Karachi is in the midst of sporadic thunderstorms. The grey sky, visible from the windows, adds to the shadows looming upon the set of Prince Charming. Wires and cameras are strewn across narrow corridors and clustered rooms, shrouded in a theme of grey, green, ageing yellow and morose, fading blue. Thunder rolls outside. The electricity goes off. It is intolerably humid but the cast and crew continue on with their work without complaining.
Nothing is gloomier than being stuck indoors without electricity at a time when Karachi is at its most humid. It’s a good thing then that gloom is possibly an effect that director Sheheryar Munawar is looking for.
This is the first time that I am seeing Sherry (aka Sheheryar Munawar) restricted to being behind the camera rather than in front of it. Prince Charming is the actor’s directorial debut, a 12-minute short film that will premiere on the SeePrime YouTube channel. I do know that even while acting, Sherry has always been deeply interested in the nitty gritties of every shot, watching the rough cuts of scenes once they have been filmed.
His directors in the past — most recently Anjum Shahzad who has worked with him in the drama Pehli Si Muhabbat — have spoken about how they can rely on him to understand the technicalities and help out. It was only inevitable that the actor would eventually try his hand at direction.
He does seem to be in his element. The scene cuts and gets reshot from particular points. A word has to be said in a certain way, a frown positioned to accompany a certain dialogue, the silence needs to stretch out just so.
Prince Charming could be considered an unconventional directorial debut project for an actor who has often been coined a ‘chocolate hero’ and has mostly been associated with happy-go-lucky romances. The 12-minute telefilm, from what I saw of it when I visited the set, is heavily nuanced, dark, gritty. Two of the country’s most successful actors are playing the leads: the nation’s sweetheart Mahira Khan, and Zahid Ahmed, who has proven his mettle with a range of riveting, versatile roles and won the Lux Style Award for Best Actor last year.
Even for these two actors, the telefilm could be considered an unusual choice, simply because it is so off the wall. The scene being filmed when I visit featured Mahira and Zahid trying to have a conversation. Her hair is tied up untidily and she isn’t wearing any makeup. She looks strained and exhausted. Zahid looks preoccupied. There’s nothing glamorous about the scene, although I do personally feel that Mahira looks her most beautiful in a basic shalwar kameez without makeup, as she does in this scene.
Sherry, who has also written the script, observes, “I felt that there was no point for me to step into writing and direction if I worked on something that had already been done before.”
Didn’t he want to try his hand at a more mass-friendly storyline? “It became mainstream the minute I cast Mahira in it,” he points out matter-of-factly. “I’ve been very lucky to have gotten Mahira and Zahid on board. There is a side to Mahira that you’ll see that hasn’t been shown on screen before. We worked for three days together — one day for rehearsals and two days for the shooting — and both of them allowed me to deconstruct them and then construct them all over again as my characters.”
The recently released teaser for the telefilm shows Mahira getting pulled through an open door. "Darwaza agar khula milay toh ussay chori nahi kehtay [If you find a door open, you wouldn't call it theft]," she says to whoever has pulled her in, probably a man. It’s the sort of dialogue that teases you — is she justifying cheating? Who is she with? It makes you curious — which is precisely what Sherry intended.
“I just wanted to include a single dialogue that left people pondering,” he says. “It’s a short story, entirely based on a single morning in this woman’s life. But who is she with, what does she mean when she says this dialogue. I wanted people to wonder.”
The official trailer reveals more about the story which is, evidently, about a couple’s marital issues. The subtext within the imagery is revealing: Zahid lying in bed with the sheets jumbled up on the other side, which is empty; Mahira’s slippers and Zahid’s shoes next to each other, pointing in opposite directions. All is evidently not well in this couple’s married life.
For Mahira, was it difficult to slip into the skin of this strained, earthy woman, especially when she generally has a very glamorous media image? “I actually enjoyed embracing this new role,” she says. “I’ve done the pretty roles already and I am at stage in my career where I want to explore further. I don’t want to look a certain way just because it clicks with how I am perceived by people," the actor explains.
"You know, sometimes actors inadvertently become slaves to the image that people have of them. I want to be free of all such trappings and start new chapters with different roles.”
Did she have qualms about being on screen without any makeup? “I preferred it that way,” says Mahira. “In one poster, I felt that the team had covered up my dark circles. I asked them not to do that. I wanted the imagery to be realistic.”
She continues, “It’s strange. We only shot for two days but I felt bad for a long time afterwards. I called up Sherry and asked him how it was possible for such a short spell to leave such an impact on me. He said that he was in the middle of editing the film and I’d just given him my all. The role definitely took me to some very dark places. At the same time, it was very freeing to play such a character.”
Zahid, of course, has an impressive repertoire of gritty, realistic roles to his credit. This telefilm will be adding to that list. “I think this telefilm, with some very big stars in its credits, particularly indicates that the digital realm has now opened up for the Pakistani entertainment industry,” observes Zahid. “It’s a courageous step for Sheheryar to turn his hand to a digital platform for his directorial debut and also, to work with a gritty storyline.”
He continues, “Had the issues covered in this 12-minute telefilm been depicted in a drama, they would have probably gotten lost in the longwinded storytelling spanning multiple episodes. Prince Charming very succinctly touches upon the root cause and the emotions that the people facing these issues go through.”
Twelve minutes of heavy-duty emotions and — based on what I saw when I visited the set — captured with a play of shadows and hues reminiscent of French art movies.
“There’s a lot of subtext in the narrative,” says Sheheryar. “I am experimenting, seeing if I am able to clearly depict what I am trying to say and if the audience is able to understand the subliminal messages in the imagery.”