Mehwish Hayat, Director of Photography Kelvin Keeho and Humayun Saeed on the set of London Nahin Jaunga | Photos by the writer
Mehwish Hayat, Director of Photography Kelvin Keeho and Humayun Saeed on the set of London Nahin Jaunga | Photos by the writer

It is 5:30 in the evening and the set of London Nahin Jaunga (LNJ) is slowly coming alive. An astonishing number of assistants skittle here and there, their hands carrying checklists, props and mics. Gaffers and grips — people from the electrical department — prop ladders on metal scaffoldings, fixing and hiding wires covered by heavy drapes and very real-looking fake roses. On top of these imposing metal structures lie heavy lights illuminating a large carpeted open area, where the last minute-and-a-half of a song’s shooting takes place at night.

As the cloudless evening sky drapes over Darbar Mehal in Bahawalpur, Nadeem Baig, the director of the film, walks on to the set from the far end of the stage. Around him, three or so assistants make sure that everything stays on schedule.

Baig spots me sitting at a secluded corner with ARY Films’ head of distribution Irfan Malik, who had picked me up from the hotel. He begins to make his way towards us but it is no easy feat — it seems everyone needs Baig’s attention. He does make it eventually and we indulge in small talk. Being there for another day, I would get more opportunities to talk about the film… or so I wrongly think.

Minutes later, with his tea finished, Baig starts pacing the set. Being from television, where he honed his craft, Baig is one of the few consistently successful filmmakers in Pakistan, delivering hits such as Jawani Phir Nahin Aani, its sequel JPNA 2 — which is still the highest-grossing film in Pakistan — Punjab Nahin Jaungi and now, London Nahin Jaunga.

Icon is provided an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming Humayun Saeed-Nadeem Baig mega production, over two nights in Bahawalpur

“I can’t help it,” Baig tells me about moving around. “Someone told me that in India the director hardly leaves the monitor while their assistants do everything. We’re — at least I’m — not bred that way,” he says, still moving around, his mind very active on how he would shoot the scene later that night.

Kubra Khan and Humayun Saeed
Kubra Khan and Humayun Saeed

I can’t help but notice that the set has very tight security. One assistant is constantly yelling about commandeering cellphones. Selfies — especially by the hundred or so extras provided by a local talent agency — are banned. Nothing, I am told time and again, would be getting leaked out.

And then there is an exception. This writer, a representative of Icon, who has free access, thanks to the upper management of ARY, to roam and shoot with his DSLR.

At first the crew thought that I was one of the two photographers on the set. When the news eventually reached them, the look of concern — eyes turning wide, mouths slightly agape — were explicit.

At this moment, let me interject. Set reports aren’t a newfangled idea in entertainment journalism; in fact, it used to be routine practice in entertainment trades decades before social media practices of ‘unofficially’ leaking news to blogs became the norm.

Kudos, then, to ARY Films for restarting the process with a high-profile film, that as I learn later, had a lot to lose story-wise if things leaked from the LNJ set.

Director Nadeem Baig with Assistant DoP Kim Lee
Director Nadeem Baig with Assistant DoP Kim Lee

LNJ stars Humayun Saeed, Mehwish Hayat, Kubra Khan, Gohar Rasheed, Sohail Ahmed, Salman Shahid, Iffat Omar and Saba Faisal amongst others. The title, cast — officially announced by ARY — and the setting gives one the assumption that the film is a sequel to Punjab Nahin Jaungi — a box-office benchmark-making film at the time.

Baig won’t comment on it, freeing readers’ imagination to make assumptions as he tries to get things done on time and on-budget. Till date none of his films have run over-budget or gone into production overtime.

After my third cup of coffee, Humayun Saeed makes his way on to the set in a T-shirt. He’s got a heavy five o’ clock shadow, his hair is unkept and his eyes are slightly droopy, as if he is not getting much sleep. He’s dead-tired, he tells me.

