Tucked inside a bustling lane that climbs up a small hill to connect Karachi’s PECHS area to its main artery Sharae Faisal, Saeed Rizvi’s studio may look shopworn and unexceptional when the sun is up. At night, though, the place is thick with ominous airs.

The three-storey building, with its narrow corridors connected to dark doorways and darker rooms, doesn’t have a name. But its reputation as the innovative house for fantasy, science fiction and horror speaks for itself (though given the ambience, I hope not in spooky whispers).

A hotbed for production until just a few years back, the studio is the resting place for Rizvi’s 35mm positives (viewable prints of negatives). A spool of his last film, Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere — a 1999 released “quickie” production, as per Rizvi, starring a young Faysal Quraishi, Saud, Meera and Sahiba that was banned for its explicitness after a week or so of its run — rests on a Rewinder with a Tape Splicer (an editing and previewing machine for celluloid or polyester prints).

Sitting in a small blue room tucked in a pocket by the entrance, which doubles as an editing suite, Rizvi, a technically-inclined maverick film and ad-maker, and former chairman of the Pakistan Film Producers’ Association, tells Icon that he has not made a feature film since Dil Bhi Tera, but that may change soon.

Filmmaker Saeed Rizvi’s fantastical 1994 horror film Sarkata Insaan has been remastered and re-released in the cinemas. He speaks to Icon about why he went through the trouble, his career and his current obsessions…

His new film is titled Checkpost, a horror-survival-thriller whose screenplay is locked and ready to shoot … however, it may have to wait. The top-line item on Rizvi’s checklist right now is to remaster and archive his film assets — and if all goes well — bring them back to the cinemas.

“My greatest regret is that I’ve lost most of the negatives,” Rizvi grieves. Though efforts had been made to preserve the 35mm spools of his films, the prints had withered away with time, losing the fidelity of their colours — or worse, their perforations were torn away (perforations or perfs are the small square holes on the sides of every negative, that help move the negative on a camera or projector).

There are no archiving facilities in Pakistan, he laments. The copies one has are from telecined video cassette transfers, that have been ported over to VCDs and DVDs, that hardly have a quarter of the resolution of a typical mobile phone screen now. Most transfers are stamped with a watermark of a shop that isn’t there anymore at Rainbow Centre, a once-busy hub of pirated films in Karachi that has mostly become a dry-fruit market in the age of the internet.

If the picture was bad, the sound was worse; uneven in tone and quality. Everything was clumped together in a single, mono track, he says.

Rizvi, who has all but shifted to the US, has been talking about remastering his films for years now to this writer and, to be honest, his films deserve it.

Rizvi, the son of filmmaker Rafiq Rizvi, was a student when his father observed his fascination with light and shadows. Rizvi interned at the studio, learning the art of cinematography (it is his favourite aspect of filmmaking, one guesses) and, years later, founded Novitas, his film banner, and began a career in advertising filmmaking in 1973.

The commercials he made between ’73 and 1994 were legendary — at least to anyone remembering PTV. The jingles were infectious — from Red and White cigarettes (when tobacco commercials were deemed okay to air), to Yamaha Motorcycles (the ‘Ye Yamaha’ jingle was sung by Ahmed Rushdie), to ‘double action’ Brite, all Rooh Afza ads from the ’70s to the ‘90s, Cherry Blossom shoe polish, GFC Fans, Mayfair Bubble Gum, and the iconic ‘Meri mutthi mein band hai kya’ [What’s hidden in my palm?] Naz Paan Masala commercials.

 Filmmaker Saeed Rizvi during his younger days | Photo by the writer
Filmmaker Saeed Rizvi during his younger days | Photo by the writer

Sometime in the late 1980s, enamoured by foreign filmmakers — he was always enamoured by international cinema, picking up techniques to reverse engineer it for Pakistan, he tells Icon — he made a commercial for a real estate project called Saadi Town, which featured a flying saucer.

