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SPOTLIGHT: THE UNDERDOG WITH HOPES

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Ali Rehman Khan’s Kabir woos Hareem Farooq’s Heer in Heer Maan Ja - Photo courtesy: IRK Films
Ali Rehman Khan’s Kabir woos Hareem Farooq’s Heer in Heer Maan Ja - Photo courtesy: IRK Films

Sitting in the cramped office space, with a glass wall separating one from the flurry and hubbub of PR activity, one can see that Heer Maan Ja (HMJ) will not go down without a fight.

The film is due to be released on Eidul Azha and will be up against two bigger and more anticipated productions, Asim Reza’s Parey Hut Love and Ehteshamuddin’s Superstar.

Although this is the fourth production from the makers of Siyaah, Janaan and Parchi, it is their most expensive venture till date with a unique PR campaign. HMJ is, allegedly, being treated as an underdog product. Rumours, unsubstantiated as their nature is, baffle its stars and producers, who constantly have to announce that their film is not being pulled from its Eid release. How, why or where these rumours started from, no one knows.

Even at its nascence, this is a crazy, hot-blooded industry, almost ruled by conglomerates; what’s a small outfit to do?

HMJ is a romp — a snappy boy-meets-girl romantic comedy drama with a message. The style is a staple of IRK Films (named after the producer Imran Raza Kazmi), I’m told.

Trashing rumours that imply IRK Films’ Heer Maan Ja may get pulled from an Eid release, its filmmakers relish their underdog status and don’t look like they intend to go down without a fight

The film is about a headstrong girl Heer (Hareem Farooq) and an architect Kabir (Ali Rahman Khan), and how his life is messed up by their association. The premise has a very family-friendly feel; this is another staple of IRK Films, again I’m told.

Ahmed Ali Akbar
Ahmed Ali Akbar

After a brief wait, Imran Raza Kazmi makes his way into the small office, squeezing his way into a near-claustrophobic corner. But before the interview picks up momentum, a staffer enters to make a video of the two of us talking for the film’s online campaign.

HMJ’s publicity campaign is different from the norm, to say the least. The first few teasers were more about Kazmi and his star Ali Rahman Khan, doing small skits, but not much was revealed about the film.

There is enough room in the market to sustain three domestic films every Eid, I tell Kazmi, when we finally start talking. “Absolutely,” Kazmi replies. Citing a feature published in Icon a few weeks ago, on the box-office potential of Eid releases, Kazmi starts calculating box-office estimates for HMJ. Even at its bare minimum box-office collection, the film will turn in a profit, he affirms.

It has been a few years since Siyaah, when I first met Kazmi, and he has grown into an astute, intelligent producer who knows the scope of his market, and the limits of his partnerships. Siyaah, Janaan and Parchi made money at the box-office, making IRK Films an exception in the business. Kazmi, however, has serious reservations with the way the industry is developing itself.

“How are small, independent producers going to survive if we are not given opportunities,” Kazmi asks. “We aim to make films every year, but the way things are, it’s quite a difficult task.”

Producer Imran Raza Kazmi, Ali Rehman Khan, Hareem Farooq and director Azfar Jafri
Producer Imran Raza Kazmi, Ali Rehman Khan, Hareem Farooq and director Azfar Jafri

The problems run the gamut from partnering with studios, he tells me, to compromises on storylines, to bad deals. “It’s not impossible for an independent filmmaker to distribute his film,” Kazmi says, in the middle of a long conversation, citing, again, another feature from Icon, “but it’s uphill.” Kazmi, though, knows that as a young film studio, he still has ways to go. “We’ve tried to be better. As this is our fourth film, we’ve learned a lot — and obviously one learns by doing. We might have made mistakes once, then twice, but no one makes the same mistake for the third time.”

Kazmi was especially aware of the shortfalls of his previous screenplays, which he says HMJ tries to make-up for.

“One learns the most when they see a film with the audience. You realise how the audience responds to what you have made, or if they got or didn’t react to the intended message.

“I watched Parchi at the premieres, then watched it with Pakistani audiences, then the Canadian audiences. We had seven shows in Saudi Arabia, and I watched all seven shows — I had to, because the film was connected to my laptop and we were afraid that it may leak,” Kazmi laughs. “But, in the end, it gave me a perspective on what works.”

Speaking of his leading lady, Kazmi says that he may have succumbed to pressure years ago if it weren’t for Hareem Farooq.

