What makes a film a success?

Is it powerful storytelling? The screenplay? Engaging characters? Captivating visuals? The songs? Or the actors? Or, is it a unique blend of all of the above and more?

The answer is a bit more complex. These might be the prerequisites of good, maybe even great motion pictures, but successful ones? Not always. The sucess largerly comes down to the experience one gets.

If it tickles your funny bone, makes you clap at what you know are downright daft moments of comedy, forces your foot to tap along to the songs, engulfs you in a state of anxiety from in dramatic moments, and leaves you open-mouthed when characters deliver corny but clap-worthy dialogues, then even a flawed film is a success.

Success equals big paydays at the box office, but more than that, it befriends your long-term memory. You return to that experience because that is what matters.

Coming from the producers of Jawani Phir Nahi Ani, JPNA 2 and its spiritual successor Punjab Nahi Jaungi, London Nahi Jaunga is a different beast. The makers speak about their ‘uniquely Pakistani’ filmmaking

ARY Films and Six Sigma, who produced Jawani Phir Nahi Ani (JPNA), Punjab Nahi Jaungi (PNJ) and JPNA 2, knows how to craft experiences.

“It’s a group effort,” Muhammad Jerjees Seja, CEO of the ARY Network, and one of the producers of London Nahi Jaunga (LNJ) along with Shehzad Naseeb and star Humayun Saeed, says. “No one person, be it Humayun, me, Nadeem [Baig, the director], is capable of pulling off such a gargantuan task singlehandedly.” At the end of the day, it’s the experience you get that brings you back to movies, Jerjees adds.

Humayun Saeed has always banked on this ideology. In one of our conversations, Humayun was adamant — and very secure — that, no matter what the competition, if his film is good (and he takes every step possible to make sure it is, for that’s his job, he says), the audience will respond.

However, having nerves of steel does not mean that one doesn’t get anixous before their film’s release. Humayun says that he is always nervous when his film nears release.

Humayun calls LNJ a Pakistani film. “It has a uniquely Pakistani signature that will appeal to families. The values you get and the entertainment you experience sets this film apart,” he says.

Yes, it’s the experience you get — and in my case, as one of the few people not associated with LNJ, who saw a part of film come together on set and later on the edit — it is also the experience of seeing how the film evolved.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in front of a cinema screen at Nueplex when a strong gust of nostalgia — a flurry of emotions, old and new — hit when the trailer of LNJ started, 10 seconds before the lights fully dimmed in the cinema hall.

The assemblage at the trailer launch included Humayun Saeed, Vasay Chaudhry and Mirza Gohar Rasheed clad in traditional, over-puffed kurtas and dhotis that carried the flair of a long-lost Sultan Rahi film (LNJ’s poster, which shows Humayun riding a steed, with London in the far background, harks of Rahi’s Maula Jutt in London). Mehwish Hayat was whacked with jetlag after flying in from the Ms. Marvel premiere in the US (though she didn’t look tired). Missing from the gathering was Kubra Khan who was presumably tied up because of other commitments.

Jerjees, Irfan Malik, the head of ARY Films, and wunderkid director Nadeem Baig were dressed in casual western attire...probably because unlike the cast, they didn’t have to ride the horse carriage parked at Nueplex’s gate for the promotional campaign after the trailer launch.

With the lights taking their sweet time to dim and people indolently making way to whatever seats they fancied, the trailer began.

After seeing it thrice, there was no doubt about it: LNJ feels very different from PNJ, its spiritual successor. It’s like meeting someone who just got a new haircut, and in that first instant you can’t pinpoint exactly what has changed.

The trailer carried essential ingredients that every successful film needs, only in subtler form. Maybe it is the contrasting, somewhat less vibrant colour grade, the all-Punjabi soundtrack (the film has no songs in Urdu) or the missing glitzy end-credits song that helps add extra zing to the PR campaign, and strikes an immediate chord with the masses.

