“It was overwhelming and mindblowing,” says Azfar Jafri, a day after watching his film on the big screen in Karachi. The experience was “challenging”, he tells me, because it isn’t easy making films in Pakistan.
Siyaah, produced by Imran Raza Kazmi, is perhaps the first in a new wave of independent Pakistani cinema — a film made outside the corporate ideology of its current fits-and-starts “revival”.
It wasn’t hard to see the young team’s resolve during their 10-day publicity tour in Karachi (everyone on Siyaah is from Islamabad). Moving from morning shows to radio to seminars, the team is constantly on the go.
Their struggle “is not only for their film,” Kazmi tells me. “It is about Pakistan’s film industry itself.” Siyaah, distributed Pakistan-wide by Cinepax Cinemas and Footprint Entertainment, is a mainstream film whose current exhibitors are limited to multiplexes because of the film’s completely digital medium.
Being digital doesn’t necessarily lessen the problems of distribution and exhibition. Like every other industry there are monopolies as well as prior commitments. A Pakistani film — and especially one without an extensive televised trailer campaign — would find itself in a tough fight to secure screens within the current barrage of international imports.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Kazmi tells me on the way back from a brief seminar at Iqra University, “but hopefully it will create a pathway for other emerging filmmakers.”
Kazmi and co., on their visit to Karachi, are finding unexpected support from the city’s learning institutions. Karachi School of Arts, and especially their Head of Department (Design), Javed Naqvi and Salman Abbasi, Director Academics at Iqra University, were warm to the idea of hosting seminars for the benefit of both the filmmakers, and the students who would one day pursue the media arts.
“I was very edgy when the film started,” says Hareem Farooq, its lead actress. “But by the middle, after audiences’ reaction, I calmed down a bit. I was speechless. I won’t say that I am shocked, rather, I was pleasantly surprised,” she adds. In the film, Farooq plays a conflicted (and later inflicted) motherless wife who gives into emotions and adopts a demonically possessed girl.
Siyaah’s team is mostly made up of down-to-earth neophytes, who share multiple duties on set. Ahmed Ali, who scores the film, also worked on its foley. Sameer Hamdani is the film’s co-editor (along with Jafri). He is also the assistant director, art director and production designer. Kazmi, the main factor propelling Siyaah, shares story-duty along with Jafri, Yasir Hussain and Osman Khalid Butt (also the writer of the screenplay).
“It was a deliberate decision to work with new talent,” Kazmi tells me. “It was also early when we decided to work with actors from theatre,” he tells me.
Jabbar Naeem, who debuts as the film’s lead actor, said that the “one good thing about (Siyaah) is that we did a lot of homework,” but not “a lot of research.”
Ali adds that he read the script many times. “I believe that if it’s a well-written script, you’ll find the answer to a character within the lines, if you read it over and over.”
I asked Naeem if he plans to pursue another film after Siyaah. “Definitely,” he said. “If I get offers and if something good comes up.”
A few days after the release of Siyaah, the crew is already in pre-production of another motion picture. “It’s not about the cost of production” Kazmi says. “You can make a film without any extravagance, the thing is, you have to continue making films otherwise reviving Pakistan’s film industry is a long-shot dream.” — Mohammad Kamran Jawaid