SPOTLIGHT: MADE FOR EACH OTHER

Published October 30, 2022
Photography: Raza Jaffri | Hair, make-up & grooming: Arshad Khan | Outfits: HSY | Coordination: Umer Mushtaq
Photography: Raza Jaffri | Hair, make-up & grooming: Arshad Khan | Outfits: HSY | Coordination: Umer Mushtaq

Tucked in a lane that lends itself to both Clifton and Defence, Café Koel has been claimed as the go-to press meet-up locale for movies of late. Familiar faces from news bylines and social media, their cameramen with cameras locked atop their tripods, bump, prod, nod in salute, as they wind their way through tables, stooping foliage and the archways of the eatery.

Inside the premises is a small see-through room of glass doors, grey-textured walls, couches and tables, where movie stars gather — that is, if they’re on time.

Running slightly late this day is Iman Ali, the devil-may-care attitude brandishing wild card heroine of Tich Button, Farhan Saeed and Urwa Hocane’s film debut as producers. The film is made in association with, and distributed by ARY Films, and helmed by television’s happening director, Qasim Ali Mureed.

Missing entirely on the day — and in prior and subsequent happenings — are the film’s other pair: Feroze Khan and Sonya Hussyn. One is away on a religious pilgrimage, while allegations of domestic violence against his former wife make news flashes; the other, at the time of writing, just landed from her trip abroad, and is issuing legal notices of overdue payments to the producers.

The title of the upcoming Tich Button may refer to the film’s characters who learn to live together and love each other despite knowing each other’s shortcomings. But it may also apply equally to a young team of first-time producers and directors who are stitching together a team for the future…

As we wait for Iman (she was off by half-hour, which isn’t that long by usual waiting standards), Qasim and I steal away to a small adjoining open-air space.

An editor-turned-cinematographer-turned-director, who did music videos and then transitioned to serials, Qasim may have debuted on television first — he directed Aangan for ARY, Neeli Zinda Hai and Mere Humsafar, the last two starring Urwa and Farhan Saeed, respectively — but making movies might have always been his calling.

In a meticulously pruned “editor’s cut” of his life story, I learn that Qasim hails from a Lollywood family (he is one of the three sons of film editor Mureed Hussain), that he vividly recalls his first premiere at the age of seven or eight (the Ismail Shah-Nadira starrer Naachay Naagin), that he was bad at studies and that, as punishment, was commanded to be his father’s apprentice editor (as a youngling, he worked on Chand Babu and Insaniyat Kay Qatil).

Cinematographer Arif Ali Khan, who at the time did many commercials, convinced Qasim’s father that film was on its way out, and so he ended up at the television production house TV2, where he edited the serial Teen Batta Teen and, later, Landa Bazaar, Tum Yehi Kehna (both directed by Dilawar Malik, written by Khalil-Ur-Rehman Qamar) and Chamak, until he got bored with the job.

By 2004, Qasim transitioned to another discipline of filmmaking: cinematography.

“I was tall, so they told me to place and move light stands,” he laughs.

Qasim eventually shot Aasmaan Say Aagay, Lalkaar, Khwaab Nagar and Sharbati and then assisted Ali Mohammad (the cinematographer of Khuda Kay Liye) as a gaffer (lighting director) in the Shoaib Mansoor-directed mega-budget music video Anarkali, which was coincidentally Iman Ali’s debut, and Humaira Arshad’s Main Nahi Boldi (a new version of the song is in Tich Button and sung, once again, by Arshad).

In 2007, Qasim shifted to Karachi, shot the award-winning short film Mainay Quaid Ko Dekha, and became a full-time director of photography. He shot Pyaray Afzal and Dil Lagi for Nadeem Baig, and his last project was Ek Thi Mariam for Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, until he outgrew that part of filmmaking as well.

On the verge of calling it quits, Nadeem Baig convinced Qasim that he was meant to be a director, but before he makes a film, he must hone his narrative skills. That led to Be Inteha, his directorial debut on TVOne, and then Aangan, which got him and Qavi Khan nominations at the Lux Style Awards.

Tich Button has been with Qasim, Farhan, Urwa and writer Faiza Iftekhar (Aangan, Prem Gali, Pehli Si Mohabbat) since making movies became suddenly vogue for budding filmmakers, way back in 2016.

The title Tich Button (snap buttons or snap fasteners) is quite peculiar, I ask Qasim.

“We wanted something that symbolically defined the compatibility of two people,” he tells Icon.

“Made for each other, Rab Ne Bana Di Jorri, we wanted a name of that type, that lends itself to the story, because cultural differences, different countries, languages are irrelevant when it comes to love,” he says.

Tich Button’s story is about two friends, their aspirations and love interests, but it is not just about that. The term reaches beyond the definitions of a couple, Qasim adds. “It is about family and family values — the dada, dadi, phuphis, chachis [grandparents and aunts] who live together, love each other, despite knowing each other’s shortcomings, that connection is what defines Tich Button.”

