When Salman Khan made a film with the song Munni badnaam huwi, it made Rs 1.5 billion; then he put another munni in Bajrangi Bhaijaan and the film made five billion rupees. Can no one see that we don’t need item numbers in films? That we can make films that everyone will watch without resorting to these tactics,” says ace ad film director turned filmmaker Jamshed Mehmood, better known as Jami.
It is still early days as Pakistani cinema shifts gears and reloads its new and improved avatar. The number of Pakistani films released continues to increase every year, and 2015 saw two ad filmmakers, Jami (Moor) and Asad ul Haq (Dekh Magar Pyar Se) try their luck on the big screen.
Close on their heels is fellow ad filmmaker Asim Raza, who is putting the final touches to Ho Mann Jahaan (expected to release early 2016). In fact, TV is providing a steady stream of directors who are crossing over to the big screen. Nadeem Baig (Jawani Phir Nahi Ani) Yasir Nawaz (Wrong Number), Shehzad Kashmiri and Momina Duraid (Bin Roye), Wajahat Rauf (Karachi se Lahore) and Sarmad Khoosat (Manto) have all had promising outings at the box office in 2015.
Incidentally, thus far the foray into cinema by TV drama directors have proved more successful at the box office compared to the TVC directors. So while Moor, which was Jami’s second outing after Operation 021, opened to critical acclaim, he admits that the venture will need to recover another Rs 30 million to break even. Haq’s Dekh Magar Pyar Se sank without a trace.
The box office has spoken and clearly embraced what Haq terms, “Pakistani copies of B-grade and C-grade Bollywood films,” yet both directors are adamant about the need for Pakistani cinema to carve its own identity and not bow to Bollywood-inspired box office demands.
“You need a certain mindset to go after the box office. You have to do the song in a clichéd way and tick all the right boxes and stick to a formula. I am not against this, but why can’t Pakistani cinema take another route and offer something different from Bollywood?” asks Haq who admits that he did not consider the box office while directing his maiden venture.
“I did not keep an eye on the box office, although maybe for my next venture I will be more conscious of it.”
Jami, who spent years shooting TV commercials to satiate his burning desire to shoot a feature film, has a degree in filmmaking from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He has, in his own words, been biding his time making commercials and waiting for the right moment to realise his dream of producing and directing feature films. He is also extremely vocal about steering clear of the formula.
“We have to start where India is right now. Bollywood is waking up and films such as Lunchbox and Jazba are making money. People are becoming tired of films without stories and with item numbers, so if we go down the same path, it is going to backfire.”
Speaking of one of his pet peeves, the item number, Jami says that “when you put an item number in your film, you are using women to make money. There is no difference between a red light area and these item numbers. The difference is that the pimp looks bad, while the director looks like a cool dude. Gujjar films were doing the same thing, it’s just that the lighting was bad and the girl was fat while today the girl is slim. To my mind we are headed towards another disaster.”
Jami believes that films such as Lunchbox, which have strong storylines and performances (they are classified as parallel cinema) not only win critical acclaim, they also make money, and should serve as the model Pakistani cinema should follow.
“When you put an item number in your film, you are using women to make money. There is no difference between a red light area and these item numbers. The difference is that the pimp looks bad, while the director looks like a cool dude.”
In contrast, Haq is still unsure about the direction Pakistani films could take, although he has high hopes about what he calls ‘drama-style’ films.
“Why aren’t we going the drama route? Pakistanis are very successful at making TV dramas so why can’t we base our films on those? We have the writers and it is something we do well. Why can’t we tighten those scripts, add songs and make them work?”
Undeterred by the far from satisfactory financial outcome of their ventures, both Jami and Haq have moved onto their next film project. Jami is in the process of completing Downward Dog and has started work on two other film projects. Haq is vetting scripts for his next feature film.
Ironically, although commercials are Jami’s bread and butter and his claim to fame, commercialism does not sit well with him. His company Azad Films takes principled stands, such as not working for soft drinks brands or products such as margarine. He is also averse to product placement in films, but concedes that given financial limitations he would consider it, “if it is done like the Aston Martin in Skyfall, which was not in your face.”
Haq who received flak for blatant product placement in Dekh Magar Pyar Se argues that “you need lots of money to make films and you need brand partners. Maybe people think product placement is too in their face, but isn’t that the case with most of the Pakistani films that have been released? There is little money in the business and product placements help people get the seed money, which is better than sourcing your finances from shady sources.”
Jami says that his years making commercials taught him what not to do while making a feature film. He, however, acknowledges that his 17 years making commercials helped him build his reputation which came in handy when he launched Moor.
“Even when I announced I was making a film in which there would be no product placement or foreign investment, a lot of people were willing to work for us. At any given time, we had a crew of 200 people and this was solely because of the reputation I made in advertising.”
"Maybe people think product placement is too in their face, but isn't that the case with most of the Pakistani films that have been released? There is little money in the business and product placements help people get the seed money, which is better than sourcing your finances from shady sources.”
Haq, whose first love and vocation remains advertising, found the personal nature of making a feature film disconcerting.
“A film is your baby. You write and you direct it. I don’t know how you can double or triple check whether what you did what was right. Who do you run your ideas by? You just close your eyes and do whatever you want to do. In contrast, when I shoot a commercial, I have an entire boardroom giving me feedback before it goes on-air. So when I directed Dekh Magar Pyar Se I did what I liked, although I don’t think the audience was ready for it.”
Jami compares the scale of involvement in filmmaking with the short term nature of shooting commercials.
“For the film we had to undertake acting workshops and rehearsals. We were dealing with continuity issues for months, shooting for days on end in below freezing temperatures and making sure that the character arc, the objectives of the story and the nuances of acting were kept at the forefront. You do not need to do this for a commercial. You meet a day before to discuss clothes and the next day is the shoot and then everyone goes their own way.”
In contrast to Jami, Haq believes his background in advertising helped him add value to his film, especially when coordinating the final look.
Dekh Magar Pyar Se used special effects throughout as the scenery went from red to green and then to blue and yellow, while the music was scored with a European mindset. “You bring such elements to a film if you have made commercials. And because of my background in advertising, we shot according to schedule and didn’t deviate a day.”
TV commercials continue to sustain both directors and their respective company set ups and now their ventures into film. For Jami, the TVC business is the noose that stops him eating, living and breathing cinema.
“TV drama directors have nothing to lose when they make a film because they are normally backed by a big production company. Ad directors have an office to run, and many like to live on a large scale. When you need Rs 2,000,000 a month to run your office and support you lifestyle how will you make a film?
Shahrezad Samiuddin is a pop culture junkie and a scriptwriter.