By Sonya Rehman
Late afternoon, on a weekday, Directors Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi have just surfaced. You can’t blame them. The past few weeks have been crazy, what with the shooting of their first feature film, ‘Zinda Bhaag,’ (to be released sometime this year) featuring Bollywood icon, Naseeruddin Shah.
Dressed in cargos and a summer shirt, Nabi’s voice is thick with sleep. He’s relaxed, slouched on a couch that he’s sharing with his co-Director, Gaur, an impressionable, smiley-faced woman dressed in a cotton tunic and grey pants.
She’s pleasantly chatty – even though it is evident that Gaur too is fatigued, given the final wrap-up of their shoot, this month in April.
“I’ll keep my answers short,” Nabi states both wryly and sympathetically at the same time, while looking at my recorder. “I’ve done this and it’s such a pain to listen to it once you’re done.” I laugh and tell him not to worry – but he doesn’t look convinced as he eyes the recorder skeptically.
A contemporary story set in Pakistan; Nabi states that he wrote the script together with Gaur last summer. “We’ve been working as a team for a very long time,” says Gaur, regarding how Nabi, herself and Mazhar Zaidi (the movie’s Producer, and Gaur’s husband) met.
Working on documentaries and music production under their company, ‘Matteela,’ Gaur met Zaidi in London. At the time Zaidi was working for the BBC, while Gaur was studying at the University of London, enrolled in a PhD programme in Film & Media Studies. Originally from Calcutta, Gaur moved to Pakistan three years ago.
“We really enjoyed writing Naseeruddin Shah’s character,” Gaur says earnestly, “It’s a big character; I think that’s the best way to put it!” Gaur mentions that Shah readily agreed to do the movie once he received the script. “He just loved it and that was that,” she said smiling.
Was the crew awe-struck then, when Shah landed up in Lahore for the shooting? “You know after the initial surprise, we realized that he’s such a down to earth person. You just feel at home with him. It felt like an Uncle had come to visit us,” Nabi states.
“He’s so plugged into the work he’s doing,” says Gaur, “I think that was exciting for us. Because he was so into the script and the nuances of the script…I mean we did so many script readings and rehearsals with him, he wanted to get his Punjabi absolutely right.”
“Yeah, he was really interested in coming and giving our actors a workshop,” Nabi says, mentioning that Shah gave the actors an immensely beneficial 7-day workshop, “Within a week, he shared with our actors how to approach a role – it was very helpful for us when we began shooting. The characters ended up becoming their characters.”
Interestingly, all the lead characters in ‘Zinda Bhaag’ have never acted before. “It has been challenging and rewarding at the same time,” Nabi states, “We had about 150 auditions in Lahore from where we picked out our three leads.”
“We rehearsed with our actors for two months,” Gaur says, prior to shooting, “We didn’t even give them roles immediately, we workshopped with them for a very long time. It was very rewarding.”
Zaidi, who joins us later, mentions that he’s hoping to release the movie in the UAE, the UK and possibly North America too, in addition to sending the production to film festivals abroad. “But I think our focus would be on Pakistan and India, essentially,” he says.
“I think both local and foreign audiences will appreciate this movie because of the way Pakistani society and its subculture is exposed in it,” Zaidi states regarding how he foresees the movie’s reception once it’s released. “It’s interesting because in other movies you see Pakistan being represented in a very limited way. In this film we’ve tried to show a side of Pakistan which very few people have attempted to do. In that sense it will be a unique product.”
Given that the team only had 5-6 weeks to shoot the movie, Zaidi mentions that the biggest challenge initially was the lack of an available, professional crew to join their team. Young graduates from local film schools eventually came together to comprise of the movie’s production team. “It was their energy which made things work.”
Given much talk about the ‘revival’ of local cinema, what with the few independent filmmakers releasing their productions, will this notion soon become a reality?
Zaidi remains dubious; “We’ll have to wait and see. The only way it’ll be true is if we actually see new productions in cinemas. The distribution is a huge factor…if there’s a revival of local cinema then I think there should also be a revival of the distribution system – the distribution process should be smooth. Also there should be a system in Pakistan where local films are given priority, just like in Malaysia.”
“I think it’s an exciting time for cinema,” Nabi says, “Because technology-wise cinema has become accessible. Also, now, there’s an upper middle class willing to go out and pay for good entertainment – so there’s a demand for it. Suddenly everyone’s falling over each other to make good films. And I honestly think it just takes one film, just as ‘Maula Jutt’ for example – to start a trend in Pakistan.”