Feature | High-Concept Stories, Adaptions and Branding: The Industry’s New State of Depression

Feature-IndustrysStateDepression


Kamran Jawaid  |  This is the unedited original copy of the feature published in DAWN’s ICON with the title “Cinema Without Ideas” on the 21st of May 2017. The Dawn copy can be read here and its print copy is attached at the end of the post.


Pakistani cinema is in a state of rut. We push, we pull, we skid-forward a centimeter, if not an inch. We have cinema screens and motion pictures, and we have a working model where films “perceived” to be high-concept – that is, films that give you the best bang for your buck – vie for the most financially lucrative release dates: the two Eids. And yet despite the formula, good motion pictures are as rare as a big-foot sighting.

Like wrongly spotting the abominable beast (often just a bear, or an unshaved hobo living in the forest), the realization of a fake-hurrah at a films premiere gets embarrassing – fast. One sighs, and moves on.

Pakistani Filmmakers share that same awkwardness. They humbly apologize for their blunders, admitting their amateurism and lack of insight right after their film’s first show. Their initial rush of enthusiasm, instantly gunned-down by bad reviews and the audience’s indifference. Forget a five-star rating – at that day, three-stars would do.

Or would it?

The only recurring theme in Pakistani Cinema– other than the superfluity of brands and mediocre plots – is a producer’s state of depression. Today, even blockbusters lose money – and with rare exception, barely breakeven.

Talking to Icon, four filmmakers – Jamshed Mehmood (Jami), Asim Raza, Hassan Waqas Rana, and Hassan Azhar. Each representing an idiosyncratic mindset, discuss cinema’s “new lacks”: the lack of good writers, source materials, big ideas – all while holding on to one’s own identity in the current state of the industry.

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Jami – Photo: Farheen Jawaid

“I think we are still lying down. We’re awake, though”, Jami tells me, in a long conversation at his home. “To put it correctly”, he continues “we were in a state of coma for the last thirty years, and we’ve just opened our eyes. Our hands aren’t working yet” – he adds dramatically.

“The patient has just woken up. He hasn’t started thinking – or maybe’s he’s just about started thinking for himself. He has a neeyat of making a film. What’s happening isn’t landmark work – no “jhanda gaar diya“. Everyone is happy that they made a film – I get happy after I make a movie. But when you compare Moor to Shawshank Redemption, its nothing”.

According to Jami, we are “lost, blind, ignorant, naïve – it’s a complete package”. “Right now, we don’t have a map. We have a car. Maybe some gas. We’re off-roading right now. We don’t know the destination.  And we’re saying that we’re not lost. We’re not asking for direction. And whoever we’re meeting along the way, also does not know where they’re going”.

As the conversation continues, Jami becomes vehement about cinema: “Why are they calling it films? They’re not films. They’re rolling a camera”, he adds – a justified remark, considering the fine-lined intricacies of technicalities and aesthetic involved in filmmaking.

“To be very honest, in Pakistan there are two genres –  the second one I am not sure about, but the first one is Bollywood”, he starts.

“We are so schizophrenic, that we only see one thing. That we are going to make a Karan Johar film, (or something close to that)”, he says. “It’s very interesting, because Bollywood has destroyed our intellectuals and journalists. We have these two (diverging) theories: (its either) Shawshank or Bollywood. There is just one theory. One good film”.

There is a misconception in the industry about high-concept ideas. In easy-to-understand Hollywood-terms, high-concept could be anything from tent-pole blockbusters like the Fate of the Furious (Dominic Torreto betraying his friends to save his family, eventually taking out a righteously-driven villain) or Bridge of Spies (an ethically-inclined American lawyer brokers exchange of a Russian spy with an entrapped American student at the beginning of the cold-war).

In Pakistan we settle for action-oriented Army propaganda, melodramatic women, or boorish romantic comedies.

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Photo: Hassan Waqas Rana (FB)

Hassan Waqas Rana, the writer-producer of WAAR and just-about-everything of Yalghaar, believes that very few have an entire grasp of the concept.

“(High concept stories) require a lot of work and unfortunately, most of our directors and producers do not have that great an opinion of our audience – which is completely wrong”, Rana tells me on the phone.

“Even if (the filmmaker’s) do, they don’t actually believe in themselves enough (to pull the concept off)”.

When I reflect that most alleged high concept actioners often bank on propagating the military, Rana is quick to point out that Yalghaar is not an “Army” film. “Yes, it is set in that direction, but it has lots of other angles to it”. He confirms, that “it has zero agenda”.

Asim Raza, producer and director of Ho Mann Jahaan (HMJ) has a different take on the subject, believing that stories come from society.

“To me they are like a lullaby – where you go oh-so-sweet, so-nice, so pretty – but then your audience should feel that this story is talking to them”.

“In a subtle way, (it should tell of) my faults and my flaws which I am doing as an individual – to the society, my children, my parents, my friends. You give them something to think about – something that is not just entertainment”, he says.

Both HMJ and WAAR were mammoth hits at the box-office. HMJ spoke to the youth about maturity and following one’s dream. WAAR communicated to everyone who loves Michael Bay’s annual penchant for destruction.

Jami’s Moor, about a lone, uncomplicated, conflicted man struggle against politics, fatherhood and the motherland, tanked at the box-office. His previous directorial endeavor O21 – a spy-thriller – was a tagged as a sophisticatedly-convoluted version of WAAR, with a misperceived pay-off (Spoiler alert: Shaan Shahid, the lead in WAAR, was an anti-hero in O21; the real protagonist – in thematic terms – was Ayub Khoso).

