It is jokingly said that a huge part of a movie director’s job is to “preside over accidents.” In the case of Bilal Lashari, the 41-year-old film director whose second feature, The Legend of Maula Jatt, opened last week to humungous audience response in cinemas across the world, the project entailed navigating a sea of troubles. From heavy showers that destroyed the film’s massive outdoor set multiple times; to lead actor Fawad Khan’s sickness from having gained a lot of weight for the role, which halted the shoot; to the mad hunt for experts in the rather negligent (in Pakistan) post-production departments of rotoscoping, 3D, and Dolby Sound mixing; to Covid that ruined plans for the movie’s timely release…
On top of that, Lashari was embroiled in a legal dispute over intellectual copyrights with Sarwar Bhatti, the producer of the 1979 Punjabi blockbuster Maula Jatt which he wanted to reboot.
Call him a Waar-veteran, if you will. His debut feature, which proved to be a cash cow, had taught him a good few lessons. One of these was to “pick your team of right people,” he tells The News on Sunday, in an exclusive interview, ahead of The Legend of Maula Jatt’s release. He is obviously hinting at the serious issues he had with his Waar producer, Dr Hassan Waqas Rana, over the film’s earnings.
But Lashari has gracefully put all that behind him. He appears calm and contented, and it’s clear that all he wants to talk about is The Legend of Maula Jatt. It’s“a labour of love,” he declares.
The film, which took nine long years in the making, is on its way to creating box office records in the history of Pakistani cinema. More importantly, it has set new benchmarks for filmmaking, especially in terms of its scale, its style, and its fidelity to the “gandasa genre,” as Lashari puts it.
“It’s a genre that always fascinated me, and I’d wonder why it had never evolved through the decades,” says the director who is also the film’s screenplay writer, cinematographer, and editor.
At its core, Maula Jatt — as well as Lashari’s iteration — is the age-old tale of good versus evil: Duty calls a local prizefighter Maula Jatt (a bulked-up Fawad Khan in a reprisal of the role that immortalized the late Sultan Rahi) to encounter his eternal nemesis, Noori Natt (Hamza Ali Abbasi attempts to fill Mustafa Qureshi’s gigantic shoes) and avenge his family’s murders. It is essentially about machismo, tribal rivalry, and revenge. But Lashari’s gladiatorial treatment of it raises it to the level of an epic. Having studied film at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and cut his teeth on a host of music videos and, later, the 2013 blockbuster Waar, Lashari was well armed to do wonders with the medium. And the result is for all to see.
Excerpts from the interview follow:
The News On Sunday: You come across as a very soft-spoken and, shall we say, non-violent person. But your films —Waar, and now The Legend of Maula Jatt— have graphic violence. How does that add up?
Bilal Lashari: (Laughs) I recently read somewhere, “I may look calm on the outside, but inside my head I’ve killed you twice.” On a serious note, yes, I am not an aggressive person, but I find myself liking work that is intense and maybe on the dark side. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like lighter content. It’s just that I’ve only made two movies yet; the sample size is too small to put me in a box.
TNS: Would you consider making an intense romantic flick?
BL: I am more drawn towards something that gives me a chance to explore the spectacle aspect of it, you know; that larger-than-life, mini phenomenon sort of a film. Romantic films are nice but I believe the collective/ community experience of watching something in a theatre hall works better in certain genres such as adventure films, epics, and fantasy films. Romance is part of every film anyway. Isn’t it?
Having said that, down the line I may attempt a pure romantic movie, maybe on a smaller canvas.
TNS: The language of your latest film is Punjabi. Interestingly, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s short story, Gandasa, which inspired the franchise-starter Wehshi Jatt and its 1979 sequel Maula Jatt, was written in Urdu. Comment.
BL: Assuming that Wehshi Jatt was an adaptation, it still refashioned the original [short] story in terms of its style and characters; and so did Maula Jatt, which permitted its chief villain, Noori Natt, a dramatic, foot-first entry, and the catchword “Sohneya,” which became the phenomenon that it did. Both these movies were in Punjabi.
I wanted to re-invent the Punjabi gandasa genre which had started with a bang and remained in vogue through the ’80s and beyond but it never really evolved. Since Maula Jatt was the biggest movie of the franchise, and its characters were hugely popular, I felt that it would add to the larger-than-life epic project that I wanted my film to be.
TNS: Why the gandasa genre?
BL: It was a unique thing, and we could’ve created a cult following out of that. It would have been our film export to the world, just as you have Kung-Fu films, Westerns, Bollywood musicals etc.
TNS: Do you feel that can be achieved now?
BL: I don’t know. Maybe [The Legend of Maula Jatt] is a one-off project, but it is definitely motivated by the idea that we could approach that cult genre in a different way. That, for me, was the biggest challenge.
TNS: Do we look forward to a sequel to The Legend of Maula Jatt?