I scribbled down these questions to ask Nadeem Baig when we are scheduled to meet two days later at the editing suite at Sharp Image, the go-to post-production facility of films in Karachi, if not Pakistan.

A couple of days later, as I sit with Nadeem, who is busy finalising the film, his sharp eye catches everything from entire scenes that don’t work, to pimples in the actors’ faces. “My actors need to look their best on the big screen,” he tells me. Leading men and women (especially women) should have no facial imperfections, he says.

Being the soft-spoken, conciliatory, happy-go-lucky incisive man that he is, it’s here when he systematically starts obliterating all my reservations about the trailer and the soundtrack.

People tend to come to conclusions far too quickly, Nadeem says. Back in the days of the first JPNA, I really wanted to make sure they hit the bull’s eye by going all out, he says. “It was the first time such a film was happening in Pakistan.”

That film was a success but some (including me) questioned the narrative and the raunchiness of the premise.

With PNJ, they went forward with a script from Khalilur Rehman Qamar that dialed back on the things that families would not want to see. PNJ was a simple romance-drama about killing fragile egos and making amends. The family values that represented the core of PNJ were evident in the vibrant colours of the frames. With JPNA 2, they amalgamated the ‘unique selling points’ of both PNJ and the original JPNA into one big entertainer. It paid off in spades.

LNJ, however, is a different beast. You can see it from the colour grade and the cinematography.

“With LNJ, I kept the subtlety that was the core of the film in the trailer. I could have twisted its trailer a million different ways to blow it up but I didn’t do it deliberately because I feel I don’t want to cheat the audiences with a different feel from the one they’re going to get.”

Sworn to secrecy since I visited the sets of LNJ in Bhawalpur late February 2020 — days before Covid-19 began spreading in Pakistan — we don’t discuss the plot or the key points of the story.

From what we do see in the trailer, LNJ is about Chaudhry Jameel (Humayun Saeed) whose skills include simple poetry (aside from their popularity, the verses he spins don’t belong in the big league, that’s for sure).

Jameel is in the middle of a love triangle with two girls, Zara (Mehwish Hayat) and Aarzoo (Kubra Khan) — one, in Punjab, he forsakes and another he pursues all the way to London. In the trailer we also meet Bhatti (Gohar Rasheed), Jameel’s best bud and Harry (Vasay Chaudhry).

Neither of the two are a replacement for Ahmed Ali Butt from PNJ, Nadeem laughs as we begin speaking about the eventual comparison between the two.

“LNJ is 10 times funnier than PNJ. However, contrary to what people think, PNJ wasn’t a funny film. It had comedy in parts. It is the same here. Khalil Saheb’s humour is like that. It hits you out of the left field in the middle of a running scene. You laugh and then you go serious. You laugh again and go serious again. It’s very difficult making the background score of such scenes,” Nadeem says. “Shani Arshad [who produced one song and also the background score] and I would keep pondering about not wasting the effects of those jokes. So at times we chose to not add background score to scenes.”

That’s not to say that there is no background score. Nadeem clarifies, “Shani actually makes LNJ shine. The score has a contemporary, European feel to it.”

“You’ll enjoy seeing Vasay,” Nadeem tells me as we continue talking about the characters. “People expect comedy from him but his character. which is very vital in the story, is so much more than just that.”

Just like Gohar’s?

“Very much so,” Nadeem answers. Realising we’re close to talking about spoilers, Nadeem shifts to an anecdote.

On his first day of the shoot, Gohar came to the set all charged up. Bursting with energy, he wanted to really show his acting prowess. “After he [Gohar] finished his scene, I went over to him and quietly said ‘Aaj to karliya hai, dobara nahin karna’ [You did it today but don’t do this kind of acting again].

“Actors are quite intelligent and they really want to act. You just have to restrict what doesn’t work for their characters,” Nadeem says.

