It’s 8:30 in the evening and I’m told that Shaan is on his way. He’s in Karachi and has been on the run since 8:30 in the morning, working his way through morning shows, public appearances, interactive sessions and interviews. It can’t be easy, I think to myself. Shaan, albeit the original superstar, is from a generation of uncomplicated filmmaking. He’s been in the film industry for 27 years, most of them at a time when the frenzy of social media and aggressive film promotions hadn’t set in. All this must be so new to him and yet watching him go from one setting to another, it’s apparent that it all comes to him so naturally.
He greets me with a warm smile when he arrives; I’m interviewing him after almost a decade, the last time being 2007, when Khuda Kay Liye released and honestly, he looks just as fit as he did back then. His black suit sits well; his fitted trousers ending right where his black boots begin, allowing no room for tardiness at all. There’s a Fitbit on his wrist so he’s obviously counting his steps just as carefully as his calories. I’m amused to find him watching his words too, which is uncharacteristic of Shaan. We get to that later.
“I’m so happy and I’m so tired,” he laughs as we settle down and he apologizes for being late. “These guys fed me breakfast at 8:30 and I hadn’t eaten all day.”
It’s been a hectic day, but then the last three years of Shaan’s life have been just as frantic.
“It has been three years since I started working on these two films,” he says of Arth and Zarrar. “So I think they’ve taken a physical toll on me. You do get tired, you want to snuggle with your kids and you want to go home, you want to be cozy and have your coffee; you want to have your peace time, so I miss that.”
“There’s so much effort that goes into making a film,” he adds. “I want people to know it’s not just money that makes a film; it’s so many personal moments that we give up.”
And so we dive right into the subject: films; Arth: the Destination, his upcoming film in particular, and films then and now in general.
The landscape has changed drastically since the ‘90s. How does he feel about the change, I ask him?
“The technology’s really great,” Shaan is quick to reply. “I think the new cinemas are good. As a director, I feel that the environment is more breathable; I can say what I want to say, in any language that I want to use. We still lack in a lot of areas but I don’t think that’s an issue. I think evolution takes time. I personally feel that it’s going on the upside.”
“But there are problems,” he continues. “There are huge, dangerous problems. I personally feel the divide in the community, as one artistic community. That gap needs to be bridged. I think we need to look at the larger picture right now. I think we need to give each other respect instead of pulling each other’s legs. I think these are all aspects that’ll help the industry grow.”
He’s always been fairly critical of things, I remind him. How does he differentiate between leg pulling and constructive criticism?
He holds Syed Noor’s Chain Aye Na and Shoaib Mansoor’s Verna as an example of destructive versus constructive criticism.
“So, Syed Noor was whammed inside a van with the critics. I think Shoaib Mansoor got the easy way out,” he explained. “I would compare Shoaib Mansoor’s script to Syed Noor’s execution, so it balances out; they’re both the same to me. But what we did to Syed Noor is not what we did to Shoaib Mansoor.”
“What I’m trying to say is even a genius makes mistakes, it doesn’t matter,” he added. “You’ve got to give him a chance. You’ve got to give him that benefit of doubt so that he can go back and come again. None of the producers are going to pick up Syed Noor’s projects anymore, I feel.”
Steering the conversation to his upcoming film, Arth: the Destination, I ask him the one burning question that has been on everyone’s mind and people have asked him before but I can’t let it slide either.
Why do an adaptation of an Indian film and not a classic Pakistani film?
“I think first of all you have to understand that I am an actor and not a politician that I would come and tell you all my promises and my theories and my policies and then vote myself in the government and then do whatever I want to do. I am an actor and I’ll plan something and I’ll plan accordingly. For example, my plan has always been to open trade with India on the film front. Even after the Uri attacks Indian bananas were available here and Pakistani meat was available there. So why can’t films be like this?”
And why I’ve been criticising my own people is that they haven’t done a film in Pakistan, you have to realise this. They are Pakistani actors without a Pakistani film,” he continued logically. “You cannot deprive your audience; how is it the fault of Pakistanis?”
“If a guy goes and acts in India and then comes back and gets three young directors from Pakistan and decides to make a film, how much will that film cost to make? Not much, but the effort is not there, the thought is not there. The vision is not there. That means the desire is not there. So, I am hurt when there is no desire to work here. If Shoaib Mansoor, who is not a millionaire, can open Shoaib Mansoor Films or Productions then so can all these other people who make dramas, such as television heroes who all have their own production houses. I think responsibility as a Pakistani actor lies on your shoulders more because this nation has been deprived of a lot of things and from those lot of things there was a very important thing and that was entertainment. So if you read the human brain, if you don’t give it entertainment, it will have a certain capacity for intolerance.”
