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Good Morning Karachi lives and breathes the city: Sabiha Sumar

Updated January 10, 2015

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Amna Ilyas in 'Good Morning Karachi.' - Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'
Amna Ilyas in 'Good Morning Karachi.' - Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'

The first day of 2015 turned out to be a promising one for Pakistani cinema as renowned director, Sabiha Sumar released her much awaited film, Good Morning Karachi (GMK).

Founder of Vidhi Films, Sumar has many accolades to her name. Her debut feature film, Khamosh Pani, starring the likes of Kiron Kher and Arshad Mehmood bagged 17 international awards, putting Pakistani cinema on the forefront when there was a dearth of worthy films. The USP of Sumar’s film is the portrayal of life with honesty and truth. Her films revolve around the characters that can be found in real life and depict the life stories in a way that are close to the public.

  Sabiha Sumar. — Photo Courtesy: tarshi.net
Sabiha Sumar. — Photo Courtesy: tarshi.net

Receiving mixed responses from the audience, GMK is a movie that describes the life of a young girl, Rafina, played by Amna Ilyas, who struggles to realise her dreams of entering the fashion industry. In a recent email interview with Dawn, Sumar speaks about the film, her journey and her expectations from the current film scene.

From Rafina to *Good Morning Karachi*

Rafina is the name of the protagonist of the film as well as the title of Shandana Minhas’s novel it is based on. Sumar believed that it was a suitable title for the movie since it was based on Rafina's life. So what actually made her change the title? It was the very fact that the movie was more than just the life of Rafina.

It was about the city she lived in and how she, like other people in Karachi managed to live their dreams. She said that Karachi was an important component of the movie and would relate to the viewers more when they come to watch the film — hence Good Morning Karachi replaced Rafina.

GMK lives and breathes Karachi and Rafina’s story is about the countless number of people who live in this city or who have come here with a dream. With over 20 million people, Karachi is one of the fastest growing metropolises in the region and its sheer diversity and opportunities cannot be easily matched by any other city in Pakistan.

It is this space that allows Rafina to grow. Therefore, we felt Karachi was an important component that shouldn’t be lost when people came to see the film.”

Khamosh Paani and its response in Pakistan

Sumar remembers the time when there were no theatres in Pakistan and her films could not be screened. She recalls how in 2003, upon the release of Khamosh Pani she came up with the idea of mobile cinema and brought it to the people to watch it.

Ordinary people were her target audience then. Despite the fact that there was no film industry in Pakistan, the people received Khamosh Pani well because it was a story from the heart. Sumar asserts that a new effort is always difficult, but not impossible.

“The mobile cinema was openly welcomed wherever we went. But this was a time before film reception was even an idea in Pakistan. We didn’t have a film industry to speak of, let alone the ability to try and record how much audiences liked our films."

Khamosh Paani and GMK—social commentaries?

It appears that Khamosh Pani and GMK, both have dealt with some social, political and religious issues —but is that so? Absolutely not.

  A scene from 'Khamosh Paani'. — Courtesy Photo
A scene from 'Khamosh Paani'. — Courtesy Photo

Sumar tends to disagree on this common notion that people have about her. She feels amused at the fact that she makes films based on issues. She states that her films are constructed upon characters with whom viewers can easily relate to. Her priority is the story itself.

“These characters have many experiences, similar to what we face or have faced in our own lives. The issues they deal with on screen are more often than not issues that we deal with in our society.”

A film that has an authentic story will be able to resonate with the viewers. Sumar affirms this and says that people are ready to see the issues close to their hearts on screen and being played by characters in whom they find their own personal experiences. Her films are the stories of everyday life and about the people. Hence, the people in Pakistan are willing and able to connect with those issues.

“If the character and story were completely removed from any real human experience of love and loss, faith and hope, then it wouldn’t resonate with the viewers and they would not be able to engage with the issues that the film highlights.”

Sumar has returned after more than a decade, so what kept her busy?

Although she returned recently after a gap of 11 years, Sumar has been active in the industry. The Oscar winning documentary Saving Face (2013) is another feather in her cap. The film was produced by Sumar. Another claim to fame is the documentary directed by her named Dinner with the President (2007).

