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On the sets of Zinda Bhaag – III

August 11, 2012


After having done Rafina, another movie coming my way was a long shot, since there are hardly any movies made in Pakistan, however early January an impromptu meeting with Mazhar Zaidi proved otherwise. When Mazhar explained the movie outline and told me about the secret ingredient and that he wanted me to be the Art director for it, I was over the moon, this was something that I didn’t expect and yet it was there. I was very keen to take it up but rooted in Karachi, being a full time art director for a film in Lahore was not possible for various reasons. My keenness and the producers thinking led us to create a new credit for me as the Art Direction Consultant.

My stint for Zinda Bhaag started soon after, from Skype meeting to landing in crazy cold [read: cozy and nicely chilly] Lahore. From the word go, there was excitement and chaos in actually forming the art department and making sure that everything from the prop list to mood board was sorted in the next few days along with an in-depth walkathon in Samnabad, scouting locations and finalising looks for the ones already shortlisted.

I was new to this part of Lahore, yet the prospect of bringing the script to life in these areas seemed like a perfect glove-fit, every thing just seemed to unfold itself right in front of me as I sketched ideas and wrote down lists furiously, scribbling away and getting things together.

The best part to bringing “method to the madness” called the Art Department is a perfect team. With the help of the producer for Zinda Bhaag, very soon the perfect team was getting ready, from the art director who listened earnestly as I spoke a mile a minute and read the script over and over again getting him and the fantastic assistant art director to actually visualise the dark alleys, adda’s, boys and their dreams of breaking free and so forth.

The ever-amazing duo of directors Meenu and Farjad, were with us every step of the way, thrashing out ideas and concepts with us and enhancing our visual treatment to their script.

This was all just the initial phase of the trials and errors of the art department. You see this is one area of any production that has most arduous responsibility of actually letting you [the viewer] see what the filmmaker has conceptualised. Every color, piece of furniture, curtain, wall texture, light fixture, painting, food on the plate, it all matters, everything tells a story about the characters, their life, setups, their school of thought.

We create something called a mood board for every location. What is a mood board? The entire look and feel of the place, according to the character that is in there and what his mind is like, background he comes from, every little thing. The dark, slightly textured walls aged over the years [yes we have to create them ourselves] the paint MUST NOT look fresh! Especially when creating a set, it gets very difficult and a lot of process work is done before achieving the look you want. Colors and texture of the wall, the kind of furniture that goes with it, is it contemporary? Is it aged? Is it new money? Does the room require a bold splash of color in something? We answer all these questions while creating a mood board and then only the final look of a location is created. It comes alive in a sketch where everything is marked. Every prop speaks and enhances the look of the plays and lets your mind understand in one go what it is all about and understand the depth of the character more!

Knowing that we were all working for a Pakistani film with the legendary Naseeruddin Shah was probably the driving force. We had a gazillion locations to take care of simultaneously, do the graphics for various things used in the film, get paint jobs done, and a million other things, but somehow it all started coming together, with me using my limited experience in film guiding them from Karachi and the art director and his team in Lahore making wonders happen, very soon we were at the first shoot day of Zinda Bhaag and from then on there was no looking back.

Obviously this wasn’t as flowery as it may sound, it was tiring and difficult and sapped one of their energy, but it still made you go on. At the end of my first leg of Zinda Bhaag, the team was ready with a very solid, responsible, hardworking set of people, I was merely giving directions, they led the entire show, given all the budget and time constraints, this team proved that there is method to madness and that’s passion! I wish I was there throughout the production, but I am glad that I had my team of wizards or elves who worked with full passion and kept their humor alive too, the 'arty party' as this department was famously coined.

I was back for the second leg of this production for when Nasser Sahab came for his shoot spell. There was a legend before us and nothing could go wrong! We had to come across as a team of professionals who knew exactly what to do and hopefully that’s the impression he got from us, regardless of what went on behind the scene as we pulled our hair out trying to make sure that things went super smooth for every scene, location, set that he was a part of.

Hair pulling I say, because its day one of Naseer sahab's shoots, and he is due to come anytime on the set and there is general anxiety / panic / excitement everywhere. Our team was running around, half of us doing one scene and the other half prepping for the next. The scene required shamiana to go around in a place where we couldn’t nail anything, so I was there screaming at the shamiana guy but all he was interested in was getting his nashta, I picked up the rope and started stretching the shamiana myself and held the hammer in my hand while viewing the handy work [incidentally in his direction] the poor guy left his chai and nashta and came running as he thought I was coming at him with the hammer. So bottom line the work got done then and what followed I can’t disclose because it will give away too much.

There is a famous animated video about various movie production people talking to the Assistant Director, I saw one such video of the set dresser talking to the AD and what followed is something that occurred on set most of the time for us too. Case in point, a big and very important set, we all worked day and night over it, and the morning of the shoot, after waking up the boys who after working all night fell asleep on set, we fixed the place quickly before the lighting crew and camera team arrived. Post praises, the entire set was then flooded with light, track and we were pretty much left with a wall, a seat and a side table in view, everything else that we had set up? Conveniently put away to make space. Sigh! But this is how it rolls and set dresser then puts everything back in place for the master shot etc.

It was nerve wrecking, and trying, but the fact that we were able to deliver a visual treatment that fit him best as his character in the film was an unparalleled achievement and of course our directors, director of photography, gaffer [light] wardrobe and everyone else who is part of the film Zinda Bhaag.

I suppose as a country that is struggling to bring its cinema back, it becomes even more important for us to come across flawless and intensely creative in what we do. After having done Zinda Bhaag, I believe in this even more so that we absolutely can and there is no doubt why Pakistan cannot come to par with the cinema happening across the world, be part of film festivals and all the upcoming generous pool of talent that we have in film-making can make its mark.

I never got a formal education in film but I learned everything as I worked over the years and for all those who are now getting trained in film-making and its counterparts consider ourselves the future of the revival of Pakistani cinema.

Here is to Zinda Bhaag and the people behind the writing and thinking of this film and giving us the opportunity to be a part of it in whatever capacity.

As for you all, a treat called Zinda Bhaag awaits.


The writer is a freelance art director and an advocate for change.