“You are really going to enjoy Teefa,” Ali Zafar tells me at his hotel suite in Karachi days before his film Teefa in Trouble’s premiere. A week later, Humayun Saeed shushes me in the midst of a torrent of questions at the set of Jawani Phir Nahin Aani 2 (JPNA 2). My apprehensions with the sequel will be addressed when I see the film, he says. Saeed, at the time, didn’t have a proper counter for Project Ghazi, but he did tell me that I would be as surprised and happy for JPNA 2 as I had been when I saw Punjab Nahin Jaungi (PNJ).

In the same make-up room at Studio 146 a year later, Sheheryar Munawar and I spent hours discussing Parey Hut Love’s (PHL) narrative blueprint in cryptic tech-speak, to the obvious irk of the other people in the room. One could see that we were really enjoying the post-mortem of his film, in a language few understand.

While the words Munawar and I were speaking would sound gobbledygook to others, the subtext of our conversation was simple: telling a good story by manufacturing a good story.

Let’s take a step back and explicate this in simple English.

What do Zafar, Saeed and Munawar mean when they say that we will be enjoying their films? What exact particulars constitute and epitomise the elusive “enjoyment” factors in motion pictures? More than the pizazz of production, or the allure of star power, these gentlemen were discussing unique factors of a very tricky job: screenwriting — perhaps the worst-best career option in filmmaking.

Screenwriting for film is not easy. But there are some basic rules that can help Pakistani filmmakers fix the most common issues that plague their scripts. That is, of course, if they can bear to put aside their egos for a while

About a year and two months ago in Icon, we deliberated the dearth of screenwriting talent in Pakistan’s film industry (Pakistan’s Problem with Film Writing, March 10). Taking opinions of two filmmakers and two distributors-cum-exhibitors, the conversation was purposely designed with two particular reasons: one, to get solutions from the people who make movies; and two, to find out if they really know the process of developing a story.

Baaji
Baaji

There have been few, if any, blogs or newspapers that highlight such major overlooked issues — and with due reason; we’re entertainment publications, not film journals. The job is to cover films, not educate filmmakers… though, believe me, we have been trying.

The exercise, however, didn’t run well with the rest of the industry because everyone able to make, or those even wistfully pondering filmmaking, believe in their own mastery of narrative storytelling. The egotistical self-confidence found in everyone — be it executives, producers, directors, actors and especially writers — would make the Rock of Gibraltar crumble to dust at its own insignificance.

In the span of 14 months since Icon ran the feature, the industry fell hard on its face. The industry folk, scoffing and scorning others (particularly at the three above-mentioned filmmakers for producing hits), delivered the worst box-office decline of the decade.

Unwilling to take the blame, some retaliated by condemning the audience for not understanding, others reprehended their distributors and media partners for not promoting the films with million-rupee campaigns, and very few humble ones cited an utter lack of tentpole productions. Almost everyone, however, harked about the lack of “content” — a fancy label for the story and its intricacies. When content is near-perfect (in the case of Laal Kabootar and Cake, both of which failed at the box-office), insiders bicker about the lack of commercial viability.

When not hearing strictly off-the-record stories of films either in development or in the midst of production from filmmakers, this writer receives quite a number of story and screenplay submissions from studios, independent producers and writers. Out of the lot, very few premises (there is a difference between a premise and a story) and a rare screenplay have box-office worthiness. Rewrites with strict supervisions were recommended in most cases.

Load Wedding
Load Wedding

The situation is as it was 10 years ago: no one had a solution then, and no one has a solution now.

This feature, then, is exactly that: a precise investigation of screenwriting factors necessary to get audiences back in cinemas. If anything, this might help writers develop effective screenplays during Covid-19 lockdowns by looking at successful, and not-so-successful movies, made in Pakistan.

It all begins with a story…

Stories are the billion-dollar commodities in movies; without them, there is no film. In its most basic form, stories have had one key factor since the time of cavemen (whom, I presume, told stories by a campfire at night): they are meant to astonish and entertain. If they have lessons of life and morality, all the better — though they’re not entirely necessary.

