Composed  by Rohail Safdar
Composed by Rohail Safdar

Stardom is a theme that continues to entice aud­iences and filmmakers alike. Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood, one of the top grossing films in the world right now, follows a former western TV star and a longtime stunt double struggling to make it in Hollywood.

Similarly, last year’s critical darling A Star Is Born brought back to life the story of a fading rock star who helps launch a struggling musician’s career. The 2018 iteration was the fourth retelling of the 1937 original. Not only has the story resonated for decades, it has also continued to find admirers round the world. Bollywood blockbuster Aashiqui 2 was also based on the film.

Time and again, filmmakers have drawn inspiration from show business, seemingly taking the advice, ‘Write what you know’.

Pakistani filmmakers have clearly received the memo. This summer, Saqib Malik, Asim Raza and Mohammed Ehteshamuddin drew the curtains, giving cinemagoers a glimpse into the Pakistani film industry — or rather their perceptions of it.

Three recent films — Baaji, Parey Hut Love and Superstar — all offer commentaries on what their filmmakers think it takes to succeed in the film industry. But despite similar backdrops and subject matter, each have very different points of view

Their films Baaji, Parey Hut Love (PHL) and Superstar all comment on how stars are made and how they fizzle out. Each film holds insights into what these filmmakers think it takes to make it in the movies.

Looking back, moving forward

The cast of Baaji
The cast of Baaji

In Baaji, Meera plays Shameera, an aging actress trying to stay relevant. She is the old film industry personified; struggling to keep up with changing trends and to compete with pretty young things.

At the beginning of the film, we see a producer and director disagreeing over casting a diva-like Shameera. “She is a big star, our film will benefit,” the producer says. “She was a star 10 years ago,” the director responds.

Soon enough, when Shameera gets injured while filming an item song, the director replaces her with a younger actress (a cameo by Mehwish Hayat). As Hayat demonstrates her youthful energy dancing to Gangster Gurriya, Shameera dramatically limps on set. “Love me or hate me, you can never replace me,” she firmly tells the director, reassuring herself in the process.

By placing an aging star at the centre of their script, Malik and writer Irfan Ahmed Urfi, comment on the film industry’s past and present.

In Baaji by placing an aging star at the centre of their script, director Saqib Malik and writer Irfan Ahmed Urfi, comment on the film industry’s past and present.

One of the plot points in Baaji deals with Shameera being asked to do an erotically-charged stage play. As we see a performer gyrate on stage for a lecherous male audience, we are reminded of what Lollywood cinema became in the 1990s — a means for men to get their cheap thrills.

This is hardly the first time Malik is looking back at what the industry used to be. His love for cinema and cinema history is well documented. One of his most memorable works, the 2002 music video Khamaj, also depicted the film industry’s glorious past. There too, he explored themes of stardom and jealousy. In a nod to Khamaj in Baaji, a scene shows Rohail Khan (Osman Khalid Butt) playing the Fuzon track on a piano.

Raza also looks back at the industry’s past in PHL. Sheheryar (Sheheryar Munawar), an aspiring actor, takes Saaniya (Maya Khan) to an abandoned film studio. Dusty film cans are placed on an old shelf. There is a sepia-tinted Waheed Murad poster in the back and film footage litters the floor on which Sheheryar walks. A perfectly functional 35mm projector is on hold for Sheheryar to show Maya some old Pakistani films and reminisce.

It is an interesting moment because, while Sheheryar might have seen some older Pakistani films, he is essentially feeling nostalgic about a cinema culture he has never experienced firsthand. As someone who has only lived the ‘golden era of Pakistani cinema’ through other people’s accounts, I found this moment very relatable.

Looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses can be dangerous. Thankfully, Sheheryar is centered when he meets his Uncle Faisal (Nadeem Baig), who was a famous writer, but had to move out of the country.

Similarly, Superstar also looks back at cinema’s past through characters who have lived it and see it less romantically. In Superstar, Noor Malik (Mahira Khan), an aspiring actress falls in love with megastar Sameer Khan (Bilal Ahsraf). Both actors have a strong connection to a bygone era of the Pakistani film industry. Sameer’s mum Laila Khan (Marina Khan) was a famous silver screen actress before marriage. And Noor’s mentor Agha Jaan (Nadeem Baig) used to be a respected filmmaker.

