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SPOTLIGHT: HEART, MIND AND SOUL

January 06, 2019

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Photos: Kuki’s Photography
Photos: Kuki’s Photography

Director Asim Raza is meticulous to the core — and I speak from first-hand experience. Given exclusive access to the sets of his upcoming movie Paray Hut Love (PHL), I sat with him while he scrutinised a monitor linked directly to the recording cameras. It was a dusty, cold day in Karachi’s Commune Artist Colony and the entire crew wore face masks to ward away the grime suspended in the air. To no avail. Asim’s allergies had gotten aggravated and he coughed sporadically, in between takes but never during filming. That’s Asim Raza for you; when the camera is rolling, he’ll just swallow down his cough, no matter how terrible it is.

Gazing at the screen, he asked for a retake. “Saife’s head needs to tilt a bit more towards Sheheryar,” he had observed. Actor and director Saife Hassan was shooting with him on that particular day, starring in a cameo opposite the movie’s male lead and producer Sheheryar Munawar. Another retake was filmed when a fly flitted across the set.

A few days earlier, a wedding song had been shot where about 250 extras had formed the backdrop to the main cast. Every extra had been required to have a white flower in the hair, tilted at a certain precise angle — Asim had insisted upon it. “The theme had to be followed,” he told me matter-of-factly.

Behind the scenes at Asim Raza’s Paray Hut Love

This attention to detail is Asim’s forte and, as a result, the projects that he helms are always sure to be visual treats; bursting forth with colour, catchy music and famous faces. He’s a favourite within the corporate circle for his ad films and while his debut movie Ho Mann Jahaan (HMJ) may have garnered hit-and-miss reviews, there’s no denying that it was beautifully shot. One can expect similar visuals from PHL. The movie will be traversing the scenic locales of Turkey, Kashmir, Islamabad and some of Karachi’s oldest colonial buildings. The ensemble cast includes Sheheryar Munawar, Maya Ali, Ahmed Ali Butt, Zara Noor Abbas, Nadeem Baig, Hina Dilpazeer, Rachel Viccaji, Frieha Altaf and Parisheh James — and, together, this motley crew will be drifting through a story wound around four different weddings.

“Imran Aslam, who has written this movie’s script, and I used to often talk about the old classic romances in Hollywood and how this genre had largely remained untapped by local filmmakers,” recalls Asim. “We thought that local audiences would enjoy a romance that had substance to it and Imran decided to build the storyline around four different kinds of Pakistani weddings. After all, in our country, the party season is defined by weddings. It’s where young people mingle and dance and there is festivity and colour. This movie is fun, youthful and it is about coming of age. I think that my movies will probably always be about coming of age because I feel that I am perpetually coming of age!

“Unfortunately, the script remained incomplete for six, seven years. Both Imran and I got busy with other projects. Then, one fine day, Sheheryar came across the script and liked it so much that he persisted with Imran until finally, the script was completed,” he laughs. “The script and dialouges are all by Imran Aslam but his brother Nasir Aslam [also a filmmaker] has been instrumental in streamlining the script and finalising it.”

Sheheryar then decided to produce PHL with Asim as director and himself as the male lead. Quite a few male actors were miffed about this, vocally complaining that Asim needed to give others a chance rather than work with an actor who had already played a significant role in his last movie. Was Asim truly playing favourites or did Sheheryar insist on playing the hero because he was producing the movie?

The producer and lead actor of PHL, Sheheryar Munawar with his co-star Maya Ali
The producer and lead actor of PHL, Sheheryar Munawar with his co-star Maya Ali

“I think that Sheheryar was selected for the movie quite naturally. Yes, sometimes actors do come to me and make snide comments about me playing favourites and not giving them a ‘chance’. I feel like turning around and asking them if they would be willing to slog it out with me when we’re going through long schedules with very basic meals served in the breaks. Or would they suddenly decide to put on starry airs and graces?

“The thing is, our film industry is still a cottage industry. There is no influx of big money to help us along. Someone like me earns through ad films and then invests it into creating a movie. I need to select actors that I can trust, who are on the same wavelength as me and understand the way I work. If this means that I may be working with certain actors over and over again, then so be it. Also, often an actor simply suits a role. Sheheryar fits the bill completely as the male lead. And even while the story was being written, both Imran and I were sure that the character played by Ahmed could only be enacted by him.”