Message-driven stories, in this writer’s personal opinion, are meant for more mature markets, not ours, and films that rely too much on delivering one, often stumble in the storytelling department. Bad examples that failed miserably at the balancing act were Josh and Talaash. One not-so-bad example is Load Wedding.

At times a competently made film, Load Wedding runs out of ideas immediately after the protagonist, Raja (Fahad Mustafa), a local electrician, marries Meeru (Mehwish Hayat), the woman he had been pining for. With his desires fulfilled, Raja — and even Meeru — become non-entities, giving the story free reign to jump from one issue to the next, right down to its ridiculous, preachy climax.

Devised well, Load Wedding’s principal problem was the unyielding creative control writers had on the story (in this case, they are also producers and director).

Keeping away from messages (unless they are absolutely necessary for the story one has in mind), it is best to concentrate on good, carefree, commercial ideas for the time being.

The basic building blocks of any film narrative is simple enough to grasp: decide a genre, let it govern the tone of the story, accept its tropes, and pick a winning premise (Teefa in Trouble is a prime example of this formula).

One trick I learned nearly two decades ago of identifying good story pitches is that the ideas destined to be instant hits are always one sentence long.

For example, these premises did really well at the box-office:

A rowdy, lovable rogue falls in love with a millionaire’s daughter, whom he kidnaps for a local ruffian (Teefa in Trouble).

Message-driven stories are meant for more mature markets, not ours, and films that rely too much on delivering one, often stumble in the storytelling department.

A regressive-minded millionaire tries to win over his estranged wife (PNJ).

Three down-on-their-luck men try to turn their lives around by looting banks during curfews (Na Maloom Afraad).

A struggling actor, posing as a lawyer, fights injustices for the common man, making enemies in high places (Actor in Law).

Three friends embark on a roadtrip from Karachi to Lahore to stop a wedding with the help of their nerdy next-door neighbour and her smart-alecky young brother (Karachi Se Lahore).

An emotionally tormented, retired man-of-action returns to the army to stop an international terrorist who is a master of disguise (WAAR).

Given identical faces by fate, a millionaire’s heir and a young loafer trade places in a comedy of errors (Wrong No.).

An immature struggling actor with commitment issues finds and loses the love of his life in the midst of weddings and tragedies (PHL).

A notoriously self-serving film actor with a dead-end career learns the meaning of humility and love after joining theatre (Superstar).

In Hollywood, these ‘loglines’ (in film terms) are an essential part of introducing one’s screenplay to agents, actors, directors, producers and studio executives. Known as ‘one-liners’ in Pakistan, our versions often span an uninterestingly written paragraph.

Loglines should almost always identify the protagonist, the gist of the story, and the challenges they face without delving into flashy, wordy details. In Karachi Se Lahore (KSL), it is the cross-country wedding they must get to; in WAAR, the challenge is personified in a terrorist who is also a master of disguise.

The premise has to immediately hook the reader. From experience, if it can’t be summed-up in a sentence, there’s something missing. Take Parwaz Hai Junoon (PHJ) as an example.

A young girl joins the Air Force to prove herself, in memory of her deceased fiancée?

A young girl, whose fiancée is a skilled pilot, joins the Air Force?

Doesn’t quite sell the idea, right?

Although competently made, PHJ, as noted in our review, doesn’t have any conflict (hence the difficulty in defining the story). If the character doesn’t have obstacles to overcome, why is the audience seeing their journey in the first place? To overcome this predicament, the film introduces Asif Raza Mir as Hamza Ali Abbasi’s gruff dad in an antagonist’s role with a hardly believable motive.

Many movies necessitate a bad guy to lead the movie to its endpoint (called a climax in film lingo). Film villains are often loud and garish, and they give audiences a reason to cheer for the hero.

