There is something about Essa Khan — or as he’s also called, Omer Essa and Omar Khan — that defines the words “idiosyncratic Pakistani filmmaker.”

His tics come bundled with his impatient enthusiasm — as if they are a pre-packaged deal that can’t be sold individually — as are his naivety and imprudence, which if one knows about debuting, green filmmakers, are also bundled traits.

Sitting in the corner of a popular coffee shop on Zamzama Boulevard, Karachi, and then scooting to the adjoining nook to sequester Shehroz Sabzwari, the lead actor of his upcoming film Babylicious, from the masses’ field of view, Essa, as he’s called by his cast, tells me a likely personal story that jumps backwards and forward in time.

In a nutshell (and from what I gather from the out-of-order facts): his folks didn’t understand his desire for filmmaking; he studied economics at the University of Edinburgh (because, the school did not have a film programme at the time), and somehow found a love for Brando, Goddard and Bergman; and that when he came back to Pakistan, his approach to filmmaking (or rather the understanding of it), all but shattered into a gazillion pieces.

Essa jumped between several jobs in media, from working on the channels Business Plus, MTV, Aag, as a director, writer and even actor, getting his hands dirty from making sitcoms and documentaries.

One man’s break-up story, Babylicious has had a rocky road to becoming a motion picture, over more than a decade. But the commitment of its writer-director and its star cast means that it may finally be in cinemas on Valentine’s Day

“I was struggling,” he tells me as he devours a croissant and I gulp down the first of my several cups of coffee.

“I was the jack-of-all-trades, but master of none. People couldn’t figure out who I was. I was also making bad decisions,” he says, reflecting and accepting his past.

Essa made some good telefilms, and his resume included sitcoms but, try as he might, he couldn’t get serials, even when he offered to raise finances for them.

“It wasn’t my game,” he says, confounded by the industry in angsty retrospect.

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD

He had it the day he met Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar. The networks wanted Qamar, even if Qamar didn’t give them the story, the title, or the timeline.

“[Qamar] wanted 11 lacs [1.1 million rupees] on the table, and told me to return next year. When I stressed for a one-liner for the channels, [Qamar] said ‘Unki ye auqaat’! [How dare they!],” he says.

When it came to the title of the show, Qamar told him that he will let Essa know ‘Jab aamad hogi’ [When it comes to him]. Knowing all this, the networks were still enthusiastic to sign on the writer.

At that moment, Essa made a resolute decision to make a project without anyone’s consent or endorsement, and Babylicious was born.

“There was a Sabiha, and I am Omar. The film is basically an adaptation of my break-up story. The day we broke up, I started writing my own happy ending,” Essa says.

At its core, Babylicious asks a simple question about real-life romances: “Do you love someone and then accommodate them into your life, or do you accommodate someone and then fall in love with them? It all depends on the side of the fence you sit on,” he says.

The youth-oriented romance drama about young, unadulterated, immature love looks like a cool, expensive, telco commercial — though it wasn’t always like that.

“It began with a scene that I wrote the way it happened,” he says, turning to Shehroz, who had joined us in the interim and didn’t interrupt. “Originally, it was a 40-page script for a telefilm that I wrote in two weeks. I was just desperate to tell my story,” he adds.

The year was late 2012, and Shehroz had just started easing into television — but he, and later Syra Yusuf, who joined the film — didn’t want Essa to waste the material on the small screen.

The story had feature film potential, both actors told Essa, and subsequent drafts later, re-written with the aid of their script doctor Sirah Haq (Saat Din Mohabbat In), the material began to exhibit a rich depth it didn’t have before.

“We began with the idea of making a small, one crore [10 million rupees] film,” he elaborates, while Shehroz continues to stay mum, waiting for his turn. Alas, the people who ran the film business — or had a scant measure of its workings — were there to deflate the novice filmmaker’s enthusiasm.

“When I arranged one crore, I was told by the industry that it took two to make a film, then two became four,” Essa says, a tic shaking his body in disbelief.

IN PRODUCTION

The production officially began in 2018, working in fits and starts, as Essa gathered the funds to slowly finish shooting spells and post-production work.

Shehroz’s last shot was filmed just weeks ago, and the film is wrapping its dubbing just now.

“Everything falls into place when your heart is in the right place,” Shehroz says. “You just have to give it time — five years, ten years, whatever it takes.”

Syra, Shehroz, and the cast and the crews’ unflinching commitment made Babylicious happen, I am told time and again. Facing any and every difficulty one can think of — from line producers squandering and embezzling funds in the first nine days of production, to personal setbacks (the lead actors, newly married in 2012 when the film started, separated in 2019, as did the director with his wife), to Essa selling his own assets to fund the film — the film’s long journey, surprisingly, lucked out more often than not.

Waqar Zaka helped finance a chunk of the film (his name is on the credits). When the Pakistani shoot squandered 225 million in its first 20 days, a follow-up shooting spell in Bahrain helped in cost-effectively completing a good portion of the schedule (the 30-day shoot only cost them 275 million, and included travel, accommodation, an international crew and lots of extras).

