Amna Ilyas and Ahmed Ali Akbar have gravitas and a strong understanding of cinema, which reflects in each of their performances to date. They are among actors who don’t tell audiences ‘leave your brain at the door’ and believe that underestimating the audience is a mistake. Both try to sign films that qualify as good cinema and have merit.
Last seen in crime thriller Gunjal, each of them showcased their craft on the big screen, one more time. Collectively or as individuals, in the post-revival age of cinema, they’ve done better work than several not-to-be-named counterparts.
In this interview conducted just days before Gunjal had released, the actors spoke to Instep about what convinced them to say yes to the film and how they approach each role that comes their way.
Over to Amna Ilyas
Instep: What made you say yes to Gunjal in particular given your brilliant projects in the past that have been a mix of commercial cinema as well as art-house?
Amna Ilyas: Gunjal has the potential to become a box office success and I’m very positive about it. It is inspired by true events, the script was very strong, and it was shot with a commercial sensibility in every sense. The cinematography is good with a strong ensemble cast, terrific music and sound design. The picture quality is refreshing and worthwhile. The visuals are remarkable. I believe it’s a good mixture of bringing both worlds together: commercial cinema and indie-esque storytelling.
Instep: How would you describe your experience of working in this film? Do you believe that a director is ultimately the driving vehicle whom you rely upon in any film?
Amna Ilyas: I had a great time working with our director, Shoaib Sultan ‘sir’ because he is very professional and the way he designs his production was on point. There were no delays and we were able to finish the film in two months and that is telling with regards to how a director can accomplish good work with precision.
There were moments during the shoot when I’d tell him something and he was willing to add it and took the vision forward. At times, I’d be thinking of something regarding a scene and he would come to me with the same idea so as a director, we had great chemistry. I am a director’s actor and having a director like him, who was open to ideas, was a blessing. He made my work and life easier and added to my performance. I think all the actors in the film would attest that it was a treat to work with him as a director.
Instep: Is acting in any film about the challenge of understanding the role within a film’s narrative or going with the flow?
Amna Ilyas: I think if you really understand your role, the storyline and what part you’re playing in the narrative, then the performance will follow. If you understand what situation you’re in and your character, it comes across the screen. However, if you don’t reach those aspects, then I don’t think you can perform, and I think the room for performance is on the actor. You need to create room for yourself to perform. There are actors in a film who have just one scene but it becomes memorable because of the fact that they are great artists who create a space to perform.
Instep: Have Pakistani audiences, in your opinion, matured as films such as Joyland and Kamli are created or is there a difference where such films only find success on the international festival circuit(s) but not at home?
Amna Ilyas: I think films like Kamli and Joyland have changed the game in terms of cinema as a whole. We know now that good storytelling will bring box office success. It is changing. Filmmakers are no longer thinking of making rom-com films only or making films about weddings with commercial masala and no storyline whatsoever. And while such films do work, the prism with which cinematic success is viewed is in the midst of changing and evolving. There is room for other stories as well. Cinema is changing by the minute and we’re figuring out what to make and what not to make. We have many filmmakers who will have their respective genres and they will be releasing films every year or two years. It’s a good thing to have new actors and filmmakers, with a distinct approach, styles and genres so the larger story of cinema itself is changing drastically.
Over to Ahmed Ali Akbar…
Instep: Why did you say yes to Gunjal and what makes you say yes to a film, irrespective of genre?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: The script is the most important thing for me. If the words on paper can move me and make me feel something, then my interest in the story grows regardless of the genre and the team I’m working with. So, if the script ignites my interest, only then do other things follow.
The reason I picked this script and said yes to it was because it was a powerful story with really powerful characters. It revolved around a hero of ours, Iqbal Masih, who should be celebrated because the cause he stood up for is relevant even today. The story was gripping, interesting and the role offered to me was just as powerful.
