Women should run the world and men should assist

Ace director, Adnan Sarwar, talks why women-centric films work in our society, reminisces about his directorial ventures and sheds light on everything that is hindering Pakistani cinema from making waves all over again. Excerpts:
  • 30 Jun - 06 Jul, 2018
  • Ambreen Asim
  • Interview

Once a doctor, now an actor and a director, Adnan Sarwar is a name now everyone knows. His love for acting and filmmaking is evident when he seems unstoppable the moment he is posed with questions about cinema.

After coming back to his home country from Australia, Sarwar ventured into films and directed Shah in which he also played the titular role. Unperturbed with Shah’s commercial failure, Sarwar made another biopic, Motorcycle Girl. As luck would have it, the film was a success and it was enough to make people believe in Sarwar’s filmmaking skills.

Raised by strong women, as he says about himself, Adnan comes from a family where a lot of emphasis was on education and that led him to become a doctor irrespective of his interest in singing and acting.

The scribe recently caught up with the young man, who highly believes in women empowerment, for a detailed discussion on the current state of Pakistani cinema.

After the success of Cake – a women-centric film, do you think Pakistan is ready to accept more feature films in which women characters are more empowered?

Pakistan elected its first female prime minister way back in 1988 when even US had not have one. It’s who we are and it is very much in our culture to see women in leadership positions. Even if we reminisce old times, our homes were led by our grandmothers. So yes, the country is very much ready to accept women in empowered roles.

If you look at TV and cinema content produced in the 60s and 70s, you notice girls in powerful leading roles. People like me are trying to bring girls back as empowered as they were during PTV’s golden days because now the time is right. People, and the society as a whole, are looking forward to witness the same all over again.

After Shah, you came up with another biographical venture, and given the fact that your previous project underperformed, wasn’t it risky doing it again?

Of course it was risky! I am a doctor by profession. I was working in Australia making more money than most of the directors make in this country, yet I came back and ventured into the film business. I had to take the risk, and I am happy that I did it. As we are making films with a small budget, we do not have million dollars at stake, so eventually the risk is also small. I can’t force myself to make a certain kind of film, it’s beyond my control [smiles].

What motivated you to cast Sohai in the leading role given the fact that she doesn’t enjoy star power as much as actresses like Mahira Khan, Amina sheikh and Sanam Saeed?

Sohai is a star. I believe that certain roles are perfect for certain people. Unfortunately, the way casting is done in Pakistan is beyond my understanding. They write a film and they look for who’s the number one, and ultimately, rope him/her in to play the character irrespective of the actor’s suitability to the role. I don’t work like that.

I felt that nobody else could have played the role of motorcycle girl other than Sohai. She was the one I had in my mind as a lead actress since the day I started writing the script. I knew nobody else could pull it off better. Even if you look at the poster of the film, you can actually relate to it. I can say it with cent per cent surety that nobody could work with the determination like Sohai did. You might imagine anybody else as the motorcycle girl but I could not. She has given one of the most remarkable performances in modern Pakistani cinema.

How was your experience of shooting in different terrains of Karakorum Highway and what difficulties did you face while shooting this movie?

I was shooting for BMW commercial as their brand ambassador in our northern areas and it was then that the sceneries caught me for the first time. Our northern belt has jaw-dropping natural sceneries like nowhere in the world. Words cannot do justice to the scenic beauty that those areas have to offer along with the most difficult terrains.

We shot in Khunjrab, and take my word that it is not suggested to stay there for more than an hour. The shooting took more than four hours and the crew started getting sick as lack of oxygen started setting in. As we were working on a low budget, we didn’t have any ambulance or medical equipment with us. The weather was very rough, and connectivity was another problem. It is like you are cut off from the world which is nice in a way but I like big cities and can’t survive without the internet [chuckles].

What were the factors that motivated you to make this movie?

I’ve been raised by strong women in various phases of my life. Like I said that having had the honour of knowing strong women has shown me what power is, and I believe in the fact that women should run the world and men should assist.

The reason why Zenith Irfan took the journey to fulfil her father’s dream was the most remarkable thing, according to me. For me, the daughter’s love for her father who she never met and her desire to connect with him somehow in the form of her journey alone, made me excited. How her blog went viral accidentally resulting in her becoming a celebrity overnight was another factor that coerced me to make her the subject of my movie.

What is the definition of a good director?

I have no idea, because I am not the one. When Shah came out, most of the people were like “uuuhhhhh”. Someone wrote somewhere, the boy genius director; I am no boy or genius. Then I read somewhere, “This is the film Pakistani cinema needed," and lots of praise-worthy things were said about my ability as a director. But I didn’t think I deserved those praises because Shah did not do well.

I set very high personal goals. I am carefree as far as people’s opinions are concerned but I do care about what I think of myself; have I done a good job? Have I done justice to the film’s subject and the story?

I know for a fact that I couldn’t have done much better with Motorcycle Girl. We ran out of money and time both, but even if we had both on my side, we could have probably made it 50 or 60 per cent better. But then it would not have been the movie that I wanted to make, so I really don’t know what a good director is.

