At the intersection of Zaibunnisa Street and Preedy Street in Karachi, opposite the Singer Plus showroom, is a vintage-looking building with the name Khyber Hotel: a superficially kept-up piece of the past with dust-coloured bricks, loose steel balcony railings and cracked stones.
Like it did to me, it may have caught your eye while passing through the heavily trafficked road in Saddar.
It was a surprise then when, late one evening a few weeks ago, Nida Yasir sent me Khyber Hotel’s location. The building, with its multi-coloured stained-glass windows, rickety staircases and decades-old breakers, is accommodating the shoot of her upcoming film Chakkar, directed by and co-starring her husband Yasir Nawaz.
“We’re shooting some very important scenes there tomorrow,” she told me over the phone. The key cast — sans Neelum Muneer, the lead actress who had recently contracted Covid-19 — would be on set since seven in the morning, she told me.
Despite being the producer of the first Wrong No. and Mehrunisa V Lub U, this is the first time Nida has actively grappled with the reins of a feature film. “I’ve never been this hands-on,” she said, the exhilaration evident in her voice.
Right now, Nida is pulling double duty. In the morning she hosts her morning show at ARY, and then joins the daily production grind. She and Chakkar’s lead actor, Ahsan Khan, would act as my chaperones on the set, because, as a rule, I tend to stay out of the director’s hair during shoots.
Also, knowing Yasir’s style of shooting hard and fast, most bystanders would probably be scooting from one corner to the next, trying their best to stay out of the lens’ field of view.
Asking Yasir questions will be out of the question. He is literally thinking on the fly: a gung-ho guerrilla filmmaker to the core.
From my own experience shooting guerilla-style, I know that the thrill of it often leads to transient flare-ups.
When I turn up on the appointed day, a camera track is being placed in a small passageway connecting the open-air veranda to the rooms on the top-floor of the hotel.
It is a quick and dirty job.
Two camera assistants scuttle around, fixing the dolly on the track. Another sits on a box next to the track, texting. The track and the dolly choke the passage, nearly blocking the stairs leading to the floor. On the other side of the room, Yasir composes the shots with his go-to cinematographer Saleem Daad, and directs the actors.
I wait and wait, and wait, pacing the small terrace. Three extras in policemen costumes bide their time like me.
It’s a little over 11:40 in the morning when Ahsan Khan calls me up. With the bulk of his scenes done, he goes home for a few hours of R&R, hoping to return around three in the afternoon. A few hours into his rest period, the production shifts his scenes to the next day.
Unknown to him, schedule-wise it is a smart move. Ahsan, however, insists on coming over to accompany me. Nida, as it turns out, has just finished wrapping up her morning show, and will need nearly an hour to get here.
From the corner of my eye, I spot veteran actor Javed Sheikh, signaling me to pull up my face mask; I had forgotten to slide it up from my chin after Ahsan’s call.
By 12:15pm, the shot in the passage is still undone. The move is a simple one: actors are to enter the frame from an adjoining corridor, while the camera moves forward on the tracks. When the film comes out, this shot will be over in two to three seconds flat.
As it happens, the simplest of moves becomes the hardest to time perfectly. Extras trip on the rails of the tracks, and the timing of the camera’s movement fails to sync with their entries and exits. The bungles are making Yasir see red.
I move near Yasir’s shoulder when he stands by the camera’s monitor to check one of the better takes. To my utter astonishment, he pulls out his camera phone and makes a video of the monitor’s playback.
“Is that video snapshot for Instagram?” I ask him.
“Kamran seth!” Yasir goes, caught off-guard either by the sound of my voice, or the abruptness of the question. With my mask on, he didn’t know I had been waiting for the past half hour on the other side of the set.
“No, no. The video is for continuity reference.”
“Isn’t that an assistant’s job?” I ask.
“Yes, but I’m very hands-on. It’s like I tell my assistants: if you want to succeed on my sets, you should learn to snatch the job. Be a go-getter.”
Yasir doesn’t sit tight on the director’s chair. Zipping around the set, one can visibly see his concentration affixed in a thousand places at once. Yasir’s agenda is clear-cut: he wants to finish the supporting cast’s scenes before the lunch break.
With no one to interview, I silently slip away from the set until 3pm.
When I rejoin, the set — and Yasir — is somewhat calmer. No longer flushed with anger, the director cackles when shots get bungled. Nida is with Yasir, while taking care of minor production chores.
With nearly no one from the supporting cast left on set, and the bulk of the scenes done for the day, the only shots left on the location are inserts of Yasir’s character, as he makes his way on to the top floor. The scene is leading up to something, but what, I have no idea.
As Nida and Yasir discuss the set-ups of the final shots of the day, a strong gust of wind hits them out of the blue. If I didn’t know better, the husband and wife look like they are on the set of a romance movie. Alas, Chakkar, although full of commercial ingredients, hails from a genre that lies on the opposite end of the spectrum.
In one of the better small rooms doubling as a rest room, Nida and I sit down for some tea, as she tells me what little she can about the film: “It’s a murder-mystery thriller, so we can’t really talk about the story or the characters.” Giving even a small bit away would be giving away too much, she says.
“Film-wise the genre’s different than what Yasir has done in the past. What people forget is that he’s done serious projects on television [if one compares with the films he’s done previously]. I think he will be an even better director this time round,” she tells me.
“And it’s not like Chakkar is grim and serious all the time,” she adds. “Yasir has added comedy elements in the script.”
As my eyebrow twitches at the mention of the word ‘comedy’, Nida adds: “The comedy is situational, and the comic value suits the characters it’s on. The tarrka [final seasoning] of comedy was very important for the story.