Farooq, also a business partner at IRK Films, has been the studios’ go-to heroine. The reason, Kazmi says, is that (apart from being a partner), Farooq is dependable. “She’s my friend of 16 years, and as an additional benefit, she’s an excellent actor. If I plan a 35-day schedule, I know I will not have to deal with star tantrums.” It’s a win-win, according to Kazmi.

A long conversation and a little wait later, Farooq, who was doing a promotional photo shoot, joins us in the cramped little room. This time, I scoot over to the corner Kazmi occupies, giving me a clear view of the PR people, who would gesture to me, from time to time, to wrap it up quickly.

“There is so much happening that one has to be careful one doesn’t unintentionally gives something important away,” Farooq starts, without giving anything away about the film or her character. What I could deduce, however, was the character’s sprightly, forceful personality.

Continuing the tradition, this character is something she didn’t play before. Were these really the types of ‘heroine’ roles she wanted to play, I ask.

Farooq, as astute as the first time I met her on the stage of Aangan Terrha, in which she played Jahan Ara Begum, picks up on the cue. Back then, Siyaah was getting primed for release, and Farooq, young in the industry, was keen to be a Bollywood heroine.

“Aisi sooch hi nahin aaye kabhi [The thought never ever entered my mind],” she says. “When I said I loved Bollywood and wanted to be a heroine, I never said I wanted to play a lovey-dovey heroine. I love taking up challenges”, she says. In her films so far, she has played a foster mum to a demon child, a single mum finding her way in life and a gangster heroine.

“I don’t want to be a stereotype,” Farooq asserts. “In an industry that is small, you need versatile actors, so why should I be stuck to one kind of character, or one kind of persona? I mean, it has worked for a lot of people, but why can’t I be different?”

A day later, there was a dearth of activity in the office. One lone individual was stuck with the task of making sure that Icon interviewed Ali Rehman Khan and director Azfar Jafri.

The entire environment had changed, and so had the tone of the interview.

Ali Rehman Khan and Zara Sheikh in the song Addi Maar
Ali Rehman Khan and Zara Sheikh in the song Addi Maar

“He’s an architect, a self-made man, but he’s also an unfortunate man,” Khan tells me, describing his character Kabir. “You’ve heard the term that lightening never strikes twice in the same place. To him it would.”

“He wants to do right, his heart is in the right place, but somehow the things he does somehow go against him,” adds Jafri, who is sitting next to Khan. “He’s a shrewd character.”

“He’s a refined person, who knows his talents, and where he’s heading,” Khan adds on top of Jafri’s response.

“Ali is the one who will ask a thousand questions,” Jafri continues, praising his actor. “It’s about the chemistry and working together for so long. Sometimes I don’t even have to tell him what to do, and he does exactly what I wanted.”

There wasn’t much research involved, but Khan did hang out with architects to get the gist of how they act, he says. “Doctors, real estate people, or lawyers — people from different professions tend to have a distinct mannerism to them,” Khan tells me. “I realised that architects are damn ambitious. They are very cocky, self-obsessed people. They’re like doctors — their job is to assure you that everything will be okay. You leave it in my hands, I will make you your dream house, they would say. Whether the house is good or not, whether they are great or not, they will have sold you the idea that the house they are making is your sapnon ka ghar [dream house].”

At the time, Khan was building his own house, and smooth-talked by two architects, he had a difficult time choosing one over the other.

“There are no scenes where he is shown pandering to a client, but the arrogance of the character does show up,” Jafri adds.

After an hour, where both the actor and the director expressed genuine happiness on the other two Eid releases, and scratched their heads on the rumour of HMJ, somehow, being pulled from the line-up, Khan describes Jafri’s gradual evolution as a director.

“Azfar was a different guy in Janaan. In HMJ, his sense of surety, sense of confidence — not egoistical — is precise. He tells me what he wants in one word, and I give it to him,” Khan says.

“And Ali is the guy who asks a thousand questions — and if he does ask, it makes me think about the scene from another perspective,” says Jafri. “It makes me ask myself why he hadn’t asked these questions during the rehearsal spell,” Jafri quips.

It’s pretty evident IRK Films functions as a family. It would have been fruitless to ask why they would ever work with other people (for the record, Khan is open to work for others; Jafri has made Sherdil for another studio).

Even on their fourth film, the production house, wiser and more discerning since they started, is still trying to understand the ways of the industry, wearing the label of an underdog that may perform, with pride.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 21st, 2019