In the age-old airy corridors of the Karachi Goan Association Hall walks Wajahat Rauf, half his attention diverted to a phone call at hand, and half snarled up in the looming deadlines of his production.

Every day — if not every minute that ticks away — counts for the writer-director of the upcoming Eid-ul-Fitr release, Daghabaaz Dil [Traitorous Heart], which perhaps is the trickiest of his undertakings. The film had to wrap up its entire production run — from screenplay to cinema release — in little more than four months!

Typically, a film takes a minimum of eight months to cook up — however, the four-month timeline is not impossible. One only has to compromise sleep, and a bit of sanity.

Visiting the set around the 50 percent mark of the schedule, this writer notices dark circles around Wajahat’s eyes. The weariness hardly seems to have dimmed the director’s enthusiasm or vigilance, or made him go off the rails — remarkable, especially when one realises that his heroine, Mehwish Hayat, had come to the set a good three hours late that day.

Director Wajahat Rauf’s upcoming release Daghabaaz Dil was rushed through production in an unprecedented four months simply so there would be a new Pakistani fi lm in cinemas this Eid. Will its mix-and-match of familiarity and deja vu be enough to bring joy to Pakistani cinema’s ailing heart?

The infrequent instances of tardiness, however, are more than made up for by the professionalism and talent on the set. Mehwish, you see, has a gift for delivering pitch-perfect expressions without the excess. Her scenes require few retakes — a skill her co-star Ali Rehman has also acquired of late, I observe.

Daghabaaz Dil has been a backbreaking production for the cast and the filmmakers; to make a film in roughly four months requires guts, perseverance and a lot of good-natured humour. Given the tight schedule, one day’s loss meant messing up the entire timeline. The cast and crew had to perform, even when unwell.

Mehwish, for example, had to take a sick day off on the shoot of the song ‘Gori Tera Thumka’. However, Ali, who was also running a high fever, could not afford the luxury. The actor, Icon learns, had to pump himself up with medicines, while feigning happy expressions during the high energy dance number — a dance number that the actors only had six-odd hours to learn the choreography of, because of the intense schedule.

In comparison, locations such as the Karachi Goan Association Hall in Karachi’s Saddar area, sound like a breath of fresh air.

In one of the rooms, with ceilings three times the height of normal households, one often finds Ali catching up on his dialogues while swinging his electric fly-swatter racket to kill flies. Depending on the moment, the room also hosts Momin Saqib, Mehwish, Shazia Wajahat — the film’s co-producer and Wajahat’s wife — and two young make-up artists.

Wajahat, for the two days that this writer visited the set, had mostly been a fixture in front of a giant television screen that showed the feed from the camera.

“I prefer the big screen,” Wajahat tells Icon. “it certainly beats squinting at the monitor.” Apart from getting a very clear idea of the frame the audiences will see in the cinemas, one also catches the gaffes that normally slip by on regular monitors.

In between leaving voice notes for post-production (the film was being edited on the go), Wajahat tells Icon that the story is not what it appears to be — and since this writer had been on the set on the shooting of two key scenes, he can confirm this fact.

“Yes, the film is about a wedding, but it has to be more than that,” he says.

“Daghabaaz Dil is about two families getting together after 20 years to patch up their differences at the behest of their grandmother (played by Beo Rana Zafar). At first, the girl and the boy — Zoya and Faris [Mehwish and Ali] — don’t want to get married, but eventually they find feelings for each other,” he says. “However, there is an ‘entity’ that does not want them to be together.”

Daghabaaz Dil is about two families getting together after 20 years to patch up their differences at the behest of their grandmother (played by Beo Rana Zafar). At first, the girl and the boy — Zoya and Faris [Mehwish and Ali] — don’t want to get married, but eventually they find feelings for each other,” he says. “However, there is an ‘entity’ that does not want them to be together.”

The addition of the supernatural — djinns that latch on to young women (Mehwish in this case) — propels the routineness of the idea into high-concept territory. However, the audience shouldn’t expect overtones of horror. This is a straightforward entertainer, Icon is told, that is custom-made for Eid.

The project, you see, came into being when Badar Ikram, the head of Hum Films and one of the producers of the film, realised that this coming Eid-ul-Fitr might not have any new Pakistani film for the audience.

This is surprising because, over the past decade, producers, directors and distributors have shown a penchant to overstuff Eid schedules with local releases. The supply line built up during the Covid-19 cinema shutdowns, however, has finally been exhausted, and for once there are no new films on the backburner. This perfect opening would have been too big an opportunity to miss.

There was just one problem: Wajahat wasn’t interested.

Wajahat says that had wanted to take a break from cinema, and that he “just wasn’t feeling the vibe of a film.”

He had due reason: his last release, Parday Mein Rehnay Do, underperformed in cinemas when it was given unfavourable showtimes during the Eid rush two years ago. The line-up then included Chakkar, Dum Mastam, Ghabrana Nahin Hai, and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. The last title had led to messy legal altercations between cinema owners and the producers. (As far as Wajahat is concerned, though, that case has since been amicably resolved.)

Nevertheless, disheartened, Wajahat had turned his attention to television, directing three of the six serials his banner Showcase Films produced in the past year-and-a-half.

“We don’t usually do this many, but a man has to keep himself busy,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.

When Badar came over to ask Wajahat if he wanted to take a plunge into the deep end, Wajahat joked: “Mood tau nahin hai [I’m not in the mood].”

