“There was never a dull moment on the sets of Baaji,” Osman Khalid Butt tells me. There is also never a dull moment in my conversation with him and Meera together. Both actors are playing lead roles in Saqib Malik’s upcoming directorial film debut and it’s evident that they have hit it off very well.
“Osman has even proposed to me,” Meera quips before smirking and adding, “I am kidding of course.”
He is also, evidently, her ‘English teacher’ and always helping her out on set. In fact, while I am talking to Osman, I keep noticing Meera making a video of him. When I ask her why she’s recording the conversation, she flashes her dimples. “I am going to steal his words. Osman speaks well, he is very poetic.”
At this point, Osman’s prolific way with words is directed entirely towards his upcoming movie. I had been looking forward to watching Baaji ever since I had seen its trailer but hearing Osman wax lyrical about it has made me look forward to it all the more.
Both Meera and him are very excited about the movie and all praises for their director.
“It was the sort of movie where I would feel joy and anticipation about enacting a certain kind of scene,” says Osman. “I would be nervous and excited and I would keep rethinking how to go about it and then, around four in the night, I would send Saqib long text messages about some nuance that had occurred to me. Saqib always kept the channels of communication open for us and listened to our suggestions. It was a pleasure working with him.”
For Meera, Baaji – and Saqib Malik – came to her at a time when she had begun to feel hopeless. “I had decided that I would leave Pakistan forever and never come back. People here are completely obsessed with materialism and don’t value talent. When Saqib narrated Baaji’s story to me, I felt that I now had something to live for; pyaasay ko jaisay paani mil gaya."
In my 22 year long career, this is the first time that a director truly understood me and that I truly understood him. ‘Baaji was the kind of movie that I had been waiting for,” she added.
But has she figured out how she will be chalking her career after Baaji’s release? “I’ll act in Saqib’s next movie,” she states simply.
Here are some excerpts from my eye-opening, entertaining conversation with Meera and Osman…
Images: Osman, based on the pre-release promotional glimpses, Baaji looks promising. However, there were rumors that a few actors were offered roles in the movie but opted out. What was your reaction when Saqib first narrated the story to you?
Osman: I was immediately on board, of course. My character, Rohail, is very different from the roles that I have played earlier and he propels the narrative forwards. He is a film director; a man of few words, tempered, focused and a little bit dangerous.
He makes a comeback and this diva latches on to him because she sees a ray of hope in him and thinks that he will save her career.
And then, Amna Ilyas latches on to him too because she has been bitten by the proverbial acting bug and wants to make it big. Rohail makes his appearance a bit late in the storyline – 30 minutes into the movie when the table has already been set. But this, I think, is insignificant.
“I think that perhaps people felt intimidated by Meera's sheer star-power which is why they may not have signed on to the movie," says Osman Khalid Butt.
Having said this, I think Baaji would never have gotten made had Meera not agreed to her role. The story is tailor-made for her and she really lights up the screen. I think that perhaps people felt intimidated by her sheer star-power which is why they may not have signed on to the movie.
But Baaji has so much to offer. All the eight to nine characters in the plot are imperative to the storyline from Meera, the ageing diva struggling in a misogynistic world, to Amna Ilyas, the parlor girl with big dreams to Nayyar Ejaz, who represents the seedy side to show business to Nisho, Mohsin Abbas Haider, Ali Kazmi.
All credit goes to Saqib Malik for doing justice to the characters and curating them so expertly. He is an institution on Lollywood. He understands the good, the bad and the ugly and this movie is not just a commentary but a love letter to our cultural and cinematic roots.
Meera: I did not know that there were other actors who didn’t want to work with me but this is just an insight into the insecurities and disrespect that prevails in our industry. When you work with a senior artiste, you learn from them, your confidence grows and you perform better. But people don’t understand this.
Images: Osman, you belong to the new genre of actors while Meera hails from the classic Lollywood era. Did you have some preconceived notions about what it would be like to work with her?
Osman: Honestly, I had thought that perhaps she would be the quintessential Lollywood diva, throwing temper tantrums and turning up late on set.
I had mentally prepared myself for this but surprisingly, Meera was very professional throughout. She would come on time with her script in hand and she would rehearse constantly.
“On our very first day on the set together, Meera started talking about how women like her have to bear the brunt of the sexism in the film industry. Her perseverance made me want to respect her all the more," says Osman Khalid Butt.
My character and hers have a complex relationship. Both Shaneera and Rohail represent completely different worlds of cinema. She belongs to old-school Lollywood while he wants her to shut herself off from this world completely and focus on the complexities of the role that she is supposed to act.
