Three odd years ago, in the middle of the night on a rooftop in androon Lahore, Amar Khan struck matches again and again. A film crew gathered around her and co-star Imran Ashraf while they did retake after retake.
The actors’ dialogues had to be said in coordination with the match being struck and lighting up. Their faces had to be illuminated just right in the flickering flame. It was a complicated scene to master for the film’s cast and crew. Earlier that week, it had been a complicated scene for Amar to write, who is not just the lead of the Eid release Dum Mastam but has also written the script.
The nation may just have discovered its newest sweetheart and the next big thing in Amar Khan. She’s not only the fiery, exuberant leading lady of Dum Mastam. She’s also its intuitive, diligent scriptwriter. Why then does she think of herself as a tandoori roti?
Amar remembers that at least 120 retakes were done, for a considerable part of the night, before the shoot wrapped up. It’s one of the many beautiful scenes that make up the movie.
At another point, during the movie’s shoot, Amar wore a figure-hugging leotard with a heavily layered chiffon skirt designed for her by Maheen Khan, and was strapped up with belts and wires before she was suspended, mid-air, for an aerial shot. Her arms and legs got scratched frequently while the song took four days to shoot. It now takes up two-and-a-half minutes of the movie’s screen-time.
Dum Mastam would have been released about two years ago if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t come about and temporarily shut down cinemas,” Amar says. “I realised at that point that it was important to do commercially viable characters, so that people got to know me and my work.”
“All the sweat and tears, our director Mohammad Ehteshamuddin’s attention to detail, the scale at which Dum Mastam was shot … all that shows on screen,” Amar says to me when we talk, a few days following the movie’s release.
The movie is the fruition of the efforts of many different people but, for Amar, it’s also the fulfilment of a dream that she had nurtured for six-odd years. Dum Mastam was the first script that she wrote, back when she was still in film school and recovering from heartbreak, and the well-knit storytelling is testament to her prowess as a writer.
And then, as the female lead, she proves her acting mettle. She laughs, wisecracks, emotes convincingly, crumples into tears when defeated, and pirouettes, twirls and breaks out into a euphoric mehndi dance.
Lo and behold, Pakistani cinema has discovered one firecracker of a film heroine in Amar Khan!
And she isn’t the usual TV drama heroine trying hard to transition to celluloid. The camera swerves towards her and it’s like she belongs on the cinema screen, innately programmed to deliver dramatic monologues and dance up a storm, shining, sparkling, drawing the eye and even bringing on a few wolf whistles.
Do you know that people are calling you the next big thing, I ask Amar.
She admits, “I have heard that. It makes me happy and, really, it had always been my dream to be seen on the big screen. Cinema allows you to romance unabashedly, show your vulnerable side and dance with abandon. And even though I have worked a lot on TV, there were still some people who did not know my name when I was promoting Dum Mastam before its release.
“Now they all know me and credit for that goes to Amar the writer as much as it does to Amar the actor, because it is the story which draws them in.
“At the same time, I’m scared. What’s going to come next? An actor can only do good work if provided with good opportunities. I don’t know if my journey from here will go forward or come to a halt.”
She pauses. “Then again, six years ago, I never knew that one day I would write a movie script and play the female lead on the cinema screen. I’m hopeful.”
Now that she’s made her cinematic debut, does she even want to go back to acting in TV dramas? “Of course!” she laughs. “Our TV industry is extremely well-established and it’s the source of actors’ bread and butter. Besides, TV can be exciting too. I’m as excited to be playing the lead in director Kashif Nisar’s next drama as I am to have been part of Dum Mastam.”
Both Amar and I know, though, that TV is often not very exciting. In the initial few months of her career, Amar had tried to walk the path less trodden by taking on unconventional TV drama roles, even opting to play a supernatural dayan [witch] waging revenge in 2018’s Belapur ki Daayan.
Her popularity skyrocketed when, finally, she succumbed to the role of a bechari bahu [poor daughter-in-law] in Qayamat, 7th Sky Entertainment’s hit drama from last year. Head covered, her eyes awash with tears, Amar’s character in the drama became a favourite: tortured by her husband and evil mother-in-law, caged inside her home, forced to do manual domestic labour and eventually — in a top-rated episode — unable to withstand further abuse and dying. The TV audience cheered.
“Dum Mastam would have been released about two years ago if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t come about and temporarily shut down cinemas,” Amar says. “I realised at that point that it was important to do commercially viable characters, so that people got to know me and my work. Once cinemas reopened, I hoped that it would be one of the reasons that would bring them to see my movie.
“Besides, I’m not from a very privileged family. I can’t take a break from work for several months, just because I feel like it. TV is my source of earning. Sometimes, I will be lucky enough to get roles that are distinctive. At other times, I may have to opt for more conventional but popular characters.”
