Rarely does one come across a successful debut film producer, director, actor and screenwriter who is self-deprecating, pragmatic and critical of his own work. Adnan Sarwar is all of that and more. He talks of his successful debut film about a forgotten boxing legend, Shah, with wonderment as he is aware of its technical shortcomings, and at the same time isn’t amazed by the positive reviews it received. He says he gets uncomfortable when people shower praise on him.
Adnan sat down with with Icon to discuss his latest venture, Motorcycle Girl, with the same forthright honesty. Excerpts follow.
Your first movie Shah was about boxing and your second also has to do with a sporty kind of a personality, a motorcyclist. Any particular reason for this focus on personalities from the world of sport?
Filmmaker Adnan Sarwar has now come out with another off-the-beaten-track film, Motorcycle Girl. Icon sits down with the director to pick his brains on the unusual subjects that he chooses for his films and his experience of working in his latest project with some renowned names from the entertainment industry
No. I am simply attracted to stories of human achievement. It just happened that I came across these two amazing stories.
You had said in an earlier interview for this very newspaper, after the release of Shah, that your next film won’t be a biopic. Yet, Motorcycle Girl is.
Someone recently called me ‘The Biopic Guy’ in an interview which I thought was hilarious. The truth is that I just want to tell good stories. My team and I were working on another film when I came across Zenith Irfan’s story. I am an impulsive artist and I knew that I had to make this film before anything else. So we postponed the project we were working on to make Motorcycle Girl first. The next one will not be a biopic.
How was it filming Motorcycle Girl in the northern areas of Pakistan? Did you face any major difficulties?
I think the major difficulty we faced was the fact that the oxygen level is very low in Khunjerab and none of us were equipped to handle it. They say that you should not remain at that altitude for more than 45 minutes at a stretch, and if you want to really push it, then maximum one-and-a-half hours. We worked non-stop for four hours as we were shooting on a very tight budget and our team was very small, and we had to divide tasks. The result was that all of us started to suffer from hypoxemia, a condition in which people first start getting aggressive, and then disoriented.
When people from my team would get sick, I would send them down one at a time in the car to lower altitudes, so the car kept going back and forth. It reached a point when it just became too dangerous for us to remain there and continue shooting. Normally, when shooting teams go there to do commercials they have ambulances, doctors, oxygen, etc. with them. Due to budget constraints, we had no such luxury. It was very traumatic for all of us and it wasn’t right of me to put my team through this ordeal, but I had no choice. Connectivity in those areas was another major problem — we were pretty much cut off from the rest of the world.
But didn’t you have a better budget this time round unlike Shah?
I had more than double the budget of Shah but that still didn’t amount to much. Realistically, my film’s budget was less than that of a 30-second commercial by a big corporation — which is under three crore rupees. And in order to be able to afford that, as no one was willing to take up this film, I had to sell half my company. It was like selling part of me, so from now on whatever I do will be part-owned by someone else. But regardless of this, even though I had offers for big budget movies, I knew working on this film would make me happy.
The scope and level of Motorcycle Girl was such that it wasn’t possible to not spend on production, so we minimised our expenses in terms of having a huge team and focused on spending on just production value. Admittedly, there are many flaws and weaknesses in the movie — I don’t claim it is perfect at all — but it has amazing locales and my stories and ideas are always original, not borrowed. The film is socially relevant and committed to our youth and culture, and I believe it will have a cultural impact on our country.
Given the financial constraints, how do you feel Motorcycle Girl fares technically?
Nobody is more aware of the technical shortcomings of our films than we, the filmmakers, and we try to do the best with what we have. But to expect a two-and-a-half crore rupee film to be as technically polished as a 50 crore rupee film is simply not realistic. My personal focus is — and will remain — on telling a good story, telling it honestly and telling it from the heart. It is one of the most beautiful films to come out this year — and I know there is an audience for such cinema out there. And when I have the budget, that’s when I will make the kind of movie I want to make.
With all the strengths of your last film, the one major shortcoming of Shah, one felt, was that there was no background score. Have you given importance to music in this film?
I now feel confident enough as a filmmaker to admit the truth — that we just didn’t have the budget to record a background score in Shah, even though I had written an entire score with four songs. So I played on the technique of using silence as a background, which is done frequently in the West, and in fact, Westerners were blown away by it. Of course, I pretended to them that it was a deliberate move on my part and not a step I took out of necessity. Xulfi has done the score this time. I am a big fan of his and he has really added his special touch to what the film has become in the end.
You have worked with very senior actors in this movie, unlike the last in which there were no prominent names. Being a very new director yourself, did you face any attitude problems from your cast, especially the senior lot?
No. I was surprised at how smooth the process was. Everyone was very professional on set and it was a dream to have such a talented cast.
How did you end up casting Sohai Ali Abro as the lead?
I didn’t know Sohai at all. We had met in Dubai at an awards ceremony and she mentioned she wanted to work with me, as indeed, I did with her, as I had seen her movie. I told her about Motorcycle Girl and she said she didn’t even know how to ride a cycle, let alone a motorbike! But she learnt, first to ride a bicycle and then a motorbike and worked her way up to drive the high-powered vehicle she used in the film. Even I learnt to drive a motorbike for it! Driving around in the northern areas on the bike I could feel the romance in it and hope I have been able to capture it. In fact, Sohai felt it too and says she has changed on a personal level after this film. It was a liberating experience for her to have this mobility.
What was the reaction of the locals while you were filming there?
They were amazing — the people there are far more liberal, secular and tolerant than city folk — like we used to be once upon a time. When I started interacting with the town’s people I realised how magical they were. In fact, at one point I just changed the script, and let the film take its course like a documentary. Maybe it doesn’t make commercial sense to allow a film to take its own direction, but we just kept the cameras rolling with Sohai interacting with the village people, and it turned out beautiful. There is 100 percent literacy there and the girls are all studying and ambitious career-wise. They just left us speechless. Normally, their villages are off-limits to outsiders, but when they realised what we were doing, they opened their homes, schools and fields for us. They were like angels walking on God’s earth. They even organised a small function for Sohai when they learnt she was an actor.
How was it working with Jami?
I couldn’t have asked for a better producer than Jami. He is an institution. If you need something for a film, he will give it to you, no matter how expensive, regardless of who you are. He gives suggestions, no orders or demands. And he has great technical knowledge.
What is your take on blatant corporate branding in films?
I am all for branding, as it brings in money, but ideally, I would wish to do it like it is integrated in the West. There are lots of very powerful Western brands that are 100 years old and a part of the lives of the people, and it is good advertising to integrate them subtly and tastefully in movies. But I can’t fight all the fights alone. So, until people realise that in-your-face branding is never a good idea, I have joined the bandwagon and have cringe-worthy branding in my movies.
Published in Dawn, ICON, April 29th, 2018