I think I am a better actor than a director. I am a very good storyteller and I have an ability to emotionally connect with the audience because I, myself, am a deeply emotional person. On the technical side, I am not well-versed with cinema, and it shows on screen, at least to me [smiles]. I am learning how to write better, how to make blocking better and how to select the shots. I would say that I have a long way to go.

Film critics and masses are not always on the same page. What, according to you, is the definition of a good film?

Well, it’s a debatable topic. A film like Baaghi 2 was highly criticised by film critics but it still went on to become a blockbuster and did exceptionally well. Would we like to see such box-office hits that are hated by critics. You cannot have same parameter for both the things. There are films that are entertainment-based with some masala-like action, romance, songs and laughter. Will I ever watch Baaghi 2? Never, because it is not my kind of movie. Who I am to say that it is a bad film? People went gaga over it saying, ‘maza aagya yaar, paisa wasool.’

And then there is another kind of filmmaker who tries to explore the boundaries of creativity, whose purpose is not entertainment but making films as a personal statement. It might clash with one’s social values, critics might love it but it might not do well among the masses. Does the scenario make it a bad movie? No! So I don’t think you can sort everything together, because everything exists for a reason.

What are the most important things you’ve learnt as a director?

From Shah to Motorcycle Girl, the most important thing I’ve learnt is economy of the scenes; go into the scenes as late as possible and come out of it as early as possible. Start a dialogue, get to the point. Come out of the scene as soon as the dialogue finishes and move the story forward. After Shah, I’ve spent the past two years improving myself as a director. Unfortunately, we don’t have trend-setters in this field. I wish we had experienced directors and filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, with whom I could learn better direction skills. So we end up picking up whatever is available online and try to improve.

Another thing that I have learnt and it got a bit better, is the placing of scenes; making sure that every scene has some purpose and adds credibility to the story. Imagine if a scene goes with the narrative or the flow; does it affect the story if you throw it out? I think that’s what I have learnt so far since in the film-making business.

What is your stance on the leaps Pakistan film industry is taking now?

I believe Cake is a great banner holder for Pakistani cinema. If someone asks me to recommend Pakistani movies, I would like to ask him/her to go watch movies like Cake. There are films made with a budget that is as same as of a Hollywood movie and there are films made with budget of a Bollywood item number. Is it going to look as good? No! That is why it’s not working anymore. What’s working is good story, amazing content, tight script, great performances; those things are working.

I was told by someone, “We watched the trailer of your film in cinema, we didn’t enjoy it because the sound wasn’t good.” The reason: the trailer of Motorcycle Girl was sandwiched between trailers of Avengers and Player One. If you expect a low-budget Pakistani movie to give you the same experience as a 100 million dollar Hollywood film, you are living in a fool’s paradise. You need to give Pakistani filmmakers a room when it comes to budget and technicalities. Nobody can make a film in 2.5 crores, but we have done it. A good sound mix of Hollywood will take up to two months, we do it in eight days. So our audience needs to compromise on certain elements, only then there will be a real air of change blowing in.

How do you think festivals like Pakistan International Film Festival help in reviving a film industry?

We can learn from the filmmakers. When S.S Rajmouli visited Karachi to attend PIFF, I told him, “Let us send over some scripts, do some corrections and tell us how to improve the script.” We have great dialogue writers but not good script writers or screenplay writers. There are a lot of things to learn; how to shoot, how to make sure that an independent film like Motorcycle Girl is distributed properly. There is a technique to distribute films like Lunchbox, Vicky Donor and Queen. We have to build the audience gradually for such films. We can learn how to do PR of the film that largely depends on its artwork.

What is your take on award shows?

It’s too early; the money that we are spending on these award shows is disgusting. I might be wrong here but does it make sense to have five films in a year and then do a multimillion dollar event at an exotic location to celebrate those five films? Events like PIFF do make sense because they make us interact with people who have made names for their outstanding work, like Nandita Das, S.S. Rajmouli and Vishal Bhardwaj, but these glitzy award shows make no sense to me. If the intention is towards the betterment of cinema, there should be a cinema fund. Let’s setup one by holding a small, dignified ceremony.

What makes you happy; composing music, writing a good story or filmmaking?

All three! I am a very selfish artist and I believe that every artist needs to be selfish. They should only be looking to please themselves, and I think I have mastered this art [laughs]. I made Motorcycle Girl against all the odds and advices because I wanted to see it on-screen with the music I wanted to hear and the performances I wanted to witness.

I am fond of playing good characters as an actor because I am a better actor than a director or a musician or a producer. Acting, I believe, is my forte but I don’t get any good roles.

How important is glamour when it comes to the success of a film?

Maybe glamour is important, but have you noticed that films with all the needed glamour aren’t working? Why? Because there is something missing. If the audience needs to see glamour, they can go watch Kareena and Katrina doing an item number. Glam is important for success but if it was that important, it would have saved so many films from being a flop. It’s not even working in India, it’s not working anymore.

The reason being people’s unlimited accessibility to the internet which has changed everything; people’s mindsets and priorities, and of course, the definition of entertainment. And it’s going to keep on changing things until films refine their own level.

One thing I don’t do while promoting my films is to ask people to support Pakistani cinema. If you really want to support something give charity to Edhi Foundation. We don’t need support, we just need to make good films. It’s our responsibility to make films that are worth people’s time and money. •