May Issue 2019
Interview: Saqib Malik
Saqib Malik and Pakistani cinema go back a long way. Ever since he was a child, Saqib would stare fascinatedly at cinema house hoardings and venture inside to peruse the stills displayed. Although he went on to make a career in advertising, his passion for film making never waned and has been reflected in the memorable music videos he has directed over the years, from the classically styled Khamaj to the surreal nightmare scape in Na re Na.
Saqib also cut his teeth reviewing the Pakistani films he so avidly watched, and he feels this has helped him understand “what will tug at the audience’s emotions.”
His abiding love for storytelling and cinema has finally found expression in Baaji, which has been written, directed and produced by him. The film will be released in June this year.
Newsline caught up with an exhausted but enthusiastic Saqib recently, for his take on his debut film.
You have been wanting to make a film for a very long time. Why has it taken this long?
Back in 2004 I was going to start a film. That also had Meera in the lead. The film was announced and I had started giving interviews when the producer backed out. So that was a real blow. After that, a couple of other projects fell through. I worked on scripts but nothing was really resonating. I was looking for a universal theme which wouldn’t date.
So finally you came up with the story for Baaji.
Yes. I realised my strength lies in story-telling. And I thought, what can I do well within a limited budget? I decided that a thriller drama would work if the story and writing is good. And because of my love for Pakistani cinema, it is set against the backdrop of show business. My film has all the masala – song, dance and melodrama. It is very theatrical, but I have tried to tell the story with a certain basic intelligence.
Pakistani films often suffer from weak screenplays. Was this a challenge?
Finding a good script writer was the biggest challenge because there is no culture of film writing any more. Most of the current crop of writers are associated with television and I wanted someone with a film sensibility. Finally I was introduced to Irfan Ahmad Urfi, a very respected name in Urdu literature, and he has written for films as well. We clicked immediately. The story is mine but he has contributed to it tremendously and he can own it as much as me.
So is this film a kind of throwback to the old Pakistani film tradition?
It is in the tradition of classic Hollywood cinema which I grew up watching, sort of film noir. But it is also in the tradition of the Pakistani films made in the ’70s, which were very story-oriented. My film also centres on the two female leads, and those Pakistani films were also very female-centric –films by directors like Hasan Tariq and Pervez Malik for example. So I have tried to recreate some of that and come up with a piece of cinema that is rooted in our cinema culture and yet palatable to today’s audiences who are used to something very different.
The younger audiences know nothing about that cinema.
The younger generation doesn’t know much about it except as a caricature. Maula Jutt will also be reviving some of that culture. And that’s also one reason why I cast Meera in the lead. I thought it would be very exciting to put an actor from an earlier era in a starring role with actors from this era.
Baaji is being billed as Meera’s comeback.
It is her comeback. The film industry waned in the mid-2000s, I am referring to Lollywood, which was the Lahore studio-based industry. Meera is from that world which no longer exists.
But you always wanted to make a film with Meera as your lead?
I also cast Meera because one of my favourite films is Sunset Boulevard, which is again about two Hollywood eras colliding – an actress having to transition. And the heroine, Gloria Swanson, was also making a comeback from the silent movie era. Meera had become an actor no one wanted to cast or put their money on. She had become a social media phenomenon but people had not seen her work. So there are all these parallels. My film is also about a star whose time is running out, she is at the precipice of her career.
What was Meera like to work with?
Like all actors from Lollywood, she is incredibly savvy in understanding the camera. Those actors worked day in and out in the most demanding situations and are incredibly disciplined. Remember they used to shoot on film tape and a good actor was one who got it right in the first take because film tape is expensive. They really know their craft. But I also had to work very hard with Meera because she hadn’t made a film in a while. And I wanted to really dig deep and get a performance beyond what she was used to…to find that moment of truth. We both worked very hard and I think she has given a fantastic performance.
“We tend to see people as caricatures, but everyone is human. I wanted to show the world that Meera is not just good for a light moment on social media and I never got my laughs from her English. In fact, Meera has a terrific sense of humour and takes all the criticism and laughs at her expense with a great deal of lightness, which is very admirable.”
For all her social bravado, Meera has a vulnerability to her…
Yes, and that’s exactly what my character wanted and that’s what I have always seen in her. We tend to see people as caricatures, but everyone is human. I wanted to show the world that Meera is not just good for a light moment on social media and I never got my laughs from her English. In fact, Meera has a terrific sense of humour and takes all the criticism and laughs at her expense with a great deal of lightness, which is very admirable. There is nothing in my film which will make audiences laugh at her; it is a very serious role and I have made her speak quite a bit of English and speak it correctly.
Yes. There is a line at the end of the trailer in English.
That’s Meera’s line to the world. I wanted it to be an iconic line.
Your other female lead is Amna Ilyas, who might be seen as an unusual choice.
Amna has been absolutely fantastic. A lot of actors were hesitant to work with Meera and people would agree and back out. It’s their loss. I am eternally grateful to Amna for stepping in at the last minute and blindly trusting me. Amna really owned the role and took it to another level. She is a very intelligent actor, full of ideas. We would have many arguments, but all very constructive. And I think this role will be a turning point for Amna.
Yesteryears’ star Nisho will also be seen in your film.
Yes. She looks great and is also such a trooper. All the actors from that era really respect their craft.
What is the difference between the older and the younger generation of actors?
The new breed is always on the phone, they are waylaid by everything… I have worked with all of them in commercials. But having said that, my actors in Baaji have been amazing. Mohsin Abbas has played a very unconventional character and has been absolutely fearless. He is a future superstar. I cast Osman Khalid Butt because I saw an innate intelligence and charisma in him and I wanted to reinvent him. Also I wanted a slightly younger lead opposite Meera, since young women are constantly being cast opposite older male actors. Ali Kazmi has done a superb job and of course there is Ali Ejaz who is an outstanding character actor.
This is a big leap of faith for you considering that you have directed and produced the film.
It is. My reputation is riding on this and so are my finances. But making a film is a huge risk and an act of passion for anybody who does it.
Do you think the ban on Indian films will help the local film industry?
Given the situation, the ban was inevitable but ultimately it will be detrimental to our cinema. Our local film renaissance has been on the back of Indian films which brought people back into the cinemas. We need to make about 50 films a year to keep cinema houses in business. Right now we are making maybe 15 to 18 films.
What do we really need for the local industry to thrive?
The backbone of the industry is cinemas, we need more of them. We also need to pull in a more diverse audience. Most cinemas are in multiplexes and everyone can’t afford to pay for those tickets. We need to revive the 200 to 300-rupee audience. We also need a more equitable share of earnings between producers and distributors. As soon as producers start making money, they will make more films.
So what’s next for Saqib Malik?
Well, I need a break to focus on myself for a bit. But it’s a transition, a turning point in my life as well; I can relate to Meera’s character.
Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.