However, a feature film like GMK needed its due time to be released. There are many ingredients to make a film like this and when those elements come together, the film is released. This time is even more opportune as the revival of Pakistani cinema has made it possible for Sumar to have her film screened in Pakistan.

“A feature film like this needs many things to converge at the right time for it to happen. You need the right story, which takes a lot of preparation and time. Then you need the right cast, crew and sufficient funds. When all of this comes together at the right moment, you have a film like this.”

Her thoughts on the revival of Pakistani cinema

Being a critically acclaimed director, Sumar is full of positivity when it comes to revival of Pakistani cinema. Her thoughts resonate with the belief that Pakistani cinema has started the journey towards its betterment.

However, this voyage will be a long one and the people associated with the industry must not be discouraged by this fact. She explains that our neighbor and its mammoth film industry namely Bollywood or to look at the even bigger picture Hollywood or European cinema didn’t master their particular genre of films in just a day or two.

  Sabiha Sumar on the sets of GMK. — Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'
Sabiha Sumar on the sets of GMK. — Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'

It took them decades to be what they are now — she emphasises that experimenting is very important and mistakes help people learn. She asserts that even in times of wars and crises, films have been made and experiments have been carried out!

“Unfortunately in Pakistan, we do not have this history or experience in film-making. The vibrant presence of film-makers, actors and technicians, however, in our industry today is a very encouraging start. The lack of proper training and resources has made it more difficult for us, no doubt. But this is also an interesting time to experiment.”

Unlike in large industries such as Bollywood, where a particular narrative and style of films dominates the market, in Pakistan you don’t have that kind of hegemony of one style or subject. This allows people to try and make films in the way they know, learning from their mistakes as they go along.

My personal belief is that this independence and flexibility has the ability to produce something really original in the world of film-making. I hope that Pakistan will soon bear its own unique stamp on the growth of world cinema.”

On hand-picking the best TV actors:

Good Morning Karachi saw TV actors shift from their medium and Sumar did not resort to superstars or even Bollywood ones for that matter. She chooses to work with new actors as well as established professionals because it paves the way for fresh talent to learn.

  Amna Ilyas as Rafina in 'Good Morning Karachi.' — Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'
Amna Ilyas as Rafina in 'Good Morning Karachi.' — Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'

Sumar recounts how she coached Amna Illyas in portraying the role of Rafina, three months prior to filming. She also introduced new faces in her previous film Khamosh Paani which led one of them, Shilpa Shukla to star in great flicks like Chak De India.

“I just look for actors who most suit the character they are going to play. I think in a fledgling film industry such as what you have in Pakistan, it is not possible to limit ourselves to just film actors. In GMK especially, I decided that an all Pakistani cast was important also because of the story I wished to tell.

It was about the Pakistani dream, about our struggle to succeed. Therefore, I thought it appropriate that the actors should be from Pakistan. But there are incredibly talented actors on both sides of the border and it is important as a film-maker to find who would suit your role best.”

Sumar insists on the idea to explore the best choice possible and says that there are exceedingly talented performers on both side of the border.

Bollywood is not at all about item-numbers

With the current trend of Bollywood churning out films embellished with item numbers but weak plot at its peak, GMK’s director strongly feels that this is certainly not the case. She voices her disagreement that most Bollywood films have weak story lines and are surviving because of “item-numbers”.

She expresses that it is a wrong idea to suggest. Every era of Bollywood has produced some of the great films that people want to watch time and again and are never tired of them because the story lines of those films are great.

The recent shift in Bollywood films is a positive change as cine-goers are now more conscious about the new films being made and have been showing their support. This new change seems to be very promising for the industry as the producers will respond to the needs of viewers and will take Bollywood to new heights.

“However, especially in the last few years, Bollywood has become even more sensitive to the importance of strong storytelling. This is evident in the films that are coming out, where you have good stories and the willingness to experiment in film craft and storytelling methods.”

Songs are lovely for films

While films like Main Hoon Shahid Afridi, Zinda Bhaag and Namaloom Afraad had songs, Waar and Operation 021 were tuned down; Good Morning Karachi on the other hand has different songs.