Speaking about intolerance, I mention how most story writers were taking up social causes in their scripts. Did Arth also have a hidden agenda or was it pure entertainment?
“Arth is going to take two hours of your life and that’s all it requires,” Shaan responded. “I’m not going to change the world with this film; I just want to entertain you. But if you want a message then there is one for you. I feel the tagline ‘Decisions determine destiny’ is what the film stands for. It is about the power of a single woman. What if that single woman stops depending on everybody around her and starts depending on her own self? What are the changes that happen? What is the positivity that comes out? I think that’s the message the film offers.”
There was a lot of speculation around the casting of Arth as well. Humaima and Mohib fit into their roles perfectly but Uzma Hassan was a surprise addition to the cast. What thought went behind that decision?
“I personally took that as a challenge,” he said. “I just wanted to know why it always has to be a beautiful person that one is falling in love with on screen; why can’t normal people fall in love? Why can’t a face that’s not typically glamorous be the iconic heroine? For me as a director, I wanted to challenge myself there because there were a lot of people saying it’s not the right decision, saying I should get a big name, but I think every big name was a small name at some time.”
Who would you choose if you had to cast a Lollywood actress from the ‘90s in Arth today, I ask him?
“I think they would all be overqualified for these roles,” he said with a serious expression, though I had meant to be tongue-in-cheek here. But his explanation made sense. “I feel that they required a different story, a different skill of aesthetics, a different environment. Arth is very ‘minglish’ – the expressions that we have when we are talking as two Pakistanis – that is how cinema is now. You don’t see your driver sitting next to you at the theatre, do you?”
Do you miss that time?
“They (the masses) miss it more than I miss it because when I was catering to them then there were a lot of allegations on me because I was told I only do Punjabi films. For me a film is a film and has a language of its own. If you ask me today, those were the most challenging roles I did – I was a person who had been in New York for 7 years, did his high school from there and this gujjar required a lot of transformation from me. These roles (as in Arth) are not difficult to do because that’s the way we are, that’s how we eat, we sit, so I personally feel that was a bigger challenge as an actor. By the end of the day, I feel that not many people today would have the ability to shift themselves from their character the way I have.
But speaking of the masses, look what you’ve done to them? You’ve taken away their entertainment and the after effects of this will be deadly.”
What has happened to all the single screen cinemas in Lahore…on Mall Road, Davis Road, Abbott Road, I asked. They were so iconic…
“They’re still operating but they too are selling tickets for 500 rupees. Multiplex owners have bought these cinemas on long leases and are running them the same way as they are running multiplexes. That era is gone. There are no 100 rupee tickets left.”
Our conversation continued around the plight of cinema, how the industry had covered vital ground but still had such a long way to go. The one vital element in its progress, Shaan felt, was that more films had to be made every year. “A film like Secret Superstar,” he said, “is a film we should be making every day.” He himself was totally committed to the task. Arth releases on December 21, 2017, after which he would complete work on his next, Zarrar. And he was already sitting with young kids and working on his next projects.
“Pick up stars and make them bigger stars but also allow young kids to come up,” he said.
Filmmaking has to come from the heart, it has to be done for the passion and not just for mercenary reasons, Shaan emphasized. Arth had been made on a budget of 8 crores and he couldn’t understand why people with deep pockets weren’t investing more generously in the film industry.
“There are people who buy cars for this much each year,” he said. “Forget Lahore, there are 1500 people in Karachi with cars more expensive than what it would take to make a film. Do you think that the media conglomerates in this country can’t afford to make more films?”
“I can’t emphasize on the importance of cinemas enough,” he said. “When we stop making films we’ll stop going to the cinema and we’ll stream programs from Netflix and live indoors, eat indoors and stop worrying about what’s happening outside. We’re essentially locking ourselves away. That very thought is regressive to society at large on so many levels that it is scary. Filmmaking has to be an effort and it shouldn’t be suppressed; even the worst film shouldn’t be suppressed. Even Syed Noor should have been cut some slack. We need films to survive.”
Would Arth survive the censor board’s recent fetish for intervention, I asked, concluding on a lighter note; the Arth trailer did feature some hot and steamy scenes between Humaima Malick and Mohib Mirza…
“I don’t think they’re hot and steamy,” Shaan laughed. “I think I’ve seen a lot of Indian films here in Pakistan which were hotter and steamier so I think the urban class is ready for all the action.”
“And we will have an audience premiere,” he concluded, when I asked. “We will watch the film with the audience because the best way to enjoy a family dinner is with the family and the best way to enjoy a film is with the audience.”
Arth: the Destination releases on December 21, 2017
– Shaan’s portraits by Kashif Rashid