At the end of a winding road leading to the rear entrance of Jackson Police Station in Keamari stands a familiar sight: a silver vanity van that looks the same as any other vanity van in the film business. It’s a rather imposing vehicle parked around smaller cars and two-storey buildings with somewhat conserved age-old architecture.

In the van’s awfully cramped interior — a sofa capable of accommodating four average-size people and two chairs in front of a vanity mirror — sits a somewhat familiar face: Yasir Hussain.

Not that Yasir is not a familiar face, mind you. Here the make-up artist has tampered his easily recognisable features into that of a man who would easily get lost in a crowd. Partially dyed hair parted from the right, ordinary spectacles, a worn-down, muted-coloured shalwar kameez suit — if Yasir got out and roamed Saddar right now, no one would recognise him. He would be just another face in a sea of faces.

The disguise suits the character he’s playing at the moment: Javed Iqbal, a serial killer of 100 young boys who was convicted of pederasty and sentenced to death by the Lahore High Court on March 16, 2000.

An upcoming film hopes to explore the psyche of serial killer Javed Iqbal, who was convicted of brutally murdering over 100 young boys

Iqbal seemingly took his own life before his sentence could be carried out; he was found hanging in his jail cell on October 8, 2001. His original death sentence — a form of retributive punishment — was that he should suffer the same way he made the children suffer: by strangulation from an iron chain, then dismembered (he was to be cut-up into a hundred pieces; one for each family), and then dissolved in acid.

The film — titled Javed Iqbal — is written and directed by Ali Sajjad Shah, who goes by his filmmaking alias Abu Aleeha. Shah is an independent filmmaker and self-professed rebel against the system, whose films are distributed by Metro Live Movies.

There is little to no surprise that Iqbal’s life, and the stark grisliness of the subject, appeals to the filmmaking sensibilities of the filmmaker (he has previously directed Kataksha and Tever, both stark and gory examples of low-budget cinema).

The question is: how can an actor do justice to a dead man on whom there is scant information on his backstory, the reason for his madness (his only available quote is that he had killed in revenge for the “injustice meted out to him”) or his mannerisms.

In a long conversation in the cramped vanity van, Yasir says that he doesn’t want to overplay the character. “I don’t want him to be the stock filmi psychopath,” he says — the type where the emotionally unhinged are played with contorted necks, twitching lips, bulging eyes and searing villainous looks. To him, Javed Iqbal could be just another face in the crowd — ergo the get-up.

“I cannot tell you exactly what I have gone through to create the character,” Yasir says, giving Icon the low-down of the problems one has to go through of recreating real-life characters that have little or no record of who they really were, or how they functioned.

There is something of his own that he has brought to the character, Yasir says. Since Javed Iqbal had a slightly larger upper lip than Yasir’s, the actor would puff-up his own lips during scenes to bring a sense of resemblance and idiosyncrasy to the character.

He does say that several people — fellow actors and otherwise — shared their research (mostly in the form of news articles) when they heard he was doing the role. “That helped,” Yasir says.

“If you play Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, you’ll find hundreds of references, but there are next to no references of how Allama Iqbal walked, talked or spoke. You’ll never know how he recited his poetry,” Yasir says as an example. For the record, Yasir is not comparing Allama Iqbal to Javed Iqbal.

The talk of playing characters leads to another part of the conversation:

“We don’t treat characters like characters — if a character does an atrocity, we have to accept that it was the character and not the actor who committed that act,” Yasir says, hinting at the media’s penchant for judging actors because of what their characters do on screen.

“You have to understand what is happening inside the character’s head — or in Javed Iqbal’s case what he may have gone through — that’s what’s making him commit the act in the first place.

“You have to factor in the insensitivity of his psyche, and how he may have gotten to that place after killing four, five, six times, or how he may talk, how confident he may have been or how scared he may be,” he says, bringing the topic full circle to where we started.

About a good 30 minutes later, we find ourselves sitting in the lobby near the front entrance of the police station, with the camera crew setting up their equipment for a shot. Aleeha, zealous and preoccupied, doesn’t sit around and bosses the crew to get their act in order.

Multiple angles of the same scene — one on a tracking dolly, another from the shoulder and another from the side — are shot for the editor’s convenience.

As the distributor and I speak in one corner of the set, Aleeha finishes the take which has several actors posing as journalists questioning Iqbal as he is being brought in at the police station.

The location then moves on to another scene, where a grieving mother, played by Rabia Kulsoom, goes berserk after the killer tells her something (the shriek from the actress could have shook the police station walls).

Within two hours, about two scenes are shot, while one or two others are being prepped. The film, Aleeha tells me, has an estimated shooting schedule of 15 days — two or three days of shoot were left at that time.

After sunset and as Maghrib prayers echo in the air, Aleeha shows me the nearly-completed poster of the film (it has since come out in the press); the poster resembles a shot of the real Javed Iqbal accompanied by two police officers on either side. At first glance, one can see the attention to detail. Yasir’s version even dons a near-identical version of the sweater the real Iqbal wore when he was escorted by the police.

“There were other actors, but I chose Yasir because he has a slight resemblance to Javed Iqbal,” Aleeha says, connecting one question to another. “And the reason for casting Ayesha Omar [who plays the police officer investigating the case] is to have a glamorous actress whom I can transform for the role,” he adds. “No one was willing to transform herself but Ayesha was ready to act without any make-up.”

Apart from Yasir, Ayesha and Rabia, the film also stars Paras Masroor and Javed Ahmed Kakepoto, the latter also the film’s producer.

“Javed Iqbal is my most ambitious film to date,” Aleeha says. For those wondering, he adds that he did not make the film for its controversy. “The film is based on Kukri, my novelisation of Javed Iqbal. It’s a work of fiction inspired by true events.” The novel is named Kukri,” he says, “because, purportedly, Javed Iqbal used to sit like a chicken [ie. kukri].

“Anyways, people want to capture the sensationalism associated with the story. My film is about the point-of-view of others: it’s about how others perceive Javed Iqbal — how he appears to a mother, the police, a psychiatrist or a lawyer.

“In Lahore, the masses at large perceive Iqbal’s case as a lie. To some, he was a scapegoat. There are many theories about him. That’s why, with my film, I’m letting the audience decide on their own level of hate for the character. Whether they want to spit on him, beat him up or set him on fire should depend on the individual viewer, I think.

“The previous six movies I directed were exercises to get me ready for this film,” Aleeha says, owning up to their lack in technique and technicality.

A former reporter from Islamabad who had stints for various print publications (he covered the crime beat), Aleeha had also previously written blogs for Dawn Urdu amongst other sites, as well as ghost-written for television writers (the pay was on time, he said; it was a necessity at the time).

Interested in film and mostly learning on the job, today his filmography includes the two previously mentioned releases and the crime-thriller Once Upon a Time in Karachi, the revenge-thriller Sheenogai, the zombie-comedy Udham Patakh — that’s already done with the censors — and the drama Lockdown, completed and ready for release.

Despite this, he affirms, he’s not in the same league as other filmmakers for whom he has the utmost respect. He is an independent filmmaker whose only interest is keeping cinema alive. He says he doesn’t want to make films for just the holidays; he wants to make films for the rest of the year too.

“I don’t want to make five films a year. I want to make one film in the budget of those five. But I do want to produce five films a year,” Aleeha affirms. Whatever the case may be, he says he’s in it for the long run, however uncertain or difficult the film business may be.

Javed Iqbal should be ready by the end of October 2021 for release, he confirms. After that, Aleeha will probably start shooting another film.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 12th, 2021

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