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Pakistani-American film writer and director Dr Hassan Zee.
Pakistani-American film writer and director Dr Hassan Zee.

CHAKWAL: A Chakwal boy, who chased his dream of becoming a film artist all the way to Hollywood, is back home after winning name and fame to tell the fascinating story of his native land to the world.

“As a child I, and my siblings, used to sneak into our neighbour’s house to watch TV because our father considered watching TV an improper habit and won’t allow one in his house,” said the 46-year-old award-winning Pakistani-origin American film writer, producer and director, Dr Hassan Zee, as he sat down with Dawn at his ancestral home in Tatral village, about 2km from Chakwal city.

“Back home from the escapade, we used to mimic the scenes of the drama or movie that we had watched,” he recalled.

Born Fiyazul Hassan, his father, a military officer, wished to see him become a doctor. He agreed to honour the wish but put the condition that he would be allowed to pursue his infatuation with performing arts. The father agreed that he take part in children’s programmes of Radio Pakistan.

Indeed, his MBBS degree became handy. It earned him entry into the United States to chase the American Dream – and, with success, the new name Dr Hassan Zee.

But it was his determination from childhood to do something different that led him achieve that success. Fiyaz was the first student to dare stage a dance at the annual function of the Jinnah Public School Chakwal where he was a student of 10th grade.

An intelligent and talented student, Fiyaz got admission in an Islamabad college where he prepared for a medical profession. On the sidelines he broadcast short stories for children.

After completing high school, he joined Rawalpindi Medical College and came out with a degree of MBBS. Even after securing a job in the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad, he continued to perform in radio dramas and write stories, poetry and songs.

In those days, the bureaucratic Islamabad had little scope for artists. So Fiyaz decided to move to Lahore, the centre of Pakistan film industry.

“I met famous directors like Hassan Askari and Syed Noor in the Lahore 1990s, but felt dejected because the film industry was on the decline,” he recalled.

So he decided to try his fortunes elsewhere. He applied for an American visa, and went to San Francisco in 1998. There he started as a medical practitioner and soon got American nationality.

Along with his medical practice, he produced a Pakistan Hour programme at a local radio station. It became an instant hit with the Pakistani community settled in San Francisco and other cities of the California state.

“In my programme I used to play songs and ghazals by Mehdi Hassan, Noor Jehan and other legendary singers of Pakistan, taking calls from the audience in between,” he said.

It was in San Francisco that Chakwal’s Fiyazul Hassan took up the name Dr Hassan Zee as he set out to make his maiden film in 2000. “It was a short comedy titled My first kiss which was sponsored by the Film Arts Foundation. I not only wrote, directed and produced the movie but also acted in it - and won the best actor award from the Film Arts Foundation,” he said, recalling his first success.

Impressed by the works of legendary Italian directors Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and also by the French and German cinemas, Dr Zee decided to do something for Pakistani expatriates living in United States.

His second movie Night of Henna focused on the problems of Pakistani expatriates who found it hard to adjust in American culture. Many often landed themselves in trouble when it came to marrying off their children. The film won an award from the Panavision. Moved by its script, the company donated its budget.

Dr Zee’s third film, the Bicycle Bride, was made in 2009. It won the best film award at the South Appalachian Film Festival.

“San Francisco filmmaker Hassan Zee opts for the lighter path in Bicycle Bride, a colourful, warm-hearted tale of true love triumphing over arranged marriage,” wrote reviewer Michael Fox in San Francisco Weekly of June 23, 2010.

In 2015 Dr Zee came up with the psychological thriller House of Temptation which also won him great applause.

These days, Dr Zee is in Pakistan filming Salam Pakistan. Shot entirely in Chakwal, its theme is patriotism. Viewers would be able to see scenes of Chhapar Bazaar, Tehsil Chowk, Katas Raj, Pir Maqam near Tatral, Tootaan Wala Darbar near Bhoun and some other areas of Chakwal when the film is released, probably on Eidul Azha.

The movie features Ali Raza and Meerab Awan in the lead roles while the legendary Naghma Begum and Shabbir Mirza also play major roles in it. “The movie would get attention due to its excellent story,” promises Naghma Begum. “Chakwal is so fascinating that I feel that I should have visited it much before. I feel at home here,” she told Dawn.

Meerab Awan and Ali Raza also are optimistic about the success of the film. “The concept of the movie is appealing and I enjoyed while working with Dr Zee,” said Meerab.

“It has the potential to gross the attention of viewers,” added Ali Raza.

Before Dr Hassan Zee, Chakwal district gave the legendary heroin Aliya to Lollywood. She hailed from Jabairpur village of Chakwal.

Dr Zee’s journey from a small village of a small district to Hollywood is deemed an inspiration in struggle and determination.

“I would not have been able to make these films had I not settled in United States. In that country talent is valued and encouraged. I had no money to make films, only ideas. And my ideas earned donations for my films,” he said.

Dr Zee plans to shoot another film Soldier of Love in Pakistan. “My aim is to explore the captivating natural beauty and culture of Chakwal,” he said.

Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2017