What is the credibility of an awards ceremony only in its second year, also moonlighting as a ticketed event? It was a question that was perpetually posed on social media while the Pakistan International Screen Awards (PISA) rolled out in Dubai this weekend. To be fair, a ceremony in its fledgling years cannot be considered credible, although in a few more years’ time this question may become more valid. But the PISAs tried — and they tried quite hard.
Unexpected award results were announced, most of them based on audience votes. Some of the performances were absolutely memorable, with iconic, hugely popular stars taking to the stage. The audience was star-studded to the core. And Vasay Chaudhry and Yasir Hussain, hosting the ceremony, were a laugh-a-minute, rollicking comic act.
Sitting in the audience, I felt that what particularly worked for the PISAs was the general joie de vivre that persisted amongst its celebrity guests. They were all in Dubai, attending an awards night, staying in the same hotel, enjoying a perpetual round-the-clock party. Many of them were nominated but no one was truly obsessing over winning. The PISAs' current status as a new ceremony yet to be established as a decisive awards authority helped in bringing on the good cheer and diluting starry egos.
There were, however, some people who didn’t enjoy the PISA party quite as much. The extensive montage of about 400 people flown in to Dubai for the awards included some who were miffed. The awards, mostly trying to maintain authenticity, did downslide towards one very dubious category. There were organisational struggles and one particular pair of nominees, the Baluch Twins, took to social media when their flight to the awards got cancelled.
There were highs, there were lows. And here’s an eye-witness report.
Pakistan’s most iconic
The PISAs flexed its muscles by taking two of Pakistan’s finest musicians on to its stage — Ali Azmat and Sajjad Ali. Both artists lip-synced to some of their biggest hits; Ali drifting from a ‘Ne Re Na’ to a ‘Sayonee’ and Sajjad Ali, the night’s final act, starting off with ‘Cinderella’, moving on to the slower ballads and then, wrapping up with an energetic ‘Chahe Jis Shehar Bhi Jaye’ which had the entire celebrity audience standing up and dancing.
It was a razzling dazzling star-studded moment calculated to break the Internet, where it was streamed out almost immediately — Umair Jaswal, Sana Javed, Mehwish Hayat, Faryal Mehmood, Ushna Shah, Wajahat Rauf, Shazia Wajahat, all clapping and dancing. Sometimes the unplanned little developments actually work better than the painstakingly planned out ones.
The stage itself was grandiose, lit up with tech that is yet to touchdown into Pakistan. One hopes to see a similar play of screens and lights in our local ceremonies.
The other performances were also high on entertainment. Asim Azhar started off the ceremony by singing the national anthem and the first performance of the night by Sheheryar Munawar and Mehwish Hayat was high on energy and color. A group of young singers — Aashir Wajahat, Mustafa Khan, Hadiya Hashmi and Urooj Fatima — performed to ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’.
Amar Khan and Faryal Mehmood danced well — although I wonder if Faryal’s body suit will get subjected to the axe by censor boards when the show airs on TV. Umair Jaswal introduced three new songs in a medley that was very catchy, very upbeat and quintessentially Umair. I am looking forward to the complete songs’ releases.
Putting a slight damper on the overall aesthetics were the costumes worn by the background dancers — glittery concoctions that seemed to be made of shiny tin foil. I suppose that it may look festive on TV but on stage, at least, it didn’t do justice to the smooth, slick on-stage moves.
The hosts that rock the show
But aside from the dances, the men holding the show together were absolute highlights. Vasay Chaudhry is a wizard at scripting light on-stage banter and his co-host Yasir Hussain is adept at delivering impromptu one-liners. The jokes came fast and consistently. Roaming through the audience, they told director and actor Yasir Nawaz that "Aap nay aur Butt sahab nay jo weight nikala uss say ek alag banda bun gaya". When scriptwriter Zanjabeel Asim Shah won the award for Best Writer and gave a very long thank you speech, Yasir quipped that an entire interview could be extracted from the speech.
Ahmed Ali Butt won the Best Supporting Actor for his role in Jhooti and Vasay congratulated him: "Bohot Mubarak ho, aap ka tuxedo kaam aaya aur paisay pooray huay [hearty congratulations, you got to wear your tuxedo and get your money's worth out of it]".
The unscripted jokes were particularly hilarious and the starry audience that they were directed towards had a grand time. It was like a little peek into the quips and inside jokes that prevail in the entertainment fraternity and was, along with Sajjad Ali’s performance, the best part of the show.
Also co-hosting was actor Mehwish Hayat who speaks lucidly and is pretty great at cracking witticisms here and there. The double act served by Vasay and Yasir, however, was in a league of its own.
The awards that mattered
It was expected that the nominees who had made it to Dubai for the ceremony would win. This has been the unfortunate case in most awards ceremonies where announcing valid results is eschewed in favour of bringing a maximum number of stars on stage. The PISAs commendably seem to have had decided to take the higher road.
As part of the jury board, I had been aware of the nominations but most of the wins were based on audience vote — and some of them came as a surprise. The Best TV Actress — Popular Award, for instance, was given to Sarah Khan who wasn’t present at the ceremony. Best TV Actor — Jury winner Mohib Mirza was also absent, although some of the other nominees were very much there. Similarly, Aima Baig, Singer of the Year — Popular winner, was not there although it does seem that she was in Dubai at the time, based on her social media feed.