BL: Who knows! (Laughs) I’m not thinking about it right now, because personally I would like to not be in a safe zone, and doing this again would now not be challenging enough. For me sleepless nights matter; I like to be in a situation where not just the people around me but even I doubt myself.
I usually begin by visualising, then I reverse-engineer the project and the story, keeping the end goal in mind.
TNS: So what end goal did you have in mind for The Legend of Maula Jatt?
BL: …that the people everywhere will get very excited about it, and the craze will transcend boundaries of languages, age, class and demographics; and it will be something of universal appeal. Granted that it’s a little on the adult side, because of the violence and everything, but still.
TNS: Despite graphic violence, the CBFC didn’t give it an adult rating?
BL: We got the PG [parental guidance required] rating in Pakistan. Elsewhere, we got 15 or so.
See, in first-world countries, the film censors are stricter on violence and wouldn’t necessarily give a bit of intimacy any rating. But here it’s the other way round; even a kiss can be provocative for the general audience. That’s just a cultural thing, I guess.
TNS: When you were casting for the film, did it ever occur to you that your actors needed to look or be able to speak Punjabi like the natives do?
BL: While it was a challenge, it wasn’t the biggest challenge. The medium [of film] allows you to do certain things such as retakes, dubbing, and editing, so it became easy for the actors. Besides, we had Nasir Adeeb sahib and a couple of Punjabi language tutors. Hamza was helping us too.
By the way, one interesting trivia on Maula Jatt is that Mustafa Qureshi sahib [who played Noori Natt] is not a Punjabi; he is Urdu-speaking. He initially faced criticism because while saying lines in Punjabi he’d put too much stress on each and every word. Luckily, it became his signature style after the movie.
TNS: Unlike the original movie, your film dwells on the character of Maula. Any particular reason for that?
BL: Well, I always thought that the gandasa movies had sort of flawed characterisation. Their characters are two-dimensional. But we are telling Maula’s story from its genesis; it has a complete arc.
Similarly, we’ve tried to place the gems within the film — Easter eggs — for fans of the original, so that they can also enjoy the movie. But, I basically wrote [The Legend of Maula Jatt] keeping in mind those who haven’t seen the original.
TNS: What took you so long to get the film out?
BL: A whole lot of issues. Firstly, mounting such an ambitious project was a big deal. It required huge investment and a great deal of preparation. When I announced the project, in December 2013, it was only a half-baked idea, but I wanted to put my claim on this story. I took my time writing the script, I wrote it in English, then Nasir sahib came on board for Punjabi dialogues. It took us four years to get the cameras rolling.
During the shoot, our momentum was frequently broken: Fawad fell ill, and we had to close down production; then our action team that had flown in from outside Pakistan had to leave because of the security situation in the country, and later they had to be called back. Heavy rains thrice ruined our outdoor village set. Then there were the legal cases. As soon as we were done with them, Covid happened. It was just one thing after another.
TNS: Tell us how you reimagined rural Punjab. The arena (maut da khu) where Jatt and Natt combat is quite similar to the one we saw in Gladiator.
BL: We came across this maut ka kunwan at a mela en route Islamabad from Lahore, right after Bhera, where the prizefighters also take part. It too looked like a little arena from Gladiator. But [The Legend of Maula Jatt] is set in a fantasy Punjab. It’s a pre-industrial, pre-colonial era, when there was no printing press and no gunpowder. The setting allowed us to play with certain styles of production design, and make our own rules.
TNS: Even your gandasa looks like a heavier and more glamorous version.
BL: In the original [Maula Jatt], gandasa is a farming tool that the protagonist uses as a weapon. But because over time that has become larger than life and the gandasa represents something much bigger now, you can say that our movie celebrates the weapon, and glamourises it. Our concept artist picked up elements from our ancient art and architecture while designing it.
Gandasa is a very heavy tool. So, we created two different versions — the lighter version we used in long shots and most fight sequences, but for close-ups we’d shoot with the one which is made of steel. Even the lighter version weighed 6-8 kg.
TNS: Did you have to initiate your international action team into the local gandasa culture before they could begin work? What kind of cultural references were you working with?
BL: When you’ve got a weapon, you will use it to kill. It’s that simple. So, it was less about cultural references for the gandasa and more about the fighting style that we should adopt. And we decided to keep it a bit intimate, intense and gritty.
TNS: You seem to have invested a fortune on the film’s post-production. Tell us a bit about that.
BL: A lot of it was trial and error. In visual effects, for instance, within our resources, I and my producer Ammara [Hikmat] got people from different places to do different things — from rotoscoping to 3D etc. The sound was mixed in Dolby Atmos in Turkey.
We wanted to future-proof the project, and Dolby Atmos allows you to do things that you can’t do in a normal 5.1 mix. Even a 5.1 mix, coming down from Dolby Atmos mix, sounds grander and better because of the technology.
TNS: Do you plan to release the movie on Netflix or any other OTT platform?
BL: It’s rather too early. But I’m sure we will soon look at the options.
The writer is a staff member