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Photos courtesy Vision Factory | Design by Saad Arifi
Photos courtesy Vision Factory | Design by Saad Arifi

“I am going to steal your directorial style,” I tell Asim Raza. The man, ever so humble with a convivial smile, nods, like a teacher willing to share his talents.

It is past two in the morning and we are at Studio 146 in Karachi’s Korangi industrial area, where a perky animated number called Balma Bhagora, a final addition to Parey Hut Love’s (PHL) soundtrack, is being shot.

In one corner, cinematographer Salman Razzaq is sitting dead tired with the Sandman hovering over him with sleep dust. On his left, an editor cuts away okay-ed takes, putting together a rough cut on the fly for a preview. A few feet away, in one corner, PHL’s lead actor and producer, Sheheryar Munawar, is ripping out a cheque from a heavy, well-torn cheque book.

Despite the loudness of the song, Raza, sitting right next to me, is calm as a millpond, directing everything from Nigah Hussain’s choreography to perceptively noticing and ironing out the minutest inconsistencies. And by ‘minutest’, I mean ‘almost invisible to the naked eye’, such as the crinkled fall of saris to misaligned dance steps.

Director Asim Raza’s Parey Hut Love is a gamble — that he and his star team can make a mainstream film, even one with obvious clichés, such a satisfying and entertaining experience that it rakes in big bucks at the box office. Will they pull it off?

Balma Bhagora is being shot in front of a relatively small green-screen, which will be replaced in post with animated artwork.

Zara Noor Abbas, wearing a heavily embroidered dress and finishing up her solo steps, practically owns the segment of the song she is performing in. Her pumped-up energy, thanks to the peppy beat, is akin to that of the Energizer bunny from the battery commercials.

A soon as she finishes, Razzaq (whose film credits include JPNA 2 and Baaji), is asked to change the lens to a relatively wide-angled one for Ahmed Ali Butt’s rap solo. With Butt standing only a few feet away from the lens, the glass distorts Butt’s features, making them slightly oval-ish.

As Butt lines himself up, Abbas slumps into a nearby chair; her costume, is now a burden. It is too heavy to drag around for an all-night shoot. It is here that one actually notices the finer aspects of the shoot.

Abbas’s attire and make-up is in stark contrast to Maya Ali’s modern, bare-backed top and punked-up look. In fact, everyone has a unique oddball look to them. No two get-ups are alike — unless one takes a moment to put two and two together.

Actors playing couples, such as Faheem Azam and Rachel Viccaji (in the role of a Parsi couple), or Maya Ali and lead actor Sheheryar Munawar, have matching costumes. Some, like Shahbaz Shigri — playing Ali’s fiancée (as seen in the trailer) — is wearing a suit. There seem to be tell-tale spoilers all over the place.

But just as I begin to speculate, Munawar whisks me off to a waiting room.

This is my first time meeting Munawar and he is evidently intoxicated by the energy on the set. For the next three hours, fortified by three cups of tea, I learn that Munawar is a stickler for details. We discuss complex character and plot arcs without him spilling details of PHL’s story; surprisingly, he knows exactly what he is talking about in technical terms — precise theoretical knowledge is hard to come by.

“I’m trying to learn from everything I do,” Munawar tells me. “Even from 7 Din Mohabbat In and Project Ghazi.” I tell him that I took my sister and newly-married wife to see Ghazi; the wife threatened divorce at the end of that film.

Munawar had been misled a lot, he confesses. He says that he physically trained to high-kick to the height of the ceiling fan, but the action and his character were misdirected. However, one good lesson from this was that he’s learned to devote his energy on things he can absolutely control, like PHL.

PHL’s scale is enormous, and deliberately challenging. I noticed the anamorphic lenses, I tell Munawar.

One of the reasons why the film looks as grand as it does are these special lenses; they are the weapon of choice for most Hollywood film-makers (Ridley Scott’s Alien, Blade Runner, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, and J.J. Abram’s Star Trek reboot are four examples). Anamorphic lenses give frames astonishing depth in frames and produce a classic film look. They are also three times as expensive to rent, and a pain to focus with precision.

One of the reasons why the film looks as grand as it does are these special lenses; they are the weapon of choice for most Hollywood film-makers (Ridley Scott’s Alien, Blade Runner, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, and J.J. Abram’s Star Trek reboot are four examples). Anamorphic lenses give frames astonishing depth in frames and produce a classic film look. They are also three times as expensive to rent, and a pain to focus with precision.

Maya Ali
Maya Ali

However, Munawar is fixated with the idea of going big. He wants to do his next film on celluloid.