“However, when he [Badar] told me that there would be no movies out on Eid, I said: ‘Accha! Mood ban raha hai [Okay! I’m feeling the mood now]’,” he jests, laughing at the absurdity of the situation.

Two stories were discussed, one was shortlisted, and the writer Mohsin Ali (Wrong No.), who authored the plot and shares co-writing credits with Wajahat, was brought on board to flesh out the idea.

“At the time, the story was just a one-liner,” Wajahat says. The screenplay was rigorously drafted, edited and redrafted during the following 45 days.

“Call it crazy, but filmmakers are crazy people,” Badar tells this writer. “All they need is a push and the support mechanism, which in this case comes courtesy of Sultana Siddiqui and Duraid Qureshi’s commitment to the Pakistani film industry,” he says.

Daghabaaz Dil is a joint-venture between Hum Films and Showcase Films. The film is the first of a string of new productions Hum has in its pipeline, Icon has learnt, and Wajahat’s track record on Eid (when all of his films have come out previously), made him an ideal partner.

While one cannot argue against the value one Pakistani title brings to the holiday release line-up, the question still remains: why the fixation with Eid?

The answer, likewise, remains the same: “It’s the texture of the film — some films have the texture of Eid,” says Badar/Wajahat. “Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan — their big films come out on Eid and Diwali. Karan Johar makes family films — films about weddings — for Diwali. During Eid, people want to have fun. They want to see Mehwish and Mahira in fun, frolic-y films [that aren’t too mentally taxing].”

Thrillers, or other genres, don’t work on Eid — “just check the box-office numbers,” he asserts. In hindsight, he admits, perhaps Parday Mein Rehnay Do, and its message-driven story, was not an Eid film.

It is surprising — but then again, maybe not — how most of the conversation about Daghabaaz Dil remains fixated on Eid.

With an almost wide-eyed “Duh!” exclamation in her expression, Mehwish says that it is the time when people have money to spend in the form of Eidis; Baqr Eid (Eid-ul-Azha) is more about the meat, she says.

‘Chhoti [Small] Eid’, though, is also one of the reasons Mehwish signed on for the project; almost all of her past films came out on ‘Barri [Big] Eid’, she says. Also, she admits, she had the dates, and that she liked the supernatural twist in the story.

The day Wajahat narrated the story to her, she immediately went “Say Whaaa!” in incredulity.

While the plot may be different, her character carries a sense of deja vu, I tell her. “Zoya is headstrong and wants to take decisions that are her own, and not dictated by her family,” she says. “She wants to take the final decision — and I love that about the character. She wants to take chances based on her own observational experience and not do something because she is being pressured into it.

“That aspect may likely be pretty inspirational for girls who look up to me,” she adds. “They will get to see a character who is educated and modern, and knows what she wants.”

However, doesn’t that create a strong overlap between this Zoya and the Zoya she played in Chhalawa, her last film with Wajahat, I ask. The question somewhat catches the actress by surprise.

“Lemme think for a minute,” she says. Recovering super-fast, Mehwish hints at an important aspect of the story that would be considered a big spoiler for the readers. The strong women roles, while being a stereotype, come easy to the actress, she affirms.

“Maybe I get these roles because I too am a very strong person, and filmmakers, whenever they think of me, they see the kind of headstrong person that I am,” Mehwish elaborates. “In my personal life, I’ve taken stands against hypocrisy, spoken up about the Kashmir issue, made political statements, talked about women empowerment — I’ve been very vocal about whatever I felt for.

“People have this perception that I am a strong, young woman, but I am also very vulnerable at the same time, it’s just that I don’t show that side. It is nice to be known for my strengths rather than my weaknesses,” she smiles, revealing that Zoya, despite her headstrong nature, is a role with vulnerabilities, and the shades of grey that actors crave.

Ali, apparently, is also stuck in a stereotype — he plays the foreign-educated, good-natured, big-hearted man, again! But he says that, while his brief was small, the gradual refinement of the screenplay provided him more freedom and encouragement to play-up the “launda” (rebellious youth) aspect of the character, giving him some wiggle room to experiment as an actor.

“Everytime you go to the cinema, why do you laugh at the sidekick?” Ali asks, before explaining away: “Because he is a terrha banda [off-kilter guy] — which makes him a little more human, and also a little more masti [fun]-driven.”

That fun banter part comes courtesy of his teaming up with Momin Saqib, a TikTok celebrity who has graduated into a young actor to look out for in the future. Momin, full of enthusiasm, is in awe of Mehwish, like Ali. The other actors Ali sings the praises of are Beo Rana Zafar, who plays the grandmother his character loves with all of his heart and soul, and veteran Babar Ali.

“That guy is an institution,” Ali tells me. “He is the embodiment of the charm and charisma a film actor ought to have,” he says in utter awe.

Babar Ali, whose career is in resurgence, plays Ali Rehman’s father. The role, though dramatic, largely tilts on the comedic side of performance, Icon is told. Babar mostly shares his scenes with another actor in the midst of a strong comeback: Saleem Sheikh. From the few scenes that this writer has seen, the two, playing bickering brothers, make for an unlikely but fresh combination.

In hindsight, the film is full of fresh, unexplored combinations — Babar Ali and Saleem Sheikh, Mehwish Hayat and Ali Rehman, a wedding comedy-drama with a djinn angle. Not too shabby for a rush production, I think.

And the mix-and-match of familiarity and deja vu might just be enough to bring some life to Pakistani cinema’s ailing dil.

Daghabaaz Dil releases this Eid-ul-Fitr worldwide in cinemas

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 7th, 2024

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