While there is no question about who the leads are of LNJ — Humayun and Mehwish — Kubra, who plays the second lead (and who is not at all a variant on Urwa Hocane’s character, affirms Nadeem) had no qualms about her role. She understood what her character is, which is no throwaway, he explains.

By this time Rizwan AQ, LNJ’s editor sitting with Nadeem, has parked the playhead to Ve Pardesia, the first song I get to hear.

With this begins the second round of killing my reservations.

It has been my experience that soundtracks that strictly adhere to one language tend to give a regional — and not national — vibe to a film. Since LNJ is an Urdu-language film, I wonder, would an album made up of both Urdu and Punjabi tracks not serve the film more? It takes all of 10 seconds, and one verse of Ve Pardesia, to prove me wrong. The song, which may or may not come out by the time you read this, is a melodious, soulful number that picks at your heartstrings. The song is written and sung by Sohail Shehzad, with music by Saad Sultan.

“This could have easily been a Rahat [Fateh Ali Khan] song but why not Sohail, we said,” Nadeem tells me when the song ends. “This time, I purposely got different singers on board. Justin Beebees, Butt Brothers, Adnan Dhol, Nishabd — a new female singer who studied from the NCA — and Sohail Shehzad. Why not give new people that chance when there is so much talent over here.”

I tell Nadeem that Ve Pardesia has a lot going for it.

“There is this other song which also has a lot of story in it and which you are not to reveal,” he says as he plays Yaar Chaddh Gaya Hai.

While the song is out now, the version I saw did have a lot of spoilers, such as Ve Pardesia and Mahiya Ve Mahiya.

“I can’t imagine myself doing songs where the hero is sitting in a beautiful frame, pondering. Ab nahin samajh main aata. Bohat hogaya. Ab baat honi chahiye [It doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s all been done to death. Now songs need to push the narrative forward],” Nadeem says.

Have you ever done those types of songs where the hero just sits and ponders, I ask him.

“Never,” Nadeem says, laughing.

I assume, given the shot-taking, Nadeem has choreographed the songs as well. “I love shooting songs,” Nadeem replies.

While he didn’t need a choreographer for the first two songs, Nigah Hussain and Rajeev Surti choreographed Mahiya Ve Mahiya and Marjaniye, respectively.

“Here you go,” he says as he plays the first of these two.

Mahiya Ve, as I vividly recall, was shot in four nights in Bhawalpur with scenes that padded its opening and closing. Seeing the song come alive after numerous rehearsals, retakes and problems on set is an experience (a sudden cold spell had preceded howling winds that brought down huge lights on the last day of the shoot).

“It takes quite an effort to make it look simple, doesn’t it,” Nadeem says when the song ends. Indeed it does.

The fourth song, Marjaniye, is my least favourite of the four but still a good enough song when you look at the kinds of songs we usually make. It’s a peppy number that was shot during the London spell of the film.

After Bhawalpur, which concluded the Pakistani shooting spell, the production’s second schedule resumed a few months ago this year, in England and Turkey. One location of the two had a slightly longer shooting schedule than the other.

While the production doesn’t officially comment on which location had the longer schedule (actually they don’t comment on the question at all), there is no logical reason to conceal the information. Cities and towns stand in for one another all the time. Canada and Australia are often the go-to location for American cities (FYI: a good percentage of almost all X-Men, Wolverine and Matrix movies are shot in Australia).

“None of these questions matters when you see LNJ though, because it’s your experience that counts,” Nadeem says. “Cinema, right now, is fantasy. It has become tricky that way. Now, I feel, films won’t work if you do not make an effort to take the audience to that fantasy land. It has to have worthiness of being in cinemas.

“When the audience is coming out of your film, what they say while coming out becomes the fate of your film.”

I can’t agree more.

“Now what do you think about the look and feel? How was your experience”, Nadeem asks.

Up until now, I tell him, it’s all been swell.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 3rd, 2022



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