Instep Today

The nonconforming storyteller

By Buraq Shabbir
Sun, 01, 20

Though Cake is Asim’s most prominent project as writer-director, his inherent love for filmmaking has existed long before

Almost two years ago, Asim Abbasi made a splash in Pakistani cinema that people still talk about. His debut feature Cake was not only Pakistan Oscar Committee’s official selection for the 2019 Academy Awards but the film went on to various platforms, representing a face of contemporary Pakistani cinema that defied a decade of patriotic, romantic, one-rolled-in all action-comedy-genre films we seem to have mastered.

Though Cake is Asim’s most prominent project as writer-director, his inherent love for filmmaking has existed long before; it is reflective in the four English language shorts he made prior to Cake. A storyteller at heart, Asim Abbasi and the new breed of filmmakers (Kamal Khan and Sarmad Khoosat being the others) will eventually provide variety amidst a certain kind of cinema that has made a strong space for itself.

Recapitulated, Asim Abbasi has shown us an aesthetic that is both nonconforming and real. Those who have worked with him are appreciative of his work ethic and professionalism.

Living between the United Kingdom and Pakistan, Abbasi is putting finishing touches to his second local project - and his first after the critically acclaimed Cake - with a strong ensemble cast. But, instead of jumping on the commercial filmmaking train – which appeals to the nation or the box office numbers would be telling a different story – Abbasi has conjured a web series called Churails, expected to release in the first half of 2020. Instep caught up with the filmmaker over a telephonic conversation during which he reveals his reasons for doing a web series instead of working on a second film, the difficulties independent filmmakers face just to survive in the local film universe, and what he thinks could be the way forward.

Excerpts from conversation…

“While I was figuring out ideas for my second film, an opportunity for a web series came my way,” Asim began, after one finally managed to get a hold of him despite his packed schedule. “The reason I was very excited about it is that I always wanted to write something longer because it gives you more time to develop characters and flesh out stories. I couldn’t really do it in local TV because the type of stories I want to tell, what my aesthetics are and what my vision of storytelling is, doesn’t align with television to a great deal. There are similar kinds of stories that they do, there is a whole thing about TV channels, TRPs, etc.”

“Web series allowed me to work outside censor, outside PEMRA; it allowed me to tell a story exactly how I wanted to tell it,” he furthered. “So, it was very liberating creatively and that was the most exciting part of it. Even in film I was like ‘what will I write’. Everyone tried to push me; they were like now that I have made Cake, I should make something more commercial and there are just limited stories that one can tell following a formula. Hence, I really don’t want to follow one.”

Written and directed by Asim Abbasi, Churails is near its completion and the title, according to Asim, is a slight tongue-in-cheek reference to some terms that are extensively used to describe Pakistani women and is meant to put them down. “There is a part of me that was trying to take ownership of the words that have been used against women and reclaim them. It’s been done in the west – everything to do with witchcraft and witches is fundamentally feminist; it’s fundamentally being used to thwart patriarchy in whatever way you can.

“Churails is about a series of women coming together and saying ‘enough is enough! We are not going to put up with it anymore; if we are churails, we will show you what a churail is like’,” he explained.

Asim said that when he tells a story his focus is not on the messaging, but it naturally comes out based on his viewpoint of life. Churails has to do with patriarchy, misogyny that is very inherent in our society, in the subcontinent and in fact, the world,” informed Asim. “It is so strange to me that women are, in certain situations, treated the way a religious minority would be treated like – in terms of the rights they have, in terms of the amount of questions and loopholes that they have to jump through to get what a man thinks is his right. Churails is to say that women are capable of almost everything and if you guys are not going to provide a system that facilitates them getting what is truly theirs or what treats them equally, then they are sometimes likely to take matters in their own hands to get justice.”

Given some of the progressive themes that Asim Abbasi’s upcoming web series aims to explore, the important question remains: is the audience ready to digest it? Though the writer-director isn’t sure of reactions, he is certain that to bring change, you have to make an attempt before the audience is ready to take it.

“If you try to bring a change when the audience is ready, it is useless; the change is already there then,” he asserted. “Cake was such a simple family story and there are people who negatively reacted to that. I am never trying to pass a moral judgement; the audience has to decide what’s right or wrong for them. I just like creating characters that are grey; they have flaws, they have positives and they also have negatives like every human being does.”