Evident villainy that worked well has characters such as Sheikh Sahib in Teefa (Nayyer Ejaz), or the gold toilet owner Sheikh Sultan al-Baklawa in Na Maloom Afraad 2 (Ejaz), or the sleazy agent Chand Kamal in Baaji (Ejaz), or the transgender don Marzi in Mehrunisa V Lub U (again, Ejaz). Actually, it’s best to think of Ejaz as a go-to bad guy, if the role hasn’t been given to Shafqat Cheema already.

Despite this predictability of having a villain in place, it’s always a good idea to give the leading character some personal conflicts to overcome. Case in point: Fawad Khagga in PNJ, whose good nature is often overshadowed by his backward thinking and self-serving ego. Khagga is a perfect caricature of a well-rounded character, whose biggest impediment is himself.

Characters defying their nature and overcoming their internal obstacles are always good entertainment; they keep the momentum going, and introduce ample drama — another key ingredient of successful films.

Once characters, their shortfalls and premises are fashioned — and believe me, it’s easier said than done — the story moves on to its formulation stage. To quote the explanation from our last piece on screenwriting:

“Screenplays are made up of individual scenes that tell segments of the story. A collection of scenes completing one aspect of the story is called a sequence. How those sequences are written dictate the emotional tone of the film (scenes can be drama, comedy, or a mix of the two, thereby defining its audience and genre). Each of these aspects lie on top of an underlying foundation — a structure — often broken down into three specific segments called ‘Acts’ that deal with a beginning (which introduces the characters to the audience), a middle (which tells the actual point of the story) and an end (a climax of events). Refashioned from theatre, each act has its own set of storytelling rules in this “3-Act Structure”.

There are other ways to break down a story, but the 3-Act Structure is the most basic — and basic is all Pakistan can afford at the moment.

Directors Nabeel Qureshi, Asim Raza and Saqib Malik have a good idea about story structure. While personal preferences may lead one to not agree with the tone or the direction of their films, Malik’s Baaji, Raza’s PHL and Qureshi’s debut film, Na Maloom Afraad (NMA), are excellent examples of the classic 3-Act Structure in play.

NMA, despite being a variant of Priyadarshan’s Hera Pheri, is textbook perfect for the most part. It develops characters, gives audiences — especially from middle class and lower-middle class backgrounds — reasons to emotionally connect with them, and creates a series of minor impediments and resolves, which eventually lead to a big, gun-throttling climax at the villain’s hideout (the local gang boss Gogi, played by Salman Shahid). Pepper the in-between with foot-tapping songs, and voila, you have a hit on your hands.

Raza’s film is different, and may take an unbiased look to fully appreciate. In PHL, the lead pair undergoes a series of self-imposed conflicts whose actions directly govern the structure mentioned above.

Technically, there are two ways to write the 3-Act Structure. One, where the story is leading the characters, and the other, where the characters lead the story. Raza’s film, unconventionally, chooses the latter.

Baaji, however, prefers to do it the classic Hollywood way, by using the story elements to move and reveal the character’s motives (as evident in the way the film’s climax happens).

Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects is the sequences near the middle of the film, where stories generally run out of steam. PHJ, Superstar, Bin Roye even Teefa in Trouble and many others are victims of this dilemma.

While most stories wing it from the mid-point, hoping that the momentum carries them through, the above-mentioned titles managed to overcome these shortfalls by introducing a feel-good climax. This leads me to one of most crucial aspects in film writing: the need for a proper, upbeat end to the story.

Films that do not have feel-good climax fail miserably at the box-office — and with good reason. People, especially those willing to give Pakistani cinema a chance, want to see the characters triumph over odds when the film ends. The feeling subconsciously stays with the audience when they leave cinemas.

To get to that climax, films often introduce a grand romp at the end, that may not always work (eg. 7 Din Mohabbat In and JPNA).

When Ali Zafar told me that I’d enjoy Teefa, he had already anticipated — and overcome — most of these narrative problems. Getting the pieces right of a story is a tough job, but hey, who said writing fiction for film — especially on a technical level — is easy.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 24th, 2020