What will your visiting card say? Filmmaker, musician or academic?
Someone asked this of Babar Sheikh, ostensibly offering advice on the importance of choosing one’s career path. But a few minutes into my conversation with him, I understand this is not someone who can fit into one designation. He has proven that one can wear the hats of a filmmaker – commercials, documentaries and cinema – musician, artist and educator, with confidence and clarity.
It does, however, pose a challenge as far as the interview goes. For the sake of brevity, I chose to focus on Sheikh’s trajectory as a filmmaker, while recognising that his links to his music and band were never far behind.
Sheikh was born in Karachi in December 1978 to a humble family; both his parents worked, which he says was not as common as it is now. He recognised early that “if you wanted to become something in this country and you don’t have contacts left right and centre, one had to forge one’s own identity.”
“I think [my upbringing has] contributed marvellously to who I am,” he continues, over a cup of coffee at the canteen at Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture, where he is visiting faculty.
He pursued pre-med at college before hearing “my true calling, which was art,” in 1993/4. He was spending time with an uncle, a graphic designer from Punjab, in his studio outside Pakistan and saw the appeal of art and design. But when he “dropped the bomb on his parents,” there was resistance – they tried to convince him that artists don’t make money – but then supported him. He was admitted to Indus Valley in the mid-nineties in the communication design track.
He was the youngest in his class and the youngest graduate. He also received a distinction for his thesis, as he chose to go against the grain by not pursuing the requirement of creating a campaign for a company or product. Instead, his thesis was in purely graphic art – a risk he chose to take and one that paid off well.
I ask whether he learned to take risks at a young age. He nods. “From a very young age, I always thought about doing things my own way, from science experiments to building my instruments.”
He credits music – specifically, heavy metal – and which came into his life at a young age, for making him a risk taker. “The visual of the culture – men with long hair, in bandanas, rock stars – appealed to me.” He wanted to grow his hair as a young child but wasn’t allowed until he got to Indus Valley. Today, his shoulder-length hair is tied in a ponytail.
While still a student, Sheikh began to watch movies that had been donated to the college by an embassy. These films opened a whole new world for him; as did the photography class which taught him the basics of framing. Armed with that, he was able to play with a friend’s video camera. He created an experimental film, which he turned into a CV of sorts and handed out in VHS tape format to agencies.
The late nineties/early 2000s was a transformational time in Pakistan.
Sheikh is playing in his heavy metal band, a local underground band and doing a lot of gigs. He is watching films on his own as part of his learning, and he is working in a design house while studying. Musharraf is in charge, things are opening up in creative art and people are returning to Pakistan to open up businesses, cafés and other ventures. The video CV lands him his first gig at Asiatic as an art director. True to form, he begins producing work without compromising on his identity.
“The whole gender thing is an issue today,” he tells me, “but I used to get a kick out of wearing anklets. I was dressed in kolhapuris, painting my toenails black, wearing eye make-up, 23 years ago. I walked into Unilever dressed like that to get my first commercial.”
He acknowledges that while he stood out for his look, he was respected and recognised for his talent and confidence.
He has a humility devoid of any of the faux attributes used in interviews to impress audiences. He recognises how, 20 years ago, he was perceived as obnoxious. “I wanted to become larger than life, I didn’t know where to stop, and it just kept on going to the point where I was loud.”
“I am 40% of what I was then,” he says, adding that he has been through a lot and simmered down. “I realise it’s not about spreading your vastness; the beauty is containing it. It takes a while to realise this.”
Next, he landed a job at Pyramid Productions, then headed by Rohail Hyatt, and soon he was producing music videos, which caught the eye of Ali Haider, who asked him to direct his new single Jadu. It was a kicks-tart to his career in film.
Then came the requests for ads, corporate films and documentaries. He has been the recipient of grants from the Goethe Institute and which opened a whole new vista of opportunities to collaborate with filmmakers in Europe. He has been working as an independent filmmaker for the last 20 years under his company name, ‘Diagram’.
The opportunities have been bountiful and he remains grateful, and I believe grounded. Even during the low points, whether it was about things not working out the way he hoped or losing his father during the pandemic.
The industry, which has grown exponentially, can also be brutal. “There’s no check on well-being, there’s no check on mental health, there’s no check on how many hours you are putting in.” That, he says, has to change, though he understands how difficult it is to turn down jobs with tight schedules when the market is so competitive. “I’m a sucker for a good storyline,” he adds.
The EBM ‘School Girls Newscasters’ campaign is one such example. The idea was conceived by Ali Rez, Chief Creative Officer Impact BBDO (Sheikh calls him an inspiration) who wanted to highlight the importance of female education in Pakistan. It showed school girls, who three years earlier could not read, playing the role of news anchors. The ad was broadcast earlier this year on three channels. He loved travelling to various TV stations across the country to work on this campaign which was a stark difference from the “glamorous world of advertising.” It won the prestigious ‘Glass: Lion for Change’ at the Cannes Lions Festival.
I have to ask about his highly anticipated cinema debut, which has been reported on for two years, the last being that he has a script with an acclaimed writer Bee Gul. He says he is hopeful he will be able to work on it soon. “It’s not going to be a super commercial masalaydar film, but I am also sensible; it’s not going to bankrupt a producer.”
While Babar Sheikh has not directed his first film for cinema, he likens being on the production team of Carma, an action revenge thriller that released last year and did fairly well, as “nature’s way of telling you when to step back and when to step forward.”
Muna Khan researches newsroom culture in Pakistan and tweets@LedeingLady