence that is bubbling up inside. Rising behind a jigsaw of cars in the porch and stacks of an endless supply of Coca Cola is the sound of music. An upbeat, faster version of Asrar’s ‘Shakar Wandaan Re’ can be heard and if you manage to see through the troupe of dancers you’ll catch a glimpse of Mahira Khan, Sheheryar Munawer and Adeel Hussain practicing their moves for the song, which has to be shot a couple of days later at the Frere Hall. There is an energy of youthful excitement amongst the very fresh cast and crew and overlooking it all is the visionary, Asim Raza.
Asim really doesn’t need an introduction; he is to ad filmmaking in Pakistan what Steven Spielberg is to films. Asim has directed most of the biggest ad campaigns in the country, many of the award-winning music videos and two years ago he tested his hand at story telling with Behudd, the sensitive telefilm starring Nadia Jamil and Fawad Khan. This year, he is all set to turn his wheels of fortune towards feature films and expectations are at an all time high.
Ho Mann Jahaan is looking at an Eid ul Azha release; with 95 percent of the filming complete and several days before he announces the film to the country, Asim Raza agrees to sit down in this exclusive…
You went from being the country’s most prominent ad-film maker to telefilm director in Behudd. How does Ho Mann Jahaan compare to Behudd?
Asim Raza: Behudd was a telefilm and Ho Mann Jahaan is a feature. I think in our country, we really confuse the two mediums. Television is supposed to entertain you but people are sitting at home and watching it while they have fifty other things happening around them.
In a cinema, there is a lot more for you to offer and a lot more that you need to offer because for two and a half hours you’re shutting your audience off in a dark room and saying no, you can’t even have your cell phones on.
A feature film is supposed to take you on a roller coaster ride and entertain you. You don’t get another chance; there’s no next episode for things to improve.
We’re at a very difficult crossroad in Pakistan right now; how do you decide between entertaining and socially responsible films? As a storyteller, do you entertain – because God knows our people need to be entertained – or do you act socially responsible because society needs that?
AR: Why can’t a film do both? You can only educate people when you’re entertaining them otherwise they’re not going to sit through your lecture. There is too much preaching happening everywhere, from the Internet to television. HMJ is a coming of age drama; it’s a fun film. It is the story of three youngsters, but for me it is not the coming of age of just the three of them but also the coming of age of their parents. So it’s talking to two generations at the same time. I want everyone who watches the film to be able to relate to some character or the other, so that you don’t say ‘where does this happen?’ I’ve tried to keep everything, from situations, turning points, the climax, as real as possible.
But doesn’t cinema require a certain level of fantasy?
AR: It does, and that is why you’ll find some tamashas happening here and there. You’ll have the masala. What I’ve learnt from Indian cinema is how to market your own culture and I’ve tried to keep HMJ as Pakistani as possible. I want my audience to be proud of something that is them while being glamourous and having masala and interesting moments. So you might not find an item number – because item numbers are not something I come across every day in Pakistan – but there is a shaadi number. All our dances and items take place at weddings.
Music plays such an important part in a film and knowing your affiliation with music there are a lot of expectations from the soundtrack of HMJ…
AR: When I was deciding the music of the film I kept thinking of who to go to and I ended up going to everyone. So it’s a collection. It’s an ensemble scenario. We have Atif (Aslam), Zeb (Bangash), Faakhir, Asrar, Tina Sani, Jimmy Khan, Abu Muhammad and Fareed Ayaz. We have the best of the old and the new.
Who’s the music director of the film?
AR: I won’t say there’s one, because everyone has done their own music. I was the common thread for everyone; I told them the flavour, the nature of the film. The storyline features a band, and the musical band of the film consists of these three people: there’s Mahira the vocalist, Sheheryar the guitarist and Adeel the drummer. Zeb has done the sound for the band because that sound needed to be consistent. I’ve brought in as much flavour of Pakistani music as possible because our music is so beautiful that even India is borrowing it from us.”
