Sarmad Khoosat's Kamli is all about mystery and magical realism
“What’s there to tell?” asks Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, speaking to me from Lahore’s Allama Iqbal Airport. “We want to tell stories. And the purpose of taking a break from television, after so many years, was to try to make this small company [Khoosat Films] where we could tell stories with some independence.”
Sarmad is on his way to the Cannes Film Festival via a late night flight to join the cast and crew for director Saim Sadiq’s Joyland. The film, co-produced by Sarmad, has been (unsurprisingly to this writer) selected in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival.
While the rest of the team representing Joyland has already flown in — Sania Saeed is already there, I am told — Sarmad would only stay for a day or two before catching a flight back to Pakistan.
He would be dead tired… if he wasn’t dog-tired already. Sarmad’s other major film Kamli is also ramping up its PR campaign when we speak. At the time of writing, the film is set to release on June 3rd.
Sarmad Khoosat’s Kamli is as ambitious as any of his recent projects, that have received festival acclaim internationally and made headlines back at home. Sarmad and his cast speak about the film, their process of bringing their characters to life and the magic of Kamli
The film has recently acquired the censor certificate from the Central Board of Film Certifications in Islamabad — typically the most headstrong, issue-finding regulatory body — and that too with a few minor cuts. The filmmaker is ready to make the necessary compromises because they didn’t interfere with the essence of his story.
Kamli would go on to get a clean chit, without any cuts, from the Sindh Censor. Punjab’s Censor had already taken the very same action a few days earlier.
The news is another source of joy for Sarmad, whose last film, Zindagi Tamasha, had a rough time at the censors. The film is now set for release via Mandviwalla Entertainment.
Conceptually, Kamli is an atypical subject. The story concerns three women: a married woman struggling to find her independence and love; another married woman who has lost her way; and a staunch guardian of sanity and piousness.
When I speak to Sarmad, I know little about the story. There were few details available anywhere, including in the teaser trailer.
Kamli’s teaser trailer features an ambiguous set of images set to a harrowingly engaging soundtrack. Sarmad is not interested in cutting another trailer, he says. He feels that telling too much will give away the mystery associated with the film.
Sarmad acquired the story rights for Kamli from a film student who made a short film on the subject. It was rewritten, draft after draft, by Fatima Sattar — an NCA graduate who colour graded the film as well — and himself (the director says he only gave structural insight and punched up the narrative when needed).
The logline (or, as we in Pakistan say, one-liner/overviews) is adept at telling you the gist of the story, he says. “It’s a story of love lost and cloaked secrets,” he quotes.
People reacted positively to the mystery aspect of the story Sarmad says — even if he doesn’t willingly call his film a mystery per se.
“If mystery is about a story unfolding in unpredictable ways, then sure, this is a mystery — but it’s not a murder-thriller or a horror mystery,” he says. “I don’t want to call it ‘psychological’ either because everything is psychological to begin with. Also, when you load a film with these [preconceived notions], then people end up expecting a lot of twisted stuff.”
Our conversation turns to the nuances and contexts of narratives, and why they should be intellectually stimulating (as you will notice in the review in this issue).
“What stories should not evolve? It would be such a tragedy and travesty when something only ends up being an extension of a pre-existing formula,” Sarmad says.
“We did have a clear-cut notion of borrowing all the components and ingredients of the idea of a mainstream film,” he adds nonetheless.
But Sarmad resists calling Kamli commercial or non-commercial. He asks, who knows commerce, right? “There are films being made with the intent of commerce and no commerce happens, and then some films are not made with the intent of not making any commerce, but commerce flows in,” he elaborates.
“So, let’s call the film mainstream — or rather a more familiar kind of storytelling — and, okay, lets borrow the ingredients,” Sarmad says. “[If the audience] wants music, let’s give them that. They want a girl and a boy, they want beautiful locations, lyrical camerawork, good performances — sure, we’ll give all that…
“But how about we do not borrow the structure, not because we need to make a point but because we want to tell a story without the pressures of: ‘Oh, you need to do this, mould it a certain way’,” Sarmad says in an uninterrupted stream of impromptu thought.
