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True grit of Kamal Khan

The 33-year-old director of Laal Kabootar talks to Instep about his inner and outer journey, growing up in Karachi and what his next film will be about.

True grit of Kamal Khan
Kamal Khan directing Laal Kabootar


Kamal Khan, 33, is introverted, shy even. He says so himself. It also reflects in his demeanour when asked deeply personal questions and not ones necessarily based on his film.

He’s on his third interview of the day and he smiles politely and says, “I’m already tired.”

Khan is presently in the spotlight for making Laal Kabootar, a gritty crime-thriller set in Karachi – about the real Karachi and its inhabitants, their struggles, broken dreams against what can be a brutal metropolis told through its protagonists, supporting cast, music, background score, screenplay and visual treatment. It is unlike anything the decade of revival in Pakistan has thrown up.

While the film has picked up critical acclaim across the board, Kamal Khan remains known to few.

From the onset, this conversation with Kamal is therefore about the man who made Laal Kabootar.

Who is he?

Long before Laal Kabootar became a reality, Kamal has worked for 1) MTV [when it existed in Pakistan], 2) Coke Studio in its early years, 3) made critically acclaimed music videos such as ‘Wake up/Jaago’ (for Zohaib Kazi), ‘Ho Jao Azaad’ (for Zoe Viccaji), ‘The Desert Journey’ (for The D/A Method) and ‘Mil Gaya’ (for Strings). In between he has made TVCs, fallen in love and married singer-songwriter Zoe Viccaji, collaborated with Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (SOC) Films for Bela, a short film that was part of the exhibit Home 1947 and won a Lux Style Award for Best Music Video Director.

Our conversation, given the clear and present, begins with his love for films. Did he always want to be a filmmaker?

But, as Kamal tells it, he walked out of his first business class in University. “I was basically a business student at the University of Southern California,” he begins.

“I walked out of my first business class,” Kamal remembers, “I was like this is not what I want to do.”

“Being from Pakistan, you either get sciences, business or engineering and I’m talking about 2004.”

During his time there, Kamal explored and took psychology classes, and jazz drumming classes.

Kamal Khan on the sets of Laal Kabootar.

Kamal Khan on the sets of Laal Kabootar.

“What I didn’t know was that I was always interested in filmmaking. I made my first film in class 4. I made another in class 9 but I didn’t even remember these things then.”

As Kamal reminisces, “A friend of mine, a senior film student I used to hang out with – we would talk about movies, making movies – was the one who suggested he join a film school. I didn’t even know that was an option.”

It was at that point that realization struck and Kamal Khan began exploring, took one class and applied to film school. That opened the doors.

“Since then,” says Kamal, “I was like this is all I want to do. I was never good at studies. I was an average student and this was the first time I took interest in something. It didn’t feel like hard work. Unfortunately, I had to drop out of college 3 years later because I couldn’t afford to stay there. It was a very expensive college and I was working 3 jobs.”

Kamal decided to come back to Pakistan and started working because he was clear that he wanted to make movies at home and not in the US.

“I felt I knew more about Pakistan, our culture and wanted to tell stories about the people over here.”

Returning to Pakistan in 2007, Kamal began working. It started from Aaj TV as an assistant director for a sit-com but Kamal says: “It was barely two weeks,” before he moved on. “In fact, it was with Rashid Faruqi, and Kohi Marri that I made a low budget short film on the serial killer Javed Iqbal.”

“I quit because I didn’t like it. TV is very different. Sitcom, if I can say, felt mechanical, long hours and I was not going to grow.”

Kamal taught at CAS and made a short film with his students before and in 2008, he went to Indus who were looking for directors. “I went to Indus, gave an interview but they put me in MTV.”

“MTV was great; I had all this equipment and Ghazanfar Ali (sahib) was great. He put me in charge of everything. It taught me about working with local crews.”

The film bug, in the meantime, boomed again as Kamal started learning how to write and improved upon what he had learnt in college. Even as he tried to work with other writers and it didn’t work out, he reiterates, “I never gave up.”

Working at MTV brought Kamal Khan to Coke Studio, which is where I first met him.

Covering Coke Studio – in its second season – Kamal notes that when he went there, he was blown away and knew that it was the production (Coke Studio) he would’ve liked to work with.

He had quit MTV after one year.

“I saw them (Coke Studio) shooting and the professionalism, I knew then that this is where I want to be; it’s a place where I’ll grow, learn and be challenged.”

8 months later, when Adnan Malik, also a part of Coke Studio by then, was looking for an assistant,  Kamal jumped at the opportunity. “I immediately jumped at the chance, interviewed with them. The money difference between MTV and Coke was huge but it was never about money.”

By season 3, Kamal was on the BTS team and by season 4, executive producers Rohail and Umber Hyatt had hired him as an in-house video producer.”

