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SPOTLIGHT: THE LAST HURRAH

December 09, 2018

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Mehwish Hayat lends her voice to the character of Erma (below) - Photo courtesy: ARY Films
Mehwish Hayat lends her voice to the character of Erma (below) - Photo courtesy: ARY Films

Pakistan’s animated industry will probably be indebted to the 3 Bahadur franchise because had it not been for the two-time Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, filmmakers in Pakistan might still be producing animated features without knowing the very basics. With the third and final installment of 3 Bahadur — Rise of the Warriors — lined up for release next week, those involved in the project as well as die-hard fans of the franchise are hoping for a grand finale that will forever raise the bar for animated features in Pakistan.

However, one doesn’t understand why the makers of 3 Bahadur are ending the superhero series by limiting it to a trilogy, especially when there is a dire need for such motivational characters to inspire the young generation. “Batman has died many times, hasn’t he,” Sharmeen asks as I sit down for a tête-à-tête with her.

“When we started 3 Bahadur, it was something that hadn’t been done before and many even went on to say that it won’t do well,” she explains. “Now, after an entire generation has grown up on 3 Bahadur, we are moving ahead in the hope of creating other heroes. During the last two years, we have ensured, through special screenings, that kids from all over Pakistan get to familiarise with Amna, Saadi and Kamil, and even at this moment a screening of 3 Bahadur is taking place at a remote village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.”

Impressive, considering that there are many cities and villages in Pakistan where there is no cinema or any other facility to screen films. Although the number of cinemas has increased significantly since the release of the first 3 Bahadur; Sharmeen believes the number — around 100-odd — is still  very low for a country where there used to be more than 1,000 cinemas in the not-so-distant past.

With the release of 3 Bahadur: Rise of the Warriors the animated trilogy is coming to its natural end. But new horizons are opening up for the production cast and crew, says the director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

“The generation before ours was used to the cinema culture as there were many screens in Pakistan back then. But we grew up by barely going to cinema houses. That’s very unfortunate, for you see you can’t reach a section of the population because they don’t have access to cinemas. In a country of over 200 million, we need more than 1,000 cinemas.”

Photo courtesy: ARY Films
Photo courtesy: ARY Films

When asked whether 3 Bahadur will debut on TV as an animated series, Sharmeen rejects the idea, putting the blame solely on poor economics. “Whoever has attempted to make an animated film in the country is a bahadur as, economically, it is still not that profitable,” says the director while taking a pause before moving ahead. “We don’t have an economy where brands are supporting films, and without corporate sponsorship or government subsidy, you can’t make an animated film and make money at the same time. We have an animation studio that has made three feature films. Even then we can’t go on TV without economic support or grants.”

However, the logic behind the ‘strange’ decision to release Rise of the Warriors one week before Aquaman, BumbleBee and 11 days before Mary Poppins Returns eludes me and I put the question before the director. “Whenever we have released a film, it has opened in front of competition so we don’t really have any issue with that,” Sharmeen says. I remind her that most of the screens in the country will be playing these three major Hollywood titles as well as accommodating Shah Rukh Khan’s Zero releasing a week after Rise of the Warriors.

“Competition exists but you have to be confident of the brand, the characters that you have created and also have a fan following, which we do. Since we are an Urdu animated film and the last of the trilogy, 3 Bahadur 3 doesn’t have to be afraid of any foreign film. An entire generation has grown up watching the local superheroes so we have the edge here as well as a one-week advantage over the rest. Also, we will be releasing our film as soon as the winter vacation begins and since our last two films proved to be clean ventures with a message, parents will have no issue taking their kids to the cinema to watch Rise of the Warriors. We have updated the fight scenes, improved the animation and are running a massive celebrity-endorsed campaign beyond the film where we ask people about their bahadurs and reward kids who have won laurels for Pakistan.”

The cast of Rise of the Warriors is even bigger than the last two installments and Sharmeen has a huge smile on her face when she announces Mehwish Hayat (Erma) and Nimra Bucha (Babushka) as an addition to the franchise. “We are very fortunate to work with Mehwish and Nimra as they are very good actors and suit the characters,” Sharmeen says as she opens up about the ensemble cast, comprising both new and recurring actors.

“With Mehwish Hayat and Nimra Bucha joining Fahad Mustafa, Behroze Sabzwari and Sarwat Gillani, we have a huge cast whose voices will be visible on the screen. When you look at Erma, you see Mehwish and it is things like this that take the game to the next level. Add the ‘Every kid has a Bahadur in him’ message and you will come out as more cautious about your surrounding as we talk about the weather, the crops, climate change etc. — things that every kid should know about.”

Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Mehwish Hayat - Photo courtesy: ARY Films
Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Mehwish Hayat - Photo courtesy: ARY Films

At this point, the film’s writer Kamran Khan enters the room. The first question on my mind is regarding Deenu Chacha, the character that grants superpowers to Amna, Saadi and Kamil, and who was their mentor till the trailer of the final film in the trilogy was unveiled. Why was Deenu Chacha fighting the very kids he trained and seemed to be winning against them? Didn’t they think about the repercussions of such an act, especially on the kids who look up to the character?

