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Composition by Rahada Tajwer
Composition by Rahada Tajwer

The cameras rolled within a mohalla of Karachi’s Saddar area. Traffic roared not too far away, joining into the crowded chaos of Jamia Cloth Market. It was here, within an age-old four-storied heritage building, that Sheheryar Munawar and Mahira Khan shot a pivotal scene. For the past 13 days they had been working on this single scene, enacting it from different technical angles, bearing with the same wardrobe, hair and make-up every day, something that was particularly difficult for Mahira since she was dressed as a bride. It was hot, grueling work in a setting that wasn’t exactly as grandiose as one would imagine of a star-studded movie.

This, perhaps, is the beauty of the upcoming 7 Din Mohabbat In (7DMI). The movie is as star-studded as they come. Sheheryar Munawar and Mahira Khan look great as the main leads Tipu and Neeli, and they are joined by an impressive ensemble cast that includes Mira Sethi, Amna Ilyas, Javed Sheikh, Hina Dilpazir, Beo Zafar, Adnan Shah Tipu and Rimal Ali. Also taking centre stage is the story. Foreign locales, designer wardrobes and exorbitant sets don’t sell a film — stories do. And Fasih Bari Khan, the scriptwriter for 7DMI, has a penchant for looking at the smaller details of everyday life and spinning delightful stories out of them. He creates characters that are unique to an area, fixates on dialects and mannerisms and recreates gritty, piquant realities with his scripts.

The movie’s directors, Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi, agree. “Fasih is a celebrated writer and Meenu and I love bringing the unique quirks of a city to the screen. Writing with Fasih has been a joy for us because he knows the pulse of Karachi,” says Farjad.

7 Din Mohabbat In is as star-studded a film as they come. Icon sits down with the cast and directors of the movie to get nuggets of information about the filming process and the character of a djinn inspired by an urban legend

“This story was one of the first ones that Farjad had narrated to me, five years before our first movie together, Zinda Bhaag, came to fruition,” adds Meenu. “Farjad has a real flair for the fantastical; his stories always have a touch of crazy in them and he knows how to grasp an everyday tale and imbue it with fresh new meanings. A story is generally about how a character overcomes a series of obstacles in order to reach a desired goal but it’s how the journey is charted that makes it different from the others.”

Amna Ilyas
Amna Ilyas

A fleeting glance at the trailer hints at exactly how 7DMI may prove to be different. The plot is centered round Sheheryar Munawar who may just manage to assert his acting mettle as the befuddled Tipu. Bespectacled and socially inept, Tipu is hardly the quintessential hero, but a supernatural being (djinn) promises to transform him into a veritable girl magnet should he manage to find love in ‘saat din’ [seven days]. Enter, the various female characters with whom Tipu may finally find love: Amna Ilyas as Ghazala, the gang leader with strong feminist instincts; Princess Sonu, a bratty British Born Confused Desi, played by Mira Sethi; a club dancer played by Rimal Ali; and finally, Mahira Khan’s Neeli who is Tipu’s best friend, confidante and ultimately, the love of his life.

With the movie slated for an Eidul Fitr release, the cast is in the midst of a hectic promotional schedule when I catch up with them. From morning show appearances to Eid show recordings, interviews with newspapers and video bloggers that go on for hours, visits to crowded malls and braving thunderstorms while they commute, they are exhausted to the point of dizziness. And yet, promotions are now inevitable parts of pre-release rigmaroles and it’s something that they understand as they settle down for late-night discussions with me.

Behind the scenes with the actors

The movie rests on Sheheryar’s shoulders and he is particularly excited. “It’s a role that has truly allowed me to move out of my comfort zone,” he describes. “Tipu is multi-dimensional. He’s not your typical hero and yet, he carries the movie.

I enjoyed slipping into a character that initially made me uncomfortable and then working on it and really getting into character.”

“I think 7DMI’s biggest selling point is its characters and I am not just talking about the main roles,” says Mahira. “There are so many smaller characters that add to the story: Tingu Master, Tipu’s sidekick; Naseer Kankutta, the villain, and a man who lurks in the backdrop selling all sorts of dubious substances. The story is also such a mix. It has everything that you’d want to see in a movie: love, action, romance, comedy, magic and a slight bit of tragedy.”

