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SPOTLIGHT: THE TROUBLE WITH TEEFA

July 15, 2018

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The production crew okays a shot - Photo courtesy: Lightingale Productions
The production crew okays a shot - Photo courtesy: Lightingale Productions

What’s different about Teefa In Trouble? What makes it stand out among the hit-and-miss efforts sporadically being churned out by local cinema? We will only know for sure when we see the movie but it may possibly draw crowds who are eager to see Ali Zafar shift gears from a spate in Bollywood to a Pakistani cinematic debut. The movie also stars TV actress Maya Ali in her first Pakistani movie and considering how good she’s looking in the trailer, she may just manage to place herself amidst the smattering of leading ladies riding high on cinema’s new wave. Additionally, there’s a catchy soundtrack that is quintessential Ali Zafar and the trailer hints at a fast-paced action comedy.

But what also, quite significantly, makes Teefa different is the controversy currently surrounding its leading man/producer/music composer/male playback singer/co-scriptwriter Ali Zafar. This April, singer Meesha Shafi accused Ali of sexual harassment and since then the allegations have been taken to a legal court and the case is yet to unfold. Ali is an integral part of Teefa — both on-screen and behind-the-scenes — and consequently a hashtag on Twitter and Instagram is urging audiences to #boycottTeefa, recoining the movie’s title as ‘Ali Zafar’s In Trouble’. Critics are arguing that if a star as illustrious as Kevin Spacey can get fired on the basis of being a harasser, then it is the audience’s ethical responsibility to at least spurn Ali’s film.

Now this is certainly different. There have been movie releases preceded by tales of clandestine behind-the-scenes affairs and spats between stars but very few bear the burden of being considered a benchmark for ethics. This may end up affecting Teefa adversely at the box office. On the other hand, it may make more people want to see the movie, simply out of sheer curiosity.

Ahsan Rahim (R) directs Jawed Sheikh on the set of Teefa In Trouble - Photo courtesy: Lightingale Productions
Ahsan Rahim (R) directs Jawed Sheikh on the set of Teefa In Trouble - Photo courtesy: Lightingale Productions

“I am not worried that Teefa’s business will suffer because of the harassment allegations placed on Ali by Meesha Shafi,” the movie’s director, Ahsan Rahim, tells me. “My concerns are more conventional. Will people enjoy the movie? Will they laugh when they see it?”

Based on local cinema’s recent track record, even the glossiest movies can turn out to be dismal and the least likely productions can emerge as winners. And then there is also the controversy surrounding Ali Zafar …

How is it possible to not feel perturbed about a controversy that sent shockwaves through the country and which is now threatening to get the movie boycotted? “I’m not worried because this controversy has nothing to do with my movie. I’m against harassment and I feel that serious action needs to be taken against it. Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein were accused by multiple women and admitted to being guilty. But Ali is not saying that he’s guilty and the issue between him and Meesha is yet to be resolved. Ali has worked very hard in Teefa but so have many others, from the spot boys to the actors to my assistant who would come on set every day with bright new ideas. For me, it is the culmination of a lifelong dream to make a movie of my own. It’s taken me 24 years to get so far. From ad films and music videos to, now, a movie.”

My conversation with Ahsan starts on this note. Controversy may be threatening Teefa but it is a project that he has toiled over for two years and he is hoping for the best. In fact, according to him, the movie’s strongest selling point is going to be Ali Zafar. “He has a larger than life persona on screen and people will come to see him in a Pakistani movie. The music is also brilliant. When I heard it the first time I was blown away. Ali has really worked hard on it.”

Does it not bother him that, from the very onset, Teefa has been touted as Ali Zafar’s movie with very little spotlight placed on him, the director? “It doesn’t matter,” he laughs. “I am a low-profile person by nature and what matters to me is that I have made this movie that I hope people like. Ali is like a younger brother to me. We have been working together for a long time now and we also did so for Teefa. It’s true that he is very involved in most aspects of the movie but he also recognised that as the director, the final call was mine.

Ali Zafar and Maya Ali
Ali Zafar and Maya Ali

“We have tried to make Teefa look like a movie rather than a glorified drama,” he continues. “There’s a lot of action and Ali’s done most of the stunts himself. It was only in the case of the more dangerous stunts that I persuaded him to use a body double. I couldn’t risk the hero getting injured and shooting getting delayed.”

