“I love being the underdog! It’s the best way to win. To come from behind and win is a great feeling!” first-time film director Nabeel Qureshi posted on his Facebook timeline earlier this month. His pun on Lollywood superstar Shaan’s much-tomtommed O21 and the Bollywood blockbuster Bang Bang not cutting it at the box office, compared to his invariably-‘perceived’-as-a-small-fish Na Maloom Afraad, is too obvious to ignore.
But you can’t blame this 29-year-old, Karachi-based former producer of the successful TV show Banana News Network (BNN), with a considerable background in theatre at NAPA, for getting a bit cheeky at the expense of the industry stalwarts and pundits all of whom were literally astounded as Qureshi’s modestly budgeted and advertised feature film raced past the other two simultaneously released biggies on the occasion of Eidul Azha, coming out the winner.
Not only did Na Maloom Afraad (NMA) turn out to be THE money grosser of the year but, perhaps more importantly, it proved once and for all that a movie made well ought to do well, with or without any star padding.
Here was a film that displayed a modern sensibility — a lot of dark humour, bold one-liners et al — placing itself well in the current revival of cinema in Pakistan.
Having collected Rs110 million already, over a course of two and a half months, NMA is still playing at (select) theatres across the country, and continues to hold its own whereas scores of blockbusters from across the border have exhausted their run.
An ecstatic Nabeel Qureshi, together with his able producer Fizza Ali Meerza, took the occasion to test the international audiences. In November this year, the duo had an official screening of NMA at the South Asian International Film Festival (SAIFF) in New York where the film is said to have got “great feedback” (Qureshi’s own words).
Back home, team Na Maloom Afraad is still in a celebratory mood. Though, in an exclusive Q&A with TNS, Qureshi promises “it’s time to move on.” Excerpts from the interview follow.
The News on Sunday: Congratulations on the success of your debut film. Na Maloom Afraad has been declared a sleeper hit. You literally came in from the cold; the media hadn’t the foggiest idea such a movie was being made till its first promo came out on the internet and instantly became viral. Was this silence intended or you are the kind of person who does not believe in making a noise about your projects?
Nabeel Qureshi:: Well, I believe your work should be good enough to make the noise for you. Yes, I like to work silently; under cover, you can say.
TNS: You had no background in film per se, and you were coming from two technically very different mediums — TV and theatre. How did you hope to do justice to film direction? How well-versed were you (in film technology and language etc) when you went on set?
NQ: Not a lot of people have a background in film in Pakistan, because not a lot of films are made here. Even my ADs (assistant directors) were film-firsts. But I was confident, having some experience with TV commercials and the BNN videos. I had also studied Theatre at Napa and directed a play, though never performed for public. In fact, I was thrown out [of Napa] because I developed differences with the faculty. For me, it was more like a cadet college.
Film is about story-telling, and everyone can tell a story. Some people tell stories in a very interesting way, some don’t. Technology you learn as you go along. But, yes, you have to have a certain level of aesthetics and observation.
TNS: Do you agree that the lines are blurring between what is made for cinema and what is for TV?
NQ: Well, if you talk about foreign shows, yes, they boast high production values, equal to film. Their shooting style is also film-like. The only difference is that they are episodic.
TNS: Why was it important for you to script your film? Does a screenwriter make a better director?
NQ: In this case, I co-scripted [Na Maloom Afraad] with my producer Fizza. And both of us agreed that if we hired, say, a TV writer, he might not be able to visualise on a cinematic scale. It could then look like a teleplay.
In film, screenplay is the most important thing. And, my own experience tells me that you are the best person to put down what you have in your mind; that is, if you are able to. There’s no rocket science involved. So, we scripted the film mostly following our gut feeling.
TNS: Eventually, you know, similarities were drawn between NMA and Bollywood’s bordering-on-dark-comedy Delhi Belly and even Hera Pheri. There were Tarantino-esque moments in your film. Besides, Salman Shahid’s Gogi seemed to be an extension of his character in the Ishqiya series. How do you respond to such criticism?
NQ: I am a huge Quentin Tarantino fan, so any kind of comparison is very flattering for me. I believe Tarantino is a master of dark humour; he can make the most brutal scenes look funny.
If you talk about Delhi Belly and Hera Pheri, yes, our characters may have certain similarities but the situations in which they find themselves are very different.
As far as Salman [Shahid] saheb’s character is concerned, honestly, even while scripting it I was very conscious that comparisons could be drawn. That’s why I initially approached Waseem Abbas [for the role] but he declined.
To our pleasant surprise, Salman sahib didn’t think Gogi was similar to his character in Dedh Isqhiya or Ishqiya.
TNS: There are certain shots in the movie, especially the ones where one of your leading ladies (Kubra Khan) is shown sashaying on the beach. These clearly stand out and actually look as if they were shot by a separate director of photography. Is that a correct observation?
NQ: I am glad the ‘difference’ was noticeable, because that was the purpose. Kubra’s shots are more cinematic, you can say, and we consciously treated and graded them differently [from the rest of the film]. The idea was to say that when life changes for you, the colours around you look brighter. But our DoP was the same.
TNS: After the hilariously funny BNN, would you say making people laugh came naturally to you?
NQ: Well, I directed the show but never wrote its script. So, it wasn’t a conscious decision [on our part] to make a comic film. Though I definitely believe that through comedy you can say a lot of serious things that you would otherwise not be able to. And, our film attempts to make a serious comment.
TNS: Which film genre do you believe might not be your cup of tea, if any?
NQ: Horror, for sure. It doesn’t appeal to me and I don’t even watch horror movies. But as a film maker, I would obviously like to experiment and grow.
TNS: Do you watch a lot of foreign cinema? What were your early influences or role models?
NQ: All kinds of cinema. My influences have been a whole lot of directors — Guy Ritchie, Tarantino, Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj… the list goes on. More recently, I was quite touched by Imtiaz Ali’s Sufism.
TNS: Tell us about your (brief) stint with the international audience. You didn’t consider releasing your film in the US, though. Why?
NQ: Well, we were invited to hold a special screening [of Na Maloom Afraad] for the closing night of the South Asian International Film Festival. We got great feedback from the audience and the media. Currently, we are in talks with international distributors and should be releasing the film abroad soon.
TNS: Why didn’t you have a simultaneous release internationally?
NQ: Ideally, it should’ve been that way. But, you know, there is practically no market for Pakistani cinema internationally. There are no Pakistani distributors abroad. You have to generate interest among the foreign distributors in the first place. And this will take time.
TNS: NMA has been appreciated, among other things, for its impeccable cast of characters. How did you pull off such an unusual casting? Did you initially have a Shaan or a Fawad Khan in mind for the main leads?
NQ: No, we were very clear in our heads that we didn’t want any ‘stars’. Our film is based on everyday characters and I don’t think a Shaan or any other star with a very strong image would be able to play them with fidelity.
TNS: Why is a casting director’s job not given its due importance in Pakistan?
NQ: Here we only have modeling agencies that provide you with portfolios of people that need to be auditioned etc. We don’t have casting agencies. But I believe this must be institutionalised, as is done internationally. Of course, we lag behind majorly.
TNS: Finally, have you moved on to your next project? Care to spill the beans?
NQ: We are working on a couple of ideas. But, again, my belief is that ‘content’ is the most important thing.