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22 Jan

Finding the right way to write

If a film director is responsible for the vision behind any film, the writer is the one who gives it a strong narrative. And if done correctly, the words remain etched in memory for years to come.

But how many Pakistani films – released in the last year – can be described in this manner? Merely two or three films left their imprint on us; as viewers we were left wondering far too often about what went wrong?

The revival of cinema is fairly young. However, in 2016, we found ourselves sinking deeper into a puddle of no imagination and no originality. We also found films that lacked authentic, riveting performances, a feat that can make even an abominable film ironically memorable.

Unfortunately, the root cause for these basic shortcomings can be accredited to Pakistani film writers and their inability to pen and provoke us with well-written scripts. And though it may appear like a simple task, writing a film is actually the most difficult part of making a film.

“Writers nowadays don’t know the basics of crafting a story and that is why we’re seeing so many half baked scripts,” said Iram Parveen Bilal over the phone as she drove back home from a long and tiring shoot. We have a 13-hour time difference between us as Bilal resides in the United States so the conversation took a couple of hours to schedule. Fortunately, Bilal’s unmatched energy and unrelenting passion for Pakistani cinema made our conversation riveting.

“We see people who are too insecure to wait between their films; they need to immediately put something out. But good films are made with a lot of thought and hard work; you can’t rush the writing process!”

Bilal predicted this unfortunate scenario in 2013, a year that was considered very profitable for local cinema where strong, powerful films like Josh, Zinda Bhaag, Mein Hoon Shahid Afridi and Lamha were released. “Waar changed the game for cinema in 2013 because after its success, filmmakers realized that our cinema could sustain itself and make money. At that point I was afraid that our artistic voices would get lost if money-minded people started making all the big decisions regarding our films.”

It was this fear that led to the birth of Qalambaaz, Bilal’s brainchild, which works as a professional development program for screenwriters. “I wanted to save voices and make sure we continued to see original and authentic stories coming out of Pakistan,” added Bilal, which is why her program has been working tirelessly despite all odds since the last three years and has managed to develop the skills of 16 upcoming screenwriters. “The program takes in five writers every year but in our first year we had six fellows.”

Bilal is quick to point out that the program is not for students but professionals who either wish to work or are already part of the industry. “The program is also only for Pakistani professionals. If you’re from the U.S, for instance, you can’t take part in the program. The idea is to infuse new screenwriters into our local industry.”

But what is the larger purpose of Qalambaaz and how does it help writers?

“First of all, we are not teaching writing here,” explains Bilal clearly, in a bid to inform all existing writers of Pakistan that this platform can and should be used by senior writers as well. “The idea is to sit together and brainstorm ideas. Writing is a very lonely process but it’s made easier when you have others around you.”

After going through a strict and rigorous application process, the fellows are interviewed before they get selected for the program. Once selected, the fellows work with their mentors for six months on cultivating their scripts. The exciting and impressive bit is that Hollywood and Bollywood screenwriters mentor the fellows. “This year, we have three names attached to the program: Ivana Masetti, an Italian writer, Sumit Roy and Arshad Saeed who both have Bollywood backgrounds,” elaborated Bilal.

Currently, the program is running because of the help provided by generous volunteers.  “It’s amazing how much people want to help. From getting free coffee from Gloria Jeans, to getting free film tickets from Nadeem Mandviwalla, people have been extremely supportive.”  It should also be noted that the program is endorsed by Mandviwalla Entertainment, Movie Magic Screenwriting Software’s Writer’s Inc., T2F, Mindmap Communications and Gloria Jeans Café.

Thanks to Bilal’s vision, many upcoming writers have now been given the opportunity to try their hand at writing. “We have seen writers from all over Pakistan and they are doing so well now.” For instance, Izhar Kakar, a Qalambaaz alum, is a Baloch writer who has now gotten into an exchange program and will be heading to a very well known film festival in the US with his next film.

Filmmaker Hamza Bangash, making waves and working on his own feature length film, Rangraaz, also had a rewarding experience with Qalambaaz.

“Qalambaaz was invaluable in helping me understand the professional screenwriters process,” said Bangash of his experience working with Qalambaaz. “I was able to negotiate a work-for-hire screenwriting gig with a Lahore-based production company that allowed me to circumvent the usual misgivings that new writers face, such as exploitation, underpayment and other pitfalls of our industry. I learned the skills necessary to craft screenplays that have commercial potential and delve deeper into the rules of the trade, including character development, three-act structure and interweaving multiple storylines. It was a life-changing experience!”

Thankfully, Bilal’s vision will continue to shape the scope of Pakistani cinema as it takes on another five fellows for the year 2017, namely Muhammad Musa, Ibrahim Khan, Shehzad Ghias, Zakir Haider and Ahmed Naseer. Ghias is already a well known stand-up and improv comedian, who also runs his own theatre production company called Cogito Productions. Speaking about his acceptance into the Qalambaaz program this year, Ghias noted that the program was “a great opportunity” since it would allow him the opportunity to learn from people who’ve done it all. “The program allows people to soar higher by standing on the shoulders of giants. The best work often comes out of collaboration,” he concluded.

Bilal has a long journey ahead of herself and she hopes that Qalambaaz will reach an even wider audience. She also hopes that the film industry will branch out in terms of content. “The current Pakistani box office formula is scary and I understand that our industry needs to become rich enough first to want to take further risks and make experiments. But we need to slow down and take our time when we write.”

Manal Faheem Khan

The author is Contributing Editor at Something Haute who has studied film and journalism from SZABIST. Will be found at the gym if not in the office.