We first heard mention of Ahmed Jamal’s Rahm late last year when word got out that a director was shooting with Sanam Saeed, Sajid Hasan and Nayyar Ejaz in Lahore. It was said the film is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and it occurred to us that it is likely to be Pakistan’s first attempt to translate Shakespeare for the big screen.
This will be our own Omkara, some may have thought.
So, while the film slipped beneath the radar for much of this year, there was still a quiet anticipation for its release. Shakespeare would be a hard swallow for an audience that is currently being weaned on masala films, but one was sure that Rahm would find its audience, however small.
And then all of a sudden, on November 18, the film came out — a straight, no frills adaptation of the original, which was released with zero fanfare. And it made one wonder why no one made the effort to make this a hard sell.
Director Ahmed Jamal on why Pakistan’s first screen adaptation of Shakespeare is no Omkara and doesn’t have to be
Rahm, the film
For the director Ahmed Jamal and writer/producer Mahmood Jamal, integrity to the original source was key. So they eschewed song and dance and a more dramatic retelling, foregoing the opportunity to make the film ‘more commercial’ or suited for the mainstream local audience.
“A lot of people view the film from a subjective point of view, based on what they would like to see. But the story is not ours, it’s a play written by someone else and we’re using it,” explains director Ahmed Jamal to Images.
Rahm stars Sanam Saeed as a religious woman whose virtue is put to the test by an indecent proposal by Lahore’s stand-in governor (Sunil Shanker). In exchange for sparing the life of her brother (who is accused of adultery), this governor asks Sanam to sleep with him. Nayyar Ejaz plays a corrupt councillor who coerces Sanam into this barter. While Sanam grapples with this moral dilemma, the official governor (Sajid Hasan) roams the city in disguise to see how it operates in his absence.
“Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays that people can easily relate to, especially in Pakistan,” says Ahmed Jamal. “The situation in Pakistan today is similar to the times of Shakespeare, [where we give out] harsh punishments. The argument that we make with this film is that’s really not necessary. Rahm wo cheez hai jo Allah karta hai (Mercy is one of Allah’s attributes) and we should practise it too.”
Despite the good intentions with which the film has been made, it’s possible that the film may not have moved its first spectators enough to create a lot of word-of-mouth buzz last weekend. But Ahmed Jamal firmly stands by his straightforward approach to the adaptation.
“Our film is in Urdu, but made with Western cinematic language. So the treatment, the composition is all naturalistic, the acting is very subtle,” he says. “It’s not like Indian interpretations of Shakespeare that have relied heavily on Bollywood devices like song and dance. Even in Haider, there’s an item number, a big dance sequence.”
“A lot of people view the film from a subjective point of view, based on what they would like to see. But the story is not ours, it’s a play written by someone else and we’re using it,” explains director Ahmed Jamal
Ahmed Jamal made this choice because he wanted Rahm to appeal to a vast audience. “If you go to cinemas in the UK or New York, most Bollywood films have a primarily Asian audience, whereas Iranian cinema has a largely white audience, which is much bigger. A film like The Lunchbox, which was not strictly a Bollywood film, drew a much larger audience than the most of these other Indian films,” he tells me.
“[The reach of] Indian films has reached its saturation point. They’re trying to find a way to appeal to a wider audience and make more money, but they are also really invested in recovering the money they pay their stars so they focus on their song and dance formula because it sells. They’re stuck in that rut, but we don’t have to be.”
But does everyone buy into this perspective?
For a film that didn’t have mainstream appeal, Rahm could have used all the promotion it could have gotten, but the film didn’t even have a premiere, let alone promotional events with the cast or a music/trailer launch.
Most would take this as a sign of an extreme lack of confidence on the part of the film’s distributor, HKC Entertainment. According to the director, the distributors justified their inaction by saying that the premieres they held for some films, like Dekh Magar Pyaar Se, “didn’t really help” because negative word-of-mouth hurt the film’s business regardless.
The distributors also said that the film didn’t feature any stars that would “pull in the crowd.”
He was asked to expect that the film will sell itself in its second week in the box office, as word got out about the film’s existence, but Ahmed Jamal doesn’t see this happening when there was no initial promotion to pull in the crowd in the first place.
And that’s not the only factor hurting its chances.
A rushed release
Rahm was originally intended to release abroad in February/March after the Academy Awards next year, but the film’s Pakistani release was preponed to capitalise on the present lack of competition from Bollywood.
But the Bollywood ban is a double-edged sword, Ahmed Jamal feels.
“The ban on Indian films is not really a blessing, but a problem is disguise. Fewer people are coming to cinemas in the absence of Bollywood films [as a result of which Pakistani films are suffering].”
And he’s adamant that there’s room for alternate films in Pakistan, even in the presence of Bollywood’s crowd-pleasers.
“Rahm is for a mature, more discerning audience,” he says. “With Pakistani cinema’s revival, we should not get stuck in [aping Bollywood] exclusively. I think there’s a space for that, and also space of some other kind of work. There should be room for films like Moor, Manto, and Rahm is possibly in that genre. Producers should not be so disrespectful of their audiences to think that they just want to see one thing. Cinema is so global, we should show our films to other countries and make more money.”
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 27th, 2016