The story behind Ghabrana Nahin Hai’s (GNH) exclusive set visit starts with a flashback: to producer Jamil Baig’s then-under-construction office at the Nueplex cinema in Karachi’s Defence in late 2019.
Gulping down my nearly-cold cup of coffee, I found Jamil Baig visibly concerned about the future of Pakistani cinema. The box-office of domestically produced films was in a state of steep decline, and only a handful of titles had really performed. Something had to be done about it.
Just a few minutes ago, in the adjoining room, JB — as he’s called by celebrities of the industry — had just declined a proposal to produce a film for one of the more promising filmmakers in Pakistan. He has been very meticulous in his selections, but nevertheless projects pile up in his office left, right and centre.
News was out that JB, owner of the Nueplex chain of cinemas, and a partner of Excellency Pictures (a distribution outlet powered by three film exhibitor chains), was jumping into the fray as a producer.
There was no need for him to do it, he had told me then; he was perfectly happy running Nueplex cinemas — an expensive endeavour that, at the time, was still years away from breaking even on its investment.
JB had entered the film business willingly, he told me.
Again, there was no need for it; he was doing more than fine in his other business of real estate development, construction and supply — but since he had taken the plunge, he was going to see it through.
One of the projects that had gotten his attention at the time was a screenplay by Mohsin Ali (the writer of Wrong No. and Chhuppan Chhuppai).
I had also heard about the script a little earlier when it was making the rounds within a select circle of the industry. The pitch sounded good enough. A mix of action, romance and drama with a strong cast and a heroine who could hold her own. If made with the right rewrite and director, the film could be box-office gold.
With GNH, JB had found the right project to launch his production partnership with Hassan Zia — the long-respected producer of film and television, whose filmography includes Wrong No., Mehrunisa V Lub U and Wrong No. 2.
Even back then, JB’s plan of action was clear: to give able, new-blood filmmakers a chance. The producer and director he had refused in the other room had already made several films; they would find someone else to support them, he told me (and they did).
Cut to now. A year and few months later in the present, I find myself sitting in actress Saba Qamar’s dressing room with JB and Hassan Zia. In the next room, GNH’s shoot goes on without a hitch.
In fact, this has been one of the calmest sets I’ve seen in a long time. No hassles, no angry outbursts, no fidgety, snide retorts from cast and crew, no worries or hurries about the number of shots one has to record before the crew packs up the location for the night. Everything is moving with clockwork precision.
Shooting at a vintage-looking place in Malir with curved exteriors, small interiors, steep stairs and big windows, the shooting area is awash with smoke and lights. A tight-knit crew of a few dozen is cramped inside, ducking in and out of the camera’s point of view. (I keep wondering about the need for having this many assistant directors on set; to each his own, I guess).
Hassan Zia, who is my all-caring chaperone for the day, lets me in on a secret: the film is giving a lot of opportunities to new talent in the industry.
I feel a deja-vu of words, but the thick smoke from the hot loban (gum resin) puffs the thought aside. Ever since evening hit, and the shooting shifted to interior scenes, the set has been smothered in smoke.
The trick is old-school: the cloud of smoke, as it dissipates, creates ‘God rays’ — the dispersing cloud, when lit with hard lights from the other side of the windows outside the house, helps sell the illusion of atmosphere. Loban smoke is the local, organic alternative to smoke machines. The inorganic smoke blows away too quickly, especially if the atmosphere in the shot is to be maintained.
There is another upshot of this organic smoke: it keeps the mosquitoes away.
I feel that the constant smoke irks the actors a teensy bit — but it doesn’t get in the way of their performance.
Saba Qamar, who has been up since 5:30 in the morning, tells me that she didn’t get much sleep the night before. When the production car picked her up at 5:45am, she was already out pacing the street.
Just a few days ago, Saba had a very serious case of food poisoning, she says, but that didn’t stop her from working. In comparison, the lack of sleep isn’t that bad, I think.
Exhausted, her eyes burning, but being a trooper, Saba carries her role with absolute professionalism. I think she’s seen more strenuous days.
Assembled in a corner room are GNH’s other key cast — Nayyer Ejaz, Syed Jibran and Zahid Ahmed — waiting for the assistant director to call them over. Sitting on the bed, lying feet up on the sofa playing video games on their cell phones, having make-up touch-ups before a shot, getting shoulder and foot massages, I’m told that it has been a long day for everyone.
The scenes being shot come at a high point in the film (I think I have a knack of visiting sets when they’re filming crucial reveals in a film’s story).
Back in the dressing room with JB and Hassan Zia (the latter, ever the hospitable host, hasn’t left my side all day), I press them to reveal something from the story.
“The story is about female empowerment,” JB tells me on-the-record. “It’s a daughter’s story, whose family finds itself in a desperate situation. It is in that moment that the daughter tells them: “Ghabrana nahin hai [You shouldn’t worry].”
