This is going to be a big year for first-time director Kamal Khan.
His first full-length feature film, Laal Kabootar (Red Pigeon) — starring Ahmed Ali and Mansha Pasha — is due to hit the big screen later this year. The 33-year-old director, best known for the incredible music video of indie band The D/A Method’s 'The Desert Journey', is nervous but excited. He’s been working on Laal Kabootar for a little over two years and is just waiting to finalise a date for its release.
Why is the film called Laal Kabootar? “You have to see the film to figure out what it means,” he says. “It’s more metaphorical.” So, there’s no catch-phrase, no actual laal kabootar? “No, no. You’ll have to watch it,” he insists, giving nothing away.
Produced by the sister-brother duo Hania and Kamil Chima’s Nehr Ghar Films, Laal Kabootar is a crime thriller set in the seedy underbelly of Karachi. Just that genre in itself sounds somewhat similar to Kamal’s work in The Desert Journey which also revolved around the scene of a crime in the seedy underbelly of Karachi. The whole video was brilliantly shot in one single take. According to the director, the release of that video in 2016 is what prompted the producers to seek him out and ask him to direct their first film project.
“I guess 'The Desert Journey' video was kind of like a short film for me,” he says, referencing the fact that short films are often used abroad as calling cards by aspiring directors of feature films. “That was the whole reason that I kind of pitched that concept and made it happen.”
All we know about the film so far is that Mansha Pasha is playing Aliya Malik, a strong-headed, feisty woman who won’t let the twist and turns of life get the better of her. The other main character is being played by the so-far very underrated Ahmed Ali. He’s playing Adeel, a ‘hustling taxi-driver, looking for a way out of Karachi and who always has a trick up his sleeve.’ But what is the film really about?
“I think the one thing we did give away was ‘Aik chor hi chor ko pakarr sakta hai’ [Only a thief can catch another thief],” responds Kamal. “It’s definitely about the underbelly of Karachi, although Mansha’s character isn’t from there. It’s how these different worlds collide. Which does usually happen. We’re always connecting with people from different parts of the city, and that’s what makes the city interesting.”
The film took exceptionally long to make — two years! “We spent half that time working on the script,” says Kamal. “The shoot itself was 30-odd days. Everything else was script and edit.” The director adds they’re just working on putting the finishing touches to the film.
"Laal Kabootar is definitely about the underbelly of Karachi, although Mansha’s character isn’t from there. It’s how these different worlds collide. Which does usually happen. We’re always connecting with people from different parts of the city, and that’s what makes the city interesting." — Kamal Khan
How did he end up casting his lead actors? “I’d always been interested in working with Ahmed Ali,” responds Kamal. “I saw him in Grease [Ahmed Ali played the lead character]. He had this X factor. The way he laughed and walked, I could tell he’s customised it for this character. He did all of these cool things that really excited me. I thought it would be great to collaborate with someone who gets into these kind of details.
“That’s what he did in this role as well. He really worked on his Karachi accent. He even drove a taxi around [to get into character]. He really, really worked hard.”
The actor still had to go through an audition. “That was almost like a formality,” relates Kamal. “It was amazing. As for Mansha, someone suggested her and she worked out. Mansha was just as excited about it too. We felt she had a certain look that went with the character.”
Is he concerned that he might make a very indie, arthouse type film? “I don’t think that’s the intention,” responds Kamal. “The intention is to make something that resonates with everyone. I take inspiration from someone like Anurag Kashyap, his style. So we do have music. We’ve got five really kickass songs in the film [produced by Taha Malik]. Along with two previously released songs — one English and an old Urdu song, we have the rights for both.
“One of the songs is with Sanam Marvi,” he adds. “Zoe [Viccaji] is featured on another song.” I was just about to ask him about Zoe, because only a few weeks ago, the director tied the knot with the songstress in a beautiful ceremony in Karachi, right before the year ended. “I was just thinking about that last night, it’s going to be hard to top that year,” he says. “I’m just so grateful.”
He’s a relatively new name in an industry dominated by giants. The stakes are very high. Is he nervous? “I’m very nervous,” he admits, adding that he’s often his own worst critic. “But I feel that the crime genre has potential if it’s done right.”
After the film comes out, does he plan to direct any more music videos? “I definitely want to continue making movies,” he responds. “Iss ka chaska lag gaya hai [I’m obsessed with it]. Ask anyone who knows me from 10 years ago when I came back from college, they will testify that I’ve been saying it since then — I will make a movie. A lot of people didn’t take me seriously, I guess.” Clearly not anymore.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, January 6th, 2019
Correction: An earlier version of this story used a photograph without permission from the photographer. The photo has been replaced. The error is regretted.