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Momina Duraid wears a coy smile while making me guess what I had missed in the Superstar trailer. “Is it the story? The characters? Something of the context? Subliminal, only hinted at, perhaps? Is it even on-screen?” I ask. One can’t guess if it’s not on-screen; if it had a story spoiler, I didn’t want to know, I tell her. Duraid wouldn’t tell.

We are at the dubbing studio where a medium-shot of Noori (Mahira Khan) in a black sari (apparently, from the latter half of the film, possibly near the climax) was paused on screen. The real Mahira Khan was taking a breather. They had one night to finish Khan’s scenes before the PR department whisked her and co-star Bilal Ashraf off to Punjab.

“You weren’t supposed to do a film this year, so why rush into Superstar?” I ask.

“Who told you that?” Duraid says. “I was always going to do Superstar this year.”

“You did, last year,” I remind her. Back then, her last film, Parwaaz Hai Junoon, a strenuous task to complete, was due to come out and Duraid (more specifically her husband, Duraid Qureshi), wanted to take a breather. That, of course, didn’t happen.

Director Mohammed Ehteshamuddin’s Superstar has a lot to say. But more than about stardom, it’s about about love and loss

“Making Superstar was my destiny. It was one of those projects that lands in one’s lap out of karma,” she says with an unburdening sigh.

The journey was four years long, I was told by Mahira Khan and Azaan Sami Khan, the music director and screenwriter of the film, on different occasions. The dilemmas involved other studios, litigation, rewrites and (in Khan’s case) unwavering commitment — stories from the past that mean little to a film at its near-release stage.

“I immediately loved it — especially the first half. It had an organic feel to it,” Duraid continues. “Superstar is very sellable, but it also has a lot of meat — a lot of context. There has to be a purpose to the story. To me, Superstar is about the true definition of an artist. It’s much more than a love story. It’s about our definition of what a superstar is, and what a superstar should be.

“We start our journeys with a lot of honesty, knowing exactly what the right path is. But when you start walking on that path, things engulf you and the path is forgotten. Jo kehtay hain na, ke aap apni matti bhool gaye — that you forgot who you were and where you came from — and you forget why you even stepped on that path. It’s not about stardom,” she adds in a mild, asserting tone.

I had guessed as much, having seen many scenes and songs of the film from time to time in the last few months.

A little while before Duraid’s interview, Mahira Khan was taken slightly aback when we began discussing scenes from the film.

Superstar is very sellable, but it also has a lot of meat — a lot of context. There has to be a purpose to the story. To me, Superstar is about the true definition of an artist. It’s much more than a love story.”

“Obviously, I’m playing the role of an actor for the first time in my life, so, maybe it’s an assumption — and maybe it’s a good assumption people will make — that Noori will have shades of myself,” Khan relates to me.

Scenes from the film
Scenes from the film

“At the end of the day, actors connect with actors. We all have some shades that are very similar to each other, even though they are clichés. The truth is, all clichés are actually true. So, yes, there are some clichéd characteristics of an actor that Noori does have,” she says, describing her character. “At the end of the day, she is her grandfather’s granddaughter.”

Noori’s grandfather is Agha Jan, played by Nadeem, a filmmaker who had left the film industry to do theatre when cinema lost its appeal.

“Noori is blunt, honest, believes in herself more than anybody else — and she’s supremely talented. She has talent in her blood, but, despite what is said of nepotism, she does not have the opportunities,” Khan continues.

From what I gather, Noori starts from theatre and becomes a film actor (that bit is also spelled out in the trailer).

“When we shot theatre, we shot it as organically as possible — as true to theatre as we could,” Khan describes. “All of last night, we were dubbing the theatre sequences, and I lost my voice. Because Ehtesham Bhai [Mohammed Ehteshamuddin, the director] has a theatre background, he likes shooting scenes like theatre. I did Sadqay Tumharay with him, and he likes doing full-on long scenes.

“But that’s not what the journey is — the journey is not of a theatre actress becoming a film star,” Khan interjects. “Perceptually, for you it might be. For me it’s not. For me, it is a journey of success and failure, and what it means to be successful and what it means to have failed. They are two very different things.

“It’s a muddy space for people like us. It can be that we are at our peak of our careers — and [figuratively speaking] we’re standing on top of a mountain — but it can also be that, in our personal lives, we are broken. I’ve felt like that many times in my life, where people think that I’m standing at my peak, but I feel like I’m a bunch of broken pieces at the foot of the mountain. That’s what the film is about,” Khan elaborates.

