The Pakistani film industry is going through a renaissance at lightning speed, making a great leap in terms of skills and technology to catch up to a level other industries took decades of trial and error to achieve.
One of the most exciting aspects of this resurgence is the incredible diversity of styles and subject matter from comedies such as Jawani Phir Nahi Ani and Na Maloom Afraad to a biography such as Manto, a romance such as Bin Roye, action/adventure movies such as Maalik and Waar and an intimate exploration of modern relationships such as Dobara Phir Se.
Set for release on February 10, 2017, Haissam Hussain’s Balu Mahi has Pakistani film fans intrigued with beautiful visuals, a strong production team, an award-winning director and a fresh cast consisting of Osman Khalid Butt, Ainy Jaffri and Sadaf Kanwal.
Images on Sunday caught up with the lead pair, whose appearance in the qawwali teaser 'Rung De Chunar' (sung by the inimitable Rahat Fateh Ali Khan) has caused quite a stir.
On being 'Balu' and 'Mahi'
Images: Osman, tell us about your character, Balu. In an earlier interview, you’ve said that Balu is a foreign-returned British Pakistani. How did you ensure your portrayal of Balu would be authentic? I ask this because so many portrayals of the Pakistani diaspora often ring hollow.
Osman Khalid Butt (OKB): Bilal aka Balu is your average 20-something guy who is thrust into one impossible situation after another (courtesy Mahi). So it was really interesting to portray an otherwise self-assured (or so he thinks) man unravel — and eventually reconstruct himself into a mature, more confident, more at-ease with risk individual.
Despite coming from a fractured family, he’s beloved by his grandmother and so comes across as generally well-balanced, with that distinct British politeness... and passive-aggressiveness (laughs).
Haissam, our director, had a clear back story for Bilal in mind, so it became quite easy to tap into his psyche once the ball started rolling. I did not give him an accent, though, because that rang false with me.
Images: For the fan girls desperately trying to decipher your personality, which of your recent characters is nearest to the actual Osman Khalid Butt — Wali (Diyar-e-Dil), Aunn (Aunn Zara) or Balu (Balu Mahi)?
OKB: I believe there’s a little bit of me in every character I’ve played — wish I had more of Wali’s patience, though. I definitely have more of a sense of humour than Balu!
“At its core the film is about two polar-opposite people brought together by happenstance... and how that one encounter changes the both of them.”— Osman Khalid Butt
Images: Ainy, producer Sadia Jabbar said in a recent interview that your character Mahi is a modern, contemporary Pakistani girl. What do you think she means by that? How do you see your character Mahi?
Ainy Jaffri (AJ): I think when Sadia says modern and contemporary, she means a strong and determined girl of today. Mahi to me is a very brave and confident person, someone who is passionate about pursuing her goals and dreams and won’t let anything stand in her way.
She has a keen sense of what is right and wrong and is willing to do what it takes to carve her own path because she feels it is her right. She does not mean to hurt anyone or betray anyone’s trust, but truly believes that it is her destiny to set out on the journey she chooses to take. I really admire Mahi’s gumption, and think she’ll make an excellent role model.
Images: What made you choose this role? Was there something about the character you could relate to?
AJ: Several factors helped in this decision. Firstly, I’m a big fan of Haissam’s work and he was the one who approached me for the project. I knew that this being his first movie, it would be amazing. After reading the script, I was completely on board. Mahi’s character goes on an enviable journey and as I don’t want to give away anything, I’ll just say that when you watch the movie, you’ll surely see why the role is a dream role. Just wait and see.
Images: It is often said Pakistani dramas are female-oriented but the females tend to be victims in a lot of the stories. Your characters in dramas such Aseerzadi, Meri Bahen Maya etc have rarely fit the mould of the mazloom aurat. Has this been a deliberate choice?
AJ: I am attracted to roles that portray strong, independent woman who break the norms of society. So yes, that is partly why I chose those roles. I would not be averse to playing the victim in a drama/movie as long as the project concludes on a worthwhile note.
On BaluMahi's first look
Images: Ainy, the first Balu Mahi teaser was just released and the on-screen chemistry between you and Osman was fantastic. How was your experience working with him?
AJ: It was great! It has been a pleasure to work with Osman. Like I’ve said before, the guy is a triple treat, he’s an actor, a writer and a great dancer. It’s always good to work with people who you admire and respect and I’ve been a fan of OB’s since I first saw his online parodies. He gives great advice when needed, doesn’t believe in false praise and his off-screen humour and shenanigans keep everyone thoroughly entertained during tough days.
"Mahi’s character goes on an enviable journey. When you watch the movie, you’ll surely see why the role is a dream role. Just wait and see." — Ainy Jaffri
Images: From the Balu Mahi teaser, it’s apparent that Osman and Ainy share some amazing chemistry, an element which can make or break a movie. Who is responsible for bringing that to the screen, the director or the actors?