Instep: What other factors went into signing the film?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Gunjal is a crime thriller. It is a story that has to do with investigative journalism. It has elements of entertainment, mystery and is a complete film. It has a great cast, good music, and solid performances. It is set in a different period and that’s exciting and new. It is the story of one of our heroes who raised his voice for justice, and that is one of the strengths of the film. Our audience is mature, and over the last few years, they’ve been exposed to global content. So, we should not underestimate them. We’ve had some amazing films in the past and the reason they’ve succeeded on the indie circuit is because they’re small-budgeted films. Small budget films have to rely on story and characters because they don’t have, for the lack of a better world, commercial elements, so I think it is, in some ways, a strength of Pakistani cinema. It will be beneficial for us to work with shoestring budgets and focus on good storytelling, characters arcs. I have a feeling that when we look back, we will see this as a hidden advantage or a blessing in disguise.
Instep: How would you describe your role within the film’s narrative?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: I played the role of Iqbal Bhatti, who was out to write a story to save his career, to be successful and in doing so, he unravels a kind of mystery revolving around a popular figure – who died a few years ago. He realizes there is a lot to this story that has not been told and as he investigates, he realizes there are more questions than answers around the death of a boy who was extremely brave and wanted to raise his voice against child and bonded labor. My character is ambitious; he wants to succeed in his own profession and his perspective depicts many things over the course of this film. The movie is set in the most important two weeks of his life and they change him significantly and he acts on that change.
Instep: Having worked in a film like Laal Kabootar by director Kamal Khan which showed your craft as an actor, do you feel burdened to find a film that shows your craft just as well as the former?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: There’s no burden. I try to work with new and ambitious people who are driven in telling good stories and again, it is the story and script that is the top priority for me. That’s what makes me say yes. I have never taken my previous work and brought it forward to the next work that I will sign. That’s how careers are and I try to ride the wave, enjoy what I’m doing and give it my one hundred percent.
Instep: Do you believe that a director is the driving vehicle upon whom you rely in any film including Gunjal?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Shoaib Sultan is a meticulous person. He is very focused and hardworking and very organized. These are the top qualities you need in a director. A director has to be a father figure, a psychologist, a problem solver and he has to know how to improvise and work with what he has. He did a great job, as an associate producer and director, which is a tough thing to do. It was an absolute pleasure to work with him. His work ethic, personal and moral values aligned with mine. Our working relationship was a comfortable one and he loves movies. That’s one thing we share as well. And he is sincere to his work, which is the most important thing, whether it turns out to be successful or not is a different matter but it is the process that matters and he was one hundred percent committed to the process and I love to work with such people.
Instep: Understanding your role in a film is paramount. How do you approach it as an actor?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Every job I take, I start from zero. I bring the experience of past processes and how I attempted something and that’s about it. It is like muscle memory. However, I try to shed everything and approach a role from scratch. The exciting thing about this profession is every day is new. You don’t ever repeat it except in theatre. And that excites me because every role is different, every character you’re playing is different and every human being you come across is different. And to be able to write a backstory for a character and build upon it, interests me a lot; it’s what keeps me going. It’s one of the most wonderful aspects of this profession and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Instep: With films like Kamli, Joyland among others, how do you see Pakistani cinema and do you think it is changing?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Pakistani cinema has improved significantly in terms of storytelling and box office. Every film should try to attempt to do both and we’ve seen examples in the past that have managed to do both. And then there are other films that have garnered critical acclaim and others that were successful at the box office. And that happens with a good story that is executed well. I see the industry moving forward, growing and succeeding but it’s a constant process. We cannot stop trying to improve ourselves. We have to keep trying to tell great stories, for the box office and the hearts of the people and it is essential to do both.
“We know now that good storytelling will bring box office success. Filmmakers are no longer thinking of making only romcoms or films about weddings that are all masala and no plot. And while such films do work, the prism within which cinematic success is viewed is changing and evolving. There is room for other stories as well.” –Amna Ilyas