He takes a breath and adds, “Essentially, we’re making our own recipe with all the same ingredients that are familiar to audiences when it comes to mainstream films.”
“Terms such as arthouse [are] reductive,” he says, echoing this writer’s long-held and oft-contested ideas about filmmaking.
“We’re prescribing the audience — not trusting them [to give the film a chance],” he says.
Giving life to characters
Kamli is about characters, Sarmad tells me, and characters need to have a relatable connection with the audience, even if you don’t entirely agree or relate to what they do on screen, he says. In Pakistan, where the film production is often a losing niche of a business, characters and story are the only aspects audience can connect to, he adds.
“A film doesn’t need 500 dancers [or] visual effects where cities are blown away by the apocalypse or that scale of destruction,” he says. “All we have to offer at the end of the day is a good story and performances, and some novelty about storytelling. That is why the story of a film, especially pre-release, should create intrigue — and that is what we tried to do, by giving the audience a teaser.”.
Talking about the unusual, mountain-scaped look of the film, Sarmad tells me that he always had a thing for Soon Valley, where Kamli is shot entirely.
“I’ve always had a weird sense of sadness with the terrain. These are brown, almost sad-looking mountains that have a serenity about them,” Sarmad says before going into the historical significance of the land. The area’s rich history includes Alexander the Great’s trek, Hindu temples, sufi lores and peacocks, he adds.
“The location lent itself beautifully as a character and set the tone of the film,” he said. “We were trying to explore some interpretation of magical realism,” he says, before interjecting himself.
“Now, when you think about magical realism, people would always be thinking: magic — jadoo hai kya — is it about jinns or ghosts? The location adds to the sense of surreal authenticity to the story, he tells me as he boards the plane that was inching to take off.
A mysterious wanderer
Hamza Khawaja, the debuting lead opposite Saba Qamar continues the conversation a day later. Hamza says he plays a “mysterious wanderer who is kind and soft-hearted, and yet has a certain darkness to him.”
“There is a sort of mystery that revolves around him,” Hamza cryptically adds, and the environment with the forest and the mountains and the dusty treks augments that feeling.
Being there, climbing mountains, was physically taxing he says, not that it bothered him. Hamza runs a fitness company and an app that helps train people. For him theatre is a hobby.
“When I first auditioned for the role of Amaltas, I didn’t get the role,” he says. He first auditioned in February and then was called in again in May before he bagged the part.
Before the film began shooting in October 2019, he spent months rehearsing for the role. The rehearsals helped his enunciations in Urdu.
“Since this was my first role and I’ve always been a fan of method acting, seeing actors such as Robert DeNiro and Christian Bale living the roles, so I wanted to do something in that way,” Hamza says.
He calls Sarmad a great mentor and teacher who has “nailed everything to the point.”
Hamza is, arguably, the lead of the film — he is there on the posters. His co-lead, however, was nowhere to be found.
Once upon a time, this writer had no problems connecting with Saba, who plays Hina, the lead of Kamli. This time, calling the exercise challenging would be an understatement. After trying for days, leaving text messages and voice notes, requesting her manager and asking PR people to line up a quick call for an interview, this writer learned that Saba is somewhat ‘angry’ with him at his critique of her performance in Ghabrana Nahin Hai.
Other actors in the cast of five principal actors, however, took time out of their hectic schedules to talk to Icon about Kamli.
Nimra Buccha, who was in London at the time, took the time for a not-so-quick phone call. It was lovely to hear Nimra’s genuine, warm laughter.
“Whenever Sarmad mentions casting me in his work, my first reaction is deep suspicion. I assume he’s going to give me the part no one else wants to do, and I resist and resist before I succumb,” Nimra laughs.
“Sarmad is smart,” she says. “He sold Zeenat to me by pitching her as an artist. Because we know each other well, we are aware of each other’s aspirations and half-dreams, and he obviously knew this was mine and that I would love to do the groundwork for it.
“I trained with the wonderful [visual artist] Madiha Hyder for a few months and it was lovely to muck about with paints again. By the time I arrived on set, I fancied myself an artist,” she laughs again.
