Deep into the night, while the world slumbers away, there are some that are wide awake — superheroes, vampires, ghouls… and a large chunk of Pakistan’s film industry. Nondescript warehouses, restaurants and university campuses get filled up by some of the country’s most famous and most glamorous personalities. Teams of make-up artists pore over them, hundreds of extras roam about, copious cups of tea are passed around while lights and cameras are set up for a night of endless filming.
Then, at the call of ‘Lights, Camera, Action!’, the cameras begin to roll. There is music, romance and action sequences. You can’t really tell on set that it’s the middle of the night and that the world outside is fast asleep. For, on many film sets, it is at night that the magic of cinema really unfolds.
I remember visiting one such set some years ago. Film actor Shaan was shooting his movie Zarrar at a university in Lahore. With the student body gone for the day, the campus was masquerading as a terrorist headquarter where Shafqat Cheema, playing a bearded malevolent gun-wielding villain was fighting the good guy, Shaan. In the midst of the fistfights and patriotic dialogues, it was declared that it was dinner time. The cast and crew sat on makeshift tables placed in the open air, eating fried chicken brought in from a nearby restaurant. Dinner, if it can be called that, was at 2am … and this team, quite accustomed to these nocturnal hours, was raring to go on till breakfast.
“I’ve noticed that Shaan’s films are dominated by night sequences,” observes a filmmaker who prefers to remain anonymous. “Maybe that’s just when he feels that he delivers his best.”
Film productions are increasingly taking place at night. Sleeping patterns are hardly a concern when there’s big money involved. But is everyone on board with such schedules?
In journalistic circles it is considered prudent to set up meetings with members of the film fraternity in the latter half of the day. Calling them or arranging a morning meeting can be quite pointless. They are very likely to oversleep, having shot sequences through the night.
But why do so many of our films get shot at night? Director Asim Raza, with his penchant for beautiful visuals, explains his viewpoint, “From a purely technical point of view, at night it is easier to manage the lighting. Shooting a single scene can take five to six hours sometimes and, in the daytime, the light keeps changing as the sun moves. In the night, we can create daytime artificially and the sun will stay precisely where we want for a long stretch. Also, in the pitch dark, I can play with visuals more easily, using different lighting techniques to create moods.”
“There’s also the fact that shooting at night is so much more glamorous,” he adds.
Asim has, in the course of his ad and filmmaking career, worked with a considerable number of popular actors. Do they also prefer working by night? “They may, till 2am-3am, but after that I feel that they start getting drained out,” he observes. “Even the crew starts getting tired. Energy levels do wane eventually at night, perhaps more quickly than they do during the day.”
For actress Mahira Khan, though, midnight is when she feels the most energetic. “There is a joke on the sets that as soon as the clock strikes 12 [midnight], I can spring to life,” the actress laughs. “I am just a night owl and I can happily shoot till daybreak.”
Similarly, actor Feroze Khan loves to work through the night. “I think that sometimes shootings are scheduled for evenings because a lot of people get up late,” he muses. “At the same time, we can’t really generalize. If there is a shoot that requires to be shot out in the daylight then the entire team will be on set at the 9am call time.”
Osman Khalid Butt, yo-yoing constantly between some very stellar film and TV projects, similarly says that it all depends on the work that is required. “I think that many filmmakers shoot at night simply because quietude and creativity go hand in hand. But when it comes to TV, we’re usually following hectic schedules. The grind may start at 9am in the morning and go on till 9pm in the night. And you have to be up and ready because everyone else is too. Sometimes other actors are already in the car that comes to pick you up. We can’t delay.”
TV may abide by saner timelines but apparently there are also many filmmakers who follow strict schedules. Director Nadeem Baig recalls his experiences while shooting Jawani Phir Nahi Ani 2, “We were on a tight schedule and following a strict budget,” he relates. “If we needed to utilise daylight in a sequence, there would be a call time for 5am in the morning. Everybody would be in their cars by 7.30am and we would be off to the location.
“I have rarely had any trouble with actors who oversleep but I also made sure that there would be no such trouble. In Turkey we were all staying in the same hotel and if someone hadn’t woken up, we would be banging on their doors making sure that they got ready!”
“Having said this, I do know that a lot of actors like to sleep till late in the day when they don’t have an early morning shooting schedule,” adds Nadeem. “I have long arguments with some of them simply because it is unhealthy. An actor’s greatest asset is his or her physical appearance and this can only be maintained with a healthy diet and a sensible sleeping pattern.”
A healthy sleeping pattern, says Noman Ijaz, is what keeps him young. “Actors have lives too,” points out Ahad Raza Mir. “Ideally, a lot of us, including myself, prefer to start work early in the day so that we can wrap up by evening.”
Adnan Siddiqui similarly says that he refuses to work till late in the night. “Once I was working with senior actor Qavi,” Adnan recalls, “He had arrived early in the morning and was waiting on set for everyone else to turn up. I asked him if he felt irritated by the delays. He simply told me that he was present and he had dedicated the entire day to the director. It was up to the director to utilise his presence efficiently. Should this not happen, he would dedicate another day to the director and charge him for it.”
Despite my many experiences as a journalist waiting for the film industry’s many night owls to awaken, it turns out that sleeping patterns are hardly a concern when there’s big money involved. With no time to lose, producers and directors make sure that their cast alters their sleeping schedules, even if it is just for a short while.
“This is how things have always been,” says Lollywood old-timer Syed Noor. “We would be up till late on a shoot when it was required. There were certain actors who refused to shoot till late in the night. Nadeem was one of them. Mohammad Ali was very organised. He worked within time slots — from 7am till 10am on one set and then, till 6pm on the next set. If, due to some time constraints, he was required to shoot in the evening, he would only work till 10pm at night.
“In contrast, there was Sultan Rahi, who worked constantly, through the day and through the night. But the notion that films are basically shot at night is more of a myth than a reality.”
And yet, interviews taking place on film sets usually get prolonged till the early hours of the morning. Does it feel more glamorous? Actually, yes. There is a surreal magic to hobnobbing with stars on a glitzy film set in the middle of the night. And it makes sense when the work gets translated to scenes that are truly beautiful.
But there are times — and we’ve all cringed through those movies — where shots are dominated by the dark for no ostensible reason. Is it because the scenes require it? Or because the cast and crew just couldn’t be bothered to wake up early? With local cinema reviving — or trying to, at least — shouldn’t we be past such amateurism?
Published in Dawn, ICON, September 29th, 2019