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Being Kambakht with Hamza Ali Abbasi

Updated September 05, 2014


Calling the shots as director, Photos: Mohammad Farooq
Calling the shots as director, Photos: Mohammad Farooq

To say that Hamza Ali Abbasi has had a stellar year would be an understatement. With Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (MHSA) and Waar doing major business at the box office, Pyarey Afzal and various endorsement deals making him a recurring face on our television screens and now with his directorial debut looking at a mid-September release date, his star is not on the rise — it has arrived.

But sorry to disappoint you, Ehtesham fans. Abbasi’s character in Waar is well and truly dead and he will not be making a surprise appearance in the sequel as the long-lost twin brother of the wisecracking, impertinent police officer we all loved. Fret not though, for he will be returning to screens at a cinema near us soon. He’ll just be a tad unrecognisable when he does.

“People expect you to be a hero,” he said, “You’re young, you look a certain way and people perceive you a certain way, and you end up being typecast. I don’t want that. Being a hero doesn’t involve a lot of acting. I love a challenging role because I’m not a hero — I’m an actor. In Kambakht, I deliberately play an ugly, crude character.”

  The film poster featuring Hamza’s character
The film poster featuring Hamza’s character

With Kambakht, Abbasi’s debut as a feature film director, he is consciously seeking to break away from being a run-of-the-mill leading man. While his fans love seeing him on their television screens, he is looking to return to his first love — directing. What his fans may not know is that his breakout role in Waar came about completely by accident, as he had initially joined the project as an Assistant Director to Bilal Lashari. His starring role in Kambakht was also not part of the initial plan. A scheduling conflict forced Ahsan Khan to drop out of the lead role, forcing Abbasi to step in at the last minute. Abbasi concurs that he had a bit too much on his plate with this one, but he’s learnt his lesson the first time round.

The film project is the first step in a directorial journey that the actor hopes to culminate by making a film on Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto!

“I could have done much better as a director,” he said, “It’s a full-time job behind the camera, and it’s a full-time job being in front of it. In the future I will not act in any film that I direct.”

By his own account, Abbasi had never operated a RED camera when he set foot on the set of Kambakht on the first day of filming — but quickly adapted to the learning curve. “I realised that there would never be an ideal script, or an ideal producer so I dove in headfirst with this one. Making this movie was like film school on steroids for me,” he confesses, “and it was a blast. The idea for this film came about during a casual conversation I was having with Shehryar (Munawar).

The outdoor location of Kambakht
The outdoor location of Kambakht

It was exhausting, it took a lot out of us, but at the end of the day we had a great time making it because it was quite literally a group of friends getting together and deciding to make a movie.”

The director’s mantle is not the only one that Abbasi has donned for this film, and not all the ones he has tried on have fit. His production house, Kahani Films, was set up primarily to allow this film to be made. Given the handful of crew members that were behind Kambakht, necessity led to Abbasi taking on some behind-the-scenes responsibilities that he never wanted to shoulder.

“Production-wise, this film was a nightmare,” he confessed, “I never wanted to produce the film myself. The logistics of the set were a distraction — booking flights, coordinating transport and food. I had to interrupt a shot at one point because the bathroom was out of order and people were complaining! From here on out Kahani Films will solely focus on the creative part of filmmaking.”

The film is what Abbasi terms a “passion project” which seeks to break multiple moulds. At a time when most filmmakers and actors are jumping on the action movie bandwagon, Abbasi is trying his hand at a different genre, one that is close to his heart as a lover of cinema.

“It’s a full-time job behind the camera, and it’s a full-time job being in front of it. In the future I will not act in any film that I direct.”

“The film is an indie comedy,” he related, “I deliberately chose to make a comedy because I wanted to make people laugh. It doesn’t try to be anything else. I wanted to see if we could even make a film that was two hours’ long. If people are laughing for a third of that time in the cinema, for me, that’s good enough.”

Hamza Ali Abbasi and with Ayesha Omer at the ARY Film Awards
Hamza Ali Abbasi and with Ayesha Omer at the ARY Film Awards

So what are some of his favourite comedies, which have influenced him as a director? “Borat,” he laughs. “I know it by heart; I think it’s the most out-of-the-box comedy I’ve ever seen. I’m not too intellectual as a filmmaker! I can see Forrest Gump a million times. It’s a very subtle comedy; it’ll keep a smile on your face throughout as you watch it. I think that’s the most intelligent part of the film. Hera Pheeri is great. That’s the one time that Bollywood hit the mark with comedy. Na Maloom Afraad reminds me of Hera Pheeri, and that’s why I’m excited to go watch it. I loved its trailer and I’ll be at the cinema on its opening day.”

