"We recently shot a scene that reminded me of Titanic. We also shot, what I believe, is one of the most epic fight sequences that Pakistan has ever seen. Riki is simply amazing at what he does."
Actor Mikaal Zulfiqar, who stars as the protagonist of the recently announced Sherdil, is all praise for his film's cinematographer Riki Butland. The Dubai-based British cinematographer is going full speed ahead with the film's shoot (it's said the producers plan to release the film this year), and I was lucky to catch him for a quick chat between takes on one of their Islamabad sets recently.
I started our conversation with the obvious: What convinced Riki to sign a project in Pakistan?
Contrary to popular belief, Sherdil is a privately funded project by first-time producer Nomaan Khan, which is logistically supported by the Pakistani Air Force. Azfar Jafri of Janaan fame wears the director’s cap.
“I was approached by Nomaan," shares Riki. "I think someone recommended me and he spoke to me about a feature film in Pakistan. He mentioned that it was along the lines of Top Gun."
"That was unusual, because I had prepped for [an aviation film] in England, back in 2011. We had been researching for about two years for that film, but unfortunately, just as we came to make it, there was a tragedy with the director and he passed, so we never made it.”
He continued after a pause, “After all that work, it was a little disappointing and along came this script, which I loved straight away. Of course, you have to have the dancing, but what really drew me was the fact that it doesn’t rely on that alone; it has a structure and a story. It’s far above from what I’ve seen of Bollywood films even. I told them that I was interested and the rest as they call it is history.”
Wasn't Riki apprehensive about safety and security before flying in, I asked. After all, Pakistan doesn't have the best image abroad.
“Maybe a little bit, but not really,” he is quick to respond. “I know a lot of Pakistanis in Dubai and I know it’s not how the Western press makes it out to be. The people here [in Pakistan] are incredibly kind and hospitable. It’s been a wonderful experience so far.”
Besides, Riki wasn’t a complete stranger to Pakistani cinema. He had already been approached by a filmmaker in Karachi in 2016. Though he refrained from taking any names, he shared, "It was a big action film that they had approached me for; they had a Singaporean DOP and Jet Li’s stunt team on board."
"They asked me if I was available and I told them I was, but I didn’t have the visa to Pakistan and they said they’d arrange it, and I’m still waiting for it,” he laughs.
Riki adds that he's been excited about the revival of Pakistani cinema because for him, it means more work, “I had heard from a couple of people actually that there was a big revival, which is always very exciting and new, anywhere in the world. I don’t know anything else; if there’s no film industry anywhere, I’m out of the job and totally useless.”
Riki’s body of work spans not only decades but also continents. He’s worked on the camera of high-budget Hollywood flicks like the seventh Fast & Furious (the last one featuring Paul Walker) and the Oscar-nominated Star Trek: Beyond. Closer to home, Riki shot Tezz, starring Anil Kapoor, Ajay Devgan and Kangana Ranaut.
When asked to compare Pakistan's filmmaking culture to what's he experienced previously, Riki says, “Hollywood has a very different base altogether; their budgets are phenomenal. But if you take European, low-budget filmmaking, it’s very similar [to Pakistan]. But, in all honesty, [Europe is] a little more disciplined and people are much strict on time management than they are here.”
“When it’s a 12-hour day, it’s just that. The movement and the speed of you doing things is far more crucial because you can’t run over even an hour,” he explains about how film sets function worldwide. “Here, it’s lacking that discipline or regimentation. The actual skill set or the focus you’ve got here is fantastic; it’s on-the-mark.”
Nonetheless, Butland speaks highly of the crew’s zeal and passion. “The crew is a little bit naïve. But what takes away the naivety are their energies, and the willingness to learn and work hard, which I feel is fantastic. Now, that we’ve been shooting for a while, they’re really gelling and moving like a well-oiled machine, so it’s a real pleasure.”
Sherdil, which stars Mikaal alongside Armeena Khan, Hassan Niazi and Sabeeka Iman, follows the journey of an Air Force officer (Mikaal); from getting recruited to finding love and the conflict that follows.
On a parting note, Riki expressed his admiration for the lead actor.
“Mikaal is top notch, he’s excellent! He turns up prepared and gives his 100%,” he says. “He’s somebody who I’ve found to very humble, so there’s no arrogance about him and it’s a pleasure. If all [Pakistani] actors are like him, then that’s very nice for the industry at large.”
Sherdil went on floors last month and is slated to wrap up production by mid-March with a final spell to take place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. The soundtrack of the film is being composed by Adnan Dhool and Rabi Ahmed of Soch, while Sonu Dangerous will be choreographing the dance moves.
Although a release date hasn’t been announced, the film is speculated to release this year.