SPOTLIGHT: WHEN ACTORS TURN PRODUCERS

September 15, 2019

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Composed by Marium Ali
Composed by Marium Ali

About two years ago while I was reviewing Arth — The Destination, a question popped into my head: why did Shaan Shahid — one of Pakistan’s most sought after talents — decide to make a film for himself?

Of course, he had directed movies before (Arth was his fifth film as director), but the magnitude of the undertaking was apparent on-screen. “[The only way] a bona fide superstar has to make a film for himself, [is] because no one else can,” I concluded at the time.

It’s a weighty notion — one that isn’t exclusive to Shaan (who again, is in midst of producing another film for himself). Ali Zafar, Humayun Saeed, Sheheryar Munawar, Adnan Sarwar, Faysal Quraishi and Hareem Farooq, amongst others, have been coerced by circumstances to make movies for themselves and, supposedly, the betterment of the industry.

Actors turning producers isn’t a startling, modern phenomenon — it has been practiced since cinema’s inception from before Charlie Chaplin’s time. In fact, Chaplin’s first film, Making a Living (1914) was directed by Henry Lehrman, a prominent silent era actor and producer.

A hundred and five years later, actors worldwide — and not just in Bollywood and Hollywood — have their own production companies. The difference is, in those markets, actors turn producers either because they crave a bigger cut of their films’ business or want to make specific stories they want to tell.

Increasingly in Pakistan, actors are becoming producers of their own films. But unlike in Hollywood or Bollywood, this is less about making stories they want to tell or a greater piece of the box office, and more about simple survival

In a struggling film industry like Pakistan, however, it is often about mere survival.

According to the actors who spoke to Icon, experienced producers are stuck in the past, screenwriters have yet to understand how to draft stories for the big screen and distributors have their own stringent set of requirements.

Hareem Farooq has produced as well as acted in films such as Parchi (2018) and Heer Maan Ja (2019) | Photo by Manolo Ty
Hareem Farooq has produced as well as acted in films such as Parchi (2018) and Heer Maan Ja (2019) | Photo by Manolo Ty

To combat the system, actors who command audience attention have to camp together with like-minded creatives in a bid to constantly deliver quality content.

It may be a necessity — so far, only camps backed by actors in producer’s capacity seem to deliver at the box-office — but believe you me, it’s still an uphill battle all the way.

Take for example, Sheheryar Munawar, who starred in 7 Din Mohabbat In and Project Ghazi — two creatively botched titles that failed at the box-office. Munawar then has little choice but to produce Ho Mann Jahaan and Parey Hut Love for himself between other less-than-ideal productions, so he can sustain his career in an industry where there are just a handful of old and new film stars.

Jerjees Seja, CEO of ARY Digital Network and the producer of Jawani Phir Nahin Aani (JPNA), its sequel and Punjab Nahin Jaungi (PNJ), says that it’s a very natural progression.

“It’s a growth of understanding of the art and the business. This is nothing new or bad, necessarily. It’s the same all over the world from Shah Rukh Khan to Tom Cruise, Humayun Saeed and Fahad Mustafa.

“The main argument, I think, would be of [these actors] feeling that producers don’t understand where they are coming from,” he muses. “Some actors produce because they want to cast themselves, others do it for creative freedom which may or may not come at a cost.”

It’s also all about business, Seja continues. “[For example] Shah, a very well-made film that ARY helped distribute, is not a financially viable film. The one who invests, would want [to make] their money back. If someone says that they want to make an ‘art’ movie, I cannot tell them to do otherwise. When JPNA or PNJ is made, sponsors and financiers know that they will get their money back.”

What about reverse engineering films specifically for the talent? Surely a studio can hire writers to write films for actors, so that there is a steady stream of high profile content (which, apparently, is the only content that makes money on a regular basis).

Seja replies that he can only do so much for the industry, until it expands; he is already hosting one major talent pool at the moment.

ARY Films is, after all, home to Humayun Saeed’s production company Six Sigma, which, up until now, is one of the two consecutive heavy hitters in the field.

For Humayun Saeed, convenience and having the space to think takes precedence. “I’m busy as an actor and a producer for most of the year, so it’s convenient to work within your immediate company. Secondly, there aren’t actually producers in the real sense of the word. The few we have, which we can count on our fingers, approach us for films if there is a need for it.

Humayun Saeed on the sets of Jawani Phir Nahin Aani 2
Humayun Saeed on the sets of Jawani Phir Nahin Aani 2

“But then, if I’m making two films for myself [like Saeed is, right now], then how can I get time to work for anyone else? If we had more capable producers, I wouldn’t have to make more than one film for myself.”

Saeed sees the producer-distributor collaboration in a different light. “If a distributor would hire me, they would do that for the convenience of getting a producer who is also an actor.

“However, we as actors and producers can only stretch ourselves so thin. At the end of the year, a person can only do so much,” he sighs.

During the conversation, Saeed thinks for a second and adds a novel spin to the camp system.

“We can shuffle. If we were working on multiple films, I can, maybe, make one for myself, and cast other actors for the other two. I can cast Ali Zafar, Ahsan Rahim would cast me, I would cast Fahad Mustafa and Nabeel and Fizza would cast me.”

“It’s hard to come across roles and concepts that excite you as an actor,” Ali Zafar writes in detail from Paris.

To Zafar, turning producer with Teefa in Trouble was a result of a string of problems — chief of which was quality control, and a lack of screenwriters.