“I had a punishing long night yesterday,” he says. The dance choreographer Nigah Hussain had given both him and Gohar Rasheed difficult steps the night before. At that moment, even his cramps had cramps, he says. “Thank goodness, I only have to stand on one side and do very little tonight,” he says.

Or so he thinks.

Dance choreographer Nigah Hussain
Dance choreographer Nigah Hussain

With the lighting — Arri’s expensive LED skypanels going through giant muslin diffusers — finally hauled in place, the place is set.

“Just wait a minute for the rest of the lights to turn on,” Irfan Malik tells me, noting the lack of wow in my expression. And he’s right.

The set, designed by Qasim Yar Tiwana (QYT), very much wanted to one-up last Eidul Azha’s release Parey Hut Love, which was shot in an adjoining mahal.

QYT, known for erecting fabulous and expensive sets at events, didn’t pull any punches. But then again, with a crew and extras nearing 200, this is no cheapskate production.

Iffat Omar, in a heavily embroidered outfit, is the first one ready for her bit, led hand-in-hand by Baig, as if he’s escorting a princess up the stage.

Humayun Saeed makes his way on to the set in a T-shirt. He’s got a heavy five o’ clock shadow, his hair is unkept and his eyes are slightly droopy, as if he is not getting much sleep. He’s dead-tired, he tells me. “I had a punishing long night yesterday. Thank goodness, I only have to stand on one side and do very little tonight,” he says.

Soon, she is joined by Saba Faisal, and the two are immediately turned over to Nigah Hussain. Vigorous on-the-spot training ensues, with the choreographer often snapping at the sound mixer for not getting the cues right (“It is five, six, seven, eight... you hit the music on eight, not seven,” he yells at the sound mixer twice).

Salman Shahid in character
Salman Shahid in character

Gohar Rasheed, Sohail Ahmed and Salman Shahid arrive one by one, followed by Kubra Khan. The costumes by Umar Sayeed match the ambience of the set, and the feel of the song — an invigorating number sung by Meesha Shafi. Unlike PNJ, the music is being done by several composers, Saeed tells me when he gets a breather.

Holding one of the several iPads showing a wireless feed from the two Arri Alexas on set — one on Steadicam, the other on a heavy-duty tripod operated by Assistant Cinematographer Kim Lee — Baig moves around, tea in hand as shooting commences. Behind him huddle an assorted bunch of production people and extras, trying to stay out of the camera’s sight.

Kubra Khan seems to be in the spotlight for retakes tonight. Bungling steps far too often in the beginning, one notices that it takes a while for her to get her timings right. Baig, though, seems to have a natural knack for choreography and — obviously — direction, stepping in time and again to nudge the actress in the right direction.

Standing near Baig, getting shots for this piece becomes a chore and a challenge. Shoulders block views and, as soon as the shot is cut, the crew crowds the director. The bigger dilemma is of unknowingly giving away spoilers.

To quote Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”... to be on the LNJ set.

The song sequence, and the scenes before and after being shot the next day, all take place on this very elaborate outdoor set. Everything one sees is a spoiler — and although I will not tell precisely when the scene takes place in the story — one wonders if there are so many spoilers within these two days, how many had there been in the entire month?

Director Nadeem Baig in action
Director Nadeem Baig in action

Shot exclusively at location in Bahawalpur throughout February, the production will shift to London (obviously) in April for its final spell.

At 2:28am, the crickets start chirping to no one’s heed. By 4:30 in the morning, an hour before the fajr call for prayer (which then goes on for 20 minutes), Saeed’s legs have given way. It is also at this time the weather turns cold.

The sun doesn’t shine the next day. At five in the evening on the second day I’m on set, the winds are howling mad. Metal scaffoldings sustaining the chandeliers and lights heave to and fro, caught just in time before they could flatten this writer and the Malaysian Director of Photography Kelvin Keeho, who has just also finished the Faysal Quraishi-directed Money Back Guarantee starring Fawad Khan.