There is something — an invisible connection of sorts — between Qasim and Farhan as well, ever since they did the music video Saathiya in 2016, he says.

“Farhan became a muse. He had the charm of a rock star, is not camera-shy, and has a lively aura,” he says.

Our conversation is cut short by Iman’s arrival.

I huddle back inside the room, squeezing into a small chair with little wiggle room, and start taking candid pictures of Iman, Farhan, Urwa and Qasim. Approximately three feet away from me sat Irfan Malik, the head of ARY Films who, along with Mohammad Jerjees Seja (JJ), is the godfather of the film — and whom the cast and crew couldn’t talk enough of.

Irfan and JJ had been talking about Tich Button for years now, shepherding first-time producer Urwa through the imminent difficulties she would face, I learn.

As Farhan sits down in front of me, I ask if I should refer to him as an actor or producer?

“Call me an actor. On set I was definitely an actor, now I am more of a producer.

“Also,” he adds with a whisper, followed by his patented wholehearted laugh, “hearing the producer’s title gives me anxiety, so definitely call me an actor.

“I am still going through the transition from a singer to an actor, and the actor to producer thing happened very much out of the blue,” Farhan continues. “Urwa was a great help. On set she was the producer. Me?!? I was such a selfish actor. If we packed up by 7:30pm, I was in my bed by 8:30pm. Then, I used to wake up at my call time of 5:30am, so all the struggles were divided between Qasim and Urwa.”

Made for each other, Rab Ne Bana Di Jorri, we wanted a name of that type, that lends itself to the story, because cultural differences, different countries, languages are irrelevant when it comes to love,” says director Qasim Ali Mureed

Tich Button went on set after the TV serial Suno Chanda came out, Farhan says, and frankly he can’t fathom how either Qasim or he got the confidence to make a movie.

“I think it was the confidence of working on a film script that made me shine as an actor in Suno Chanda. When you’re thinking about doing a film, and working with great minds, somewhere, somehow that helps in the way you act,” he reveals.

The trio — Qasim, Farhan, Urwa — read the script ad-infinitum, doctored it, added songs (they’re all quite music-minded, he says) and then sent it to Irfan and JJ. Then scenes got discussed again and more changes made yet again.

“It was during those script readings that I somehow ended up making Kaka Sahib [his character’s] accent,” Farhan discloses.

“We read the script so many times, and sometimes reading the lines, I would become Kaka Sahib, or Urwa would become him, so everyone knew each other’s dialogues. We literally [knew every dialogue by heart] by the time we went on the sets,” Farhan tells me.

“But something was still off,” he adds. “You see, I didn’t know this would happen to me on set,” he begins.

“Qasim has this tendency to begin his shoots from somewhere in the middle of the script. So, on our first day out there, we had a scene between Iman, me and Sonya. That scene was shot and, after we wrapped up, I called Qasim and Urwa and told them that I am not happy with my performance. Something was off. I was upset about it. I asked them if we could do the scene one more time.

“As a producer, how can I do that, I was told [that is, add an entire day’s cost of shooting to the budget and schedule],” he sighs.

“That night, I went to bed, took out my notepad and wrote a melody for Kaka’s scene for the next day. Kaka would be singing something — like how a Punjabi boy would be singing something — as he made his way down. It was such a simple thing, but that was when I actually got into the character,” Farhan says.

“The scene was reshot quite a while later, and this time, everyone on set clapped,” Farhan tells me.

Speaking of taking everyone by surprise, we have Iman Ali, the aforementioned wild card of the production, whose answers to questions are…well, let’s just say that they’re interesting. While the publicity people may be having nightmares on what Iman would say at what occasion, I found Iman’s spontaneity, and the proclivity to veer off on tangents, liberating.

“I cook — that’s my favourite thing to do, actually. I like to sleep a lot at home. I like to play with my cat. I like to spend time with my husband. Watch Netflix. I live also, apart from work. I have a life,” she answers.

My question was about who her character was, and why, being as choosy as she is, she opted to do Tich Button.

Speaking Punjabi, jovially picking on me, knowing well that I might need a translator, her attention turned here, there, everywhere, before it came back to the point.

“Oh pichhay i pai gaya si [Farhan kept pursuing me to do the role],” she jests. They had met once, and she was the only choice, I learn later.

“It’s not about choosy. How many choices does one get? There are but a handful of them,” Iman says.

“When I started performing this role, I found it interesting. I don’t play a Pakistani,” she says.

Apparently, the makers did not want her to speak even a line of English. They had a lot of arguments on this, she says.

Coming back to the question, she says that there are many elements and shades to her character, Leena.

What shades, I ask?

“Yellow, blue, red, green, purple,” Iman counts off with her fingers.

