Genius in waiting?

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“… about three years ago I decided I wanted to make a film and the rest is history,” says Saqib Malik into the dictaphone at the end of a formal summarised introduction he gives of himself and his work.

The film in question is Ajnabi Shehr Mein, which back then was supposed to be this avant-garde music video and commercial director’s first-ever full-length feature film. The film’s original cast included Ali Zafar, Shaan, Tooba, Veena Malik, Samina Peerzada, Durdana Butt and Ali Saleem, and was in Saqib’s own words a “political-thriller drama” based in Karachi.

“It’s going to happen; it’s going to take its own sweet time. I’m going to do what Shoaib Mansoor did: I’m going to quietly start and make it and when it’s ready for the world I will come and talk about it. Before, I blabbed way too much and I’ve had to answer for that,” replied Saqib when confronted with whether or not his debut film will ever make it to production.

However, one can’t help but wonder what happened to it. “Twice, I was absolutely on the verge of commencing shooting. In 2005, three weeks before the shoot was supposed to start, the producers backed out.” But Saqib didn’t give up on the film and approached a local television network which seemed to show a keen interest in it. Over the period of a year after that, including countless meetings and hours spent on rewriting and refining the script with Sarmad (the then scriptwriter), just when things seemed to be working out the sponsors had a problem with the script. But by then “Sarmad had just had enough. I think he just overdosed working on that script,” recollects Saqib.

With Sarmad out of the picture, a new scriptwriter was needed and in came veteran television writer Mohammad Ahmed who also has to his credit the script for Mehreen Jabbar’s yet unreleased debut cinematic feature, Ramchand Pakistani, due out early in 2008. “Mohammad Ahmed was very keen to come on board. But when I showed him the script, he had a very different perspective on it. And that meant working on it from scratch. He wanted to rewrite it and rework it in his own perspective, which is understandable. Obviously the first script was very close to my heart, we really burned the midnight oil on that. But it would to take another six or seven months to rewrite it,” he says, adding, “then we realised that maybe that script idea had gotten too old because I had already made the film twice in my mind and two years had passed and Khuda Kay Liye (KKL) had been made and everything had moved on.”

Keeping that in consideration, Saqib’s current plans for making a film are very different from the original political-thriller drama that he had in mine. “I think it’s time to do a film for Pakistan that is young, youthful, optimistic, appealing to students and younger people. A kind of love story that has a progressive, youthful angle and Ahmed and I are working on it. Everything is sort of happening from scratch.”

And what about the original script? “We have still got the original script which I really like, but I think we might work on that one after this,” replied Saqib.

Coming to the cast of Ajnabi Shehr Mein, one couldn’t help but notice that he’d picked Ali Zafar to act in it. As successful as a pop musician as he might be, Ali is not particularly known for his acting skills. So what made Saqib pick him for a role in the film? “I’ve done a lot of commercials with him, I know what his potential is,” he says. “Ali Zafar was also cast because he has that vulnerable, romantic boy kind of a look that fits the character very well. Plus, he has the pull, he has mass appeal in a very different kind of an audience that doesn’t see films whereas Shaan has the traditional cinema-going appeal.” However, as it turns out, Ali Zafar isn’t going to be acting in a Saqib Malik film, whether in Ajnabi Shehr Mein or the progressive, youth-oriented film he now has on the anvil. The next time around when the film was supposed to be shot, “Ali was too busy and couldn’t give me enough time. When he did agree, he wanted so much in his fee that it was ridiculous. I started talking to a couple of other actors and finally it came down to Mekaal (the model) and he was more than happy to do it. But now of course that whole project is in limbo. I can’t say what’s going to happen to it or who’s going to be cast next,” he says.

Interestingly enough, on the one hand Saqib Malik has an avid interest in old classic films, independent films and/or foreign films. While on the other, he wants to make a film which has lots of mass appeal and traditional song-and-dance in it. His interest in a certain type of cinema and the kind of film he now wants to make don’t seem to connect. What does he have to say about that? “When I said I’m making a commercial film, I meant in the sense that it’s got commercial appeal to it. But the way you make it, the kind of characterisation, etc, you can make that highly artsy or you can make it cinematically or visually interesting. It’s like music videos, Khamaj was a very commercial video and that was the point — to make a film that’s commercially viable. But at the same time, it would represent a certain cinema appeal, a look that will be a break from the way movies are made over here. But this is all before KKL — it changed everything. It redefined what people want to see, what they can see, the kind of cinema that Pakistan can make. So now it’s a different ball game altogether.”

So does that entail that he is rethinking his strategy? “Yes, I am. I’d still love to make a commercial film. I think the kind of film I would probably make would still be very different from KKL. Do remember that at the end of the day Shoaib Mansoor’s film is also a commercial film… it’s got all the elements,” says Saqib.

The last music video he made as a director was for Ali Azmat’s Na Re Na, and not having seen any work from him in the realm since then, one wonders whether he is currently working on one? “I am in the thought-process of a video right now for Zeb and Haniya. I love their music. I think they’ve got a fresh sound — it’s very modern, paired down, very cool and it just comes through very directly. I’m very excited. And I think it’s going to be different than my other videos because I want it to be something straight up and simple. It’s not going to be an elaborate setup.” Two extremely talented musicians, Zeb and Haniya first made it big with their radio and internet hit, Chup. Considering that they’re still just beginning to create waves in the industry and don’t have an album or a video out yet, what made Saqib pick them as his next big thing? “The concept of two girls… regular girls who are not just manufactured pop stars and have beautiful voices…there is a certain rawness to it and I want to capture that, I want it to shine through that personality,” he enthuses. The song that he will be making the video for is Har Su. “I think it’s a fantastic song, I heard it once and I got goose bumps. That’s the beauty of Zeb and Haniya’s music, they are yet unfazed, and that’s what I’d like to capture.”

Does Saqib have a particular schedule in mind for the video shoot and its release? “Definitely this year so that it comes out early next year. I’m presently engaged in the process of thinking what I want to do for them but I haven’t constructed it consciously yet.”

With almost all of Saqib Malik’s music videos seeming like an indulgence where experiencing them is concerned — not only are they complete visual treats but are conceptually strong as well — one can’t help but look forward to a collaboration between one of the industry’s most well-established personalities and a pair of talented ladies who are just beginning to make their mark in music.

Where his cinematic venture is concerned, with Saqib’s eye for detail and cinematic flair exhibited in his work so far, one can be sure that a Saqib Malik film, despite the drawbacks, might be worth the wait. “I’m at a very nice point in my life as I’ve been so stressed out because of Ajnabi Shehr Mein in the past. I’m doing very little advertising work and being very selective with what I do”, says Saqib about where he is right now, “I’m very much at peace and I’m just enjoying looking at the world. It’s actually a good time in my life.”

photo by Amean J. 

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