Both Meera and I had to work hard on pinning down the chemistry that our characters share and it was great that we had a very comfortable work equation. On our very first day on the set together, Meera started talking about her experiences and work ethos and how women like her have to bear the brunt of the sexism that prevails in the film industry.
Her perseverance, how she rose to the top and how she continues to remain in the collective consciousness of the masses, made me want to respect her all the more.
Actresses come and go but I don’t think that there will ever be any other Meera.
Images: Meera, it is often rumored that film sets with multiple actresses become battlegrounds with insecurities running rampant and catfights over the number of scenes, dialogues and wardrobe. What was your equation like with Amna Ilyas?
Meera: I really love Amna Ilyas and also Anila Murtaza who devised the wardrobe for the movie. When Amna looked good, I genuinely felt happy.
Throughout my career, I have never been concerned about my wardrobe. In the film Kanta, I played a crazed woman and wore tattered clothes while the other actress in the movie looked beautiful throughout. I didn’t care.
I remember projects in which Reema would worry about who was looking the best but these matters don’t interest me. My only worry is that I should be able to do justice to my character.
Images: You play an ageing actress in Baaji. Were there any specifications that Saqib gave you for the role?
Meera: He told me not to get any Botox done. An actor’s strength lies in his or her natural laugh lines and facial expressions while Botox makes the face stiff. This is something that I learnt from Hollywood. People take treatments for removing wrinkles but I have actually taken a treatment for taking on more wrinkles!
Osman: One of my favourite scenes from the movie is where Shameera, the actress that Meera plays, is looking in the mirror and clutching at her face. All her life people have told her that her beauty is her biggest asset but now, it is waning with age, and she still has so much more to offer.
She is frustrated by this world that she lives in where only the superficial is favored. Her fears are reaffirmed when she hears the word Baaji because it is like a curse for her, labelling her as a has-been. I feel that in order to show the psychosis of the character, Meera had to avoid Botox.
Meera: Yes, the character’s age is going and the wrinkles are appearing…
Osman: It’s depressing that in our industry when a male actor begins to get wrinkles, they are said to add character to his face, while a female is immediately labelled as haggard and relegated to side roles.
Images: How did the two of you prepare for your roles?
Meera: I worked very hard to understand and depict what Shameera goes through. I love working hard on a role. Other people are in this profession for the money but I am here just for the work.
“I think that children above a certain age need to see a movie like Baaji so that they are better acquainted with life’s realities. The casting couch really does exist and we need to educate them about this. Only then will be able to make changes," says Meera.
Osman: Without realising it, I delved into method acting. Some of the scenes were so intense and intertwined with past sequences that I would be completely serious on set. One day, Amna even came up to me and told me to lighten up!
Images: So were things generally very intense on the sets of Baaji?
Osman: Not always! I wish we had had a reality TV camera installed to record all that would happen. There’s a scene that’s also shown in the trailer where Meera’s character attacks, Neha, Amna’s character, and tells her to back off.
The day that scene was shot, Meera came up to Amna and told her, in all seriousness, that today I am going to ruin you. Amna got so perturbed that she actually went to Saqib and asked him to look into it. She didn’t want to get beaten up for real! But of course, Meera was only joking!
Images: Speaking of the trailer, don’t you think that it reveals too much about the story and should have been shorter?
Osman: I think that it is a general trend around the world now that filmmakers end up revealing too much in the trailer. I have actually started going to the movies blindly now, without seeing the trailer, so that I don’t know any spoilers.
However, Baaji’s trailer has probably been made in a particular way because it is meant to hook an audience that is being reintroduced to Meera. They know of her primarily through the social media controversies and this trailer gets them to see her as an actress. There are still many nuances to the story that aren’t revealed.
Meera: There is a lot more to Baaji’s story that is not seen in the trailer. Achi film ki khushboo aajaati hai. Audiences will love it – Rs 50 crores at the box office are confirmed!
Images: Let’s hope so. It’s interesting that for his cinematic directorial debut, Saqib has bravely skirted away from commercially-friendly fluffy family movies to deliver what appears to be a gritty story…
Osman: And about time too! We need to start telling more stories. Baaji is, in essence, an offbeat, non-commercial film, wrapped in a commercial packaging of glamour, song and dance.
Meera: Who says that it’s not a family movie? I think that children above a certain age need to see a movie like this so that they are better acquainted with life’s realities. The casting couch really does exist and we need to educate them about this. Only then will we be able to make changes.
‘Baaji’ premieres this June 28th – and according to Meera, it’s aiming right towards an innings of Rs 50 crores!