Warsaw is a city steeped in film history. For decades, filmmakers have been falling to its many charms. There are of course the local masters, such as Andrzej Wajda or Krzystof Kieslowski who have set some of their most iconic tales in the Polish capital. And then there are modern directors such as David Lynch or Lars von Trier who have used it as a backdrop for their existential, surreal commentaries on humanity.
Next in line to join this august company is Ahsan Rahim. Together with Ali Zafar, he has created his debut feature Teefa in Trouble, an action-comedy that’s set up shop in Warsaw for the last leg of the shooting schedule. A busy crew and a positive buzz greet me the day I’m granted an exclusive behind-the-scenes look for Icon and what I see looks very promising: high-octane car chases with stunt work to make the heartbeat increase exponentially. But more on that later.
It’s a clear, sunny day and even though it’s the middle of July, for some reason my prejudiced head cannot process this fact. On my way over, I was picturing a dreary, rainy place but Warsaw makes quite the opposite impression on me as soon as my train enters the station. It’s a lovely city bursting with culture at every corner.
One or two monuments checked, local delicacies scoffed, I receive the directions from the production manager and make my way to the set. The place is easy to find but still quite a trek to get to. Looking back at my notes, I’ve scribbled “abandoned warehouse” to keep hold of my initial reaction of the location, but this isn’t true at all. It’s not abandoned; this is some kind of a racecourse where people can spin some laps for a small fee. I also spot, rather ominously, an arms shop. Two guys are sitting in front of it and cleaning their rifles. This is surely the perfect movie setting for hot pursuits and getaway vehicles.
Icon goes on the sets in Poland of Ali Zafar’s upcoming feature film Teefa in Trouble
I finally reach and see an assortment of police cars lining up a narrow, one-way road. I hear someone shout “action” (ah, that one global thing about movie sets) and they speed away one by one, disappearing around the corner. This is part of an elaborate chase sequence that I will get to see in various angles during the first part of the day. But before that, Ali Zafar greets me in his trailer. He’s taking it easy, as the concurrently shot stunt portions don’t require his constant presence.
“This may end up being the most expensive Pakistani production,” he says matter-of-factly whilst listening to Michael Jackson on a music player. “Because of the amount of action involved, it costs a lot of money.” He should know this best, considering that he’s not only the main star and co-writer (his younger brother Danyal was also part of the writing sessions) but also the producer.
Regardless of the many hats he’s wearing, it’s the acting part that will be the big talking point once the film releases. Ali Zafar has seriously bulked up for this role, having trained for four months prior to the shoot and now maintaining this rigorous process: martial arts and fitness training factor into his transformation, as do pre-cooked, protein-filled meals he is regularly handed on set by attentive assistants for immediate consumption.
No one from the tight-lipped cast and crew is telling me anything about the plot, other than Teefa, the main character, being a guy from androon shehr — Lahore’s Old City — who has come abroad for the first time on a mission. I resort to asking about the genre instead. Has Zafar always been a fan of action movies? What kind of films has he drawn inspiration from, for this one in particular?
First up, they do a test run during which the car flips as planned but then the stunt driver seems to lose control of the vehicle. It’s a nightmarish sight, the car’s wheels protruded in the air on the left, while only the right-hand side of the car is driving on the ground. The entire crew seems to be holding its breath; the set’s gone quiet for what seems like ages. This could go terribly wrong and everyone knows, but then eventually the car tilts back to the ground and resumes its course.
“A lot of people grew up on Superman and Star Wars … all these movies. And I mean, Rocky, Bruce Lee, things like that. I’ve been an action buff since I was a child. I used to make comic books. I used to make superheroes. Same with Ahsan. He draws his action heroes and sequences, so we both love action. We both love comedy. I also like intense, romantic stuff and in this film, we said: let’s do everything that we’ve been wanting to do.”