Weeks after Raza officially announces PHL’s pack-up in the early hours of the morning, we are sitting on a conference table at Raza and Munawar’s production company, The Vision Factory. With Munawar is Raza, Maya Ali and Zara Noor Abbas.

“With every new step in life, we try to reinvent ourselves. I think that’s the right philosophy, to reinvent oneself,” Raza starts. He says that it’s all for the audience. “More than anything, it was about hearing what people were saying [and what they needed]. This is an inclusive medium,” he says; one that needs to give the audience what it needs.

“When we say that we need good, mainstream films in cinema — and a good friend of mine had told me this — and when we have mainstream cinema, it will have clichés. The job, then, is to make the experience a pleasant, beautiful and entertaining one, even with the clichés.”

Without audience-friendly mainstream films, we won’t have parallel cinema, he adds.

“If you look at the nature of our work, it’s a gamble,” interjects Munawar. “With Asim sitting beside you, I think we’ve placed our bets on the right horse.”

“You’re calling Asim a horse?” I say. “Workhorse,” Munawar adds quickly.

People seem to be having a problem with PHL being another ‘shaadi film’, I pose as a devil’s advocate.

“I wouldn’t call it just a shaadi film,” Munawar says. “Weddings are a backdrop of the story. The backdrop is a great place to have human interactions.”

“If you ask me, I would instead ask, why shaadi?” Raza adds. “Boys and girls are much too sane. Today’s relationships, romances are more practical. Everyone has their own [emotional] baggage and reasoning, and they should have reasons to voice it and they have the right to voice it,” Raza answers. “More than anything, I think that is what the film is doing. It’s talking to the youngsters, and telling them that, yes, we understand your issues, let’s talk about it.”

Sheheryar Munawar
Sheheryar Munawar

I ask if the rumours are true that the Imran Aslam-scripted film is inspired by the 1994 Mike Newell-directed Four Weddings and A Funeral.

“Inspirations comes from lots of places. Whether it’s Roman Holiday or When Harry Met Sally or Four Weddings, you might just find flavours from all of these classics. One of the reasons why it might seem like Four Weddings is that we see four weddings and a funeral in the trailer,” Raza continues. “Within the four weddings, there’s a beautiful love story that gets nurtured, destroyed, and at the end, figured out [by the characters and the audience].”

Speaking about figuring stuff out, Maya Ali says that Munawar is sometimes a wild card. “We had rehearsed a scene for 10 days and, after the wide shot, when we went for the close-ups, Sheheryar completely changed the timbre of his performance. Because of him, I had to put in 120 per cent, and then, for Asim, I had to bring it up to another 200 per cent.”

Sania (Ali’s character) is “a strong, bold character, unlike the women we often see on television,” Ali elaborates. “In television, we are deliberately shown women who weep to gain the audience’s sympathies. [But] Sania is not the kind who gives up.”

There is a large framed poster in the corner of the room that verifies Ali’s claim. In it, Munawar, dressed in a regal sherwani, is looking away from Ali; his look is that of an immature young adult, arrogant and unwilling to face facts. She, meanwhile, has a hand comforting his face, with a consoling expression that says everything will be fine.

This poster, unfortunately, will only come out later. The distributor opted to go with a wholesome and safe poster that made the film look like JPNA 2.

Almost all the women in the film are strong, Zara Noor Abbas adds.

PHL was supposed to be her debut, before Chhalawa came out of the blue. Abbas says that Shabbo, her character, is a livewire. “She’s very filmi, and she loves her friends, Sheheryar and Ahmed Ali Butt, dearly. She doesn’t have a deep thought process to her. She’s a happy person.”

How is Shabbo different from the character she played in Chhalawa, I ask. The difference, Abbas says, is that one is dominating while the other is a people-pleaser — in her own words, “A maasoom sa parinda [an innocent bird].”

Won’t she get typecast by the industry if she continues playing similar roles, I ask her.

“I don’t think I will,” Abbas replies. She’s played diverse characters on television, she says, so there’s no reason to sound an early alarm yet.

The discussion, then turns into an interesting debate about whether film actors should act exclusively in films, as opposed to doing television as well. Munawar, a staunch supporter of the divide, has done only one TV serial. That was it for him. Ali and Abbas, though, have their own concerns, mainly the lack of good film roles that come their way, and the fear of missing out on better opportunities on the small screen.

Raza believes that film is still a cottage industry in Pakistan, although he accepts that the audience has matured fast and with a vehemence. He feels they won’t settle for substandard work anymore. At the very least, he says, they need that cinema experience — a grand visual palette and human story to make it work. And, like his team, he’s hoping Parey Hut Love can deliver precisely that.

Published in Dawn, ICON, August 4th, 2019