At this point the sound proof room in which we’re seated in is injected with a burst of music as the door opens and a cup of tea comes in. Asim divulges a bit more information on the film, which has been directed and produced by him with Sheheryar Munawer as Co-Producer. An ensemble of eclectic artists has put the soundtrack together and Umar Sayeed has designed the wardrobe at large. Feeha Jamshed has done Mahira’s western line of clothing and the boys have been dressed by Ismail Farid. As Asim says, he wanted a contemporary look for the film and needed the synergy of a perfect team to put it together.
While the story is Asim’s, the screenplay has been co-written by two of his young friends, Rashna Abdi and Imtisal Abbasi, both creative people from the world of advertising.
You’re working with a very new team?
AR: Yes, this is the story of youngsters so I wanted people from today to write it. I didn’t want it to sound outdated. I wanted the film to have the freshness that a Zoya Akhtar film has. I also wanted the masses to connect with it; I didn’t want to completely alienate them by making the film elitist. The characters are from different backgrounds: Adeel is the rich kid and son of an industrialist, Mahira is the daughter of a miniature artist who’s also a single mother and Sheheryar is from a completely lower middle class, living in a small flat in Saddar. HMJ has given me a completely different canvas to work upon and when people ask me who my biggest inspiration is when it comes to storytelling, I generally say Shehzad Khalil. What he did for Ankahi was so contemporary and yet so real.
Filmmakers in Pakistan are picking up their actors from television. Do you think there is a limitation to their star quality?
AR: Yes that is a challenge and a half. We do not have cinema, so we don’t have cinema actors either, let alone cinema stars. But we do have good actors from television. Now the problem is that when you watch them on television, the medium is different and not so glamourous. They don’t look larger than life. It just becomes a lot more challenging to give them that look.
But this is what I’ve been doing all my life in advertising. We didn’t have film stars so we picked actors from TV and tried to make them look larger than life.
Talking of larger than life, rumour has it that Fawwad Khan has a cameo in your film…
AR: You can trust this rumour. You can’t have an Asim Raza film without a glimpse of Mahira or Fawad. These two names have to be there, some way or the other. They are my first love.
It’s interesting that this relationship goes back to the Tuc ad you made, which led to the Humsafar pairing, which then set off their careers.
AR: I’m very proud of that. Fawad would’ve had a bigger role in HMJ but when I was starting this film, his film was releasing in Bollywood and he was on a roll. I know that he would have agreed had I asked but I didn’t want take advantage of him. His career was on a real rise and I knew he’d have countless options; I didn’t want to tie him up in a film which was my first. Plus I needed everyone’s undivided attention and it would’ve been selfish of me to ask him. I didn’t want to be the selfish bastard to tie him down.
Like Mahira, Adeel and Sheheryar have also come to you through ads. Why the cliquish attitude, one might ask?
AR: My answer to that is very, very simple. I’m proud to say I work with friends. Why? a) Working with like-minded people is a lot simpler and easier in an environment where infrastructure is yet to be born. I need people who have faith in me and only the people who know you enough and trust you enough would do that.
Also, I’m sorry to say that television dramas are not inspiring enough today, at least to me. I’m being honest. Television dramas aren’t giving me a name. With my ads, I’m testing waters and start shuffling. Adeel has done a lot of ads with me, the last one was Sprite. Sheheryar did the National Masala ad, Lux and Coke.
You didn’t opt to work with Hamza Abbasi again?
AR: Actually Hamza is also doing a cameo in this film. So there are lots of such surprises here and there. But yes, I would like to work with Hamza again because he’s a fantastic actor but the chemistry I have formed with Mahira and Fawad, I probably didn’t form that chemistry with him.
Asim goes on to explain the fibre of the film and the fact that it’s a film about strong, independent women. There are no bechari, mazloom women victims. The men, in fact, come out looking weak!
“I don’t know what stories television dramas are spinning,” he says, “but this is an urban story, and in urban centres like Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore, women are the strongest!”
One gets a whiff of Shehzad Khalil’s magic as Asim talks about Ho Mann Jahaan in detail. It sounds like a new chapter in the already bestselling book of new age cinema in Pakistan. There is none of the propaganda violence that we have seen, nor is there any social tragedy that we love bemoaning. HMJ promises to be the young, urban tale of progressive people. In that, could Asim Raza emerge as the Karan Johar or Zoya Akhtar of Pakistani cinema? We’ll have to wait till the end of the year to find out!