Eshal Fayyaz in the title role with Sami Khan
Eshal Fayyaz in the title role with Sami Khan

The media is abuzz in the relatively close-quartered upper floor of a fast-food outlet in Khayaban-i-Ittehad, in DHA Karachi. A camera fixed on a small one-legged tripod is trying to pull focus on Khalil-ul-Rehman Qamar, the screenwriter, producer and director of Kaaf Kangna. Approximately two feet away from him, flash-guns are firing off on Eshal Fayyaz, the titular heroine of the film, as she poses for photographers.

A little later, Fayyaz is whisked away to a table, from where she spots this writer and waves a big ‘hello’, in the middle of an interview. We were scheduled to do an interview months ago, when the film was first announced for release, but it was pushed back because the film went into an added spell of shooting.

In another corner, Sami Khan, the film’s leading actor, is being swarmed by the queued-up press waiting to interview him. The on-camera lights just inches away from his face make the actor squint and squirm at the camera every now and then.

The audible rush of feet and voices from the press, coupled with the very distinct sound of music from the speakers, make one reporter take the actors downstairs, where the ambience isn’t as overpowering.

It is, however, grace under fire as usual for the PR company handling the event. The film only has a few days to go before it hits screens and, although distribution had been secured months ago with Excellency and Footprint, the film has only just finalised aligning ARY Films as its media partner.

Kaaf Kangna is a love story above everything else, and the film’s screenwriter, producer and director Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar wants you to focus on that

The crush of time is apparent. In just an hour’s time, Kaaf Kangna is to be screened to the members of the censor board — not that it bothers Qamar as there is very little chance of the film getting cut by any censor board. Kaaf Kangna is, of course, an official ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) production — and despite the armed forces’ very visible presence in the story, Qamar is insistent that the agency has had little influence on the screenplay, or the making of the film.

Mustering a brief flare of passion (apparently, he has given a variant of the same answer to another two journalists before me, even though they weren’t asking the exact question I was), Qamar is already primed with the answer.

Not that one would blame him.

As a first-time film director, Qamar is dealing with what many of his fellow filmmakers have gone through — a snickering, sarcastic attitude from a few publications even before the film comes out.

“Let the film come out and then write negatively about it,” he tells me later when we sit down. He has no problems with negative criticism he says — provided that the criticism is ‘timely’, and that people don’t make up their minds before seeing his efforts on the big screen.

Kaaf Kangana is about Ali Mustafa, who, in actor Sami Khan’s words, is “a peace-loving Pakistani, like the whole nation, who believes that issues can be sorted and hearts can be won when we sit down and talk.” Ali, who works at the government’s archaeology department, and is academically inclined, falls in love with Kangna, an Indian girl played by Fayyaz.

The idea had hit Qamar three years ago, and he immediately knew that he would be making his directorial debut with this film, he tells me.

Qamar, if one doesn’t know, has previously written Punjab Nahin Jaungi (2017) as well as its upcoming sequel, and Koi Tujh Sa Kahaan (2005) for the big-screen. His work for television is far more diverse with Boota From Toba Tek Singh (1999), Landa Bazaar (2002), Pyarey Afzal (2013), Sadqay Tumharay (2014) and Mere Paas Tum Ho (2019) which is currently on-air.

“Kaaf Kangna is an ‘intense love story’ that delivers on what I promise in the tagline,” Qamar says.

The tagline — “An intense but incomplete love story of 1947, awaiting to be completed in 2019” — is very evident on the gigantic poster pasted on the wall behind Qamar.

What does 1947 have to do with the film, I ask? Qamar slips a little close and elaborates the perplexing “Kaaf” from the title. “Kashmir,” he says, replacing his slightly worn-down expression with a genuine, proud smile.

Qamar, unfortunately, hasn’t been feeling well — but here he is, attentively pushing through interviews, without a furrow on his brow.

The one question that pops up quite often is of his trademark temper. “I only get mad when there is injustice,” he tells me. That and when people mess up his lines.

Fayyaz says that everyone on set got a dose of Qamar’s temper. “Fortunately, I have a very good memory, but so does Qamar sahib,” she says. “Even if he doesn’t have a script in his hands, he will tell you off if you replace even one dialogue from his script.”

Like Qamar, this is Fayyaz’s film debut as well, and she is feeling the weight — and the intense exhilaration — of the project (and specifically, of the significance of her role) now that the film is nearing its release date.

Fayyaz tells me that the acting opportunity came out of the blue. “I got a call directly from Qamar sahib, asking me if I was available on particular dates,” he says. “But before that, he wanted me to do a proper audition for the role of Kangna.”

Ayesha Omar, who is a late arrival to the press-meet, along with Sajid Hasan, tells me that her role wasn’t that taxing as far as characterisation was concerned. “The film had three or four shooting schedules,” she says, “and given the gaps, it would have been difficult for an actor to slip comfortably back into the role.

“It’s a good thing that the role [I did] wasn’t one that demanded intense character studies or exhausting changes in physical mannerisms.”

Her character, Gulnaaz, a Punjabi girl who falls in love with Ali Mustafa, is a feisty one, she tells me. She, unsurprisingly given the title, is the second heroine of the film. “But Gulnaaz does find love in the arms of the film’s other hero, played by Abi Khan,” Omar says.

I stop the actress from giving away too much of the film.

Sami Khan tells me that every role has a different journey, and Kaaf Kangna will definitely play a positive role in honing his abilities as an actor.

“Khalil sahib’s script always has a very strong message in it,” he tells me, adding “that it is very important [and timely] considering the current scenario [between Pakistan and India].”

And timely it is — but don’t let the issue, or ISPR’s official involvement, fool you, Qamar tells me. The department has been playing an ubiquitous role in media production; in fact, it says it aims to help motion picture producers as much as it can (the department also has credits in titles, such as Parey Hut Love, which don’t generally fall into ‘nationalistic’ filmmaking categories).

One may automatically assume that film ventures showing heroic patriotism would be supported by ISPR. But this film is primarily a love story, Qamar reminds everyone passionately. If ISPR can support that, they can very well support many other genres.

Kaaf Kangana releases on October 25.g

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 20th, 2019