“You will have to watch the film to understand why Deenu Chacha ‘turns’ against the kids. To err is human and Deenu Chacha is human after all. But trust me, there is more than meets the eye in case of Rise of the Warriors. There are twists and turns that will keep you involved in the story. The characters have grown just like their audience and the plot this time is more complex than you think,” says Kamran.

He also defends the film’s release date, terming 3 Bahadur 3 as different from the other films in cinema during the same period. “Our target audience is different as we cater to kids and their parents, whereas the rest cater to adults. Whenever I meet children — be it my own or their friends — they ask me about the next 3 Bahadur and on hearing about the end of the trilogy, they are anything but happy. Their queries range from ‘Why are you not making more 3 Bahadurs?’ to ‘What will happen next?’ which shows their interest in the franchise.”

When asked about the end of the trilogy, Kamran takes a moment before answering the question. “The last two films had a cliffhanger ending where we kept the audience guessing about the next part, but here we will be concluding the trilogy. I can’t comment on the happy or sad ending but it’s an ending that will generate discussions. Even in our office, where there are a handful of people working on the film, some loved it and some didn’t, which is exactly the kind of reaction we want.”

Kamran Khan and his team were into animated projects long before Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy approached him for 3 Bahadur; so how did he feel when he was asked to kill the ‘golden goose’ that was bringing them name, fame and everything in between. “It was pre-decided that if the second film does well, we will wrap it up as a trilogy, so we were ready for it. We will be moving on to more projects and if the need to revive 3 Bahadur arises in the future, who knows we might find a way, but right now it’s simply out of the question.”

Kamran adds that when they started 3 Bahadur, it was Sharmeen alone who stood behind the team like a rock and he is thankful to her for her support in making it a reality. “People rejected us even before we began the project but now when we are on our way to becoming the first-ever trilogy from Pakistan, I’m happy that we didn’t listen to anyone at that time. We were told that it would be impossible to compete with Hollywood but that’s exactly what we are doing with the release of the third film.

“We were called/referred to as wannabes but we made it happen and thankfully now, after learning from our shortcomings and mistakes, we are in a position to go on to other projects. It’s all because of Sharmeen’s dedication and leadership skills that we have come this far, but the sky is the limit after this film.”

The year 2018 has been phenomenal for the animated industry in Pakistan in which as many as three animated films graced cinema screens countrywide — Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor, Tick Tock and The Donkey King, with the latter breaking box office records. Sharmeen is happy at the success of The Donkey King. However, she terms it as an animated film for adults rather than for kids. “The Donkey King is a different genre of animation and is completely different from what we do. Yes, it came on a non-holiday week and did well but that has more to do with good adult content and an open run. In my opinion, a children’s film can only be released on holidays because that’s the best time when parents would be able to take them to cinemas,” she says.

Saadi, Kamil and Amna in 3 Bahadur: Rise of the Warriors - Photo courtesy: ARY Films
Saadi, Kamil and Amna in 3 Bahadur: Rise of the Warriors - Photo courtesy: ARY Films

Sharmeen asserts the importance of working together for the betterment of the animation industry rather than competing with each other because, in order to grow, she believes there is a need to become a community first. “3 Bahadur started as a film but became a movement that opened doors for others,” she says. “Whenever people look back and reflect on the growth of the animation industry, they will think of 3 Bahadur first and nobody can take that away from us. In Pakistan, we are looking to build a community where animators, directors, VFX artists and post-production people would be able to interact and learn from each other. 

“We are happy that people are making animated films in a country where there was no scope for the field just a few years back. We are too young an industry to consider ourselves as competitors and it’s better to join hands and play together as a team rather than opt for a solo flight. Who knows which team member comes up with a better idea and does something never done before.”

Mehwish Hayat as Erma

Mehwish Hayat is one of the biggest names in the showbiz circuit at the moment. She is an accomplished actress who has worked extensively on TV, in theatre and films, and has been modeling for years while making waves as a singer, too. However, working for an animated feature by lending her voice to a key character was something that had eluded her till now, and she says she is thankful to 3 Bahadur for trying her out as a voice-over artist.

“When Sharmeen approached me for the role of Erma, I instantly said ‘yes’ because through the character I would be able to reach my younger fans for whom I haven’t done much yet. Working for an animated project was something I was itching to do. Trust me, it was not a piece of cake, as one has to keep in mind the expressions and emotions of an animated character that isn’t in front of you during the dubbing session,” she says.

When asked what attracted her to the role initially — the superhero factor, working in an animated film, catering to kids or the franchise — Mehwish says that it is all of the above. “I’ve always wanted to play a superhero as well as cater to kids. Plus, I wanted to be a part of 3 Bahadur as the feedback I got after the first two parts was quite positive and since this is going to be their last hurrah, I grabbed the opportunity when it presented itself to me.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 9th, 2018