Meenu Gaur & Farjad Nabi
Meenu Gaur & Farjad Nabi

Her opinion is echoed by Mira Sethi, who says that she wanted to sign on to her role as soon as she read the script. “I don’t play the main female lead and yet my character is interesting and really appeals to the comedian in me. Princess Sonu is really funny and she perpetually wears crop tops and tight leather pants, despite the blazing heat,” she says. “It turned out to be a particularly enjoyable experience because Meenu and Farjad are very empathetic directors. It was different from my experience with TV where we tend to shoot more than 10 scenes a day and often the director doesn’t have time for more than one take. Even if you aren’t happy with a scene, you have to let it go. With 7DMI, the directors and the producer were as invested into the movie as I was. Two to three scenes would be shot in a day but we would make sure that they are just right.”

I am romancing Mahira in the movie and that’s a high-pressure job because she’s the nation’s sweetheart. The audience may approve or disapprove of me altogether,” Sheheryar says. “Regardless, I am really looking forward to seeing Mahira in the movie because Neeli has a quirky sense of humour which is very similar to Mahira’s when she is alone with friends.”

According to Amna Ilyas, Meenu and Farjad would start clapping after wrapping up every scene. “It was encouraging but then Sherry (Sheheryar Munawar) and I started getting suspicious because they would even clap when we felt that we hadn’t performed that well. In fact, in those particular scenes, they clapped harder, perhaps to make us do better next time,” she laughs.

“I think the movie may also work because of the hard work and good vibes that prevailed on set,” observes Sheheryar. “It’s bound to come through in the scenes. I am romancing Mahira in the movie and that’s a high-pressure job because she’s the nation’s sweetheart. The audience may approve or disapprove of me altogether,” he says. “Regardless, I am really looking forward to seeing Mahira in the movie because Neeli has a quirky sense of humour which is very similar to Mahira’s when she is alone with friends.”

Sheheryar Munawar
Sheheryar Munawar

“Mahira and I have worked in the past together and I count her as my friend,” he continues. “We went through our scenes quite naturally with one of us leading and the other instinctively following through. There were no acting insecurities and my favourite scene in the movie is with her. Our two characters are on the rooftop and it’s the only place where Tipu can be himself because most of the time he is too scared of his mother. He asks Neeli how he can get along with girls and there are some enjoyable dialogues.

“There was so much that would happen on set,” recalls Sheheryar. “There is a scene where my sidekick, Tingu Master, played by Danish Maqsood, and I are climbing a drain pipe. I was holding on to his pants as we were climbing up and his trouser suddenly ended up in my hands! At another point, I fell from the drain pipe and it broke and fell on my head.

“Also, there was talk that the house we were shooting in was actually supposed to be haunted. Nobody would want to go to the second floor and the technical staff would come and complain that they got shoved and slapped by an invisible entity. It was funny especially because Mahira gets scared easily. You say the word djinn to her at night and her imagination goes haywire and she won’t be able to sleep! It’s hilarious now, in retrospect.”

The directors’ cut

Mahira Khan
Mahira Khan

Meenu and Farjad have their own recollections. According to them, the djinn in the movie is inspired by a Karachi-based urban legend about a ghost who used to haunt a building called Dwarka Mansion. It was said that the person had died of heartbreak and since then his spirit ensured that no one in Dwarka Mansion ever got married.

On the sets, one of their fondest memories is of the dance sequence shot with transgender actress Rimal Ali. “Watching Rimal’s commitment, effort and energy during the dance segment was the stuff of legends,” recalls Farjad. “Everybody was commenting on how she danced on this extremely fragile glass floor which was literally cracking for three consecutive nights. You know, there is always so much talk about how actors do their own stunts and we forget just how physically difficult dance is.”

They are similarly all praises for their star lead pair. “Both Mahira and Sheheryar are doing comedy and I am surprised that nobody had earlier used them in similar ways,” says Farjad. “They have superb comic timing and are extremely committed and rigorous in their approach. If Meenu and I imagined Neeli and Tipu, and Fasih penned them, then Sheheryar and Mahira gave them their flesh and bones. Credit also goes to Meenu who rehearsed quite extensively with all the actors, helping them get into the skin of their characters and achieve the tone and tenor that was required in a fantastical coming-of-age story such as 7DMI.”

Will the movie work, though, on a clustered Eidul Fitr, pitted against some major contenders? “We wish everyone the best,” says Meenu magnanimously. “After a long time, viewers will have choices available to them on Eid. This used to the norm some decades ago and it’s a sign of a growing industry.”

A glamorous cast and a storyline that hints at being unique, 7 Din Mohabbat In may just manage to get the box office rolling. “It’s an entertainer and people go to the cinema to be entertained,” points out Amna Ilyas. But will it entertain or, like so many recent local releases, be all flash and no substance? We’ll know in a few days.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 10th, 2018