There is the usual hubbub around the table that sits the young cast and makers of John. The film, released Pakistan-wide from July 14, is a gritty crime drama set in the back alleys of Karachi’s lower-middle class areas, which also tells the love story of a young Christian janitor, John, and a free-spirited maid, Maria.
The faces sitting at the table are quite familiar. There’s Aashir Wajahat (son of filmmaker Wajahat Rauf of Karachi Se Lahore and Chhalawa fame), who returns to acting in a serious, perhaps-breakthrough young adult role; his co-star Romaisa Khan, a famed Tik-Toker turned actress; the YouTuber Raza Samo and the writer-director Babar Ali, an NCA-dropout who learned filmmaking from the internet and refined his skills by making short films.
John also stars Saleem Mairaj, the applause-worthy actor who is now a regular staple in Pakistani films (his filmography spans far and wide from Laal Kabootar to Dum Mastam, Ghabrana Nahin Hai, Chaudhry, Lafangey, Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad, Dorr, VIP and the upcoming Daldal).
It’s a unique assemblage of actors and social media celebrities, but one understands the necessity. The youngsters, and their respective internet followings, will at least gain traction on what is a small alternate-cinema title — at least in the publicity department. The trailer, for example, has five times as many views on the young cast’s individual YouTube channels than its distributor Hum Films, and their sister channel Hum TV.
Writer-director Babar Ali’s film John, released on July 14, has a narrative that pushes characters to fall in a grey area, with every character having its own set of moralities
Still, despite knowing the worth of his social media following, Raza Samo was at a loss when Babar Ali approached him to play Fazal. “This was the exact same thing I asked [Babar], that why did he consider a YouTuber for a major role?”
Babar told him that he saw the potential — probably because, according to Raza, the five-minute videos he used to make had stories that showcased his acting.
“Fazal is a jolly character — who is not a comic relief,” Raza adds. “He has evil tendencies, and his job is [to spread] qatal-o-ghaarat-giri [murder and mayhem]. He has all the potential to be a big criminal, so, it’s quite different from my YouTube videos.”
Romaisa’s story diverges a teeny-tiny bit from Raza’s. As a YouTuber, one gets to make one’s own content, whereas TikTokers are generalised as non-actors who only do lip-sync and parody, she says.
As someone who knows Romaisa since she was very young — her late father, the veteran stage and television actor Tanveer Khan, and his family used to be this writer’s neighbours until a few years ago — the TikTok career didn’t [and still doesn’t] make sense to my old-school brain. Yet, she had the genes, and it worked.
Through social media, it took just five years for her to transition into acting, she says, knowing fully well how hard the struggles are to break into the entertainment business.
Romaisa tells Icon that she auditioned for the role, and then when she got it, often jokingly complained to the director. “I would [jest] that the film be called Maria,” she says. She plays, in her words, “a cute character”, but was apprehensive because she is the only girl in a gangster-type movie. She learned of the scope and relevance of her character after the cast went through acting workshops.
“[The character] John’s actions stem from Maria. If the movie is impacted by your character, especially if you are a type of protagonist, then it’s a big opportunity”, she says.
“I am glad we went prepared on set,” Aashir says. They had been rehearsing for two months and, because of the prep, he had a very good idea what the character should be.
John, where Aashir plays the titular character, comes after a break for the young actor, whose prior roles were sometimes attributed to nepotism. He was acting and singing in his father’s films, but for John neither Showcase, Wajahat’s banner, nor any credited involvement from Wajahat seems to be the case.
Aashir started as an actor with Karachi Se Lahore in 2015, then did his first song in 2018. “The reason why I shifted to music was because of my age. There are few opportunities, acting-wise, when you are 16 or 17. You get roles when you are a [younger] kid, and you get roles when you’re an adult.”
John had been shot a while ago (it was slated for release last year, when this writer first saw the trailer) and Aashir’s dramatic transformation as a burgeoning young actor — again under Showcase films — might have been credited to television.
Aashir talks about following the director’s vision because he has written the story (the project had been refined by Babar for four years, one understands) — but the actors only read the final script at the very end. “Of course, you bring your own flavour, but who else would know the character better [than the director]!” he exclaims.
“John is a very vulnerable character. It is the expression, body language — how a vulnerable man walks differently, how he talks differently, how he behaves differently — that’s what makes the character a creative challenge to pull off,” Aashir explains.
Like all indie films, John’s narrative pushes characters to fall in a grey area, and every character has its own set of moralities, according to Babar. John itself was the toughest part to write, primarily because the character doesn’t talk much, the writer-director tells Icon.
“If John has innocence, you also feel at times that he is wrong,” he expounds. “According to the rules of screenwriting, the protagonist’s action should shape the course of the film. I broke that rule. The changes in the story come from Daud [Mairaj’s character], Fazal, Maria. It’s the universe’s reaction and John is stuck in the middle of it.”
Babar dropped out of NCA because he “wasn’t comfortable.” His areas of interest were screenwriting and visual storytelling. Babar “curated” what he wanted to learn from the internet — where one can learn everything today — watching the how-tos of filmmaking, and cramming wisdom from Martin Scorsese, Anurag Kashyap, Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher’s interviews.
“You cannot make a film until you go ahead and do it,” he says, contradicting the nature of traditional, degree-based education that’s stuck in the classrooms.
“If someone asked me to make a five-minute film, I’d make a 40-minute one, because I felt that just getting the audience’s attention for five minutes would not help me hook audiences for a longer time.”
Babar has made 20 short films till now, he says.
Babar’s expectations are quite high and low at the same time, given the market for gritty indie thrillers. Post the revelations Eid-ul-Azha brought, where the UK-originated Punjabi-language Indian film Carry on Jatta 3 subjugated domestic releases, Babar has accepted the audiences’ tilt towards a particular type of cinema. Still, he feels stories in their barest form are often universal in nature.
“It is a journey of characters — and that journey is universal. Love is universal.” Citing Bareilly Ki Barfi — a film set in Bareilly, that people watched worldwide — Babar says, similarly, that John “would not just connect to Karachi. It would connect to the world.”
Since the film is backed by international partners IYMS Films (an offshoot of the International Youth Media Summit), which collaborated with Babar earlier on the short-film Pari of Pokhara, the film will literally go out and connect to the world.
John released on July 14 via Hum Films
Published in Dawn, ICON, July 16th, 2023