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HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO

Updated July 09, 2017

Making a non-traditional film in the current Pakistani film set-up is difficult ask. In fact, it’s a Herculean task considering the makers worry a lot, naturally, about box-office returns. However, there are still a few people who feel that the audience deserves “out-of-the-box ideas.” And one such idea is blooming into a Pakistan’s first superhero film, Project Ghazi (PG).

It was a little over two years ago when the film got a go-ahead by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) and it is now in the final stages of completion. I sat down with the team and most of the actors to get the low down on the upcoming film.

“One of my friends in the Pakistan Army advised me that we should do something in the superhero genre, considering there was a huge vacuum in Pakistan,” explains director and co-producer Nasir H. Shah about the inspiration for the film. “Since I am into comic books and superhero flicks, we decided to try and fill that space.” Shah, who has worked primarily as an animator and commercials director earlier, firmly believes that despite international films as competition, Project Ghazi will win the hearts and minds of the audience because it carries a strong message for all Pakistanis.

Producers in Pakistan usually shy away from projects that tackle a genre other than rom-com, action or tragedy. Producer Syed Mohammed Ali Raza, who has co-written the film with Nadir, believes however that it’s time filmmakers pushed the envelope. “Two years back we came together and decided that if we will make an action flick, it will have a non-flying superhero as people in Pakistan will not accept a superhero who flies with a cape on. We knew we could pull it off if we kept the story realistic and closer to the imagination of the audience and that’s how Project Ghazi was born.”

Slated for release on July 14 alongside the Ranbir Kapoor-Katrina Kaif starrer Jagga Jasoos and War for the Planet of the Apes, Project Ghazi is all set to raise the bar high for Pakistani cinema. That is, if things go as planned.

The makers of Project Ghazi are confident that they will be able to deliver on time, without giving in on quality

Ironically, there is still a big question mark over the film’s release date — it was still not complete till our going to the press. With just a few days to go to the announced release date, some scenes had still to be shot and the sound design was only in its initial stages, which can only spell trouble if the film actually releases on July 14. Industry sources indicate that the script has been compromised on the insistence of the title sponsor, although no one was willing to accept this on the record. The makers of PG claim confidently that they will be able to deliver on time, without giving in on the quality. “Film star Shaan once said that a good film makes its own date and we believe in our film’s ability to do well at the box office,” says Raza. “Yes, there is already a campaign going on TV where one of the main sponsors is promoting the film. Yes, there will be a screen issue in the first couple of days but since our film is different than what the competition has to offer, it will change the dynamics and make its presence felt onwards.”

Even the team behind the main branding sponsor has dismissed the claims that it is exerting undue pressure to speed things up, saying that they stand behind promising initiatives. “Mondelez is committed to supporting talent and we believe that local talent plays a vital role in the development and image-building of a nation,” says Usman Muneer, Managing Director Mondelez Pakistan. “We are extremely excited about the rise of new cinema in Pakistan and looking forward to lending our support to such promising initiatives — such as Project Ghazi — in the future as well.”

Project Ghazi boasts of a star cast led by the indomitable Humayun Saeed and Sheheryar Munawwar as the ‘Ghazis’, or super-soldiers, who take a pledge to defend their country at all costs. There is also Syra Shehroz as the doctor in charge of the special military project along with Adnan Jaffar as the big, bad masked villain, veteran actor Talat Hussain in a very special role and Aamir Qureshi who is not playing a villain this time for a change.

With such a heavy-duty cast, the film should ostensibly do well internationally among the expat crowd as well. But Raza doesn’t agree. “I tend to look at things from a business perspective rather than take a decision that I might regret later on. We are releasing the film only in Pakistan at the moment. We will go for an international release later and are even considering proposals for that. We have given our blood and sweat to this film and we will not part with it easily. We will sell the digital, satellite and other rights when the time comes.”

Making an action film, that too in Pakistan, is a difficult task considering most filmmakers haven’t yet been able to grasp the tricks of the trade. Instead, they either avoid fighting or use guns to conceal their inability to film action sequences. Not so in PG according to Raza. “There are sequences shot on top of containers, where the guys can be seen operating cranes and using guns, and we believe that people will appreciate this giant leap in action sequences. If you take a look at India and Hollywood, their fight sequences have improved gradually and that’s because they have rid themselves of the limitations they had technologically. Now you can’t have Rajinikanth’s and Chuck Norris’ brand of fighting where one man can take down the entire village.”

“Don’t forget John Wick 2,” Sheheryar Munawwar quips in, terming the Keanu Reeves’ movie as a crappy Hollywood film. The Sheheryar Munawwar sitting in front of me is very different from the Ho Mann Jahaan one two years back. That guy was shy of speaking his mind, played safe ahead of his debut film and stayed reserved for the entire duration of the meeting. Now he is a changed man, confidently adding his bit to a conversation and super-confident thanks to his muscular physique for the role of Major Zain — the first Pakistani superhero since Shanee in 1989.