OKB: I think the responsibility lies with both the director and the actors — you can’t fake it on the big screen, and I think both Ainy and I were aware of that.
There is something incredibly unique about the Balu Mahi dynamic. The romance is organic (a far cry from the ‘love/lust at first sight’ we’re used to watching in local cinema) and the pair goes through a gamut of emotions before even realising they’ve quietly become emotionally intimate and codependent. Haissam was fully aware of this graph and would tell us immediately if we were preempting an emotion.
I also think we subconsciously mirrored the graph of our respective characters — the initial reservation (read: walking on eggshells around each other), the slow opening up and feeling more relaxed around each other to --- wait, I should stop right here for fear of spoilers. But you get the drift.
Images: What does Mahi see in Balu or Bilal?
AJ: At first Mahi sees Balu as just a means to an end, but eventually as the story progresses and we see Balu open up about himself, his experiences and hope & dreams, she sees him as a fellow comrade.
Images: You look absolutely beautiful in the teaser Ainy. Was that blue and lavender outfit by Rano’s Heirlooms designed specifically for you?
AJ: Yes, I believe Haissam wanted something to complement me and took great care in choosing the designs and colour combinations of each and every one of our costumes. He wanted the costumes to not only work well with the individual actors but with the colour palette of the backdrops against which we were shooting.
So what's BaluMahi all about?
Images: Balu Mahi looks like a traditional ‘something for everyone’ entertainer or what I would call a movie with a big heart. Am I right? How would you describe it?
OKB: You’ve summed it up really well — the film does have a big heart. I think people who’re judging it by the qawwali are under the impression it’s perhaps just another ‘traditional’ romance. In reality, Balu Mahi is quite the contemporary film with a beautiful message about (Gaah! I don’t even know if I’m allowed to say this) empowering women and giving them the freedom and liberty to pursue their dreams — a message that will resonate deeply with our society, no matter the class.
There’s romance, there are honest, heartfelt conversations, there’s situational humour, moments of unabashed masala, a breathtaking aesthetic — but at its core the film is about two polar-opposite people brought together by happenstance... and how that one encounter changes the both of them.
Call it a journey of self-discovery, of seeing the world in a new light because of how a stranger’s actions and words impact you.
"There is a huge difference between criticism and spewing vitriol. If a critic thrashes a project without explaining why, how is anyone involved in said project supposed to feel anything but... s?"*
Images: The fledgling Pakistani film industry is going through a difficult phase with a Bollywood ban and some complaints about the quality of films produced. Do you think critics are being too demanding? Or is the Pakistani film industry taking its audience for granted?
OKB: I believe critics have some valid concerns with the direction our cinema is taking, but then, the industry is still so young. It’s definitely going to take more time for everyone involved — be it directors, actors or writers — to evolve and find their identity and that distinct voice.
It is, however, unreasonable to expect the kind of finesse and diversity Bollywood (or with some critics’ comparison-meter) Hollywood brings to the table. I mean look at their budgets, their manpower, the technical facilities, their... everything.
I also believe there is a huge difference between criticism and spewing vitriol. If a critic thrashes a project without explaining why, how is anyone involved in said project supposed to feel anything but... s***? Less throwaway, cutting lines and more detailed analyses, pretty please. Also, unless a film really doesn’t have a single redeeming factor, it would be nice to balance the bad with a little bit of good, too.
On song and dance
Images: What was the hardest thing you had to do for Balu Mahi?
OKB: I was injured at every spell (and there were four major spells!) – there was a lot of physical as well as emotional investment in Balu Mahi... the phrase ‘blood, sweat and tears’ turned quite literal during our shoot!
I think the choreographed fight sequences and the stunts were a real challenge to pull off convincingly. Oh, and there’s this extended sequence where... let me put it this way: it just wasn’t just Balu’s emotions that were laid bare. So, err... that was incredibly tough.
Images: South Asian cinema is unique in that it requires its actors and actresses to know how to dance and act while they're lip-syncing. How did you find that experience?
AJ: Oh wow, this was very hard for me. I had never lip synced to songs before and on the first day. I sort of fell apart for a moment and burst into tears. But our team was very supportive and it didn’t take long for them to get my morale back up. I hope the audience finds me convincing singing like that.
Images: And what about the choreographed dance sequences? How did you cope with the lip syncing Osman?
OKB: I loved it! I was a bit nervous about the lip-syncing during the first takes but, I don’t know, having grown up watching Bollywood classics there was something quite exhilarating (and surreal) about being given the chance to do the whole song-and-dance routine on celluloid (yes, I am unapologetically filmi that way). I think I had the most fun during these choreographed sequences — both Wahab Shah and Pappu Samrat did wonders with their respective songs.
Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 15th, 2017