Will Asim Abbasi's debut feature be as short and sweet as its title, Cake?
With its release just some days away, the Cake cast and crew are going full speed ahead with promotions in the UK. But Images caught up with them before their whirlwind trip to get the lowdown on the upcoming family drama starring Aamina Sheikh, Sanam Saeed and Adnan Malik in main roles.
Excerpts of our conversation:
Images: We know Cake is a family drama but that's a very broad term. If I asked you to really zone into the genre and get specific about what Cake is about, how would you describe the film?
Aamina Sheikh: I can't get super-specific about the film without giving away some pretty major plot points, so I'll try to say what we haven't said about the film before — Cake is about the relationships in a family that are built around things that aren't said... which are the things that need to be said.
This happens a lot in our families. Parents make decisions for their children without really communicating things with them properly... or they might abandon them, sending off their children just so they don't have to deal with the nuances of certain events that have transpired.
So it's about the making of such choices by parents, kids, siblings... who are then confronted by those same choices later on in life and are forced to unravel them and figure out how they're going to spend the rest of their lives.
Asim Abbasi: There are lots of themes addressed in the film — themes of sacrifice, themes of past, the relationship between siblings — but the one thing I want to talk about, which I think we don't talk about enough, is people growing old.
Ageing parents is a very important theme in this film and it's not something that's been addressed [in Pakistani cinema before]. Then there's things about nostalgia, about yearning for a past that's gone, for childhood memories, for togetherness that no longer exists.
Aaminah: You know, it makes a huge difference in your life experience if you're a witness to your parents ageing. For those who haven't been in connection with that part of life, this film is going to bring a lot of sh-t down in their lives! [laughs] Because they're going to see what are the things they're missing out on — it's almost like missing out on your child growing up.
Sanam Saeed: I think Cake just holds a mirror to the viewer and gives an insight into their own family's intricacies and dynamics. If there's any layers of guilt or happiness or stress or regret or love, these are all emotions that everyone relates to in a family.
Images: Sanam, you mention feelings of guilt coming up... Do you feel the film will make the audience uncomfortable?
Sanam: More realisation than guilt.
Asim: Realisation hoti hai and that realisation might make people feel certain things and of course, there is this uncomfortable [thought], 'Sh-t, I never thought of that.'
We are addressing the details of everyday life. From afar, it may seem a little mundane, but when you observe it in that much detail, it can have [an emotional] impact on you. Yes, Cake could make certain people uncomfortable, different people feel different emotions...
Images: The word of mouth about Cake is that it is "a very different film" — and people say that in an almost cautionary way. Like, people feel that not everyone may like the film. Is that a concern for you?
Aamina: It's not. Because we know what different films are. I've been a part of those different films. [laughs, embarrassed] This experience has been hugely different. The story is where it's at.
Sanam: Iss me kuch mushkil nahi hai samajhne ko. [There's nothing that's difficult to understand in this film.]
Aamina: Not just that, people may feel that it doesn't have masala, no lip-sync song, no gloss, but...
Adnan Malik: I feel this conversation should be passé frankly. I think the trailer kind of changed the game. The teaser kind of made people go like, 'Ye kya hoga?' but once people saw the trailer, they were like, 'This is kinda fun, this is relatable, this is cool.' The film is coolly different. I don't think it's scarily different.
Aamina: I think the viewers want us to meet their expectations. Wo bhi daray huye hai. (They're scared too.)
Images: Are you guys feeling that pressure? Sometimes when the trailer is really well received, the response to the film turns out to be...
Asim: I think the film is better than the trailer... [laughs] which is not very common, I feel.
Sanam: It's just about how we promote it. We don't want to force feed or overdo the promotion because the more you promote, the more you build expectations, even if it's a good product.
Aamina: Which is why for all of us, especially Asim, it's really important to be authentic, even in what we're promoting. Promote what is, rather than what it isn't.
Images: Can we talk about Pakistani cinema for a bit? There are all kinds of viewers, so there should be all kinds of films. but every filmmaker and actor seems to think that their work is the kind of film Pakistani cinema needs. Do you have any thoughts about this?
Aamina: Is there any cinema in the world that makes one kind of film?
Asim: Formula is relevant when you're equating a film's success directly with just the box office. If that's your sole reason to making the film, then yes, you should be making one kind of film that you know have already done well. But it's cinema and it can't be just about business. Creativity has to come hand in hand with business.
Adnan: For 30 years, we were in this trauma that the arts were really looked down upon, right? Then we got this little revival of cinema with a big help from Indian films... When Pakistani cinema started, everyone wanted to build this dialogue around what Pakistani cinema means.