Despite the many layers of emotional conflict, in essence, Superstar is a love story, Khan says. One that has the dressing of glamour, because the story necessitates it.

On the contrary, it wasn’t a glamorous day on set about two months back when pick-up shots (small inserts, or brief scenes bridging sequences) were being shot at an expensive duplex apartment in Malir. Cameras, lights and diffusions had been set up for scenes that ran for only 10 or so seconds.

In one shot, Bilal Ashraf would enter the frame and nod to the camera. In another, Ashraf, wearing a glum look, sat by the kitchen counter. In another, a close shot of his hand opened the fridge to pick out a beer bottle.

Ehteshamuddin, the director, sitting in a nearby room, rushes to the fridge to art-direct bottles — in fact, he even had backstories for the bottles, and why they were placed a certain way.

“I was actually on my way to do theatre — however, I’ve now realised that a film needs more attention even after you’re done shooting it,” Ehtesham jokes, sitting on a bed where a monitor was transmitting video from the camera.

It was a slow day on set, and Ehtesham’s hair is all over the place. To his left chicken tikkas, waiting to be devoured, have gone cold.

“I had heard about Superstar when it was being developed,” Ehtesham says. “At the time, I was directing Aangan for television when Momina called me to direct. I think we need films which have something to say.”

“Would it be difficult going back to television?” I ask. “No,” he says. “Television is more vast than films at the moment. There are still many stories to tell in television, and film still needs to find its footing. My job is to tell stories, whether it is on the big or small screen.”

Ehtesham, an excellent actor (he had roles in Chambaili, Maalik and Actor In Law), would have been a natural choice for the film that tells a substantial story of people, cinema and theatre — a film that banks largely on performances.

“As an actor who also directs, I feel that actors should be given freedom to perform. Let the performance flow out from them, and then one can fine-tune them,” he states. “A director should know when not to direct. One should brief what the moment is about, and let the actors carry that forward — like in theatre.”

The theatre background of the film is one of the allures that made him sign the film.

Looking at Ashraf in the monitor, I prophesise that the film’s true superstar could very well be him. After Rangreza — a critical and commercial failure — people don’t expect much from him; it’s a fact that Ashraf is well aware of.

“I think it works out in my favour,” Ashraf had told me about a year back when he had just signed the role. Back then, he was undergoing a rigorous body-sculpting regime, an acting class for theatre, and dance classes for his role. It has hardly been a month since he came back from London, where he had taken another acting class. The stress of the role — and the high of preparing himself for it — is apparent on Ashraf.

Bilal Ashraf and Mahira Khan
Bilal Ashraf and Mahira Khan

Coming back to the future, on the set Ashraf affirms that the physical transformation was just five percent of who Sameer Khan (his character) is. Ninety-five per cent emphasis was on the craft of acting itself.

“[After Rangreza] negative comments only compel me to work harder,” he says. “People ask me if it’s Aashiqui 2, or A Star Is Born, and I tell them, it’s neither. People like to spice things up. It’s in our nature to jump to conclusions.”

Like Mahira Khan, Ashraf was initially approached by Azaan Sami Khan a few years back, but then the project was delayed.

“There is a right time for everything,” he sagely says. “[In the past] I felt I needed a good team — a good director who would use me properly, and a good producer who would give me a free hand to perform. I hope and pray that this team sticks together for years to come.

“It’s not that I will not work with other people — you only grow when you work with other people, but it’s tough to find a really good team,” he immediately adds.

“I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a big or a small film,” Ashraf responds to Superstar’s apparent scale. “It’s the people who decide what is big or small. When I signed Yalghaar, Janaan was nowhere on the horizon. I doubt there was anyone who wasn’t in Yalghaar. It was massive in terms of scale. Janaan was a small, humble project and people liked it more. It was a commercial success.

“I think what we [in the industry] should concentrate on is getting the narratives and the storytelling right — to go closer and dig deeper to our own roots. Tell stories that matter. It’s great to be inspired by other films and industries, but we need to find our own essence,” he says.

This Eidul Azha, Ashraf is happy with all the films that are coming out. Each title has something different to give, he says. A distinct appeal. A reason for people to go out and see movies. For new stars to rise and take the industry by storm, and new successes to be crafted.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 28th, 2019