A week-long phone conversation with Shaan Shahid after the release of Arth — The Destination, led to a trip to Lahore in late 2017. We had been speaking for hours every day, and the bromance was mutual (that is, I hope it was) — one born entirely out of respect.

“You are the only person in Karachi that got my film,” I remember him saying the first time we spoke, after he read Arth’s review in Icon. The actor was still feeling the aftereffects of his run in with the city’s press.

The plan was to stay in Lahore for a day, briefly meet friends and family, catch up with Shaan and return to Karachi.

My “abduction” on arrival was swift, and the reception was warm.

Shaan Shahid’s Zarrar has been six-years-in-the-making. Mohammad Kamran Jawaid provides a first-hand account of his own involvement in the densely packed, globetrotting, spy-thriller about international terrorist plots to destabilise the sovereignty of Pakistan

“He has been happy for a week”, Amna Bandey, Shaan Shahid’s wife, told me when I had lunch with his family (his eldest daughter, Bahisht, I learned later, has the family genes of filmmaking; right now she is studying at the NCA despite earlier plans to go abroad).

The lunch led to the screening of the then-in-assembly edit of Zarrar… and little did I fathom that it would lead to a long-standing association with the film.

Zarrar is a densely-packed, globetrotting spy-thriller about international terrorist plots to destabilise the sovereignty of Pakistan, with belligerent messages against the absolute power and corruption of politicians and the press — two professions Shaan feels strongly about.

Shot in Pakistan, Turkey and the United Kingdom by Timothy Hallam Wood way back in 2016, with music by Thomas Farnon (both are from the UK), Zarrar emulates the texture of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. The idea it puts forward is ambitious, the narrative it lays out is thick and confabulating, and the resulting messages, painfully truthful.

Despite these intelligent connotations, when this writer saw the movie, he felt stupefied.

This early cut of Zarrar was still being “massaged” — that is, the individual subplots were being cut down, shuffled and re-edited to create a clearer narrative.

This happens all the time in movies. Sometimes what works on paper doesn’t work on the edit table.

The movie runtime neared four hours, and its intermission came in at around two hours’ time — that is, routinely when movies end — and Shaan Shahid, the main selling point of Zarrar, had negligible screen time in the first half.

Most actors criticise Shaan for promoting himself. I found it to be quite the opposite.

Zarrar’s plot has a smattering of villains whose interconnected actions spin the narrative every which way.

Nayyer Ejaz plays the agenda-driven politician named Salman Shah; Shafqat Cheema is an Indian agent named Ravinder Kaushik in a Muslim clerics’ disguise; Adnan Butt, also one of Zarrar’s producers, is the intimidating RAW hitman Mahaveer Singh Rajpoot; Zia Khan plays Zia Khan, an insurgent in Pakistan’s north-western areas; David Lawrence is David Mann, a high-ranking agent of chaos — a terrorist and disruptor of global politics; Tamer Güven is Romanov Kovovich, a Russian arms dealer, and the late Rasheed Naz plays Fahimullah Khan, the captured head of a militant movement who designs grand plans of mayhem from the comfort of his jail cell.

Kiran Malik plays her namesake (note the repeating pattern in the names), a news anchor who has lost her way and who ultimately strikes an emotional chord with Zarrar (Shaan), becoming a pet-project of salvation for him.

Kiran, who surprisingly delivers a series of monologue-driven scenes with the right intensity, for all intents and purposes, is one of the villains in Zarrar, and a late V for Vendetta-esque scene — a dramatic highpoint in the story — leads to the strained, romantic arc of the story.

Zarrar, meanwhile, works for an organisation called Zarrar (“Who says one can’t have the same name for both the man and the clandestine organisation,” Shaan once argued).

Working with his father figure-ish superior played by Nadeem Baig, in a refreshingly different role, driving a sports car and wearing aviator shades, Zarrar hides himself in a container, only to resurface and foil the interconnected ploys against Pakistan, and then hide again.

Note the words: interconnected ploys, for they presented a key problem. Because of their intertwined nature, following the subplots became a hassle.

Shaan, sitting a foot away, grabbed my arm when Zarrar’s intermission hit. My expressions, shifting between mystification and blankness, could have been a dead giveaway.

“You don’t like it?” he asked outright, the genuineness of his tone hard to dismiss.

“No, let it play out to the end,” I said, a little hesitant on calling out the apparentness of a few critical hitches.

The film was resumed by the then-editor of the film Majid Cheema (the film also credits Imran Khan, the prior editor), and gradually, minute by minute, Zarrar’s story started locking into place like a tricky jigsaw puzzle.

Notwithstanding the overbearing intricacy of its plot, there is no denying the commercial viability of Zarrar. It is designed to be an entertainer — one that is bursting with action, passionate with song and resolute on context.

Despite my flummoxed state, in relative terms, the version of Zarrar I saw was a better film than O21, and an entirely different endeavour from Waar — the two films that influenced, and perhaps, still define Shaan’s approach to Pakistani cinema.

He aims to make kinetic, fast-paced, theme-laden contemporary action movies — and specifically in Zarrar’s case — one, whose primary language is English (both O21 and Waar had the same drawbacks).

By the end credits, akin to Arth, when Shaan ties up every loose thread of the story, one couldn’t deny the appeal of the film … yet, speaking unbiasedly, the nearly four-hour film still necessitated a heck of a cleaning job.

