Three years back, people called the success of Na Maloom Afraad a fluke. The filmmaking duo of Fizza Ali Meerza and Nabeel Qureshi came back with Actor in Law that went on to become the highest grossing Pakistani film of 2016.
Their inspiration is real-life incidents which they use in the scripts they write together before they do their jobs: Fizza produces and Nabeel directs. And we watch their work with a great deal of admiration.
Like the iconic Bollywood writing pair of Salim-Javed who changed the Indian film scenario with their hard-hitting screenplays in the 1970s, Fizza and Nabeel as writers are a breath of fresh air for Pakistan’s film fraternity. Icon probed them on the rise and rise of Filmwala Pictures, their company that has, of late, earned a formidable reputation.
Compared to contemporary Pakistani producers and directors, your movies seem to defy categorisation. How do you ensure they are different?
Fizza Ali Meerza: Our vision is completely different. Our films might seem dissimilar to our colleagues’ because both Nabeel and I carry the extra responsibility of writing the script, which helps us in every possible way. Also, due to our keen interest in the art of filmmaking, we may seem technically sounder than others.
Nabeel Qureshi: We are filmi people. We don’t just watch films for enjoyment, we learn from them as well. That’s why we are super-passionate about making films. If others reach the same level of madness, I am sure they will also achieve success.
Meet the dynamic duo of Fizza Ali Meerza and Nabeel Qureshi, the makers of blockbuster films Na Maloom Afraad and Actor in Law.
Do you think, with Actor in Law, you have managed to prove that you are not one-hit wonders?
FAM: I’ve heard people say that we are just ‘lucky’ and that’s why both our films have done well. If it’s our luck helping us out, then I hope we will continue to be lucky!
NQ: When Na Maloom Afraad became a hit, they said we used Mehwish Hayat as an item girl to attract cine-goers. In Actor in Law, she doesn’t even have a song, let alone an item number, yet the film managed to do well. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that we used Atif Aslam and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan as playback singers [smiles].
Both your movies have Fahad Mustafa as the male protagonist. Is there a particular reason for working with him?
NQ: We had a great time working with Fahad in Na Maloom Afraad which was his first film as well. We had him in mind for Actor in Law. He took a few days to settle in. When he did get settled, he was on auto mode — he knew exactly what I was thinking and I knew exactly what was going through his head. I used to send the following day’s dialogue to Fahad through WhatsApp so that when he’s on set, he knew exactly what he had to say and how. You don’t have such chemistry with every actor, right?
What was the one thing that brought you two together as a filmmaking team?
NQ: That is an interesting story in itself. We got together thanks to a camcorder. Fizza was a producer at Aaj TV (she had earlier assisted Ahsan Rahim and Amna Khan) while I had come to Karachi from Sukkur to make it big in showbiz. I joined the same channel. When I learned that Fizza had a camcorder, I decided to befriend her and that’s how we got to know one another. It was in 2004. With that simple camera, we made two short films for the KaraFilm Festival — Blind Faith and Question — and that’s when we realised that we wanted to make full-length feature films. We left our jobs, joined the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) and learned the basics from the masters before re-entering the field. I started assisting Amna Khan for her commercials and also joined a couple of TV channels before becoming the director of [the satirical show] Banana News Network.
FAM: Our first programme together was Childhood with Zymal for Geo TV. I directed it and Nabeel was its associate director. We interviewed many celebrities for the programme. It ran for more than a year after which we took over Aag TV’s Ishrat Baji and produced/directed more than a dozen episodes. I quit direction after getting married, but produced a TV serial Mora Piya. One day Nabeel came to me with the idea of a romantic film. It didn’t materialise then. However, we did lock the subject of Na Maloom Afraad. While writing the script we came to the conclusion that we could do it ourselves instead of hiring writers. The rest is history.
"Staring at women in public is one of the biggest issues in our society. Every girl faces on a daily basis. No filmmaker shows that on screen, which is why we decided that it was our duty to do something about it.”
