Sonya Hussyn and Feroze Khan
Sonya Hussyn and Feroze Khan

In the dead cold of the creepily silent night, one could hear the wild roar of cheers from the large, dark building that is the Women’s Sports Complex — a brutalist designed, hexagonal-shaped, brick-and-mortar bit of architecture tucked between nondescript alleyways in Gulshan-i-Iqbal, Karachi.

The shrieks split the dark stillness of the night in two, and then died, as if someone had twirled down the volume knob on an old hi-fi stereo.

One noticed bright lights dancing inside the big windows on the top of the building. A handful of loiterers littered the corridors inside, the weight of their bodies propped against the pillars holding up the complex, their faces lit up by the luminescence of their phones, their attention sapped and unbothered by anyone asking directions.

Thankfully, one didn’t have to contend with the half-flabbergasted looks for long, as the cheers erupted again, and a young man — assistant to the production, judging by his rush — sprinted out of the huge door that opened into the humongous auditorium.

Director Anjum Shehzad’s Akhaarra is about creating and celebrating role models in sports as well as telling stories that can change the way television productions are being made. Icon goes behind the scenes on the set.

The place defied the night outside, booming with rowdy voices, thick with fake-fog and radiating with the body heat of around 200 men and women sitting, standing and yelling at the behest of assistant directors.

Kashif Hussain learning the ropes from action choreographer Azam Bhatti
Kashif Hussain learning the ropes from action choreographer Azam Bhatti

Smack in the centre of the hall stood a 30x30 foot-long, octagonal, mixed martial arts (MMA) cage of plywood flooring and spray-painted wire mesh, which would soon be spotted by fake blood spit and shaken by hard body slams.

A few feet away, following the trail of snake-like cables on the floor, watching the two large monitors, sat Anjum Shehzad, the director of Akhaarra, the about-to-debut 26-episode drama series from Green Entertainment.

Little had changed about Anjum since this writer last met him … other than the network he works with, that is; the show, back then, was Pehli Si Mohabbat for ARY Digital, today, a steady stream of his directorial works — Idiot, Jindo, 22 Qadam — are with Green (he has also directed Sevak for Vidly and the upcoming Abdullahpur Ka Devdas for Zee5).

It is a likely Rocky-esque story whose easy-to-adapt stereotypes have never been made with Pakistani storytelling sensibilities.

Green Entertainment, this writer had learned years ago, was created with the forward-thinking ideology of catering to the youth, without discarding familial values that draw women to television. It is deemed a wild game-changer — and a cause for worry from what I’ve heard — for domestic networks.

Sonya Hussyn, waiting for her cue
Sonya Hussyn, waiting for her cue

For Anjum though, the channel gives him a rare opportunity: to explore genres and stories that rival networks would wave away for being outrageous in both concept and logistics.

Take Akhaarra as an example. The story is about pride and prejudice, romance, rage, retribution and a return to grace of a contumacious youth. The youngster hails from a family of wrestlers and overcomes his own self in a challenge that starts from muddy akhaarras (wrestling rings) in the backwater towns in Punjab, and ends up in the rings of the MMA in Karachi.

It is a likely Rocky-esque story, whose easy-to-adapt stereotypes have never been made with Pakistani storytelling sensibilities.

Misha Saqib, the head of the project, who at times yells like an authoritarian headmistress of a rowdy school (she is quite good-natured and smiling when she doesn’t have a microphone in hand), tells Icon that the show has been shooting since late April.

Misha has hard disks upon hard disks filled with data, because Anjum shoots with three cameras — when the show requires it, that is. Working with Anjum since Abdullahpur Ka Devdas, she jokes that a mutual friend of theirs once said that her jahez (dowry) will be made of the hundreds of terabytes of hard disks that house data worth tens of millions of rupees!

Imran Raza of Green Entertainment
Imran Raza of Green Entertainment

On this particular day, cinematographer Sameer Hamdani (whom this writer has known since his first film, Siyaah, where he wore just about every hat save the director’s and cinematographer’s) pivots a RED Helim 8k (an old but still widely used workhorse cinema camera) to find his frame.

On a jib a few feet away, swings a Sony FX6 cinema camera, its setting cranked to match the RED, and another feet or two away flies the compact mirrorless camera, the Sony A7SIII on a gimbal, which also features the same cinematic setting as its elder brother.

The three cameras have Arri Ultra Prime cinema lenses mounted on to them via adaptors. The image they produce on Anjum’s screen is of a film worthy of cinema release.

“It very well was a film,” Anjum says, until he shifted some elements around for a serial. “I had to take some things out of it, but the end result had to be cinematic.”

With Feroze Khan, Sonya Hussyn, Shamoon Abbasi, Yasra Rizvi, Kashif Hussain and Nazarul Hassan on board amongst others, Akhaarra certainly was cast like a film.

