Huddled together in front of the cinema screen at the trailer launch of their debut film Ready, Steady, No! (RSN) a few months ago, the director and cast reminded me of the children’s storybook The Little Engine That Could.
In that story, a little blue engine hauls the cargo of a far bigger broken down engine across the mountain, while propping up its own confidence by saying: I think I can, I think I can. It’s not hard to imagine the cast and crew of RSN chanting the same lines.
RSN has been on the drawing boards since 2013, when writer-director Hisham Bin Munawwar began putting words on paper. The film went on the floors from 2016 to 2017, but then the production had to pull its brakes when it ran out of money.
Screeching to a stop, RSN needed two million rupees to complete production. Typically, distributors help filmmakers with such paltry shortfalls (other films, I was told by the director, had been supported) but, in this case, the industry wasn’t interested.
Inspired by real-life events, writer-director Hisham Bin Munawwar’s Ready, Steady, No! is a rom-com made on a humble budget. Much like the film’s lead pair, the film has struggled to defy the odds in the face of adversity
‘I, pull the likes of you? Indeed Not!’ said one beefy, big engine to the broken down one in the children’s story, in a striking parallel to RSN’s makers. Life was cruel until Hum Films and Eveready Group stepped in, picking up the film for distribution.
RSN is a rom-com about a young couple who elope. “The concept of a boy and a girl eloping may sound romantic, but in reality it is not, and that’s the story we aim to tell,” Munawwar tells me on the phone from Lahore.
“The reason the couple run away is because they belong to different zaats [castes],” Munawwar says. “The reality of life is that, no matter how far we think we’ve progressed, issues of zaats till prevail in Pakistan. When I sat down to write the film, something similar was happening with someone I knew.
“The message is a part of the story, but it is not the story,” Munawwar explains.
Holding a B.A. Hons in Film from Beaconhouse National University (BNU), Lahore, Munawwar is a stickler for story and structure.
“We were always aware that we would have to make a lot of compromises when we went on set. So we tried to sort most of the logistical problems at the screenwriting stage,” he tells me.
“I’ve followed Robert McKee from my film school days,” Munawwar says. McKee is a screenwriting guru in Hollywood who is popular for his seminars and books; a version of McKee was played by Brain Cox in Charlie Kaufman’s film Adaptation. “McKee would be my reference point. However, when you get to comedy, which has a different set of requirements than drama, even that fails. The only thing one could rely on is the classic structure of a film.
“I had put in so much time in following the logic of screenwriting that there came a time when my brain stopped working. Since it was my first project, I simply wanted to play it safe,” Munawwar says.
With a humble production budget, casting A-listers, whose prices hiked with each passing picture, was out of the question. Munawwar’s first choice, Iman Ali, had date problems and couldn’t commit. Then, eventually, Amna Ilyas came into the picture.
“I liked the script but only committed after sitting down to read it with Hisham,” Ilyas tells me on the phone (honouring her commitments, Ilyas was out promoting Baaji at a cinema in Karachi).
The reason the couple run away is because they belong to different zaats [castes],” Munawwar says. “The reality of life is that, no matter how far we think we’ve progressed, issues of zaats till prevail in Pakistan. When I sat down to write the film, something similar was happening with someone I knew.”
“We clicked in a blink. He’s ambitious and a bit introverted. When I started reading the script with him, I started to enjoy it. I kept asking him if I was doing anything wrong, but Hisham said ‘Amna, the way you are delivering your lines is just who Razia is’.
“I have a strong intuition and I believe in my instincts,” Ilyas continues. “I had a feeling he [Munawwar, a first-timer] was going to do a good job as director.
“I like doing bold, substantial roles. I’ve played a feminist, an independent young woman, and characters who are inspirational — roles that do not necessarily fall into the typical heroine category,” she continues.
“Razia [her character from RSN] is different from anything I’ve done before. I would call Razia jhalli [crazy]. She’s young and stuck in la la land. She hasn’t seen the dark side of the world. When we were reading the script, I would ask Hisham ‘How can a girl do these things?’
“I did that character a year back, and now that we’re talking, things are coming back to me,” Ilyas recalls. “Razia is very loud, while I, myself, am understated. Even when there are no dialogues, Razia would still be giving off expressions. If she is standing in a group, even then she is doing something. She is moving, she is shaking her head, smiling, making different sounds. She’s a sweet, happy, loud girl.”
The young man Razia elopes with is a stark contrast.
“He is a very nice boy who hasn’t done anything wrong in life,” Faisal Saif, the lead actor opposite Ilyas, tells me. “He has a very strict mum who is the boss of the house, and a henpecked father. But unlike his father, he has a bit of his mum in him. He’s a bit of a rebel.
“In a way, it’s a coming of age film; he becomes a man from a boy,” Saif says.
Saif’s screen character is also called Faisal, by the way. The name was always meant to be changed, he says. The Faisal in the film and the Faisal in real life are quite different people, he clarifies.
“While he’s a mama’s boy. I’m not. I would swim against the tide to get things to go my way — and there’s great satisfaction in that.” Saif comes from a film background. His grandfather was the noted poet, lyricist and producer Saifuddin Saif who wrote and produced box-office successes Saat Lakh (1957) and Kartar Singh (1959).
“It was clear from early on that we would work as a family,” Saif elaborates on the camaraderie that had been evident on the day of the RSN’s trailer launch a few months back. Even then, the cast present that day made it apparent that their little film had had a long, taxing journey until they reached their destination on the big-screen.
“It’s seldom that anyone helps you,” Saif says. “It’s just the way the world works. I’m glad we didn’t have it easy, otherwise we wouldn’t have learned what we have.”
Making and then releasing a film is not easy. Like the little engine in the story book who succeeds in pulling the weight of the heavy train, the chant ‘I think I can, I think I can’ will soon be replaced by ‘I thought I could, I thought I could’. RSN releases this Eid.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, July 7th, 2019