Zeeshan Parwez is genuinely happy to be home after living in Canada for several years. The city of flowers always beckoned to come back and he finally has. In this interview conducted before Eid, Zeeshan asks how easing of the lockdown has affected people (yes, they are still coming out in droves) in Karachi.
“It has already eased here so people have started getting out,” says Zeeshan, with a hint of sadness, comprehending just how dangerous it is to flounder precautions for outings. Or, to think of post-lockdown days as the end of COVID-19. But as Aamir Zaki sang, “People are people, wherever they are…”
Zeeshan apologises for the late hour since his Ramzan schedule includes working all-night and crashing at Sehri. “It’s very scary,” Zeeshan says of the infectious virus and how numbers have risen.
From his early days as Sajid and Zeeshan to being an intelligent music video director for Ali Azmat, Mekaal Hasan Band to helming as a Coke Studio Video Producer in its early seasons, Zeeshan has done terrific things in his career. For a man tinkering with ideas in Peshawar, Zeeshan Parwez - to use a metaphor the PM would probably approve of – has just finished the first innings. The test match is far from over.
Zeeshan Parwez’s return to Pakistan was marked by various things, most prolific being directing Atif Aslam in ‘12 Bajay’ - his best music video to date. Even though the two had worked together during Coke Studio early seasons, this was the first time Zeeshan was directing a solo music video with a rollicking rock song for the biggest music star in the country. But the shoot went like a breeze because Atif understood his vision and let him run with it.
“I was in Canada actually. It was shot overseas. We brought it over here when I came back. This was different than Coke Studio because I spent a lot of time hanging out with him and told him that it would be a couple of days of me hanging out with you and shooting this thing out. He was more than accommodating, considering he’s always on a tight schedule. We’ve always had a wonderful working relationship and I feel blessed that big stars like Atif Aslam and Ali Azmat trust me with the vision I provide for their songs.”
“I refused some because I just couldn’t contribute to the song. What I am doing is currently working on a web series; it is under-development so I can’t reveal too much but it should be done by the last quarter of this year. In the post-COVID-19 world, we have yet to see how programming is affected. And it’s about the digital space and what can be done there; dramas will be the same.”
Talking about setting up Rokhan Studio, notes Zeeshan, “It is my production company that I started last year; I did two PSAs. One was on traffic jams and the other was on aerial firing during the Pakistan-India match.”
As Zeeshan was setting up Rokhan Studio, other things came along. “Coke Studio 12 came along so it got sidetracked. It was never the intention but this year what happened was that I was invited by the Health Minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Taimur Jhagra; he was a fan of the stuff we had done and he wanted to do other PSAs and that was on another tangent.”
As Zeeshan recounts, the minister invited (in a casual setting) several people including Zeeshan Parwez about Coronavirus approaching. “It wasn’t on the government side but how everyone could play a role in contributing to create awareness.”
“He wasn’t necessarily saying do something for the government. He was more interested in how people could come up with creative ideas so the message resonated with people, etc.”
It hit Zeeshan Parwez because he had realized it before the meeting that it was simply a matter of time before Pakistan gets hit with the virus. “I had, before the lockdown, already started work on that (coronavirus PSAs). I partnered with Fasi Zaka and he gave me a brief and said I have something if you want to take the idea and enforce a visual take to it and give it a shape. I loved the idea. In one video, the lead character has Lollywood film nuances and he makes the audience feel the importance of washing your hands. And we’re witnessing that in the midst of a dramatic, almost filmi sequence.”
Others PSAs followed in multiple languages and even as we speak, Zeeshan is working on a coronavirus PSA for 17 hours a day. It has now released. His first PSA even got a nod from the PM himself. While Zeeshan considers the PSA good content, he was working against time and knew this sort of messaging needed to be done right away with the right animation. “Every hour counts,” he says with a sense of hope.
When the PSAs were released, the first one in particular went viral, to other countries, and blew up in a way Zeeshan had not anticipated. “It became global and we received a phenomenal response. I just hope it makes people understand the importance of washing hands.”
“There was not too much messaging,” says Zeeshan, “and Fasi thought so, too. It should be just one message.”
It may be true that these PSAs might help putting the production company in the limelight. But, beyond the PSAs, talking about the purpose of Rokhan Studio, Zeeshan describes it as any other production studio with one difference.
