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Azaan Sami Khan: Squashing the mythic legend of ‘young equals ignorant’

The 20-year-old producer gives a different shade of self while discussing the challenges of filmmaking, the idea behind O21 and the future of cinema

Azaan Sami Khan: Squashing the mythic legend of ‘young equals ignorant’

In a very young Azaan Sami Khan’s upcoming film, it is apparently shown that a sharp, wise Pakistani spy sets on a mission to save his country from the serious impact of Afghanistan’s recently discovered mineral reserves and US’ strategic agenda to acquire them.  Azaan, on the other hand, assures the story isn’t that simple and raises various moral and political quandaries amidst a thrilling camouflage. However it is not the unpredictable twists that O21 offers, but the crucial, capitalistic issue in itself that says a lot about Azaan’s sense of vision and level of maturity.

As Bilal Ashraf and Gohar Rasheed joked at the recently held O21 press meet that it may seem the film has taken ages to complete for Azaan went from being single and an aspiring newbie to a settled, happily married man with a son of his own – literally, a life change. But when you take a moment to count that duration, you’ll realize that Azaan has only turned into a passionate and pensive 20-year-old from an idealistic 18-year-old teenager. Yet the prodigal son of Pakistani cinema is about to release what is perhaps the most anticipated and promising film of this year.

“Age is really not on my side,” laughed Azaan. “I can’t explain how big of an issue it becomes because in Pakistan we have this concept that experience surpasses talent or knowledge. Of course experience is the most important thing because certain experienced people that I have worked with, whatever they say, is almost always right. But a lot of the times in most of my arguments, where I’ve had to put my foot down, have ended in others saying that ‘you are just 20-years-old’.”

“That is the problem because at times I may be talking about the betterment of the film and instead I’d have to just shut up,” he added. “But my mother has made me feel a strong sense of ownership of this industry. She was very clear to me that if God’s put you in this place then you have certain duties. For example, a person starting from zero has a 100-metre mark ahead of him but if you get a jumpstart from the 50th mark, then it is your duty to set a 200-metre mark. And that’s my aim: to start early so that I can really make a difference in the next 20 years.”

The goal may be set for the next 20 years but with a film that has almost 90 percent of its sound recording done on floor, has been formatted on Dolby Atmos, edited in Spain and stars Shaan among many international actors as well, it seems the difference has already been made.

“The idea behind O21 was to make an intelligent film,” asserted Azaan. “To make a film for any audience, be it someone who isn’t the most avid cinema-goer to someone who is very clued into films – all of them should be at the edge of their seats thinking now what’s going to happen.”

“We always talk about our neighbour as India but ever since the ‘war on terror’ started our relationship with Afghanistan has been very interesting and it is something we tend to oversee,” he speculates. “Be it the NATO route or the refugee situation, we forget how much it impacts Pakistan. We technically have no direct link whatsoever with the ‘war’ but because of our strategic, geographic position, we are stuck in the middle. And I felt that it was an important story to tell.”

Clearly O21 focuses on a different angle of border disputes, unlike last year’s Waar. But for those who have been beating around the bush over the similarities that appear to exist between the two ventures, Azaan insists that while O21 shows Shaan as the protagonist once again (simply because he fits the bill), it has nothing to do with terrorism or Waar’s  basic plot.

“When India makes 235 romantic films in a year, nobody criticizes that they have become repetitive but we just have two films of the same genre and yet everybody seems to be complaining,” said an amused Azaan. “Having said that, O21 is a completely different film from Waar in that Waar was an action-thriller that made you feel proud as a Pakistani and O21 is a spy-thriller that will make you think as a Pakistani and wonder if you are really pushing the envelope.”

Similar or not, any film that requires such a heavy magnitude of weaponry, action and visual effects along with shooting in dangerous, remote areas, in order to really capture the essence, wouldn’t be short of ‘challenging’ for a complete novice, right?

“Of course! When you start shooting in Pakistan, there is nothing there and you are completely scrambling and feel like you are literally doing everything from scratch,” said Azaan. “We went to this sensitive area in Balochistan about 13 hours from Karachi and after nine hours, phone signals went off. But more than anything else, the toughest part for any filmmaker here is maintaining stamina, to be attached to a certain creative idea for extremely lengthy periods of time and still remain passionate about it.”

Despite struggling with maintaining a willingness to stick to his guns and eventually breathing life into his dream, Azaan has another challenge waiting for him in cinema halls. The release of O21 faces a serious threat from a major Bollywood film, Bang Bang and also another Pakistani film, Na Maloom Afraad. However, Azaan has full confidence in Shaan’s star power and his film’s credibility.

“A lot of people encouraged us to not release the film on Eid but I see Shaan bhai as the Salman Khan or Shah Rukh Khan of Pakistan. He is our equivalent and there is no question about it. And those guys’ films don’t come on random days, they release on festivals,” said Azaan. “The only festival left for O21 to release in 2014 was Eid-ul-Azha. Secondly, we genuinely felt that we needed to come up against foreign content. Yes, Na Maloom Afraad releasing makes the day more festive but we should be going up against these films.”

“If anything else, it helps us learn and will help us gauge the impact of our project,” he reiterated. “In the end, the better film will do well. A good film always rises. Besides there is no real feasibility of making a film in Pakistan right now. The numbers are set that one should make a film within this budget but no one is doing that. So it’s not fair to first make a business decision which doesn’t make business sense but your final decision should be very business driven.”

Having made his first short film at only 13 and not taking the usual path of an acting debut simply because he felt he was more of a “behind-the-scenes guy”, Azaan proved to be a genial wealth of information and exuded sensibility that is often missing in some of the most experienced individuals. With his passion of making films for his country intact, he gives some substantial suggestions for the future of Pakistani cinema while sounding off on the interview.

“We really need to get used to making films and test our grounds of what kind of films our audiences want from us and what kind can we make well,” proposed Azaan. “For example, I am not saying that I am against the ‘item-number’ culture but let’s say I enter Formula 1, I can’t go and say this is my version of a Ferrari. Ferrari makes a Ferrari and I’ll make something else and I’ll race it. Similarly, India does item numbers brilliantly and I am not saying that we don’t do it well but the direction that we need to take needs to be unique. We need to discover our own identity, align our experienced veterans by dissolving some of the egos and make films that are as good as any other film in the world.”

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