Some directors, however, believe that serious films do not need songs. Sumar is in favour of them and opines that songs are "lovely" for any film — Good Morning Karachi will also have them.

A scene from the movie. — Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'
A scene from the movie. — Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'

“I think songs are really lovely in every kind of film, whether they be serious or comic, when they are organically structured within the plot. For example we have a long tradition of music in South Asia, so it is quite a natural part of our lives and is reflected in our films. Songs only appear out of place when supplanted without paying heed to the flow and needs of the story.”

Sumar and the women emancipation question

Viewing it from a social perspective, Sumar’s films seem to echo the idea of women’s emancipation. In Good Morning Karachi, Rafina is a strong-willed woman who takes charge of her life and steers it according to her own aspirations.

  A still from the movie. – Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'
A still from the movie. – Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'

Although different, it does remind one of Zubaida from Khamosh Paani as the character who breaks away from her lover, who gets influenced by Islamisation during the rule of former President General Ziaul Haq. Zubaida chooses education and liberty over her love and proves that women can break stereotypes. Sumar, however doesn’t agree that GMK is about women emancipation.

“I don’t think GMK is about women emancipation. I think what it does show is that women are really coming into their own and that the new opportunities presented to them in our urbanising societies and vibrant media culture has really changed their lives.

Zubaida does reject the extremist beliefs of her lover in Khamosh Pani because she doesn’t agree with him. In GMK, it’s a bit more than that — it is the realisation that people who are opposed to all change cannot follow people like Rafina. They do not fit into her vision of an inclusive and vibrant society.”

Need for more production houses

With the cinema industry getting back on its feet, Sumar like many others is also supportive of the idea of more production houses for making films to promote the medium. She is optimistic about the current scene pulsating with new ideas and future ventures.

Amna Ilyas leads the cast of 'Good Morning Karachi'. – Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'
Amna Ilyas leads the cast of 'Good Morning Karachi'. – Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'

“The film industry requires particular training in story-telling and film craft that is specific to this medium. In film, you also have to keep abreast of technological advances and innovations. I think that it is good that people from different industries, whether it be theatre, fashion, media or television, are coming together to build a film industry in Pakistan. I think this is why that space is so vibrant now, compared to just a few years ago where there was nothing happening.”

On exchange of talent across borders

2014 saw three popular Pakistani actors, namely Fawad Khan, Humaima Malik and Imran Abbas cross the border for their first Bollywood debuts and the stunning Mahira Khan has also been roped in for a film alongside Shahrukh Khan. Sumar looks forward to this flux but hopes that while it is one way for now, it would truly be an exchange in future.

“We have some incredibly talented actors and it is great that they have the chance to act in Bollywood. It is a bigger industry with a higher demand for talented actors, and Pakistani actors are able to cater to that demand. But this is more of a one-way exchange as we do not have a strong film industry that has a high demand for talent from across the border. If we get bigger over the next few years this is likely to change."

Comedy films cannot be deemed trivial

Last year, viewers especially Karachiites had the opportunity to see a representation of their city in Nabeel Qureshi’s Namaloom Afraad. Sumar praises NMA and feels that a light-hearted film cannot be considered trivial.

Namaloom Afraad is a wonderful film. The style of storytelling chosen by the director, depends on the needs of the story. A comic film can tackle very important issues. At the same time, a realistic drama need not be terribly serious; there will always be comic moments in the film, as humour is part of the human character. That is why there are so many classic tragedies that people are drawn to time and again. The real test of a film, whether a serious or a light-hearted film, is whether it succeeds in entertaining an audience.”

Expectations from *GMK*

Coming out with a feature film after a long time, Sumar is looking forward to the audience’s response and wants them to enjoy a “movie experience” with GMK.

Beo Rana Zafar and Amna Ilyas in 'Good Morning Karachi.' — Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'
Beo Rana Zafar and Amna Ilyas in 'Good Morning Karachi.' — Photo courtesy: Official Facebook page of 'Good Morning Karachi'

GMK has something in it for everyone. Most importantly, it will encourage people to go to the cinema to watch films made in Pakistan. I think especially young men and women will be encouraged to go to the cinema to see a film that reflects their lives. Rafina’s dreams echo their dreams and her success promises to be their future.”

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