“We do things our way, putting our own spin and creative angle to it. It has two sections: one is where we produce content for others as long as it comes in lieu with our core values. When I say production company, it is film production, motion graphics, animated production one. It can be anything along those lines. The second is it has its own in-house content generation wing. We do our own productions. It’s just animation takes times so we are very selective about what we want to do.”
Moving beyond making brilliantly-messaged awareness videos for coronavirus, Zeeshan opens up that he is working on a Pushto animated short film.
Elaborating on it further without giving away the story, Zeeshan says, “I can tell you it’s a passion project that I have wanted to do for the last 6 or 7 years and it’s gone into production and is a couple of months away from releasing.”
Zeeshan Parwez moved with his family to Canada to pursue a degree and take a break from everything else approximately 6-7 years ago. It was a time of terrorism and instability in the country and his departure also followed the APS attack, the worst attack in Pakistan’s long drawn terror history.
“It was there (terrorism) even before I left. I left feeling the need for a break.”
Zeeshan Parwez went to film school for a year. “Then, it was also about testing waters somewhere else and primarily taking a break from it all. The break gave me the time to set the tone of what to do next and what I should be working on.”
During his time abroad, Zeeshan decided to not work on anything. His return coincided with another return: the co-founder of Coke Studio, Rohail Hyatt, making a comeback to the music series in 2019 as solo producer.
“Coming back to Coke Studio 12 was as if I hadn’t even left. It was like the way it was for me in season four - his last season after which he departed from Coke Studio sessions. It was like coming back to another family, people you love, whom you’ve been working with for years and you go out and come back and they are still there. With Rohail’s arrival, everyone came back again with the exception of Nasir Sahab (who passed away) who was greatly missed.”
Coke Studio 12 was special for Zeeshan in more ways than one.
“One, I actually got to work with more artists, people that I have been friends with a long time like Sarmad Ghafoor, Hassan ‘Moyo’ Mohyeddin, and very good musicians like Zain Ali and Varqa Faraid. Add to it, collaborating with Kamal Khan who is an awesome guy, a brilliant mind, and I should say this on-record, this was one of the smoothest Coke Studio productions to have taken place.”
Getting a full-scholarship to Vancouver Film School, Zeeshan spent an intense year where he knew nothing but film buddies and students. “At times, I wouldn’t see my family because it was so intense. Obviously, you learn new things, you polish your skills but more than that you learn about the essence of collaborating with others, different people from different parts of the world. You learn about many things including the streamlining process; I didn’t go to animation school but I learnt processes that help me to this day.”
Admittedly, apart from working on crucial coronavirus videos, a Pushto short film, an upcoming web series that will in all likelihood end up on a digital platform, Sajid and Zeeshan is returning. Their first single was scheduled to release post-Eid. It’s approximately after 8-9 years.
“That’s what we’re hoping for, depending on what the situation is like in the country. It’s not just a single. It will be an album.” The album will be the duo’s third effort after the critically acclaimed One Light Year at Snail Speed and The Harvest. “We’re just following the current model of releasing one single at a time, which will eventually lead to an album and we hope the album will be done by the end of this year.” If that doesn’t get you thrilled, here’s more; Zeeshan Parwez is working on a solo debut album. “I’ve been working on it for quite some time. Right after Sajid and Zeeshan, I will release the songs, which are instrumentals in-development for some time now. Let’s hope and see what the reception is like. I’m just excited I’m making music with my buddy, Sajid Ghafoor, which is great. I also hope that the music I put out there with my name also gets a good reception because electronically, it is very different from Sajid and Zeeshan material.”
As the conversation is coming to an end and we discuss the short-lived music series, Zeeshan notes, “The landscape has changed so much. This is now the generation of TikTok and bloggers. It’s a new landscape and I don’t know if people have an attention span longer than 60 seconds.”
If something doesn’t capture their imagination in 60 seconds, says Zeeshan, they move on. “But the post-Covid-19 world will also define it.”
Things are much better in Peshawar now as well, explains Zeeshan. “Peshawar was hell for a long time. We were not here when the APS attack happened. It was the darkest day of our lives. We were depressed for months. I don’t know the timeline exactly but I came back in 2018 and since then predominantly things are fine,” he says with that infectious sense of optimism that almost traipses through the phone, and is Zeeshan’s greatest strength. Here’s to the birth of Rokhan. We expect great things.