He explained that there is an audience that is ready and those that aren’t and it is okay. People who may not like Churails now might like it in the next five to ten years. “Times change, audiences change with that. As storytellers and filmmakers we need to (hopefully) try and stay one step ahead of the game and not give audiences in repeated formation only what they are used to. This does make them uncomfortable but I think that is important. It is important to push society a bit by creating content that is not going to fit in a box and that is not going to align completely with their thinking.”

Churails, which is based on 10 full-length episodes, will be released on a digital streaming platform across multiple countries and is likely to cater to everyone except children. Though we have heard it features Sarwat Gilani in a key role, Asim didn’t reveal anything about the cast and producer at the moment, as he is under contract.

Filmmaking in Pakistan, at this point in time, is facing another issue. It is no secret that with the removal of Bollywood films from cinemas across Pakistan, they seem to be struggling.

“Finances certainly are a huge concern; I was very lucky to have an independent producer and investor who was putting money in Cake,” Asim reflected. “When it comes to working with channels, what happens is you get money but your storytelling gets compromised. So, when channels and brands get involved, your story is pushed in directions that you as a creative don’t want to push it in.”

“Across the world, even in most developing countries, there is some kind of access to subsidies, film funds, tax benefits, etc. But, we don’t have any kind of infrastructure in Pakistan so there is no help to make pure cinema for the sake of cinema,” he continued. “It is purely a business form; the creative gets compromised for the sake of the business aspect of it. It is very difficult to get money as an independent filmmaker unless you are working with someone who has deep pockets and people with deep pockets are businessmen. The primary criteria then becomes how is the film going to fare at the box office. And if a film is being made just from that perspective, it is a totally different kind of a film.”

Asim elaborated that if one wants to change aesthetics and expectations of long term audiences and leave a legacy for Pakistani cinema, those interests are sometimes not aligned with the short term interests which is like, ‘how many box office receipts will there be in the first week?’ This, according to Asim, really is a deterrent and until one has a financial model from the government or some kind subsidies, it will be increasingly difficult. Therefore, local filmmakers look for international producers and platforms for money, and release their films at festivals, which is a great platform internationally but it doesn’t resonate with the Pakistani audiences.

The writer-director admits that Cake worked phenomenally for him and he wouldn’t have gotten his upcoming web series if people internationally had not noticed Cake. Though it wasn’t a blockbuster, it won awards, it went to festivals, it has a long life. “A lot of people still watch it on Netflix and message me; we had a very long term view on it as to what we wanted to achieve with Cake. I am very grateful. It’s been worth it for sure!” Asim expressed.

Speaking of a broader picture, Asim did mention that the current outlook of Pakistani cinema looks really bleak to him as he feels that short term gains cannot sustain an industry over long term. 2018 was still a better year, according to him, as it had a variety of films that we need for the industry to survive but now there are only a few releases that too came out during Eid only.

“Two to three films will come out every Eid, they will compete with each other and they are designed to be what people think is a commercial film,” he asserted, adding, “If you try to put any content in a box, it becomes a formula, it doesn’t remain creative anymore.”

He continued, “I am worried. I feel not having Bollywood films is a big deterrent because our industry has not reached there yet; the sustainability it was getting was because of Bollywood films and it brought back the culture of watching Indian movies in the theatres.”

We have grown up on a steady diet of Bollywood so the transition was ready to happen.

“And now,” noticed Asim, “one is not just competing with cinema films; there is Netflix and every other kind of platform offering people the type of content they want to see. In that case, unless something great is coming up, that you really feel is going to challenge you as audience, I don’t know why you’d go see it. Or, you will only go see it on Eid when you have lots of money and want to do something with the family.”

Nonetheless, Asim is hopeful and excited about digital as it is allowing new voices and new forms of storytelling to compete in the international market. “With web you don’t have to focus only on whether it is for masses or not because there is so much content; it is okay for some content to be niche, to focus on certain aspects of audiences,” Asim pointed out. “I hope now a lot of filmmakers from Pakistan, who don’t necessarily find a voice in cinema or local TV to be able to tell their stories, get their stories heard.”

On a parting note, the writer and director shared that he is open to collaborating with other writers and directors for TV and on films if it fits his creative aesthetics. Revealing details of his second feature film, he informed that he wants to go back to writing while he is also in touch with other writers. “Let’s see when that opportunity knocks my door where I can tell the story I want to tell,” he concluded.