Ahmed Ali Akbar and Mansha Pasha are flying high on the wings of a Laal Kabootar – and it’s about time too.
While both actors are quite well known and have worked in an extensive number of projects, there’s no denying that very few truly interesting roles have come their way in the past.
This is quite unfortunate since Mansha and Ahmed have proven their mettle time and again - even when she’s playing the tortured woman in a TV drama or he, the hackneyed TV husband, torn between mother and wife, or worse, the hero’s sidekick, placed there just to make quips, with no particular shades to his character.
It’s great that a gripping performance-based movie like Laal Kabootar has come their way. Better late than never.
“I just feel incredibly lucky that I got offered this movie,” says Ahmed, talking to me shortly after Laal Kabootar’s release. “It was a role that I really enjoyed. All actors often take on roles that don’t really excite them but are financially viable and keep them busy. These are all, perhaps, part of a journey that sometimes leads to a few really great projects. A movie like this makes it all worth it.”
Doesn’t he feel that his journey is ambling at a slower pace than that of others? “I don’t really mind. I have been offered every role on the basis of merit,” says Ahmed. “When I was younger, I wanted to go into professional cricket but I quit the field when I saw how much nepotism there was there. Then, I ended up building a career in another field where there is, also, plenty of nepotism. But I have done things my way, never asking for favours. Slow and steady is the best kind of journey, I believe.”
His co-star in the movie, Mansha Pasha, compares her role in Laal Kabootar to the many TV drama characters that she has played. “Both genres have their strong points but I do appreciate that there can usually be more variation in film than on TV,” she says. “The character that I play in Laal Kabootar, Aaliya, would have been far too silent for TV. On TV, everything has to get talked out in a lot more detail.”
"Laal Kabootar is gaining a lot of mileage on the basis of word-of-mouth reviews. That’s seriously the most genuine, sincere feedback because there is no hidden agenda at play," shares Ahmed Ali Akbar
“It’s also really great that our director, Kamal Khan, had a very strong vision,” continues Mansha. “He wasn’t interested at all in following formulaic guidelines. He had a voice of his own and he wanted to tell the story his way. Sometimes, while shooting a scene I would make a suggestion that we could do it in a particular way and he would nod, listen to me and then go about it just the way he wanted to. He stuck to his own perspective, no matter what.”
Given how many Pakistani filmmakers have fumbled with their debut movies, were the actors worried about how Kamal’s first project would fare? “Not at all,” says Ahmed. “In fact, I remember seeing a music video that he had directed and telling my friends that I wanted to work with this director. It’s uncanny that he had also seen me perform on stage in Grease! about three and a half years ago and had decided that he wanted to work with me.”
“I still auditioned,” continues Ahmed. “Auditioning is really important because it helps the industry flourish, ushering in new talent and also giving the older ones a chance to reassess their work by comparing themselves to the newer breed.”
“We also rehearsed a lot,” says Mansha. “For about a month prior to the shooting, we would just be coming in regularly and rehearsing the scenes…”
“… We’d improvise with the script in different ways while staying in character and dissect the scenes, the characters, the power dynamics. It really helped,” says Ahmed.
“A lot of the scenes were shot in very few or just a single take,” says Mansha. “We were usually filming in the city and had to wrap up our work before the roads got too crowded or we needed to catch the light at a certain time of the day.”
“There were perhaps only one or two days when the shoots ran a bit beyond the scheduled time,” remembers Ahmed. “Shooting was wrapped up in 36 days and the movie’s co-producer and director of photography, Mo Azmi, gets a lot of credit for it. He made sure that we all stayed on track.”
"Ahmed and I only got to talk during Laal Kabootar’s promotions,” reveals Mansha. “On the set, Kamal insisted that we remain strangers so that it comes out that way on screen. He wanted to maintain this silence between us."
Apparently, Kamal was also very vigilant. “If there was a long day of shooting ahead, he would call me and tell me, ‘Mansha, you have a lot of scenes tomorrow, I want you to go to sleep right now’. He knew that I like to stay up till late so he made sure that I went to sleep right on time the night before,” laughs Mansha.
I ask Ahmed what scene he enjoyed the most in the movie and he begins to talk about the time his character has a nervous breakdown following a chase sequence.
“Kamal had told me about a month and a half prior to the shoot that there would be one scene that would be acted out in public with the camera hidden,” he says. “I had to collapse behind a rickshaw and bawl my eyes out. The camera was hidden in a van across the road and so the people that concernedly gathered around me actually thought that I was having a nervous breakdown. We shot this scene in five different places and every time the crowd became too thick, I would get up and run away.”
“It was an incredibly refreshing experience – to be acting out in the open like that and connect with the public so instantly.”
Was there a lot of camaraderie behind the scenes between Ahmed and Mansha?
“To be honest, Ahmed and I only got to talk during Laal Kabootar’s promotions,” reveals Mansha. “On the set, Kamal insisted that we remain strangers so that it comes out that way on screen. He wanted to maintain this silence between us. Any time that I started hanging out too much on set, he would tell me to seclude myself. I even had my lunch alone!”
“He was very smart, devising all these ways of getting the performance that he wanted out of his actors,” adds Ahmed. “He would just come and say a word or do something that would put you in the mood of the character right before the scene was shot.”
All this vigilance couldn’t have been fun, though? “It was great fun,” corrects Ahmed. “The fun is in doing good work, in working on a project that defies norms and brings something new for the audience.”
The hard work seems to have paid off with rave reviews coming in regarding the movie. The movie’s premieres in Karachi and Lahore were well-attended by the cast and crew’s celebrity friends who proceeded to praise it on social media later. But what was the feedback that they were getting from the general public?
“Actually our friends give us the most honest reviews and they have all said that they really like it,” says Ahmed. “It’s also great that the general audience walking out of the cinema is saying that they really enjoyed themselves. Laal Kabootar is gaining a lot of mileage on the basis of word-of-mouth reviews. That’s seriously the most genuine, sincere feedback because there is no hidden agenda at play.”
"I have done things my way, never asking for favours. Slow and steady is the best kind of journey, I believe," says Ahmed
“It also feels so good that this movie, that doesn’t follow any staid commercial lines, is being appreciated so readily, for its story, the filming, the music” adds Mansha. “It was brave of Kamal to venture out with an out-of-the-box storyline like this. It worked.”
It certainly did. Laal Kabootar, defying generic commercial territory, makes a small effort towards introducing an alternate way of storytelling to local cinema. It also proves that it isn’t necessary for every major local production to boast the same motley crew of actors who have proven themselves to be very popular amongst the general public.
Sometimes, it’s interesting to search beyond and zero in other talent, festering in the sordid storylines of TV dramas, waiting for that one project that could excite them as artistes. Sometimes, these unlikely choices can really work wonders on the silver screen.
Case in point, Ahmed Ali Akbar and Mansha Pasha.