Shamoon Abbasi, playing Feroze Khan’s coach
Shamoon Abbasi, playing Feroze Khan’s coach

“Feroze was my first choice,” Anjum tells Icon. They had worked together in the film Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai and the hit shows Khaani and Romeo Weds Heer. This, however, is the first time Anjum is working with Sonya and Shamoon — the love interest and mentor, respectively, to Feroze’s character, Dil Sher.

“Anjum just froze for a few seconds when he first saw me at the Green Entertainment office, and then said, ‘I’ve found the guy I was looking for!’,” Shamoon tells me later in his dressing room.

Considering Shamoon’s recent stroke of bad luck in filmography, it is a miracle that Anjum didn’t see him playing a villain like other directors. Being villain in badly made movies has all but put this very versatile actor off acting, he laughs, with a mix of honest sadness.

While Shamoon gets a different enough role, for Sonya her role is a return to the norm.

“People forget that you’re good-looking — if you don’t return to these simpler heroine-esque roles after taking on challenging characters,” she laughs while we sit together during the brief breaks between scenes — and boy were they shooting a lot of scenes!

The dressing rooms were littered with open suitcases jam-packed with hastily stuffed clothes of different colours and for different seasons. In just four hours, Sonya had dressed up and down from brightly coloured half-shirts to yellow-green sweaters to black leather jackets.

Every so often, assistants carrying continuity pictures of what actors wore in connecting scenes and shots would barge into the dressing room. Costume changes were quick and rampant, and the actors simply glanced at their scripts’ pages before leaving the room. Having read and shot some portions of the scenes before, they knew exactly what to say.

Feroze tells me that he has been living the character for more or less a year; to slip out of it, at least while the show is filming, requires some work, one assumes.

For the actor, the show is about delivering a message to today’s youth — the message, he says, is about channelling one’s anger and energy into sports such as MMA. The exercise is good for the mind, body and character building, and will help curb the youth’s waywardness, he says.

The Women’s Sports Complex has been a home away from home for the cast and crew for more than a week, Icon is told. The entire climactic MMA run is shot there (the action has been shot regularly for the past three months, I’m also informed).

This had been a day for dialogues but, just a day before, this writer had seen Feroze breaking graples, punching, jump-kicking and body-slamming actor Kashif Hussain (from the Zee5 series Churrails). Kashif is a Napa graduate who is into Iranian cinema and MMA and he plays Feroze’s foil — but don’t let that smidgen of information belittle the depth and greyness of the character and the story, I’m told.

The fights are choreographed by Azam Bhatti — the go-to action choreographer in films and television these days. The man is good and has an eye for making the fights look cinematic. This writer has seen him stage action before in the Yasir Nawaz-directed film Chakkar and the series Badshah Begum.

Akhaarra has about one fight in every one of its 26 episodes. There are wrestling matches in dusty open rings that are home to wrestlers in villages, street fights in the back alleys of the city, and the show climaxes inside a series of title matches in the MMA rings.

Imagine the logistics for a second: every fight requires backgrounds to be filled by extras. “This is the reason why Imran Raza [the head of Green Entertainment] and I connected,” Anjum asserts. “We both wanted to change television screens and seek stories that aren’t limited to sequences of long dialogues that are trapped within the confines of living rooms.”

As Anjum continues on to his scene, this writer slips out into the chill of the night for a brief conversation with Imran Raza.

Icon first interacted with Imran when he was assisting Gen (retd) Asim Saleem Bajwa in his charge as the SAPM (Special Adviser to the Prime Minister); this writer had met him exactly three years ago on an excruciating winter’s night at the Green Entertainment office in Islamabad.

The channel, at the time, had zero red-tape (I hear this is mostly still the case). It was being set up by Imran and a handful of people, and brimmed with ambitions worthy of radical fools who wanted to shake the very core of the entertainment business.

Imran had envisioned stories (and shot) in every genre. Big-name directors had been, or were about to shoot tentpole projects. Budgets did not matter as much as the content, he believed — as long as the stories had familial values and a forward thinking approach. Business, he had said with confidence, would come.

I’m happy to report that little has changed in Imran. His battles with brands and sponsors, and the fight to launch and sustain a channel that aims to do something different, haven’t sapped away his resolve just yet.

In our long conversation he brings up an important point most people forget about: the growing age of today’s youth.

“Those who were born in the year 2000 are 23 today,” Imran points out. “In five years’ time, most of them may well be married. When these youngsters, who are already hooked on diverse stories and genres and have access to the world’s media, turn to local television, they will find out that there is little there that catches their attention.”

The idea that propels projects like Akhaarra into being begins from this approach, he explains.