He grew within the ranks of Coke Studio and “learnt a lot.”

“In 2012, Bilal Iftikhar and I went to New York. He took a music course and I took a screenwriting course.”

Kamal remembers doing more Coke Studio after returning until it went to Strings. But the dream of making a film continued to exist.He went on to do some TVCs and made the critically acclaimed ‘The Desert Journey’ which was Kamal’s version of making a short-film within the music video. “People enjoyed it.”

Laal Kabootar and the past

As producers of Laal Kabootar, Hania and Kamil Cheema were looking for a director to make a film, they were introduced to Kamal and his work, which was followed by a conversation and the film journey took off. “We clicked.”

“I’ve been going on about it for 10 years that I want to make a film. Everyone said how will you make it? How will you find the funding? There were some people demotivating me. But when it happened, it was a phone call. Everything was building up to it so I wouldn’t call it easy per se but when the moment came, it was a phone call.”

Ahmed Ali Akbar in a still from the crime-thriller that is set in Karachi.

Ahmed Ali Akbar in a still from the crime-thriller that is set in Karachi.

As we segue from Laal Kabootar to Kamal’s childhood, he is articulate and honest. “It was a tough childhood,” he admits. “I grew up in middle class apartments. It was great because my father wanted me to go to Karachi Grammar School. I was in CAS and the best thing about CAS is that it had all kinds of people from Karachi.”

In grade 8 upon insistence of his father Kamal joined Karachi Grammar School. “I gave the test a couple of times and failed but in grade 8, I passed.”

“It was a different world,” he says. “I remember wearing Bata shoes and my bag was just a bag and I was bullied for the shoes and the bag. I was never brand conscious. I’m not saying that’s all there is because some of my best friends and important people come from that school. The most humble people also. But, for me, it was a flipside because I grew up in these apartments where not a single person was English speaking except our family probably.”

“I kind of had the best of both worlds. But yes, life was tough. My parents separated eventually. My father was very tough on me.”

Kamal Khan, for the first time since this interview began, is hesitating.

I ask him if he ran the household.

“Not at that age. My mum probably ran the household more than anything. But, when I came back, and now, I take care of my family. I’ve taken the responsibility. But I have to give credit to my mum. It was her who supported us for the most part. When my father wouldn’t let us do things, she would on the side allow us sneakily. My mum introduced me to my aesthetic; she made me listen to The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Marley and films like Sound of Music and Saturday Night Fever. These are all things I got from my mum and the world of desi-ness came from my surroundings, my apartment life.”

Hustling his way to the US and telling his parents to fund his ticket because he had earned a scholarship – which he did – Kamal is, as he admits, “a risk-taker and I’ve been one my whole life. I ran away from home, briefly at a certain age.”

I cut the conversation and ask him why?

“Just issues with my dad,” says Kamal, “He was very, very strict and for the smallest thing I would get a beating so there was fear but the older I got, I went through this rebel stage.”

“I live with my mum and my Dad’s in the States and we are in touch…”

Kamal, at 33, looks at his tough childhood as a strength. “I know working with Suhaee Abro on ‘The Desert Journey’, working with Faiza on Bela and with Ahmed and Mansha (as well as the rest of the Laal Kabootar cast) – I have all this baggage I offer my actors and what it allows is for them to become comfortable with me and we start relating. I relate to the characters through my experiences. It opens up the actors and they relate to their characters.”

The looming Karachi

When told that in Laal Kabootar, Karachi emerges almost as a character itself, Kamal admits that he tries to do it and whether manages it or not but he does make the effort because, as he reveals, “I have a love-hate relationship with Karachi. I love it, it is almost grungy and I’ve grown up here but there are days when I hate it, the traffic, the pollution, people can be rude and confrontational.”

Moving on and coming back to direction, Kamal reiterates, “I believe Coke Studio helped me a lot, you know the environment Ma (Umber) and Pa (Rohail) Hyatt had created.

As a director you are overlooking so many things, the screenwriting course helped me as well. The basics go a long way.”

Kamal adds: “Film is a collaborative art form. Alone, I cannot do it. I’ve realized the value of collaboration. I’m only as good as my team is.”

The near future

The Eagles once sang, “Some dance to remember, some dance to forget.” But in Pakistan, dancing is looked down upon as something derogatory even though it is a creative performing art. Kamal already knows this.

“I’m working on my next film; we are on the screenplay side of it. It’s called Marasi and it’s about a dancer,” he says, on a parting note. “It’s a unique story; it has a lot of dance but again, it is my style. It’s Karachi – the underbelly. We dance at Mehndis and like to watch people dance so we are contradictory. But when someone takes it on as a career, we judge them and I’m trying to not stereotype or be preachy.”

Maheen Sabeeh

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