“Playing a superhero demands utmost dedication from an actor,” Sheheryar says while talking about his role. “When you don’t play a traditional hero you have the margin to perform and that’s also why I chose to play the ‘other’ guy in Ho Mann Jahaan. The way these people explained the role to me was enough for me to say ‘yes’ because this superhero is a grounded person who operates at 13 while others do at 10. Unlike Superman, he is not all white and has issues of his own which make it closer to reality. He has super strength, can run at super speed and has above average intelligence and discovers himself on screen, after becoming a superhero.”

Producers in Pakistan usually shy away from projects that tackle a genre other than rom-com, action or tragedy. Syed Mohammed Ali Raza believes it’s time filmmakers pushed the envelope. “Two years back we came together and decided that if we will make an action flick, it will have a non-flying superhero.”

Traditional heroes also don’t jump from balconies or do workouts to look super fit — Sheheryar has changed considerably for the role and the makers congratulate him for the efforts. “He scaled a 20-foot wall at the PMA [Pakistan Military Academy, with the help of wires] when we had options to use a body double,” points out director Shah with pride. “He also agreed to jump from the third floor because he wanted the stunt to look real. No one does that in this age and time, and to do that in his second film was nothing short of commendable.”

Raza adds that Sheheryar followed a special diet that made him eat six to seven times a day. “He followed a special meal plan besides going to the gym daily and training, something that others must also follow. He joined a 42-day fitness regime as well which shows his level of dedication for what is a one-of-its-kind role.”

And then there is Syra Shehroz, playing a doctor who knows how to handle a gun. “I am a big superhero fan so when I was approached for the role of Zara, I immediately accepted it,” she quips. “This doctor is different from the one in Chalay Thay Saath as it is she who investigates the mystery of Project Ghazi and even gets to do action sequences in the process.”

The alpha male of Pakistan films Humayun Saeed makes it as the second superhero of the movie — in fact, he may well be the Batman to Sheheryar’s Robin. “The story goes that there is an Army Corps for the Above Average — the 12th Unconventional Corps. This Corps enlists those who have the ability to do more and Humayun’s character is Ghazi 1, the original super soldier. That way we are able to give him a back story as well which is something he continues to battle while fighting for his country,” says Shah.

The makers are also pleased to have Talat Hussain playing the lead doctor in PG. “It was our luck that Talat Hussain Sahib liked the role and accepted to be part of the film,” says the director. “He is a tremendous actor who understands the role first and then delivers. When we were putting his scenes on the edit, we realised how deep he went in his character.”

When you have two superheroes, you need a bad guy who is bigger than both — Adnan Jaffer fits the profile and sends chills down the spine with his booming voice and impressive personality. “Adnan Jaffar is the ultimate baddie who has his own agenda and goes to the dark side to achieve it by hook or by crook, explains Shah. “It’s a propaganda film where we have shown good and evil. Adnan represents evil as he has witnessed intolerance in society and feels that everyone hates everyone else. The mask he wears is symbolic as it covers his humanity, revealing a part to denote his bad side.”

If Adnan Jaffar is the baddie what is Aamir Qureshi doing in PG? “Aamir is a very talented singer-turned-actor and he does justice to the role he has been chosen for,” says Shah. “I saw him emote sensitivity in one of his music videos and that’s where I realised that I have found my gadgets guy who can crack jokes even when his requests to join the heroes on the field are denied.”

“I play the good guy for a change. I’m part of Team Positive,” the legendary villain Mustafa Qureshi’s son replies with a smile. ‘I am Q to the two superheroes here and although the trailer doesn’t show my good side, trust me, I excel as the gadgets expert. People will give taaliyaan [claps] instead of throwing gaaliyaan [abuse] usually associated with the villains I have played. I still believe a villain has better chances of surviving in film business than the hero though.”

Sheheryar narrates an incident where he was made to run for four hours while the director sat in the car calling ‘cut’ and ‘action.’ “I was running as per their instructions but since my character was supposed to not show emotions, everyone thought I was cool with the retakes. Well, I wasn’t!”

“You could have told us to slow down, Sherry,” the director replies with a smile, saying that they thought the superhero was enjoying the drill. “We wanted him to give us the Tom Cruise look when he is doing action sequences but Sherry was adamant that the character was not supposed to have feelings and he convinced us with his logic.”

The makers of PG — an investment banker who is also a published writer, and an ad filmmaker — believe they can achieve the impossible. “There are a lot of things in the pipeline, beginning with the TV commercial featuring the title sponsor,” says producer Raza. “The aim of this film was to lay a foundation where we can use typecast actors and make them something else. Thanks to Danial Shehzad Khan’s SFX supervision and the masks and costumes he created, we were able to give the movie an international feel. We also thank ISPR for their support. Without their backing PG wouldn’t have been possible. We have tried to raise the bar with next-level visual and special effects all done in Pakistan.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 9th, 2017