Laughing it off, Iman tells me that she doesn’t want to get into her serious mode. “There is a lot of seriousness going on, so I deal with it by not going into that zone of mine. Of course, I get serious when I start acting,” she says.

None of the characters she has done till date were close to the person she is in real life, she tells me.

“Even with Leena I had reservations, but I tried to play her as convincingly as possible. There is [a change in the character that] was a quicker change [in terms of storytelling] than what I anticipated,” she tells me.

“The thing is, I’ve written scripts, and I think I am really good at it. And I am an avid reader, so I believe in characters and characterisations,” Iman veers off, making a solid point about a lack of depth in characters we see in Pakistani films.

“You progress as a human being, but your core doesn’t change,” she continues. “For Leena, there is a progression from a blunt and practical girl, to finding the emotional part of her being, and how she transforms as a person. She believes in telling the truth. It was something I believe in as well,” she clarifies…finally.

There is a process Iman likes even better than acting, she says: dubbing.

“I enjoy dubbing a lot. I can literally change the expression, and add or subtract to it. Change the emotion of the scene by changing the vocals — as in, imagine that you see a character’s eyes are just beginning to well-up, and your voice sounds as if that character could start crying any second.”

Almost half-an-hour later, Iman confesses that she is the wrong person for the PR bandwagon, because she is not politically correct.

Is it by choice or instinct, I ask.

“By instinct,” she says. “By choice,” she adds a split second later. “It’s a blend of both,” she settles.

“When people become actors, they feel that they have to act every time. I don’t act when I am not getting paid,” she says. “The PR is work. I am being a good friend. And I have already acted. Saying that I’ve done something wonderful seems faaltu [superfluous and self-congratulatory].”

A minute later, Iman is whisked off to answer more rudimentary questions from other reporters.

Sitting with Irfan in the room waiting for the cast, the ARY Films’ chief, who also has the credit of Supervising Producer in Tich Button, tells me of the dedication of this very young team.

Once, he says, he came to a set somewhere in a town, and it was freezing cold. “I had three layers of clothes on and, out in the cold, I see two heroes [Farhan and Feroze] working out at 1.00am at night, because their scene was a few hours away.”

A little later, Urwa and Qasim finally round-off my Tich Button session.

“It was difficult, it was new, but I had my guardian angels, Irfan and JJ. They would often throw me into deep waters, and see how I cope,” the young actress-turned-producer tells me.

“Things happen you know, irrespective of how well prepared one is. We did our pre-production for a year-and-a-half, but you cannot control external factors such as the weather. Something or the other would happen and, for a producer, there is no other way about it: you have to wrap up that day, no matter what. You don’t get any other options,” she tells me, and I realise something inside the actress has changed.

“As an actor, I’ve become a lot more grateful about this other side of the business,” she adds.

“[Coming on set late, putting the producer through grief], although I have not done this, but if I did do it mistakenly in the past, now, after my Tich Button experience, it feels like such a crime,” Urwa says.

“Urwa had a unique look,” Qasim says, jesting with the young producer. “She didn’t sleep even once. She slept, maybe two, three hours a day.”

The decision to not act was a simple one, she says, answering one of my questions. “It was a new thing, and I didn’t want to be in two ships.” Besides, she continues, she may have always had the aptitude for the producing job. She tells me that she was all eyes and ears on what was happening behind the scenes of Na Maloom Afraad and Punjab Nahin Jaungi, and that awareness helped put her in the producer’s mindset.

I ask her why they chose to make a film in what may now be the go-to template for high budget movies — ie. rural Punjabi settings, conflicted romance, fallible heroes, family values and foreign locations. The template served Humayun Saeed twice, and once Wajahat Rauf, in churning out successful films. Was it because these aspects are a safe bet, I inquire?

“We never thought about it that way,” she begins. “It was just the way we treated the story that I feel we were never close to any of Humayun’s films. We never felt that any scene or song of ours was reflecting scenes or songs from Humayun’s — and that was a good feeling.

“But yes, we do look up to those films — they are hit films, and people loved them — so, it is not easy keeping yourself away from them. But I think, naturally, our process was to approach scenes with as much originality as we could muster.”

What about the next film, I ask.

“We started discussing our next film when we wrapped Tich Button. In fact, we even finished three songs for it. If Covid hadn’t happen, we might have even given you the first look of our next movie at the end of this one,” she says.

They’ve done the most difficult part, she says: made a team that they’re comfortable with. If she likes the script, and her director feels that she would fit in the role, she would even like to act in it as well, she tells me.

“Our spirits are high, and our script is ready. I hope the audience empowers us to spend money on our next venture. It is a very different template. We have so many stories to tell. I feel like this is just the beginning…but that’s the optimist in me.”

Tich Button comes out in cinemas on November 25, 2022.

The date for the film’s release has been corrected online to reflect changes made in distribution schedules after the article went to print.

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 30th, 2022

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