The script remained incomplete for six, seven years. Both Imran and I got busy with other projects. Then, one fine day, Sheheryar came across the script and liked it so much that he persisted with Imran until finally, the script was completed.”

Another friend of Asim’s, Mahira Khan, was supposed to originally play the movie’s female lead but when she couldn’t sign on due to date issues, Maya Ali was taken on board. How was the experience of working with a new actress? “This may be Maya’s first movie with me but she’s hardly a new actress. She’s worked in a lot of different projects in the past. But yes, I insisted on rehearsals and readings prior to the shooting so that she would be on the same page as me. Sometimes, she would just get an idea into her head and would want to follow it through. I would have to struggle to make her see my perspective. It required a lot of work.”

I ask him if there were any screaming matches on location while Maya and he struggled to see eye to eye but I already know the answer: the decibels on the sets of an Asim Raza movie tend to abide by comfortably sedate levels. He may know his mind as a director but he also has a knack for arguing courteously, insistent but never resorting to bouts of cursing and abuse.

“When you give respect, you get respect,” he shrugs. “I am also very lucky to always end up working with actors who are eager to understand my vision. Even if I am not happy with a scene, I would never single out someone in public and fight with them.”

Doesn’t he ever get angry, though — perhaps when someone disregards his hard work or doesn’t make an effort to understand what he’s saying? Pat comes the quintessentially politically correct reply: “No, I just decide that I must have done something wrong and that my next effort should be better.”

Asim and Sonya Jehan who has a cameo in PHL
Asim and Sonya Jehan who has a cameo in PHL

LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE

Speaking of next efforts, Asim has frequently talked about how he has applied what he learnt with HMJ to his new movie. What particularly did his first movie teach him? “My very first movie was made with all my heart but with this second one, I am using my heart as well as my mind. I realised that I couldn’t do everything myself. With HMJ, I was dabbling into too many facets all at the same time. Now, I relied on Imran Aslam to write the script for me. He has a flair for wordplay and wit and it really helped that I had someone I liked working with me and providing new perspectives to my vision. I also realised that, while I may have wanted my second movie to be more serious, I would have to wait. Our industry is very new and audiences appreciate stories that are more lighthearted. Maybe some time in the future, perhaps by my fifth movie, I will be able to tackle stories that are centered more visibly round certain issues but right now I have to move slowly. There are a lot of subliminal layers to PHL but it is, overall, a lighthearted love story.

“Another sad realisation was that in our country, a film is applauded based on its gains at the box office. The so-called intelligentsia will happily grant awards to a commercially successful movie, not really bothered that there may not be anything cerebral about its storyline. A well-conceived movie may go completely unnoticed if it does not appeal to the masses. With PHL, I have tried to find a kind of middle ground where I am able to stay true to my vision while also create a movie that appeals to the masses.

“And HMJ could have been trimmer,” he continues. “I am yet to edit and finalise PHL but I am aiming for a length that doesn’t go beyond two hours and 15 minutes.”

I observe that the editing is probably going to be difficult given that PHL is clustered with song, dance, romance and plenty of cameos. A hefty line-up of stars will be flitting on to the screen throughout the movie; among them, Fawad Khan, Mahira Khan, Marina Khan, Sonya Jehan, Ahmed Ali, Imran Aslam, Cybil Chowdhry, Meera and Saife Hassan. What prompted him to include so many special appearances?

“I think that it’s important for the entertainment fraternity to be seen together and to step forward in support of each other. So many big stars selflessly agreed to be a part of my movie. It was heartwarming. Meera, for instance, was part of a scene where she was acting with the rest of the female cast. All the girls were getting ready in a single dressing room and, in between takes, they would be fixing each other’s hair and laughing together. It’s sad that we play up catfights and negativity but don’t really focus on all the good that’s present within the industry.”

And if anyone can be counted upon to find the ‘good’ in things, it’s Asim. I am hoping that all the positive energy manages to filter through on to screen when Paray Hut Love gets released on Eidul Azha.

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 6th, 2019