Don’t you think, in terms of humour, Na Maloom Afraad was too Karachi-centric a film?
NA: Every film is one way or another close to one particular city. The Gujjar films depicted Punjab’s culture. Similarly, Na Maloom Afraad and Actor in Law was a film that tells Karachi’s story. We must understand that the purpose of a film is to promote other cultures. Who knows we might come up with a story that people outside of Karachi can relate to!
Your films have a strong social streak. You touch upon issues such as electricity shortage and eve-teasing which no one does in our industry. Where does that come from?
NQ: My father has been at war with the bijli walay for a long time. Whenever there is power outage, he calls them in a humble tone, discussing the legal and logical aspects of it. So when we were writing Actor in Law, we decided to address the frustrated common man’s issues.
FAM: Staring at women in public is one of the biggest issues in our society. Every girl faces it on a daily basis. No filmmaker shows that on screen, which is why we decided that it was our duty to do something about it. The problem is in the head and until it’s addressed, it will persist. As a mother of two daughters, I want them to grow up in better circumstances.
You two were the last ones to work with Bollywood actor Om Puri who recently passed away. There was some criticism, prior to the film, about an Indian actor playing the role of a Pakistani man. How did you handle it?
FAM: We don’t try to address such no-issues because as filmmakers these things don’t matter to us. Yes, there were many actors who could have played the role of Shan Mirza’s [Fahad Mustafa’s character] father but taking Om Puri sahib was our call and no one can object to that. It was fun watching him perform with our actors. We were shocked when we found out about his death.
Be it the opening credits, the cameo appearances, the background score or cinematography, Actor in Law was on a par with any Bollywood project. How did you manage that?
FAM: We thought of an idea and went ahead with it. Simple. We are indebted to Humayun Saeed who agreed to play himself and was cool with the way he was portrayed in the film. Talat Hussain sahib was our teacher at Napa. He was reluctant to do the part at first, but we convinced him that his lines would have a great impact on the film. He agreed. As did the rest.
NQ: Shani Arshad did the background score for the film and even people from India asked me about him saying he did a good job. As for showing Karachi’s different localities in a nice way, well, the credit goes to Rana Kamran, our ace cinematographer. We still need to explore Karachi, though — it’s an ideal place to shoot a film.
When will you start working on the sequel to Na Maloom Afraad?
NQ: It’s in the pipeline. We didn’t go for it after Na Maloom Afraad because then people might have thought that we were trying to cash in on the first one. Now that we have proved our mettle, we might go for the sequel.
FAM: We want to produce films with new directors. We feel it’s our professional responsibility. We need to increase the number of quality films. We hope to bring forward people with great potential and take them to the next level, removing insecurities from their minds.
Nabeel, when you’re not making a movie, you make commercials. How does it feel?
NQ: It feels like a demotion, especially after doing a film. However, since it pays well and keeps you financially sound, I am all for it. After two successful films, I have become a little choosy. I reject commercials with bad concepts.
What about moving back to television?
FAM: Filmmaking is the ultimate dream and we have reserved our energies for films and just films.
NQ: My answer will be a ‘no’, because I never made a television drama when I was in the industry.
How can our industry do well when more bad films are coming out on a regular basis than the good ones?
FAM: The war among TV channels is destroying our industry because the leading TV channels have become [film] distributors as well. They only promote the films that they are distributing. I think for the sake of the cinema industry, they should only compete on TV.
NQ: Filmmaking is an art and we should not attempt to make a film until we are completely sure of the product. Rewrites happen all the time and new filmmakers must go through the process so that the audience doesn’t go home dissatisfied.
In Pakistan, partnerships get broken after successful ventures. You seem to be doing well as a producer-director team?
FAM: Yes, we are because we have been friends for quite a while now, and have been through thick and thin together. Our partnership isn’t as important to us as is our friendship. And that’s what matters to us more than anything else.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, February 19th, 2017