Syra Yousuf and Shehroz Sabzwari with the director of the film Omer Essa
Syra Yousuf and Shehroz Sabzwari with the director of the film Omer Essa

There have been sacrifices as well. Syra had to leave projects and, in one particular case, Shehroz had to walk away from a commercial. Essa was adamant that the shoot, which clashed with the commercial, couldn’t be rescheduled by even one day, the actor tells me.

Given the karmic seesaw of good news, bad news associated with the film, when Shehroz arrived on set, the cinematographer wasn’t happy with the lighting set-up, and the shoot was cancelled nonetheless. Talk about losing a good paycheque.

THE HOPES OF SHEHROZ

“A lot of things went wrong, but more than that, a lot of things went right,” Shehroz attests, as he silently dealt with apprehensions during the years. “We were all ready to make compromises, despite the trepidations. When we sign a movie, an actor expects it to come out next season. No one waits six seasons.

“Also,” Shehroz interjects his own words, “we had to stay in character, because there was no knowing when Essa would line-up the schedule.”

The film’s 80-day schedule was broken down in one- or two-day spells, I’m told.

“What kept us going was the realisation that we weren’t just getting stuff done and over with as if it was a burden,” he added. “Whatever we saw in the monitor’s playback had class. It satisfied the itch a young actor has.”

Given what he was being offered in Pakistan, Babylicious — and the film’s eventual team — turned out be just the thing he was looking for.

“I studied at the London Film Academy with a major in cinema studies and a minor in acting,” Shehroz tells me.

“Cinema studies [a prerequisite for film historians and critics], opened my eyes to Italian, Japanese and even Bengali cinema — to Satyajit Ray and Kurosawa — and I realised that filmmaking is a simple and honest profession. If you’re honest with a film, there is no way it won’t resonate with the audience.” Ergo his decision to stay committed to the project.

“I would not be able to sleep at night, if I didn’t stay till the end,” he says.

The actor also counts his blessing. “Getting to do a film after Chain Aaye Na’s disastrous box-office run is nothing if not a miracle,” he says.

Owning the film, Shehroz says: “Noor sahib [Syed Noor] taught me film language. I did a great short course during Chain Aaye Na’s 50 days. It taught me how to deliver the nuance of cinema and the pace of performance, that hopefully gave Essa what he wanted.”

Essa gave Shehroz, Faisal Rehman and Michael J. Fox, as reference. While Shehroz hardly ever fought — there had been some debates he tells me — Syra, on the other hand, didn’t care for references.

SATISFYING SYRA

“How would you show an actor a scene from another actor, and ask them to deliver something similar to like that,” Syra tells Icon when I meet her at her place.

Syra, I learn, is much more inquisitive and fastidious than Shehroz. Satisfying her qualms was a task unto itself, one deduces.

“It’s easy to typecast me,” Syra tells me. “[According to the industry] if you want a bubbly, chirpy girl-next-door, then that’s Syra. Thankfully, I’m not that in Babylicious. It is a very real character with realistic shades of grey that normal people have.”

Behind the scenes of Babylicious
Behind the scenes of Babylicious

“I find it difficult to manage and juggle different characters and their mindsets,” she tells me when I ask why she doesn’t sign that many movies or serials (the actress recently returned to television with the Nadeem Baig directed show Sinf-i-Aahan).

“Also, I need a good director to tell me exactly what he wants,” she says.

“I am very finicky,” she acknowledges, “and if I see that the director is more finicky than me, then I can relax,” she says joking.

Syra tells me that the script was initially written with just Omar’s perspective. “We had to give Sabiha reasons to legitimise her choices and why is she looking for practicality in her life. There are times when you will feel that Sabiha is a little selfish and heartless — but I also think when you watch the movie, you’ll understand why she does what she does,” Syra elaborates.

As we talk, two hand-written notes from Nooreh, Syra and Shehroz’s daughter, slip into the room from beneath the door.

“I don’t think I like the trailer,” the note read, in retrospect. Seeing her parents together on the screen made the nine-year-old uncomfortable.

THE QUESTION ON EVERYONE’S MIND

Syra went over and comforted her young daughter. It was a quiet, heartwarming moment of good parenting that brought up the question everyone in news media would be asking: how are the two actors handling their separation while doing Babylicious’ publicity run?

If you ask me: quite well.

What I see are mature parents of a girl who know the professional value of the commitment they make.

“When you clarify certain things in your head, about who you want to be, setting up priorities becomes easier,” Syra tells me.

The priorities of dealing with their daughter — whose school activities they both attend together — and how they would approach the completion of Babylicious, were drawn quite early during Syra and Shehroz’s separation.

“Someone else’s money is on the line. That is a responsibility. It is a big deal,” Shehroz had told me earlier. “To be a film actor in 2023 is an opportunity and an achievement. It had to be bigger than us. We were very clear that whatever we had to do, you won’t see a wrinkle on our foreheads.

“It’s about holding yourself accountable — and when you do that, you automatically end up making fair decisions.”

When one draws parallels, everything boils down to commitments — whether it’s about love, life or professional obligations.

Babylicous has been in Syra and Shehroz’s life since before Nooreh was born, and it has been in Essa’s life for longer than that. Collectively, it’s their baby that will finally make its way to cinemas the weekend leading to Valentine’s Day — if, that is, it locks a distributor.

But that’s a discussion for another day.

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 22th, 2023

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