Every cinema in the world needs its blockbusters. That's the only way for cinema to grow. The more blockbusters you have, the more people are watching films and the more the more cinemas we have. The more cinemas we have, the more viewers go in. The more viewers go in, the bigger budgets Pakistani films can be. It's a pretty simple formula.
So I think you need those mainstream, big-budget films that would hopefully make the numbers like the Punjab Nahi Jaungis and JPNAs to drive the industry. And as far as our identity is concerned, every industry's pehchaan is big films. But within that, you definitely need these smaller budget, more interesting, more provocative films, because those films give a certain kind of cultural value to a country's cinema.
Images: Aamina and Sanam, you've played sisters in TV dramas before... Like Aamina, you've played the wronged sister in Maat, for example, but I'm sure your character's anguish in Cake is very different from that. Is it hard to shake off that 'TV style' of acting?
Aamina: I'm thankful that there was a filmmaker like Asim who was on board because he would not let us go into our default modes of acting. He made us unlearn and relearn the craft in a way that we allowed us to shed all this baggage we carry.
Although he's rooted in Pakistan, he's lived in the UK for a while, so his cinematic influences are different and he's not jaded or overworked like the rest of us are in this industry. He brought everything to the table and used practised actors and kind of shed them.
Asim: But the default acting mode kicks in because there's no time in television...
Sanam: It's a matter of habit and time...
Asim: You have to go on autopilot because you have to churn out scene after scene. [For Cake], we had a long rehearsal process for about two months. We sat down, got to know each other, so there were no barriers. I feel trust building is the most important thing, that they feel that they're safe in my hands. And that whatever I get out of them will be presentable to the world.
Aamina: As an actor, you observe all the other things coming into place. In a TV drama, everything falls on the actor - we take care of our wardrobe, etc. For Cake, when I was watching them picking out things for me to wear, when I saw them layering my character with certain types of clothes, a certain kind of necklace, I automatically started treating my character differently than how I treat a TV drama.
Adnan: I often find in dramas, you're not directed. We have some really good TV directors, but the rest of them are winging it. So what starts happening is that lots of actors start directing themselves. There's a lot of variation in performance. When you see an even-paced performance in a TV drama, you realise it's well directed. When you can't see the direction, that's when the direction is good.
Sanam: A big part of the Cake prep was when Asim sent us a big box with different things to help us get into character. Like, I had books like Little Women and Anna Karenina and some films to watch.
Asim: But they all put their material in the fridge because it came in a cake box!
Images: Aamina and Sanam appear to have bigger roles to play in the film, so I suppose it's accurate to say that Cake's a female-led film. Asim, since you wrote the film, what would you say to people who feel that the authenticity of female characters and experiences suffers without a woman writer?
Asim: I always tend to write more about women. I dunno, I guess I find them a little more complex. All the shorts I've written have been women-centric, all the feature scripts I've written have been women-centric.
Where does it come from? It comes from observing. I come from a family of three sisters and a mom who was a very strong and opinionated, so it's been a very women-centric household.
Having said that, I do work in isolation but I get a lot of script consultants on board throughout the whole process and most of my script consultants are women. Because I understand that I need a bunch of women to read my script and feel that it's accurate, it's how a woman would feel in a certain situation.
And of course, it then went to the actresses, who had views on it. I'm always open to changes. My script is not the bible. The structure is there, but in terms of dialogues, in terms of arcs, there's always room to manoeuvre the storyline.
Sanam: Someone also asked Sarmad Khoosat a similar question for the women-centric Akhri Station... and he said that I have five phophis, five khalas, five sisters... and two mothers!
Asim: I don't have that many [laughs], but I grew up around women as well.
Images: And I get the feeling that Adnan's character was deliberately kept super-vague.
Sanam: He's a really, really integral part of the story. And he's a family member too. I mean, when you have a family, it's not just your nucleus, it's also the household help, people who've been friends of the family... you consider them family too.
Adnan: He is an integral character. I think the role kind of increased... initially it was a smaller role and I said no. [laughter] And then I came back, Asim was like...
Asim: I saw Dil Banjara and said, 'I don't think I want you anymore'. [laughs]
Adnan: And then I was like, 'I'm the same guy you liked in Sadqay' and we had a long talk and I did a reading and then I said to him, 'You want me more than 15%, you call me' and he did. And I was like, 'But why do you want me?' and he said, 'I think you're a really open person' and I said 'Okay, that's a good enough reason. Let's do this.' And that's what happened.
So the role increased and became a very significant role. He's almost like a moral compass in the film, even a glue between characters.
Images: To round things off, any final message for your audience?
Sanam: Don't miss out on this film. We all make plans to go see a film and then we never make time for it. This is definitely a film you should make time for. Take your family's elders with you when you do because the film is about them.
Adnan: It's one of those films you really don't want to miss out on. It'll leave you with a lot more than you think it will.