Na Maloom Afraad is not the only film that Abbasi will be queing up for. “Jalaibee is another film I’m looking forward to, because I know it’ll entertain me,” he says. “Tamanna was technically sound, but as a cinemagoer, it didn’t draw me. Seedlings is an excellent film, but it didn’t bring people to the cinema. We need comedies. The primary motive to make films has to be entertainment — there can’t be a divide between that and creating awareness.”

While Abbasi is steering clear of the rat-race to make the next record-breaking blockbuster, for now, he is mentally prepared for the repercussions that it is having on the cinema industry and its audience. “It’s a little daunting when people expect a lot from it (Kambakht),” he says. “When ARY got involved in it and certain cast members became famous, it added to the pressure. It’s a simple film. People tend to have too many expectations from films that are now coming out of Pakistan, especially after Waar. That was an exception. Films like Operation 021 have become obsolete after Waar.”

That isn’t to say that he does not have any hopes pinned to the film; quite the contrary in fact. “I’m a Pakistani, and I want to be proud of Pakistani cinema,” he said, “Back in college, my friends and I were movie enthusiasts and wannabe filmmakers and we used to have movie nights. Everybody used to bring films from their own countries and I had nothing.

I showed them Ramchand Pakistani and that was about it. There was nothing to show from our cinema. I can’t change that singlehandedly but I’d love to be part of that change. Kambakht, for me, is a start in that direction.”

With this start, Abbasi is looking to draw people to the cinemas for a reason other than to see the latest Marvel blockbuster or see whichever Bollywood ‘baby doll’ might be making the rounds on the catchy item-number circuit. “Pakistani filmmakers unfortunately have a tendency to primarily make films for festivals. I’m not looking to win any awards with this one. Whether the audience likes it or not, I want them to go see it. We need to bring people to the cineplexes first before we explore parallel cinema. That’s the point of reviving the film industry — to make films for the masses that will fill the seats in the cinema.”

Trying to make a film for the masses is not without its pitfalls, however. “I’m being pressured right now to put an item number in the film. When it comes to giving something to the people, I don’t think we should make nudity and vulgarity a part of entertainment. We shouldn’t want people to appreciate it. I will not have a semi-clothed woman dancing in my film to entertain people. I think that is the lowest form of entertainment.”

While some may argue that a voluptuous woman dancing in a Pakistani film has long been a defining staple of the cinema industry, Abbasi disagrees. “It is time that people stopped equating the Pakistani cinema industry with Lollywood and success with Bollywood,” he said firmly, “There was nothing like Lollywood. It was just a few studios in Lahore making those films. Why are we so keen on following Bollywood’s example? We should be making our own identity. We have a chance right now.”

While Abbasi agrees that there is a method to Bollywood’s success, he is adamant that it is one that will not necessarily work for the Pakistani industry. “I was a part of it, but I’ll admit that MHSA was a wannabe Bollywood film, but it was Waar that made history,” he said, “It is the biggest commercial film of Pakistan and it didn’t even have a song in it, let alone an item number. If the Bollywood formula was going to make a film successful, MHSA would have been a bigger hit than Waar.”

This film is the first step in a directorial journey that Abbasi hopes will someday culminate in his making a film about Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. “I want to accomplish something I can look back on 30 years down the line, and be proud of as an artist.” Whether Kambakht is a financial success at the box-office or not, Abbasi will not be daunted from picking up the director’s megaphone again. His next project is already in the works — a film he describes as “a desi Tomb Raider.”

“The next film that I’m planning is in collaboration with the ISPR,” he said, “It has a strong female in the leading role, someone who is pretty awesome as a character. The ISPR has just come onboard regarding this; we need their military support and logistics to pull this one off.”

Kambakht is slated for a mid-September release, and stars Hamza Ali Abbasi, Shehryar Munawar Siddiqui, Humayun Saeed, Shafqat Cheema, Sohai Ali Abro, Saba Qamar and Yousuf Bashir Qureshi.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 7th, 2014