Still, I insist, when you are working on a generic script, playing a cookie-cutter stereotypical bahu, don’t you ever feel like your talent is getting wasted?
“When you’re a strong-headed woman who lives life on her own terms and has never experienced abuse, sometimes you have to invest a lot of hard work into playing a holier-than-thou tortured character,” Amar points out.
“Even a story about domestic abuse can be effective if told right. It mirrors what is happening in our society, all around us. However, it’s an unfortunate truth that most dramas in Pakistan are centred around bad, mundane stories. It’s what the audience wants to see and what the producers end up making, and as actors we don’t have much of a choice if we want to keep working. I do always want to pick and choose between scripts, but then good offers have to come my way for me to be able to do that.”
One such offer recently came to Amar via Kashif Nisar, one of Pakistan’s most exceptional directors. “Dum Mastam may have been put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic but it still helped push my career forward,” reveals Amar.
“My director in the movie, Ehteshamuddin, was acting in a drama for Kashif and he showed him some of my stills from Dum Mastam. Kashif asked if I acted well and, after some time, he offered me a role of a news anchor in his upcoming drama.”
Similarly, a cell phone service zoomed in on her for an ad after seeing a clip of her dancing with choreographer Nigah while practising for 'Larrki Achaari', one of the songs in the movie.
“It may have been an ad but it was the first time that I was seen dancing on screen,” says Amar. “The company had been considering a number of actors, but when they saw my video, they just selected me.”
Even unreleased, Dum Mastam was helping her along. Still, when the world came to a standstill and cinemas were gathering cobwebs, did she feel apprehensive?
“I did, as did everyone else invested in Pakistani cinema,” she says. “I had moved from Lahore to Karachi with the dream of seeing this movie materialise. For months, I took the script to every filmmaker that I could find, reading it out to them for two-and-a-half hours, not allowing myself to get discouraged. Then, finally, when it got made, it ended up getting delayed.
“When we were locked within our homes for four months, I once broke down in front of my mother, and she told me, in Punjabi, that until roti doesn’t burn on the tandoor and gets well-cooked, it doesn’t taste good. All these delays would work out for me one day, if not in terms of the box office, then in some way or the other, by God’s will.”
And yet, in a much-debated move, movie schedules in cinemas were recently adjusted to accommodate more shows for Marvel’s Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, replacing a large chunk of the slots that had been allotted to Pakistani films that had released on Eid-ul-Fitr, including Dum Mastam. Does this make her angry?
“It’s downright shameful,” she declares. “We had been led to believe that Dr Strange’s release would be delayed by a week and, yet, it came merely a few days after five Pakistani films had taken the risk of releasing in post-Covid-19 times.
“Our greatest fear when bringing out Dum Mastam had been whether people would set aside fears of Covid-19 and come out to the cinemas. But they did come, with their families and friends, and with tickets selling out. Instead of celebrating this, foreign content was brought in almost immediately. We can’t even benefit from footfall in most cases. When all prime time slots are set aside for Dr Strange, no one’s going to wait till 1am in the night to watch our movies.”
It’s a sad state of affairs but, nevertheless, Dum Mastam has worked out particularly well for Amar. Even in the few shows in cinemas right now, the movie is testament to her potential as a fiery, dazzling leading lady as well as an intuitive, diligent scriptwriter.
Her TV roles earlier may have gotten a righteous nod of approval from the TV audience, but this cinematic debut has made people sit up and take notice and murmur incredulously, ‘Who’s that girl?’
“Perhaps it’s also because I’m the daughter of a struggling artist,” Amar muses, referring to her mother, actress Fariha Jabeen. “I get emotional when I say this. All my life, I saw my mother making sacrifices for me and facing difficulties. Sometimes I think that maybe I’m getting her share of success as well.”
She continues: “I have always been very passionate about what I do. Writing is therapeutic for me and there are times when I’ll just shut myself in a room and work on a script. Back when I was in film school, my rich friends would have sophisticated equipment and all I would have is a story. I would borrow their equipment and make my short film. I was similarly very focused when I pursued the making of Dum Mastam.”
In her struggle to make her dreams come true and to earn well, has she ever encountered the notorious casting couch?
“It does exist,” she accepts, “there are times when people will try to make a pass. But no one can force you into anything and I learnt this from my mother. You need to know how to step back, put your guard up and refuse in a firm, intelligent way.”
Intelligence is something that Amar has in abundance. Her next script is ready — written while isolating during the coronavirus pandemic — and she tells me that she has a producer on board for it. She’s also on the verge of signing her next movie and, post-Eid, has quickly returned to her drama shoots. Work is going well. She smiles.
“I don’t have many friends in the industry but I have worked hard. I’m just naturally reserved and quiet in real life, even though my on-screen personas may sometimes be dominating and vibrant. It’s just when the camera turns on that I feel this magic happening.”
There’s some magic certainly in Amar.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, May 15th, 2022