“Zeenat is a slippery one, though. She is frighteningly intelligent and astute but also deeply afflicted by unhappiness,” she says.
“Acting is just one of those arts where it’s not just the sum of what you’re putting in. There need to be happy accidents along the way which make it all come together. Sarmad is good at catching those slippery moments and making them seem like they were meant to be there all along.”
“I don’t really like the word game-changer but it’s true that Sarmad’s work has been consistently evolving and exceeding expectations,” Nimra continues.
Nimra says that there is work being produced and conceived by young people in art schools. People who are ambitious but have no money, who have grown up watching everything but themselves on the screen. Nimra believes that these individuals know that a story can be told a number of ways. “Many such artists are involved in the making of Kamli,” she says. “This is fresh blood. You can smell it.”
“You might think that Kamli is not your typical Pakistani film but then what is a typical Pakistani film?” she asks. “In television we are used to being fed the familiar, and the familiar is comforting to us, but it’s not exciting. It’s not like watching a small but completely transformative moment happen on the big screen.”
“What is it that creates that magic?” Nimra muses. “How do we love? How do we desire? What have we forgotten? This is what cinema is. The pat categories of mainstream and arthouse are dated. Let’s move on,” she says, seconding Sarmad’s stance on not conforming Kamli to a particular type of audience.
The sound of magic
“Once upon a time there were directors who could hear a film,” says Omair Rana who is also a part of Kamli’s ensemble cast. “When they started on the idea of a film, they would think sound, they would think music, they would think of the soundtrack, and they kept the lyricist [with them], and they would write lyrics. The most beautiful format of any word — I think the highest epitome of its version — is its poetry. It's onomatopoeic, it rhymes, it has visuals — and when you create lyrics, that leads into the story,” Omair continues ruminating.
“Classic stories take birth, the plots would take crucial twists or characters would be created from sounds or the music that was made earlier — and this is how Sarmad started work on Kamli. He was working on another project when he was thinking of music for this,” Omair says.
Kamli’s soundtrack evolved along with the story drafts. The songs had organically made their way into the narrative Sarmad had told Omair earlier. The soundtrack, however, is not lip-synced. Songs play in the background and are naturally entwined in the narrative. “Smartly and elegantly,” Omair adds.
Speaking about the world of Kamli, Omair sees the film as an interaction of two worlds. “At one end is the predominant world where Saba and Sania live, and then there are these tiny island-worlds represented by Nimra and me,” he says.
Omair affirms that the characters are as close a representation of real people as possible. Each character has a life “pre- and post-curtain” (as he puts it). When the film opens, the audiences suddenly find themselves with characters who have lived their lives so far and, when the film ends, they may continue living furthermore.
“By the time they reach post-curtain, we realise that they’ve reached a particular form of conclusion,” Omair says. “One of them might be considering that she’s come to peace with it, one of them is hiding conflict and another is struggling with conflict.”
Omair plays one of the two male characters who have screen time in the film (another is mentioned in name only). “My character is a worldly western with Oxbridge kind of exposure who is back in his land. He is unsure of where he actually belongs, or what he really wants. But he’s pretty comfortable and cosy, yet lacking fulfilment in both his inner self and his relationships.”
The character, he says, is an instrument that leads the plot into the greater conflict.
Omair knows that he is often pigeonholed into playing this typical stereotype “perception of the educated, suave, western ‘gora’ kind of persona.
“However, I’m all ears when Sarmad says he has something for me — and when you have this [story] in the hands of someone like [Sarmad], with a team of phenomenal women-dominated production crew, you’re in safe hands. You can fall from the highest building and know that they will catch you,” Omair says.
The predominantly female-led crew added “gazillions of perspectives — from western to desi.” The perspectives reflect on to the screen, he adds.
Omair says that the female crew was very professional and committed, trekking forests with snakes and coyotes, without qualms or the need to make a statement.
“It wasn’t like women were doing it for the sake of proclaiming that they can do it,” he says.
Sarmad’s Kamli, as far as this writer understands, is not about making statements. It’s a story that the director wants to tell, like all directors do, without constraints. Perhaps this really should be the new face of Pakistani cinema.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, May 29th, 2022