For someone who has hit TV serials and a critically successful movie to her name, Mehreen Jabbar isn’t that active on the scene.
She makes movies when she wants to and that’s the reason why there is a gap of eight years between her first and second film. However, the dynamic director believes that it has more to do with the increase in cinemas than her desire to make films.
“When Ramchand Pakistani was released way back in 2008, there was no revival in sight,” says Mehreen about why her return took so much time. “We didn’t have investors who were willing to pay for a film and there weren’t as many cinemas to screen flicks. The film did well in festival circuit and won over five international awards, including the FIPRESCI Prize from the International Federation of Film Critics, but it didn’t get the run it should have in Pakistan. Thankfully, the cinema industry has revived to some extent and opportunities that weren’t as frequent then are there now. Despite being busy on TV, I was working on a couple of stories and when I saw the opportunity, the writer Bilal Sami and I decided to develop the story of Dobara Phir Se.”
Dobara Phir Se seems like an unusual name but the director feels that the name will make more sense after watching the film.
“The film is all about friendship, growing older and giving love another chance, as in ‘phir se.’ We follow various themes in this movie but it’s essentially a love story which is not a rom-com but our way of showing the world how Pakistanis in the United States go about their lives. The characters might seem alien to some Pakistanis but, for me, they are human beings first and then Pakistanis. Their story is a universal one and the language they communicate in is Urdu, which is understandable wherever Pakistanis live.”
"[Dobara Phir Se] is essentially a love story, which is not a rom-com but our way of showing the world how Pakistanis in the United States go about their lives."
Mehreen rubbishes reports about tensions with her distributors over her film’s delay, claiming that November 25 was always the second choice of ARY Films after their initial release date of Eid-ul-Fitr. She believes it’s an appropriate time to release a movie although not that good for the cinema industry.
“I feel it’s a difficult time for cinema owners who must be incurring losses due to the decision not to screen Bollywood films. Yes, our actors were unceremoniously sent back from India, but we should have thought about the consequences before taking such a decision. Sustaining in such an environment becomes a challenge and only the production of 45 to 50 films a year can solve it. Nobody wants to go back to the way things were in the past and for that we must take the right steps.”
And then there is the extremely good-looking cast, picked from our TV industry.
“TV is bigger than films in Pakistan and it is from there and theatre that we will get fresh faces. Had films been made regularly in our country, we might have had a pool of film actors which doesn’t exist. I choose actors according to the characters’ requirement, not due to their market value. These actors fit the characters Bilal Sami (scriptwriter) and I created, and they might have done just one or two films but they were the ones I wanted to cast.”
Dobara Phir Se is a love story that revolves around characters played by Adeel Husain (Ho Mann Jahaan) and Hareem Farooq (Siyaah) while Sanam Saeed (Bachaana, Mah-e-Mir), Ali Kazmi (Beeba Boys), Shaz Khan (Moor), Tooba Siddiqui (special appearance in Wrong No.) and veteran actress Atiqa Odho (a handful of films in the ’90s) appear in significant roles. Did she cast these people for their lack of film experience or it just happen?
“The reason I cast these people is because I am comfortable collaborating with them. I had worked with almost all of them in some project or the other except for Hareem,” Mehreen clarifies. “All these actors are very talented and I knew they would be a perfect fit but for Hareem I took a leap of faith, considering she isn’t that old in the industry. I cast her after just one Skype session and seeing her other work because I knew she can do justice to the strong character we had written for her.”
Unlike most of the recent releases, Dobara Phir Se has been shot abroad mostly where Mehreen Jabbar was the captain of a ship that had both Pakistani and international crew.
“Working with a mix of US and Pakistani crew was a fantastic experience considering it hasn’t been done much in case of Pakistani films,” Mehreen says with a sparkle in her eyes. “The people I took from Pakistan and the US-based Pakistanis I hired in New York were all professionals, otherwise they wouldn’t have made it to my set (laughs). They integrated well with the Americans who were efficient, always on time and had worked in many films and TV shows. Two-time Emmy winning cinematographer Andreas Burgess even came to Pakistan to shoot my movie which is a step in the right direction.”
“The people I took from Pakistan and the US-based Pakistanis I hired in New York were all professionals, otherwise they wouldn’t have made it to my set (laughs). They integrated well with the Americans who were efficient, always on time and had worked in many films and TV shows. Two-time Emmy winning cinematographer Andreas Burgess even came to Pakistan to shoot my movie which is a step in the right direction.”
Wouldn’t having so many characters in the film give the audience a headache, considering they are only familiar with love triangles and happy endings?
“I don’t think a film should only be plot-driven,” says Mehreen. “In my view a film must have character arcs, the characters must evolve during the story, everyone should be well-rounded off and instead of stereotypes or cardboard figures, we should have characters that have both good and bad qualities.”
Mehreen also believes that having songs in the film doesn’t necessarily mean that there should be dance as well.
“There are two songs in the film that have been lip synced, the rest are narrative. Most of the story takes place in New York and trust me, you can’t have that many dance numbers in New York (smiles). I am against songs without relevance and that’s why only the shaadi number that takes place in Pakistan has been choreographed. The choreographer Nigahji was an incredible help otherwise I didn’t think I had it in me to pull off such a song. I am also quite honoured to have some great singer/songwriters who have contributed seven songs to the film. They include Haniya Aslam, Jimmy Khan, Shiraz Uppal, Vishal Bhardwaj, Arooj Aftab, Ali Hamza and Sara Haider.”
Unknown to many, a mehndi/shaadi number seems to be her legacy as her father, Javed Jabbar, directed 'Hari Hari' in Pakistan’s first English film Beyond The Last Mountain in the ’70s. In that song, Mehreen appeared as a child artist along with her cousin and both went on to become directors in their own fields.
“You remember that song,” Mehreen asks in a surprised tone. “I have used my brother and nephew in this song so yes, you can say it runs in the family.”
Thankfully, the award-winning director has sane views on product placement which has become part of the revived film industry. “There is product placement in my film but it’s naturally integrated and used very intelligently. It is a source of revenue for some producers and I really don’t blame them as they get financial help through product placement. It will remain unavoidable till we have 200 screens, after which we might not need as many sponsors.”
Mehreen doesn’t term her return to films as a hasty decision taken on the spur of the moment. “It wasn’t sudden at all as the desire to make a film was always there. It’s a challenge to go back to TV after a film but I did that after Ramchand as there were not too many opportunities to make local films. I don’t regret going back to TV though since that is what gave me recognition. However, I do want to continue to make more films till my bones allow me to (smiles).”
For someone who comes from an advertising family, Mehreen hasn’t done much work in the field of selling products. “I have always been more interested in story-telling rather than selling. Yes, I know it’s a profitable and lucrative business but at that time as my heart wasn’t in it, I chose passion over money. Working for TV is my profession and films is my passion. After this movie, I will hopefully move on to a TV serial first and later to another film just to satisfy my creative side. In between, I will be doing commercials again, or you can say … Dobara Phir Se!”
Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 20th, 2016