So it’s a little bit of everything. I understand that I won’t get any more information about who Teefa is, why he is in trouble and why in Warsaw, so I make my way across the set to where the action is actually happening. I spot a small crew of locals comprising technicians, assistants, one still photographer and several helpers. Ahsan Rahim is standing tall in the middle of them all, alongside his DoP Zain Haleem. After every shot, they put their heads together and discuss how to get the best possible result. As usual for any set, there’s a lot of waiting, a lot of talking, a lot of trying out and a lot of nervous laughter. And it’s a truly impressive setup, just for this one chase sequence. For the next take, they are using vans, police cars and motorbikes. A drone is being operated together with the camera and this will surely give more possibilities for the editing. A ramp has been installed too, so that one particular car can flip dramatically after driving over it and continue on two wheels only.
This DIY, hands-on approach is heartening to see in today’s day and age where CGI reigns supreme. It’s pure filmmaking by a dedicated bunch of professionals. Nothing makes me realise this more than the ramp shot: first up, they do a test-run during which the car flips as planned but then the stunt driver seems to lose control of the vehicle. He has difficulties balancing the car back on to four wheels. It’s a nightmarish sight, the car’s wheels protruded in the air on the left, while only the right-hand side of the car is driving on the ground. The entire crew seems to be holding its breath; the set’s gone quiet for what seems like ages. This could go terribly wrong and everyone knows, but then eventually the car tilts back to the ground and resumes its course. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. “I thought for sure he’s going to fall over,” says Ahsan Rahim with a grin. All this reminds me of Ali Zafar’s description of the undertaking: “You could say the film is on steroids, right from the first frame.” I see that now.
Teefa in Trouble has an eclectic cast, comprising industry veterans such as Javed Sheikh and Faysal Quraishi and emerging talents Fia Khan and Mahenur Haider. Maya Ali is the main lead opposite Ali Zafar. From what I’m told, she’s far from “just a love interest.” She’s done a lot of stunts herself and gained quite a reputation. I hear one person calling her “the queen of reckless driving.” So it’s especially funny to me to see her body double, this lanky Polish gent exiting a car during a break, wearing a red dress and a wig. Ali Zafar, who has also done most of his stunts, is also using a body double for this particular chase. A guy with the same jacket and hairdo. Only then do I realise that Teefa has been in costume all day. That’s what he’ll look like!
For all the high energy and the complicated nature of shooting car chases and stunts, there’s an endearing quality to the small size of the crew. A sort-of tent has been pitched up by the side and after every completed take, the crew convenes under it to watch the playback. This gives off a sense of unity, as there’s no real hierarchy. Everyone is in it just as much as the next guy or girl. I’ve been on sets before where, even though everything is going according to plan, the atmosphere is stifled, joyless. Here, while everyone is doubtlessly focused and determined, there’s also camaraderie and a sense of fun. Especially between the four or five Pakistani members of the crew.
One can only hope that all this translates on screen. The chase scene goes on, now in another setup. We were in the open before, but now we’re inside the actual “warehouse.” Stacks of cardboard boxes can be found all over the site and metallic objects complete the structure. If I could paint a picture and choose a cinematic equivalent to what I’m seeing before me, I’m reminded of the last shot in Raiders of the Lost Ark, that vast space where a crate is stored among countless similar ones.
Blue light is everywhere, as police cars follow a motorbike. Round and round they go, until the chase comes to an abrupt, crashing halt. This shot is repeated several times over the next few hours. In the film, it will amount to just a few seconds. And I have no idea whether Teefa is still in trouble at this point or whether the police is chasing him at the beginning, or whether this is already the climax and he is about to ride away from trouble forever. My guess is as good as anyone’s and I look forward to seeing the finished product.
And so we’ve come to the end. The director has called “pack up.” The crew has a day off now and there’s a certain sense of excitement in the air. And it’s been exciting for me too, to get insights into contemporary Pakistani cinema.
Even though this sounds beside the point, I mean this as a compliment: Teefa in Trouble doesn’t feel like a Pakistani production. I’m aware that whatever I’ve seen is a mere glimpse, a small snippet. There’s an entire schedule in Lahore already wrapped. But when I leave, I leave in high spirits, happy that such a film exists, this most unusual cocktail of Pakistan and Poland, an ambitious action, romance, comedy and drama adventure with its heart in the right place. I’m curious to see how it all pans out.
Published in Dawn, ICON, September 24th, 2017