In a rare interview, Shaan Shahid gives Instep an insider's view of Pakistan's re-emerging cinema industry and shares his take on the Indo-Pak cinematic relationship.
"I’m too old for this."
On the eve before his upcoming film O21′s press meet in Karachi, Shaan spends his Saturday evening indoors in his hotel room, eager to talk business and share wisdom about the growing potential of Pakistan’s film industry. But he won’t waste time on any petty arguments that have populated headlines in the past months. The man, who’s given 25 years of his life to Pakistani cinema, has work to get done.
Lounging on the plush sofas of his room, the fresh-faced Shaan doesn’t give a hint of exhaustion, though we know he’s had a migraine from a meeting that ran on till the wee hours of the morning.
"Karachi is always hectic. Here, I have three to four meetings in a day," he says, "But this city has always been so kind in terms of work."
Since his rechristening on the silver screen as Shaan Shahid, the 42-year-old superstar has not waited long before following in the footsteps of his legendary father Riaz Shahid. After following up the record-breaking success of last year’s Waar with this year’s potential blockbuster O21 and next year’s Yalghaar, Shaan is tying up with Karachi-based Shiny Toy Guns to officially make his debut as a screenwriter. Having given this film the working title M5, he pens its script with the box office firmly in mind.
"I want to make commercial films that are good for business because they will create a market for Pakistani films," explains Shaan, as he lights up his first cigarette, "I stand on the bridge between the two sides [Lollywood and new age cinema] and can clearly see what’s lacking in each of them. So combining the two to create a ‘third genre’ is my utmost priority."
With Waar having not only made a splash in the urban centres, but also finding an avid audience in places like Seraiki-speaking Multan, it seems like Shaan already has his finger on the imaginative pulse of the nation. Language barriers seemed to have melted away in the face of slick, awe-inspiring visuals and a gripping, action-packed script, but should that mean that we never get down from the action bandwagon? Many detect a pattern in the films Shaan’s signed up for.
Shaan is quick to direct attention to the long-term gains of keeping to the genre: "If Hollywood stopped Western films on the third Western film, we would have never seen The Good, The Bad And The Ugly or any John Wayne film. If our cinema is sending us signals that we can grow in a certain direction, we should support that growth instead of nitpicking. We can’t kill the evolutionary process of improvement."
Referring to the industry as "a baby whose umbilical cord was cut with Waar, or Khuda Kay Liye perhaps," Shaan insists that a critical free zone is needed for the next five years.
"My request for the audience would be to be a parent to the films. Be gentle and patient; let the industry grow. Don’t put fear in the filmmakers so early in the game."
"No-one seems to tire of the Dabanggs and Wanteds," he adds with a hint of agitation. "But Bollywood just relies on formulas or does remakes. The beautiful thing about the new films being produced in Pakistan is that they have paved the way for new sub-genres to emerge. I don’t want people to think of O21 as Waar 2. O21 is a spy thriller, it will make you think; Waar was all action."
But doesn’t he get tired of playing the same kind of characters over and over? Shaan appears to have transitioned from one typecast role to the other.
"I can’t be held responsible for films from 20 years ago. I’m an actor; I need a film to be in and my job is only to create the part given to me. It’s up to the new cinema on how they use me. I’m sure people in Karachi are working on comedy films, they’re welcome to take me in those too."
"And so what if I’m cast as a hero in all the major films," he continues, "I’m 42. I have only five to eight years left as a hero, so five to eight films is all I have to offer. What’s the hurry?"
We’ll have to wait to see the role that he writes for himself in M5, but how does Shaan Shahid plan to carry on his father’s envelope-pushing legacy in his debut script?
"My father had a strong opinion about world politics, and addressed issues like injustice and Muslim oppression in his films. Unfortunately, we learn from his experience that people don’t like to hear the truth. People can only dare to speak it if they can risk everything they have – their kids, their family, their home’s security. And I’m not that brave. My father grew up with a father, but I didn’t. I want my kids to have a father, so I probably won’t be as honest or harsh as I want on political affairs. People should be concerned about Syria and Palestine. I want to talk about Kashmir. But I’m not going to make those films."
Scriptwriting aside, Shaan is very eager to produce more films, especially to further his vision of the way forward for the industry.
"The day Karachi stopped making films, they killed cinema. They killed the Waheed Murad era, they killed the Mohammad Ali era. Mohammed Ali had to come and work in Punjabi cinema, and the work he did was unfortunately laughable. This is what they did to our legends.
"Forget about co-productions with India, China, or Hollywood for now. Right now, each city – Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad – is working with its own scriptwriters, technicians and actors. But it’s the time for collective effort. Today, the most sellable commodity is Pakistan; people want to know what’s happening here.
"If Karachi and Lahore start co-producing, we can create our own identity. It’s too early for ego battles, politics, or dividing into camps. There has to be a land to fight for; if there’s no land, what are we fighting for?"
According to Shaan, once Karachi and Lahore have a sound working relationship, then the next step would be collaboration between the two Punjabs with a cross-border exchange of talent and technicians. After that, we can think of full-blown co-productions with India or Hollywood.
So he’s not totally against the notion of working with India, as is the popular misconception?
"I’m trying to blow the peace horn, but it’s sounding like a war trumpet. Why would I formally announce my Arth 2 project if I’m anti-India? I could have just taken the idea and made the film in another name, and nobody would have said anything. But I went through these proper channels, acquiring rights from Mahesh Bhatt, because I want Arth 2 to be a roadmap for future collaborations.
"Pakistan can be for the Indian film industry what China is for America. Filmmaking costs are high in India, but we can make the same film for much less here. They don’t trust our making [production value], and we don’t trust their content, so Arth 2 is our way of showing what we can do for them. It’s us saying, ‘Are you interested? We’re willing to do business."
Shaan has a strong, progressive vision for Indo-Pak collaborations, so why the harsh words for actors who do films in India, we probe.
"I believe in equal respect."
By now, Shaan is on his feet, but he stays rooted to the spot where he’s standing till he finishes making his point.
"The day they start releasing Pakistani films in India, I’ll consider India as a fair ground to work in. But so far, all they’ve done is intentionally kill our superstars, intentionally give them B-grade roles, intentionally give them less money. And then, they desert them!"
Despite the fact that the starving artiste has been more reality than merely a turn of phrase in Pakistan, Shaan flatly refuses to see India as a land of opportunity.
"What’s Rahat doing now? Where is Atif in India? Ali Zafar is a singer; his real strength lies in ‘Channo’, but they haven’t respected him as a singer. His songs have never been picturised on any hero other than himself. It remains to be seen how Fawad fares after this first film. Nadeem sahib, Mohammed Ali… they came back after their first films. Ask them… why didn’t they go back for a second?"
Shaan’s fiery tirade takes an emotional turn as he betrays a sense of hurt about past press coverage.
"It’s very painful to be misunderstood by your own people in your own language. It makes no difference to me; I’m not going to go to India. But I’m fighting for these youngsters’ rights, and they turn around and talk back at me. Let’s come out of this ‘artists don’t have boundaries’ bullsh*t. If that’s true, we would be treated equally in India."
"I’d rather do 40 bad films than one good film in India," he goes on. "I became a gujjar for my country. My presence makes a difference in Pakistan, not India, as does Ali Zafar’s and Fawad Khan’s," he announced conclusively.
-- Photographs by