Again, Shaan could gauge what I was thinking (or perhaps, the expressions were still so loud that he couldn’t miss them). A copy and pen were asked for by this writer, and an impromptu plan of cutting down the narrative, with act breaks, conflicts, resolves, high points, and general housekeeping editorial aspects were jotted down.

Surprising everyone in the room — including his wife, his associate director Riyan Durrani (who has since graduated as an ad-filmmaker) and his editor — Shaan tells me to edit the film.

Jaws dropped, eyes widened and the room went suddenly silent.

Shaan has always been the omnipotent master of his film, and is infamous for not letting anyone touch what he directs. His director of photography and his editors mostly follow his instructions to the letter, lighting and cutting scenes the way he wants.

Unlike most filmmakers, he is prone to question every scene’s perspective and placement in the overarching plot of the film (that is also what adds more time to his edits). Extending that very courtesy to an outsider he just met is impossible to comprehend.

So, this leads to a disclaimer: this writer, despite his meagre recognition as a critic, comes from a filmmaking background, and he did edit two entire timelines of Zarrar (version 17 and 18, if memory serves), lopping off a little more than an hour in three week-long trips (my first one-day stay became a six-day-long trip).

The undertaking came from a place of respect. No monetary compensation was made, nor sought, save the request for a consulting or co-producer’s credit, which was conveyed to Zarrar’s financiers, Jehaan Films — a swell, intelligent bunch of people.

However, nearly five years later, hearing of versions reaching one hundred, this writer preferred his credit-less state (the number could be an exaggeration, but as far as I know, the film was still being edited till last year).

In one of the film’s key scenes, Zarrar gives Kiran a copy of a book titled The Truth, which endorses one of Shaan’s personal principals, whose support I lean into when writing the next part of this article. After all, as Zarrar stresses to Kiran, one should always stand by what is true.

Zarrar was shot for the edit (ie. shooting the exact number of scenes in the script) and then some. On the edit machine, one needed only to ask for a scene of a particular character in a particular situation, and lo and behold it was fished out by Majid.

Still, no matter how extensive the collection of scenes were that never made the cut, or how Shaan spins Zarrar around with their help, the story would not change.

When we met a few weeks back, Shaan told me that Zarrar “has become so slick” that I’ll love it. Maybe I will (I have yet to see the final product).

Zarrar’s story, however, is bigger than my subjectively brief association with its post-production.

One key aspect of Zarrar harks back to a question I asked in my review of Arth: why is it that Shaan has to make a film for himself? And why doesn’t anyone else make a film for him?

In my last meeting, Shaan professes that he doesn’t know the answer to that.

“People have this idea of me, that I am unapproachable, or that I am difficult to work with. You tell me, is that true?” he asks in return, to validate his query.

I don’t think so.

In my time with the actor, I realise that he is hungry for the few basic things most actors in Pakistan cry out for: good roles with depth where he could challenge himself, and the chance to tell strong contemporary stories that do not belittle his sensibilities.

He doesn’t want to say “no” to roles, yet won’t respond to filmmakers that play his presence down (it was the core issue he had with the Hassan Waqas Rana directed Yalghaar — a movie he didn’t show up at the premiere of).

This is Shaan Shahid we’re talking about, after all — whose range and acting prowess no one doubts; the only remaining “star” from the Lollywood era.

In one scene, Cheema’s Ravinder, who feels trapped in Pakistan, begs his foreign masters to call him back, arguing that Ramazan is round the corner and he, being a fake cleric, would have to observe fasting.

The scene is genuinely funny, but the next one, where Zarrar foils Ravinder’s operation, shows Cheema delivering an intense reaction, where he all but scratches off his facial hair in angry retaliation to the identity he must wear for his terrorist activities.

I ask Shaan, who, as he usually does, sits a mere feet away from me, on how he pulled that performance out of Cheema.

To my utter surprise, the timbre of Shaan’s voice changed, his fingers stretched, contorted and attempted to scratch his three-day scruff off. There was little to no difference between Shaan and Cheema at that time — and it was scarily real.

Seeing the actor give out a flawless performance in mere seconds, one reverts to the question above: why isn’t he given roles where he can push himself?

The dilemma doesn’t apply only to Shaan. Humayun Saeed, unfortunately, also has to design roles to maintain the trajectory of his fame (Humayun did Project Ghazi and look how that turned out).

Shaan, sadly, doesn’t have that support. Like the tagline for Zarrar goes, it is “The War You Don’t See” where both sides are to blame.

Zarrar’s long journey from the edit table includes distribution hassles (the current distributor is Amjad Rasheed of the Distribution Club), and right now, one notices a lack of PR buzz.

The songs (one of them is the brilliant number Judaai sung by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan) are now being publicised just weeks before the film’s release, sans any buzz.

For a big movie to not have any ‘bang’ in its publicity, is criminal.

The lack of publicity, the muted release campaign, and the non-registration of songs repeats the case of Arth, whose songs, incredible as they were, came out days before its release.

The decision to not fly to Karachi for a publicity run also compounds matters (whoever is to be blamed for this decision, needs to look at the bigger picture). It not only gives the press in the city an added avenue to react, but lessens the media hype the movie desperately needs. Neither Shaan nor Zarrar need that headache right now.

Zarrar is definitely a different type of narrative for Pakistani cinema. Its current version may still have shortfalls — again, I haven’t seen it, and also which film does not? — but the questions it raises, and the filmmaking it promises to deliver, could be the out-of-norm ‘different’, audiences often enquire about.

Zarrar is currently playing in cinemas. The filmmakers assert that it is not financed or backed by ISPR

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 27th, 2022

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