A scene from Parey Hut Love
A scene from Parey Hut Love

Both Laila and Jaan have seen the industry at its best and worst, and they generously share their wisdom with the youngsters.

“In this country, no one can guarantee how many breaths someone has left, or how many days an industry will last,” Laila warns her son at one point. Yet she continues to support his acting, ignoring the harsh realities of the industry.

In Parey Hut Love while Sheheryar might have seen some older Pakistani films, he is essentially feeling nostalgic about a cinema culture he has never experienced firsthand.

Sameer’s father (Jawed Sheikh), a successful businessman, is not as supportive. He continues to remind his son of the fleeting nature of fame.

Jaan, too, has seen how fickle this admiration can be. And so he has trained Noor to focus on her craft rather than fame; to aspire to be an actor rather than a heroine. “A hunter and an artist have one thing in common: waiting,” he once says, confident that Noor’s time will come.

Jaan was a respected filmmaker before the tides of the film industry changed. In one flashback, financiers come to Jaan and ask him to make a film. He inquires if they have a story in mind. They say that they have horses and money.

“Films are made from substance, not money,” Jaan responds.

Where’s the money?

All three films talk about financial concerns.

As the industry tries to find its footing again, money is clearly on the filmmakers’ minds. In fact, Raza had previously explored the conundrum of choosing the arts over a more steady paycheck in his debut film Ho Mann Jahaan (2015). In the film, Nadir (Adeel Hussain) quits his music band for a more financially secure job.

In Baaji, PHL and Superstar, too, these concerns are reflected in the on-screen struggles of the actors.

Shameera in Baaji is forced to consider a stage show when other work has dried up. Noor in Superstar acts in an advertisement for a toilet cleaner, because there are only a handful of films being produced and ads are the way to go.

Mahira Khan as Noor from Superstar
Mahira Khan as Noor from Superstar

Noor’s co-star in the ad is Sameer. But unlike her, he comes from money. This allows him certain liberties. His fallback option is taking over a clearly stable business run by his father.

Similarly, in PHL, Sheheryar’s stepfather is a very successful businessman. Sheheryar has chosen to leave his cushy life to live on his own. When his stepfather and mum come to visit him at his rundown neighborhood once, his stepfather asks, “If Sheheryar wants to live in this dirt, then why should we struggle?”

He goes from audition to audition looking for work, even if it is as an extra. In his own words he is, “Alone. Always looking for the next role.”

Yet, Sheheryar’s struggles seem low-stakes. Even while supposedly struggling, he goes from one grandiose wedding to another, in designer outfits that would make Ranveer Singh envious.

The fact that Sheheryar’s mum is shown to be the one buying these clothes only draws home the point that this young man’s financial background is allowing him certain comforts that other struggling actors would not have.

Fittingly, Sheheryar gets his first big script from his Uncle Faisal. And his film is financed by his stepfather. While this is likely unintentional, the script holds a mirror to the industry, where who you are and the kind of money you come from can contribute to your success.

In comparison, Noor in Superstar struggles not only because of her lack of capital, but her gender. She is subjected to the casting couch. “We are actors from middle class households, so it is expected that we will sleep around to get work,” she tells Sameer.

While Noor has always been talented, it is only because of her proximity to Sameer that she finally gets her big break. Which goes to show that making it is also about who you know.

Real life to reel life

All three films seem to reference the lives of the stars playing the struggling actors on screen. Shameera’s character is loosely based on Meera herself. Sherheryar Munawar plays an actor helpfully named Sheheryar and the script his uncle gives him is also named Parey Hut Love. Lastly, a surprise Bollywood-related twist in Superstar provides fascinating commentary on Mahira Khan’s brief stint in India.

But ultimately, despite a similar backdrop and subject matter, the three films have very different points of views. Malik, Raza and Ehteshamuddin create their own unique universes and play by their own rules. As they look back at Pakistani cinema’s past and pave the way for its future, one is encouraged to see the variety of cinematic voices the industry has to offer.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 8th, 2019