During our conversation, Jami throws me the idea of a No-concept. The films we usually see, he says, are so simple that one can map them out from their trailers.

“For me”, he says “a high concept is Downward Dog – you have to see the film, two or three times (to get it). You couldn’t tell (what it is) from the trailer”.

Downward Dog, roughly 70% in-the-can (a film term for completed), is a black-and-white Noir about writers and plagiarism that lies “comatose” at Jami’s Edit Bay (a film term for the edit machine).

Speaking of writers, Jami says he is optimistic – and that there may be some, somewhere, now. Only, he hasn’t seen them yet.

If there is a lack of original material, then why not adapt novels, I ask.

“Me and Azaan (Sami Khan) tried for Prisoners, but after O21, I stepped back. Pakistan is not ready, because I would take Prisoners in the direction of O21”, Jami replies.

Rana, however, thinks that the “industry lacks the imagination” for such an endeavor. “We have this innate belief system of actually thinking of ourselves as demi-gods, and that maybe somebody else’s concepts wouldn’t be enough for our attention. The other thing is that we tend to forget that our reading habits are gone. I have unfortunately have met very, very few people in this industry who like to read books”, he says.

Raza concurs that there are very few would could do justice to a proper film adaptation.

“I’ve considered three books, which I felt were very exciting to me. But the moment you try to think of how you would convert it to film, (we come face-to-face with) a technicality called cost”. The predicament, he says, is that books that have cinematic value, are “too adventurous” to be faithfully adapted on-screen.

“(A reader’s) imagination is very powerful. With the added responsibility of not disappointing the audience, now you are about to challenge that imagination – that film that they’ve seen in their minds, with the promise that you’re going to top what they’ve imagined. If you don’t do that, then the audience would go “kitaab ka bhi bera gharak kar diya“.

“The (few) good (book) writers we have, are either writing about Kashmir or the lives people lead in America and London. I am sure, there are some writing about people in Pakistan – it could be my own fault that I haven’t seen books about Karachi, Lahore, Sialkot, Bhawalpur or Hyderabad, written in that novel way that I could go ‘now this could be filmed right away”. Raza said.

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Asim Raza – Photo: Nadir Feroz

Raza, though, is wiser now, taking his time before starting another movie. “My film ran for two-and-a-half months in cinemas. When your film barely breaks-even even after that time, then you would have to find other ways to cover that amount”.

At that cue we move to another necessary evil in films: the overuse of product placement in motion pictures.

Films are expensive endeavors, and as Raza points out, even “(Aik) khamba laganay kay bhi paisay lagtay hain”.

To better understand the dilemma, he elaborates with an analogy: “You go to a Nawab Saheb, and say – ‘seekha toh mainay katthak tha, mujra is liye karnay aaya hon kyun kay is kay baghair meray ghar walon ka pait nahin bharta“. When you go to a Nawab Saheb, “then ‘Nawab Saheb ki hi chalti hai“.

“We’re compromising, because, unfortunately there is no other way in cinema today to generate money”, Raza says.

Hassaan Azhar, a whiz in branding opportunities, opts for a far more acute insight.

“I think brands have already supported a lot of Pakistani films”, he says. “They’ve gone out of their way since a beverage brand came aboard Main Hoon Shahid Afridi. Since then, a lot of brands have supported films that have delivered major upsets at the box-office”.

“Till date when we – or an independent producer – pitches a film to a brand, no one commits to a minimum number (of returns) a film will deliver at the box-office”, Azhar points out. “(Thankfully) that’s not something brand mandates from the producer”, he continues.

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Hassaan Azhar – Photo: Farheen Jawaid

As the General Manager of Entertainment Sports and Partnerships at Group M Pakistan – a world-renowned advertisement and marketing company – Azhar has seen more than his fair-share of opportunist filmmakers.

“Producers want to pitch their film as a two-and-a-half-hour glorified version of a brand’s TVC (Television Commercial)”, Azhar said.

“All the new filmmakers tend to take the safe route. You plan something on paper, that is brand and distributor friendly with the item numbers and everything, (being) very safe with your business model. (But) unfortunately, this is not a business that works with this much planning and safety. I keep meeting producers almost every day, who come up with stories that have branding opportunities highlighted at the one-liner stage”

“If it’s a good film, people will want to partner with them” Azhar exclaims, adamantly.

Surprisingly Azhar’s own motion picture, Jhol, starring Ali Azmat, Bilal Ashraf and Urwa Hocane, shy’s away from product placement. He is, of course, open to brand support– but not at the expense of his narrative.

Rana, whose Yalghaar also has unobtrusive branding support, agrees on this purist approach. “I have a responsibility to my (audience). I cannot just simply ask (them) to give me money, and not give something in return”.

Yalghaar is pricey-beast – but not as pricy as the media speculates. Misquoted by every newspaper to be anywhere between 50-70 Crores, the film is budgeted at 23.4 Crores after the films post-production at UK’s Pinewood Studios – the place where James Bond and Harry Potter films are produced.

“I’ve learned a lot over past years. I’ve learned from the mistakes. I still make them. There are some that I would like to correct, but then obviously, you have to abandon creativity at one point of time”, Rana says.

It is a point all filmmakers agree to, at one point or another, whether at the final edit or after the premiere. In Pakistan, even success stories struggle for appreciation.

The print article looks like this:

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