This led to Rizvi’s 1989 blockbuster Shani, starring Babra Sharif and Sheri Malik. The film, about an extraterrestrial who takes on a dead man’s likeness, was unlike anything Pakistan had done till that point … or ever since. The film defied conventions. It had no songs and a lot of visual effects — the latter all done by Rizvi, who had been honing his visual effects skills for years.

The international outlook didn’t force out local aesthetics, however, he says. Shani kept human emotions and the love of family and relationships at its core, he affirms. These same details were very much a part of Sarkata Insaan [The Headless Man, 1994], technically his third film that became his second release.

“I had started Tilismi Jazeera [The Enchanted Island, released 1996] before Sarkata Insaan. It was Pakistan’s only collaboration with the then-USSR. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did Tilismi Jazeera. We had to stop production, because there was no way to finish the film until years later.”

Rizvi laments not being able to finish Tilismi Jazeera the way it was meant to. The original script was phenomenal, he says. “The story and the production were compromised, and we couldn’t find the actors when we went back to finish the movie. The official collaboration was over, so I had to do it with my own resources,” he says.

In the interim, he stumbled on the idea of animated corpses while he was in the US — the inspiration came from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and a university lecture — and he made Sarkata Insaan with Babra Sharif, Ghulam Mohiuddin and Izhar Qazi, with the late Muhammad Qavi Khan playing a mad scientist.

It was an unexpectedly cool blend of science fiction and horror — though people often only remember the horror aspect of the story. The film has recently been re-released in cinemas, so audiences can reassess their memories.

Rizvi says that the core story in Sarkata Insaan was always about good versus evil. The hero had an internal conflict, and couldn’t let himself be overpowered by malevolent forces.

As in Shani, Rizvi says that he wanted to do something different, but not at the expense of repeating himself. The four films he made between 1989 to 1999 had different concepts; all three of his unconventional films were blockbusters (Dil Bhi Tera would have been one too, if it wasn’t dragged out of cinemas, he says).

Rizvi’s films are chock-a-block with unconventionalities. The song Dum Dama Dum from Sarkata Insaan, featuring Sharif and Mohiuddin’s characters jigging with Pink Panther and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, took months of long hard work, Rizvi says, and he had to oversee every aspect of the animation, from drawing to in-betweens (a technical term for animation timing between frames).

The inspiration for the idea, he tells Icon, was Mary Poppins — in particular, the song Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious that married footage of real-life actors with animated characters.

Rizvi says that the process of remastering Sarkata Insaan took four months at various facilities in the US. The print was scanned at a 6k resolution, with minor corrections (one can see minor dust and scratches from the original 35mm stock), and there have been minor additions of stock shots, as one can see in the trailer.

However, the film’s biggest update is its sound. The single bogged mono-track was updated to separate 5.1 Digital Dolby channels, Rizvi says. The clarity of sound ‘re-animates’ the film, he says with a sly wink.

The thing is, Rizvi says, returning to a point he made earlier, that it didn’t have to be him who took the initiative to keep Pakistan’s cinema’s history alive; it is the government’s responsibility. Films, in their original format, haven’t been preserved. Heritage has been lost, he says.

“The Indian government made a film division one year after it separated from Pakistan. It took us 76 years to realise the power cinema has,” Rizvi states.

“Cinema is a diverse, motivating art form,” he continues. “Why do you think it is called a collective art form? You will find singers, composers, writers, actors, photographers, technicians — that is why it is called collective art! We didn’t do anything! We live in a country where less than 150 screens are governed by three censor boards,” he sighs.

Perhaps, Rizvi’s initiative with Sarkata Insaan may reach the ears of the right people, and his remaining films — two of them actually relevant to the culture and heritage of movies — may be remastered and exhibited, loud and proud, by the Pakistani government.

It may be a fantastical supposition, but so were the premises of Rizvi’s films, before he made them.

The remastered version of Sarkata Insaan is playing in cinemas since September 15

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 17th, 2023

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