“This is basically a director’s film, so the narrative will depend entirely on how Yasir fleshes it out,” she continues. “We’re not compromising on anything, be it locations or the types of cameras or lenses, or anything that Yasir wants. In fact, I didn’t even know locations such as the ones we shot in — are shooting in — exist in Karachi.
“People will really be caught in the twists and turns — the chakkars [revolutions] — of the story,” Nida tells me, as an assistant bothers her for minor payments. Whipping out her big go-to bag (I’ve seen her brandish it a few times before in premieres), Nida fishes out some cash and a page of production invoice that needed to be signed by the production head.
Nothing has changed between the time when the production initially began in March and now, after the next seven months had to be taken off when the Covid-19 pandemic hit big time, she tells me, as I ask her about the gap in their shooting schedule. If anything, time gave them more clarity, she explains.
The story is air-tight and their distributor, Eveready Pictures and its head Satish Anand, has given them all the confidence they needed in these dire times, she tells me. The only thing keeping them away from the set are the SOPs. Since both Nida and Yasir did contract the virus, they knew they had to be very careful when they began production.
Another assistant hurries into the room with a minor emergency while we’re talking: Yasir’s coat just got stained by fake blood; it is an essential piece of clothing, and the stains would become a continuity nightmare. Nida tells the assistant to rinse it with water immediately.
Yasir enters the room just as the assistant exits, clearly miffed by yet another bungle.
“Stuff like this happens all the time on our [morning show] set,” she tells him.
I can see the water did the job just fine, the next morning when I visit the set again. There isn’t a splash of red on Yasir’s coat — not that one could see it through the dense cloud of burning loban (gum resin) on set.
The second day of shoot is all fisticuffs between Yasir and Ahsan. The former is punching the latter into a dust-covered, bare-boned diwan as I come in. Two left jabs on Ahsan’s face are retaliated by a kick. Two cameras capture the fight from different angles; one is the industry workhorse — an Arri Alexa with a bulky, old Angénieux zoom (one of this writer’s favourite brands) — the other, surprisingly, a Ursa Mini with a prime lens (I would like to see how their looks match visually in the film).
There is no way to hide from either camera’s frames. If one doesn’t find his way into the frame, he will likely be obscuring the room’s ambient light from either the passageway, or the big open windows in the other end of the room.
One big light, running on low intensity, lights up actors, while another much brighter light dramatically cuts through the dense cloud of the loban.
Ahsan, noticing me, takes over the duties of the host. However, being one of the two actors whose job for the day is getting knocked around, he can hardly keep me company for the entirety of the shoot.
“So, as an actor, what’s your motivation for the day?” I ask Ahsan as he takes a breather.
“Getting beat up, and beating up,” Ahsan laughs.
Like Nida, Ahsan is in awe of Yasir’s speed on set. The man is a tornado, ripping through scene set-ups with a ferocious appetite. Getting kicked by Ahsan, Yasir gets punched in the gut. The latter immediately strikes back and throws the lead actor into a mirror. A jerry-rigged table is broken by the body weight of a body double (Yasir’s body double takes a few hard falls on the set). Ahsan kicks Yasir’s shin, and knocks his teeth out with a backhand swing.
The action is kinetic, as Nida tells me the day before. “They’re relatable. They’re not like Tamil movies where people fly off [with the help of wireworks].”
Punches and kicks hardly connect, but the audience wouldn’t know the difference — the camera angles see to that. As it happens in movies, the fight is mostly all play.
Mostly I say, because Yasir, demanding realism, really wants Ahsan to hit him (the director is right; from one camera angle, the proximity of the hit matters). Ahsan, of course, is somewhat reluctant … until one backhand actually connects — BAM! — right on Yasir’s face.
Ahsan is shocked, as blood spills out of Yasir’s mouth. The shot goes on a brief time-out and Ahsan, visibly worried and very apologetic, keeps putting ice on his co-star’s face.
“Now, the film has your blood and sweat,” we laugh as the set calms down. The hit isn’t as bad as everyone thinks, but a bruise will bungle their scene’s continuity. Yasir, being a thorough professional, continues with the fight sequence, less than five minutes later.
An hour later, Ahsan and I have lunch in the very room Nida and I talked in the day before.
“Yasir is effortless,” Ahsan begins. “He knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t waste his or anyone’s else’s time. There are directors who, when they get on set, find either a performance or the location enticing, and immediately get derailed from their scripts while trying to cash that prospect in. Yasir doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t take extra shots. You can almost see that he is editing in his mind.
“I’m fortunate enough to have choices in choosing the type of projects I want to do,” Ahsan tells me as he digs into the roast chicken with a side order of qeema for me. Out of the three scripts he was offered this year, Chakkar had something the others didn’t: a change in genre.
“The screenplay is well-knit and strong,” he tells me. It feels more like a movie to him, he adds. There are fewer expositions than other dialogue-heavy screenplays, he muses. “The screenplay is about movement, and speed.
“The script and the characters in it are giving chakkars [giddiness, to each other and the audience, but] my character isn’t,” he explains. The story is full of loops but not loopholes, and the characters are refreshingly relatable, he says while finishing his meal. “The name itself whets one’s appetite,” Ahsan adds.
Contemplating for a second, Ahsan looks at the food and goes into a parallel: “When you go out to eat, a good starter stimulates your appetite. Chakkar, the name, is like that. It creates expectations.” Knowing about the genre beforehand is important, Ahsan tells me — especially in a market dominated by romance and comedies.
A good murder-mystery thriller, made with commercial ingredients, will do the industry good when the box-office recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, Ahsan tells me. At the very least, it adds a new genre in the mix and gives Yasir an opportunity to flex his muscles as a director.
Who says 2021 will not be a good year for cinema, Ashan exclaims out loud — and I believe him.
Published in Dawn, ICON, December 20th, 2020