The Star of the Decade Award was dedicated to Humayun Saeed — which makes sense, of course — and Outstanding Contribution to Cinema was awarded to Mehwish Hayat — again, apt, considering the long spate of cinematic hits that Mehwish has to her credit. Two PISA Global Influencer Awards were awarded by veteran actor Javed Sheikh to Turkish stars Emre Uctepe and Celal Al who played pivotal roles in the hit Dirilis: Ertugrul series. It is debatable whether these two actors can be considered global influencers, particularly since we hardly know much about their career trajectories beyond Ertugrul. But considering the series’ colossal popularity around the world and the ongoing spirit of Pak-Turk friendship, the awards didn’t seem odd.
What did seem odd, though, was the Most Promising Model award dedicated to Faiza Ashfaq. Faiza may have been seen in a few fashion campaigns here and there but she has hardly made her mark. In a year or two, should she build her repertoire with high end campaigns and ramp experience, she could sidle into the category of ‘promising’. At this point, one knows her better as Mehwish Hayat’s sister-in-law. The PISAs had announced all award categories earlier and Most Promising Model hadn’t been one of them. Why did this category surface out of the blue and relegated to a very unlikely winner? It did not make sense.
Some happy customers and some unhappy ones
What also stuck out like a sore thumb were some of the nominees who weren’t happy at all. Singer of the Year — Popular nominees Baluch Twins were particularly riled, claiming that their tickets had been "refunded" by the organisers, asking if it was because of their Baluch heritage or because they were from Lyari and not privileged enough. Some other nominees present at the event talked about how their hotel confirmations had come in late or how the organisers had tried to set them up at a different — perhaps lower-priced? — hotel from where everyone else was staying.
Best Model nominee Hasnain Lehri, on the other hand, tweeted that "Being a Baloch myself, I’m personally offended that ethnicity and racial discrimination has been made part of the Baloch Twins controversy", calling it "irresponsible and dangerous".
In an official statement, the PISA organisers have stated that "the circumstances were a result of the cancellation of the flight the Baluch Twins were originally booked on. Twenty-nine PISA guests were on two Lahore to Dubai flights that were cancelled. Despite all efforts, several of those people could not be adjusted on alternate flights and unfortunately, the Baluch Twins were two of them. Covid advisories, the T20 series and the Expo traffic all contributed to the unfortunate situation … the situation was purely logistic and had nothing to do with racial discrimination, as was accused.”
It is very probable that the Baluch Twins’ ethnicity had nothing to do with the way that they had been sidelined. Given Pakistan’s volatile political climate, it is a card that should not have been played, particularly since it doesn’t ring true. Abid Brohi and Hasnain Lehri, both from Balochistan, were there throughout the ceremony.
However, it is undeniable that as nominees, the Baluch Twins deserved the same respect and protocol as the others, regardless of whether or not they were as well-known. Even if this particular episode truly did take place due to logistical issues — the Twins insist that it did not — the organisers need to make a greater effort to ensure that similar mistakes do not happen in the future. Organising a massive awards ceremony outside of Pakistan and flying in a huge entourage can’t be easy but the PISA organisers knew what they were signing up for and they need to make the effort to iron out these glitches.
Certainly, most of the invitees made it to the ceremony this year unlike last time when an entire battalion of famous names voiced out their anger on social media. There were fewer organisational errors and many of the guests were all praises for how well they had been treated. Covid tests, a prerequisite for traveling nowadays, had been planned out by the organisers, lunch and dinner was on the house, a hair and makeup team was on ground, attending to stars from room to room and a slew of Rolls Royces were made available for taking guests to the venue.
But this treatment needed to be meted to all nominees. At a time when Instagram rants can quickly spiral out controversies, it is unlikely that shoddy treatment will remain under wraps. It is very important that the PISAs don’t hurt sentiments and refrain from prioritising better known nominees while sidelining others.
The red carpet layout was also questionable, with no division separating actors from the fans looming upon them for selfies. Some of the actors were very evidently perturbed, asking people to back off. “It’s scary,” said one woman actor. “Back at home, we stand on the red carpet and the crowds can’t come right up to us. And after the show, we don’t have to wait outside the venue waiting for the cars assigned to us to come. Our own cars are right there and we can leave immediately. This was too risky.”
Again, this a teething issue that needs to be sorted immediately. Crowds can get boisterous and it would have had been appalling if an actor had been groped or been insulted by the public. Fortunately, nothing went amiss — but it could have, so easily.
The show, in the unfortunate manner of all Pakistani shows, did not start on time. The organisers cannot be blamed for this though. The frantic makeup team running about the hotel lobby was testament to how some of the stars had fallen asleep at the nth hour and were only now reviving to get red carpet ready. Only a small handful were at the venue, on the dot.
What’s the final verdict on the PISAs then? They were certainly better this year than they had been last time. There was less controversy and less negativity on social media. The finale performance by Sajjad Ali will be talked about for years. The hosting was hilarious. The stage was grand and show director Frieha Altaf moved things along smoothly. I can tell that the show is going to be high on entertainment value when it airs on TV later this year.
But an awards ceremony using entertainment as its peg needs to give importance to all the categories being nominated rather than just the more glamorous ones. It’s a lesson that the PISAs learned the hard way last year and it’s one that came back to haunt them, albeit with less impact, this time. Also, strange awards to unlikely winners need to be negated for the ceremony to gain greater credibility.
By next year, hopefully, the ‘PISA party’ will be an even better one. It certainly has promise.