The script had a different title when it came to him, he said.
“We’re not treating [the title] as a joke. The prime minister uses these words when he’s addressing the nation. I think he uses the words appropriately,” he continues.
One shouldn’t worry, even if things aren’t going one’s way. Bad times blow over. Those who get nervous or frightened during such times often find their difficulties overwhelming their sense of judgement. Much like the PM, JB Films is using the words in a positive way. Our intention is never to use the title in a negative or sarcastic way — also, the gist of the title suits the story of the film,” he points out.
Saqib Khan, the debuting director, elaborates the story’s essence with a text message a few days later: “As a logline [a small summary of the story], I can tell you this much that it revolves around a girl who wants to prove to her father that she’s as worthy as any son would have been and, in the course of doing so, the choices made by her trigger a series of unusual events, happenings and conflicts, leading to an almost absurd intertwining of three different layers of narratives with three different characters.
“Yes, the whole story, genre and treatment does lie within the framework of conventional commercial cinema, but the way the story is being told, the characterisations and the sociopolitical context of the story is the essence here,” he explains.
Interesting… but that’s just as vague, if you ask me.
The story, as I understand it, is a commercial, romance, comedy, drama — or rather, a “masala” movie, with four very distinct characters. Irrespective of context, GNH is a comedy of cons that eventually brings all four characters together. Because there is one heroine in the film, I’ll leave the rest to the readers’ imagination.
One thing is apparent though: Zahid Ahmed plays a cop (as seen in the publicity shots).
Cop characters must be in vogue these days, I muse to him on set.
“I think it’s a matter of coincidence that there are two mainstream films that have a cop [as a leading] character,” Zahid tells me (the other film is the upcoming Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad). “If it does, on some level, do some good for the image of the police, make them more human once again, or make them relevant, then that’s [another] purpose [the role] could serve.”
Looking at the monitor, I see Zahid perform his character with an almost natural flair. This makes me wonder about his method as an actor.
“No, I’m not a method actor. I’m absolutely instinctive, and that’s how I’ve approached this character as well,” he says. “And because it’s a cop character, and it’s very conventional, that’s why I have not approached it in a conventional way, or made stereotypical nuances for the character or the profession. I’ve approached him in a very human and individual way,” he says.
“This guy is going through a set of motions, coming across people in his life, which takes him through his personal journey and evolution as a human — and to some extent as a cop,” he clarifies.
The character Syed Jibran plays is poles apart from Zahid’s.
“My character is going to be the symbol of love in this film. The entire responsibility of spreading the message of love, friendship and happiness is on my shoulders. It is something I’ve rarely played on television,” he tells me when we discuss his role.
Although the script didn’t have his backstory, Jibran and director Saqib improvised a backstory that went back to the character’s childhood. The exercise helped him understand his character’s motives.
“I have wholly and solely placed myself at the mercy of my director — and somehow it feels right. I trust him. I’m a director’s actor for this film,” Jibran adds.
Nayyer Ejaz’s character has a flamboyant tilt (don’t they always, though). He may or may not be the villain (depending on how Saqib and Mohsin Ali unfold the story), but from the way I see it, his role reflects the familiar outlook of an over-the-top character from Pakistan’s politics.
Saqib doesn’t elaborate on the details, and, by choice I don’t pester directors that much with questions on set. One thing is apparent though: this young, new director is quite smart in how he milks exact performances from his cast.
In one scene, he tells Zahid exactly what his character is thinking, the context of his emotions in the shot, and how he should respond. The explanation is specific and short. It is so short, in fact, that the exact sentence slips my mind by the time I get my notepad out.
This may be Saqib’s debut film, but it is not his first project. Having recently directed projects for television (one was a telefilm for the producer Zaid Aziz), Saqib studied and then taught theatre at Napa. Originally an electronic engineer, he has been an actor, writer, producer and director for 10 years now.
A little later, as Hassan, JB and I walk out, I am shown a list of 17 names of actors and technicians who are making their debut with GNH. That has always been their intention, Hassan tells me.
“If we keep working with filmmakers who have made movies, then how would the industry make way for new filmmakers? We have limited actors, limited directors, limited scriptwriters and technicians,” JB tells me. “A movie’s success brings success to everyone involved. It’s never one man’s success."
“Also,” he adds, “GNH is far from a one-off endeavour. It’s one of three movies we are working on at the moment. Our next, likely to be announced sometime in December, will go on set in early 2021, with another one set for announcement soon afterwards.”
When I mention the dire state of both the domestic and the international film business, and ask of the risk he’s taking with the launch of three projects, JB consoles me with a short reply: “Ghabrana nahin hai — it’s going to be alright, you’ll see.”
Published in Dawn, ICON, December 6th, 2020