Pinching and pining about budgets, he says, isn’t even a consideration — especially since Akhaarra is produced in about the same budget as any mega drama serial that confines itself to drawing room conversations (by industry standards an episode’s budget of a tentpole serial is between 2.2-2.5 million rupees).

The show, both Imran and Anjum tell me, is about creating and celebrating role-models in sports. Who says that one cannot tell stories that can be commercially inclined, spread a message, and change the way television has been made, they assert.

The world does it, so why can’t Pakistan?n the dead cold of the creepily silent night, one could hear the wild roar of cheers from the large, dark building that is the Women’s Sports Complex — a brutalist designed, hexagonal-shaped, brick-and-mortar bit of architecture tucked between nondescript alleyways in Gulshan-i-Iqbal, Karachi.

The shrieks split the dark stillness of the night in two, and then died, as if someone had twirled down the volume knob on an old hi-fi stereo.

One noticed bright lights dancing inside the big windows on the top of the building. A handful of loiterers littered the corridors inside, the weight of their bodies propped against the pillars holding up the complex, their faces lit up by the luminescence of their phones, their attention sapped and unbothered by anyone asking directions.

Thankfully, one didn’t have to contend with the half-flabbergasted looks for long, as the cheers erupted again, and a young man — assistant to the production, judging by his rush — sprinted out of the huge door that opened into the humongous auditorium.

The place defied the night outside, booming with rowdy voices, thick with fake-fog and radiating with the body heat of around 200 men and women sitting, standing and yelling at the behest of assistant directors.

Smack in the centre of the hall stood a 30x30 foot-long, octagonal, mixed martial arts (MMA) cage of plywood flooring and spray-painted wire mesh, which would soon be spotted by fake blood spit and shaken by hard body slams.

A few feet away, following the trail of snake-like cables on the floor, watching the two large monitors, sat Anjum Shehzad, the director of Akhaarra, the about-to-debut 26-episode drama series from Green Entertainment.

Little had changed about Anjum since this writer last met him … other than the network he works with, that is; the show, back then, was Pehli Si Mohabbat for ARY Digital, today, a steady stream of his directorial works — Idiot, Jindo, 22 Qadam — are with Green (he has also directed Sevak for Vidly and the upcoming Abdullahpur Ka Devdas for Zee5).

Green Entertainment, this writer had learned years ago, was created with the forward-thinking ideology of catering to the youth, without discarding familial values that draw women to television. It is deemed a wild game-changer — and a cause for worry from what I’ve heard — for domestic networks.

For Anjum though, the channel gives him a rare opportunity: to explore genres and stories that rival networks would wave away for being outrageous in both concept and logistics.

Take Akhaarra as an example. The story is about pride and prejudice, romance, rage, retribution and a return to grace of a contumacious youth. The youngster hails from a family of wrestlers and overcomes his own self in a challenge that starts from muddy akhaarras (wrestling rings) in the backwater towns in Punjab, and ends up in the rings of the MMA in Karachi.

It is a likely Rocky-esque story, whose easy-to-adapt stereotypes have never been made with Pakistani storytelling sensibilities.

Misha Saqib, the head of the project, who at times yells like an authoritarian headmistress of a rowdy school (she is quite good-natured and smiling when she doesn’t have a microphone in hand), tells Icon that the show has been shooting since late April.

Misha has hard disks upon hard disks filled with data, because Anjum shoots with three cameras — when the show requires it, that is. Working with Anjum since Abdullahpur Ka Devdas, she jokes that a mutual friend of theirs once said that her jahez (dowry) will be made of the hundreds of terabytes of hard disks that house data worth tens of millions of rupees!

On this particular day, cinematographer Sameer Hamdani (whom this writer has known since his first film, Siyaah, where he wore just about every hat save the director’s and cinematographer’s) pivots a RED Helim 8k (an old but still widely used workhorse cinema camera) to find his frame.

On a jib a few feet away, swings a Sony FX6 cinema camera, its setting cranked to match the RED, and another feet or two away flies the compact mirrorless camera, the Sony A7SIII on a gimbal, which also features the same cinematic setting as its elder brother.

The three cameras have Arri Ultra Prime cinema lenses mounted on to them via adaptors. The image they produce on Anjum’s screen is of a film worthy of cinema release.

“It very well was a film,” Anjum says, until he shifted some elements around for a serial. “I had to take some things out of it, but the end result had to be cinematic.”

With Feroze Khan, Sonya Hussyn, Shamoon Abbasi, Yasra Rizvi, Kashif Hussain and Nazarul Hassan on board amongst others, Akhaarra certainly was cast like a film.

“Feroze was my first choice,” Anjum tells Icon. They had worked together in the film Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai and the hit shows Khaani and Romeo Weds Heer. This, however, is the first time Anjum is working with Sonya and Shamoon — the love interest and mentor, respectively, to Feroze’s character, Dil Sher.

