One of the coolest things that have happened in film in Pakistan happened earlier this year: two films, In Flames and The Queen Of My Dreams.
The common thread between the two films is – apart from some shared crew – the fact that they were shot in Pakistan, used a lot of creative crew and talent from Pakistan, and had their Canadian premieres at the Toronto Film Festival a couple of months ago. It is, as Canadian-Pakistani filmmaker Anam Abbas says, “a cool moment for Pakistani cinema.”
That said, In Flames, the film Abbas served as producer for, was an entirely local production, born out of what she calls the, “Karachi film circuit.”
What is this Karachi film circuit, and where can we find it? Abbas elaborates that she really means the indie film scene in Pakistan, which is still relatively small, so everyone kind of knows each other.
Carol Ann Noronha, who was associate producer for In Flames and executive producer for The Queen Of My Dreams, agrees in broad terms. After all, it was her admiration for, and professional equation with, writer-director Zarrar Kahn that made working for In Flames a given.
What is really interesting to note about In Flames, apart from the manner in which it captures the experience of being a woman in Karachi – or Pakistan – is the locations it was shot at. You have the beach, the Mauripur area, a congested neighborhood in what the producers identify as Gulistan-e-Johar, and PECHS.
In the very first 10 minutes of the movie, you see a man smashing through the window of the car Mariam, the protagonist of this story, drives on a very busy Karachi road. “That was PECHS,” recalls Noronha, though she adds they started filming around 4 a.m. and wrapped up around 11 in the morning. Smart. Noronha is quick to rephrase: “it was all just very, very well-organized.”
“Mehmood Chaudhry has worked on locations with me for around seven years now, and I attribute much of the smooth shooting process to him. We shot during peak Covid, and everyone took a two-day break after a six-day shoot. Not everyone shot at the same time. Cast and crew were tested before they took their break and after they returned. There were times we had to switch location or schedule at a moment’s notice.
“Ameer Hamza, our production manager, took on all the tiny details. Chai, paani, where the setups were, and taking care of actors.
He was very well-organized and communicative, and because he took care of the nitty gritties, we could focus on the big stuff and do our job better and more easily.”
The one thing, it becomes apparent, both Abbas and Noronha agree on is creating humane working conditions for their cast and crew.
“We don’t want to do [or take on] trauma shoots,” says Noronha. “That was my new year’s resolution as well. We care about our crew; talent is almost always taken care of on set, but it’s the crew you have to look out for as well.
“You have to ensure they’re eating on time, and eating what everyone else is eating,” says Abbas, and Noronha adds, “you have to make sure everyone is getting enough sleep. Working nonstop and long hours isn’t just exhausting, it can be downright life-threatening.”
Abbas and Noronha set out to create a system that acknowledged what they were doing, but took responsibility for it as well.
“What we do is hectic,” says Noronha, “it is a mammoth task, making a film. But it doesn’t have to be that difficult,” and Abbas adds, “you don’t need to be in pain and suffering on set. People have died because of turnaround time and not getting enough sleep [among other concerns of wellbeing].”
Director Zarrar Kahn, according to the two producers, is very focused in his approach to his work, and plans and executes everything down to the last detail he envisions. To facilitate such a clear vision, supported by a solid team also keen on organization is one of the things that worked for the In Flames shoots.
“You also have to factor in that none of us are very independently wealthy,” says Abbas. “We have to stick to the schedule in order to stick to the budget. We can’t be nonchalant about a shoot spilling over into multiple days because we don’t have the extra funds to throw into that spillover; there isn’t much room for error.”
Earlier during the conversation, Abbas pointed out that both her and Noronha have very different skill sets. She praises the relationship Noronha has with every branch of the film and production industry in Pakistan, which she believes is a great asset to have.
“Someone asked me what it feels like to be nurturing the indie cinema industry in Pakistan, but the thing is, it’s really the crew that gives up commercial gigs and takes a paycut to work on indie projects that is nurturing it,”
says Noronha, “and I believe we don’t talk about that enough.” So having worked with several people and vendors over the course of her career, Noronha has developed a keen sense for the kind of person she would work with.
“You have to look for the right skill set, the right attitude,” she says. “As a rule, we don’t work on the kind of sets that have toxic attitudes and processes,” adds Abbas.
Abbas and Noronha, while walking through the steps it takes to build a set and execution for a film, note that because they are the producers, they get to pick and choose the team they work with.
“A producer builds the ship,” says Noronha. “The director steers it. If you don’t build the ship well, the chances of it failing are very high; we have to be careful of the ecosystem we create.”
As with any team, a film set too will have its share of challenges, they note, but the idea is to create a safe environment where the team works well, and in cohesion.
“There wasn’t a single moment on In Flames that I sat and questioned my life choices,” says Abbas. Because the producers took the time to build the ship they believed would get them to the goal best, they saw the rewards too.
A lot of times, Noronha observes, competition and squabbles in a team is what will take a project down. “If we can’t communicate, if we won’t extend our support to every department working on the film, then we shouldn’t be making a film together.”
The same works in favor for the film when it’s time to bring it out to the world. It isn’t exactly rocket science, and apparently very easy, the way Abbas describes it, but we suspect it’s because the organizational skills and focus both Noronha and Abbas keep mentioning comes into play here.
“You have your Excel sheets with every festival and its deadline,” says Abbas. “Zarrar and I both have the privilege of being able to travel and have access to places and events where we can see what is working where.
“You can research where you’d like to take your film online, you can keep track of which festival showed which films, and you could track the trajectory of a particular film, like Joyland for example, and apply to all the same festivals.”
The job doesn’t end there, neither does it start there, according to Abbas. “If you have or can have access to modern cinema and keep watching and learning, you will have the education you need both for the creative and business sides of filmmaking.”
There is also, they note, some gaps in the industry. “Casting directors, for one,” says Noronha. There are women coming up in the industry too, and women who have worked for longer, but a lot of crew will usually be comprised of men.
“Class disparity, wages, permissions, the long hours,” says Abbas, is why a lot of women may never get to work on a film set.
At the end of the day, say Abbas and Noronha, it isn’t about men or women, it is about building, slowly, an ecosystem that props up the industry and helps it thrive. “We’re making the same film,” says Noronha, “if your film goes to Cannes, my film goes to Cannes, and that’s the thing to remember.”
– Photos by PH Solutions
Anam Abbas and Carol Noronha, while walking through the steps it takes to build a set and execution for a film, note that because they are the producers, they get to pick and choose the team they work with.
“A producer builds the ship,” says Noronha. “The
director steers it. If you don’t build the ship well, the chances of it failing are very high; we have to be careful of the ecosystem we create.”