Sheheryar Munawar in Parey Hut Love
Sheheryar Munawar in Parey Hut Love

“I can’t speak for anyone else but, in my case, after having corresponded back and forth with various writers, I eventually had to write and produce Teefa myself as I wasn’t getting anything that excited my taste for the kind of roles I would like to take upon.

“[Another reason for producing Teefa was that] I didn’t want any dictation for myself or [director] Ahsan Rahim and wanted to have freedom and go with my instinct. I also didn’t want to risk anyone else’s money on my first Pakistani project — which was a very high risk project due to its cost,” he elaborates.

“It was a gamble which I took myself with faith in God and thankfully it succeeded. However, one shouldn’t have to go through all this to achieve something like this. Systems should be in place with qualified people for each filmmaking job. Ideally, I would just like to act and let someone else do the other jobs,” Zafar continues.

“It is very painstaking and time-consuming for one person to write, act, produce, compose and write music, train twice a day and shoot for 14-16 hours a day. It’s not humanly possible. I did it once, I would like to chill a bit more on the next one,” Zafar concludes.

Adnan Sarwar, the producer, director and actor of Shah and Motorcycle Girl, seconds Zafar’s reasons. “It’s something I’ve also struggled with over the years, because everyone has a specific job on set — an actor has his own job, a producer should be doing their own job. Roles aren’t properly defined — rather than a couple of people, I think every [sellable] actor is working in a producer’s capacity,” Sarwar replies in a phone conversation.

“The kind of movie I make don’t have any takers until they are made. To be able to do the kind of films that I want to do, I have to make it on my own,” Sarwar replies.

Sarwar also points out another dilemma. “Experienced producers or distributors [who are also film financiers], when they plan a film, come up with preset confines — to make a film in a constricted budget, and to cast one of the three big-name actors. They dictate the actor’s choices very narrowly and so many films don’t come into fruition because these actors have dates locked up in prior commitments. One can’t wait for actors to be free for dates after three years for them to do a film,” he says. “I offered Shah to two or three actors, but it didn’t happen.”

While he can’t comment on anyone else, casting himself also has an added benefit. “For someone like me, if I cast myself in my own production I’m saving a lot of money. Money that you save goes back into the production. Even if you save two-and-a-half million, it’s gold,” he says.

Faysal Quraishi, who is the in-midst of producing Sorry: A Love Story, adds another benefit of actors turning producers. “For actors like me, who have been working in films and television for 27 years, we know the ins and outs of the industry better than most. It saves money as well, because of one’s relations.”

Quraishi thinks that, in a still-fledging industry, this is a very smart way of working. But, like Zafar says, one shouldn’t be doing this all the time, unless it is absolutely necessary.

There should be more stakeholders in the business — and the first ones who should be doing their bit are the exhibitors, Quraishi adds.

“Our cinema owners need to produce films for themselves to save the industry, because they are the box-office — they get the first reactions and know exactly what the audience wants.

“If an actor makes a film, it’s for personal, artistic satisfaction,” he continues. “And because it is the actor’s own film, he or she can push themselves.

“It’s primarily about a person choosing to do what he wants to do — and not do what others want him to,” Quraishi says. “On the other hand, we can’t work in any other business, like opening a clothes store or a tea shop, so it is preferable for people like me to expand into other roles and producing is a natural, sensible extension.”

For Hareem Farooq, another actor-turned-producer, it is less about scripts and seeing oneself on the big-screen, and more about contributing to the industry.

“I understand the value for cinema, and how important it is for our country, especially in creating a soft image for Pakistan,” she answers in a late night phone conversation from Islamabad.

Adnan Sarwar in Shah
Adnan Sarwar in Shah

“[My starring in films I was producing] had nothing do with making films for myself. Janaan, my first production, did not even have me in the cast,” Farooq says. “You can’t do justice to both jobs at the same time, especially when you’re a first-time producer.”

She feels that independent new producers — especially those who are also actors — have the liberty to introduce new talent to the industry. “A lot of new talent is not given chances to break in,” she says. “You have to have new talent coming in all the time, that’s how the industry grows.

“Being a producer does give you much more power and space — having said that, as an actor-producer I feel that I have a certain responsibility. For me, it’s very important that the story does well.

“In your own production, you know that you are going all-in; there is a lot at stake. When you do someone else’s project, you’re just there as an actor — though, it’s not like one doesn’t own that project as well,” she adds.

Satish Anand, of Eveready Group (distributor of Parwaaz Hai Junoon, Bin Roye and Pinky Memsaab), feels, however, that most actors aren’t cut out to be producers.

According to Anand, the strike rate of actors constantly delivering at the box-office is hardly impressive, whether in the past and present in Pakistan or in India.

“Look at Shah Rukh Khan — the King Khan of Bollywood — and his last two films, When Harry Met Sejal and Zero!” Anand says.

As the distributor of SRK films since Dilwale (the actor’s first self-distributed film), Anand has first-hand experience of the star’s lacklustre box-office performance in Pakistan. The veteran distributor insinuates that the actor had better luck in cinemas worldwide when established production banners such as Yash Raj or Dharma were handling the creative aspects of his films.

“Yes, there are exceptions. Raj Kapoor was an exception, because talent is not something that is limited. There are, and there will always be exceptions. But in a developing industry like Pakistan, people have to develop what their best skills are,” Anand answers. “We are still only in the first round.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 15th, 2019