“Anjum just froze for a few seconds when he first saw me at the Green Entertainment office, and then said, ‘I’ve found the guy I was looking for!’,” Shamoon tells me later in his dressing room.

Considering Shamoon’s recent stroke of bad luck in filmography, it is a miracle that Anjum didn’t see him playing a villain like other directors. Being villain in badly made movies has all but put this very versatile actor off acting, he laughs, with a mix of honest sadness.

While Shamoon gets a different enough role, for Sonya her role is a return to the norm.

“People forget that you’re good-looking — if you don’t return to these simpler heroine-esque roles after taking on challenging characters,” she laughs while we sit together during the brief breaks between scenes — and boy were they shooting a lot of scenes!

The dressing rooms were littered with open suitcases jam-packed with hastily stuffed clothes of different colours and for different seasons. In just four hours, Sonya had dressed up and down from brightly coloured half-shirts to yellow-green sweaters to black leather jackets.

Every so often, assistants carrying continuity pictures of what actors wore in connecting scenes and shots would barge into the dressing room. Costume changes were quick and rampant, and the actors simply glanced at their scripts’ pages before leaving the room. Having read and shot some portions of the scenes before, they knew exactly what to say.

Feroze tells me that he has been living the character for more or less a year; to slip out of it, at least while the show is filming, requires some work, one assumes.

For the actor, the show is about delivering a message to today’s youth — the message, he says, is about channelling one’s anger and energy into sports such as MMA. The exercise is good for the mind, body and character building, and will help curb the youth’s waywardness, he says.

The Women’s Sports Complex has been a home away from home for the cast and crew for more than a week, Icon is told. The entire climactic MMA run is shot there (the action has been shot regularly for the past three months, I’m also informed).

This had been a day for dialogues but, just a day before, this writer had seen Feroze breaking graples, punching, jump-kicking and body-slamming actor Kashif Hussain (from the Zee5 series Churrails). Kashif is a Napa graduate who is into Iranian cinema and MMA and he plays Feroze’s foil — but don’t let that smidgen of information belittle the depth and greyness of the character and the story, I’m told.

The fights are choreographed by Azam Bhatti — the go-to action choreographer in films and television these days. The man is good and has an eye for making the fights look cinematic. This writer has seen him stage action before in the Yasir Nawaz-directed film Chakkar and the series Badshah Begum.

Akhaarra has about one fight in every one of its 26 episodes. There are wrestling matches in dusty open rings that are home to wrestlers in villages, street fights in the back alleys of the city, and the show climaxes inside a series of title matches in the MMA rings.

Imagine the logistics for a second: every fight requires backgrounds to be filled by extras. “This is the reason why Imran Raza [the head of Green Entertainment] and I connected,” Anjum asserts. “We both wanted to change television screens and seek stories that aren’t limited to sequences of long dialogues that are trapped within the confines of living rooms.”

As Anjum continues on to his scene, this writer slips out into the chill of the night for a brief conversation with Imran Raza.

Icon first interacted with Imran when he was assisting Gen (retd) Asim Saleem Bajwa in his charge as the SAPM (Special Adviser to the Prime Minister); this writer had met him exactly three years ago on an excruciating winter’s night at the Green Entertainment office in Islamabad.

The channel, at the time, had zero red-tape (I hear this is mostly still the case). It was being set up by Imran and a handful of people, and brimmed with ambitions worthy of radical fools who wanted to shake the very core of the entertainment business.

Imran had envisioned stories (and shot) in every genre. Big-name directors had been, or were about to shoot tentpole projects. Budgets did not matter as much as the content, he believed — as long as the stories had familial values and a forward thinking approach. Business, he had said with confidence, would come.

I’m happy to report that little has changed in Imran. His battles with brands and sponsors, and the fight to launch and sustain a channel that aims to do something different, haven’t sapped away his resolve just yet.

In our long conversation he brings up an important point most people forget about: the growing age of today’s youth.

“Those who were born in the year 2000 are 23 today,” Imran points out. “In five years’ time, most of them may well be married. When these youngsters, who are already hooked on diverse stories and genres and have access to the world’s media, turn to local television, they will find out that there is little there that catches their attention.”

The idea that propels projects like Akhaarra into being begins from this approach, he explains.

Pinching and pining about budgets, he says, isn’t even a consideration — especially since Akhaarra is produced in about the same budget as any mega drama serial that confines itself to drawing room conversations (by industry standards an episode’s budget of a tentpole serial is between 2.2-2.5 million rupees).

The show, both Imran and Anjum tell me, is about creating and celebrating role-models in sports. Who says that one cannot tell stories that can be commercially inclined, spread a message, and change the way television has been made, they assert.

The world does it, so why can’t Pakistan?

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 17th, 2023

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