The cold weather doesn’t agree with Keeho and his assistant Kim Lee, who come from a far warmer climate, but that doesn’t deter their commitment to the production. Hardly getting any time to rest Lee, Keeho — the latter soon wrapped in a shawl — and I get along quite well, tech-talking about cinematography.

When Saeed and Rasheed join the set, the dust and the wind have become too much.

“Dangerous wali aandhi khuli hai [There’s a dangerous windstorm blowing],” Saeed murmurs as the three of us go inside a part of the set that serves as a make-shift shelter.

The shoot has been delayed by an hour by the time Jerjees Seja, the CEO of ARY Network and one of the four producers of the film, along with Salman Iqbal, Shehzad Nasib and Saeed, come over directly from a PSL match in Multan. Jerjees is wearing a T-shirt on Saeed’s recommendation.

“The weather was pleasant, you told me time and again,” Jerjees jokingly tells Saeed, his back soon covered by the dust that has already turned my camera white.

A ‘kaboom’ on the left and then the right indicates that background props on either side have given way. With the extras and the crews now bunched in a circle in the middle of the set, away from the large decorations that may come tumbling down, the production opts to take an early dinner. It is between 9-10 at night.

Crammed in the dressing room, I poke Saeed into giving away the story — or at least clarifying if LNJ is indeed a sequel or a whole new film we are looking at.

He doesn’t budge. “What do you think?” he says, with a half-coy smile on him as we eat. The characters look the same as before, and they inhabit the same universe, yet there is something distinctly different about the setting.

The screenplay, perhaps wittier than the last time, has some great zingers. One scene, which went on set immediately after the winds stopped and the weather turned icy-cold, harks back at PNJ without being conspicuous.

It is midnight when the production crew finally starts braving the weather. One can see extras shivering near one of the two heaters, that turn out to be godsends.

With just a few hours till the sky above breaks into morning, there is little time to get scenes done. The extras are only here for this one night, and the set has to be taken down soon after. The production itself will shift to other locations. A lot has to be taken care of — and soon — yet, remarkably, the set doesn’t turn into a cesspool of chaos of anger and confusion.

Jerjees and I, the only two underdressed for the occasion, shiver on a couch away from the open area.

“I think it’s seven or eight degrees,” Jerjees says of the weather. We later learn that it was 17 degrees but felt like 10.

The hectic production schedule — with the actors, either rehearsing their lines or doing make-up — didn’t leave much time for interviews during this trip.

Looking at the expense at display here, I ask Jerjees why he feels the need to greenlight such an expensive production during recession, when the market is at an all-time low.

“When ARY ventured into the movie business, we didn’t have a market this big — or a market at all, for that matter,” Jerjees answers, covering his face away from the smoke of burning logs at our feet.

“[Back then] a 500 million rupee business in Pakistan alone was unfathomable, as was the cost of justifying a 170 million rupee production. So my question to you is, why not make an expensive film, when the market today is far better than what we started out with?” he says.

Opportunely, he receives a phone call from Salman Iqbal, the President of ARY Network, and the producer of LNJ. Jerjees hands me the phone and I jot down notes, as we talk about the film being a sequel or not.

“We don’t make movies just for the sake of creating sequels,” Iqbal tells me over the phone. “However, if we naturally have a good product, such as JPNA 2, then a sequel is warranted. LNJ isn’t exactly a sequel, but it is part of a franchise [ergo, the similarity of the look and the character]. It is neither a sequel, nor a prequel. Working on something like this, where familiarity comes into play, gives the project a boost — it functions as a launchpad [of sorts], and people enjoy that. However, none of it is forced.”

As we talk, Mehwish Hayat makes her way on stage with effortless pizazz, as if she doesn’t give a hoot about the weather.

As she does her scenes — wrapping them all within an hour, totally in character — the shoot wraps for the night. In the next 15 minutes, the crew disperses for their hotels. Most of the cast and some of the crew leaves for Karachi the following day. This writer, though, didn’t have the luxury; his ride was set to leave for Karachi in an hour. The shoot, though, went on at least for another few days.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 8th, 2020