I am not worried that Teefa’s business will suffer because of the harassment allegations placed on Ali by Meesha Shafi,” the movie’s director, Ahsan Rahim, tells me. “My concerns are more conventional. Will people enjoy the movie? Will they laugh when they see it?”

When the going gets tough

The stunts in Teefa have long been hinted at in special highlights. At the PSL opening ceremony in Dubai earlier this year, Ali quite literally flew into the stadium. This was the sort of action people could expect to see in his upcoming film, he had said at the time.

“There are big intense action moments that we have shot,” Ali recalls. “On the top of my mind, I cannot forget literally facing death in one of the sequences which was shot underwater. I could see myself going and coming back. I can’t reveal much about it until people see the movie but I did think at that moment [after the sequence was shot] that I’m alive and still shooting, so there must be something big planned for the film.”

For Maya Ali, Teefa In Trouble may possibly manage to jumpstart her film career and according to her, she gave it her all
For Maya Ali, Teefa In Trouble may possibly manage to jumpstart her film career and according to her, she gave it her all

“Ali did get hurt quite a lot of times,” says Ahsan. “But even then he would continue shooting. I was lucky to be working with a team that acted very professionally. When I had taken Maya on board, I had been secretly afraid of diva-like tantrums, but even she never gave me a chance to complain. In Poland, we were particularly following a strict schedule and shooting promptly began at 5am. Maya would get up before everyone else and get ready so that there wouldn’t be any delays. It was very impressive.”

For Maya Ali, Teefa may possibly manage to jumpstart her film career and according to her, she gave it her all. “There was a lot of pressure on me,” she admits. “I was working with some great veterans such as Jawed Sheikh, Ali Zafar, Mehmood Aslam and Ahsan Rahim. It made me want to perform to the best of my ability.”

In her last scene shot in Poland, Maya, Ali and Faisal Qureshi had to run but when the director said action, she got cramps in both her legs and couldn’t even move. “They kept running while I was lying on the road in the middle of the town centre,” says Maya. “Then Ali and Ahsan realised that I was nowhere to be seen! It took me a while to recover from that scene and afterwards, I had to literally drag myself to run.”

Similarly, the movie’s stylist, Nabila, is all praises for the cast’s tenacity, “We recently shot the Item Number song for the movie in Thailand and Ali and Maya were sore after having practiced the moves so much. Ultimately, Maya couldn’t even move her arms to put on her jacket because she had rehearsed so much.

In her last scene shot in Poland, Maya, Ali Zafar and Faisal Qureshi had to run but when the director said action, she got cramps in both her legs and couldn’t move
In her last scene shot in Poland, Maya, Ali Zafar and Faisal Qureshi had to run but when the director said action, she got cramps in both her legs and couldn’t move

“I have been part of this movie from the very onset,” continues Nabila. “My team has been traveling with them from deep within andaroon [inner city] Lahore to Poland to Thailand and I have been overseeing things, sometimes personally, sometimes via Skype or online calls. Ali would be doing crunches between shoots and being very careful with his diet so that he would continue to look a certain way. He’s very dedicated. He researched into the kind of look that he wanted and would discuss every nitty-gritty from wardrobe to the length of his hair. This dedication is really commendable.”

Apparently the distributors at India’s goliath Yash Raj Films also thought so and joined hands with Ali Zafar’s Lightingale Productions for the exclusive theatrical distribution of Teefa In Trouble. Ali elaborates, “Yash Raj and I have a special relationship dating back to the time when I acted in their production Mere Brother Ki Dulhan and more recently Kill Dil. I had been discussing Teefa with Aditya Chopra for some time now, in fact from before its conception, and he has been instrumental in guiding and inspiring me. When I completed the film, I showed it to the international distribution team headed by Avtar Panesar and he loved it. He took it upon himself to give the film what it needed the most.”

According to Ahsan, Teefa will be released worldwide in 25 countries, under a banner no less illustrious than Yash Raj. But does this mean that Teefa is going to be an all-out entertainer? Based on local cinema’s recent track record, even the glossiest movies can turn out to be dismal and the least likely productions can emerge as winners. But does this mean that it shouldn’t at least be given a chance?

Teefa certainly seems to have all the makings of a potential blockbuster. And yet, the large elephant in the room — the yet to be resolved controversy between Ali and Meesha — has the potential to throw all predictions about box office into a spin. Will Teefa really be in trouble? We’ll soon find out how things pan out come July 20, when the movie releases.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 15th, 2018