With over two decades of experience in music video and ad-filmmaking, Ahsan Rahim is now all set to release his debut feature film, Teefa in Trouble. He talks about the making of the film and the real trouble it is facing these days.
Ahsan Rahim’s home in Karachi is embraced by chimes and bells; they consistently ring gentle melodies in the atmosphere, creating a musical halo around the man’s life. It seems he lives the same way, working through melodies, whether they come through chimes, music videos or advertisements. The most important project on his plate these days - Teefa in Trouble - is also a symphony of sorts. He is conductor to this composition that has seen a two-year balance of hard work, dedication and some turbulence.
I meet him after the successful trailer launch of Teefa in Trouble, Ahsan’s debut feature film as director, and we sit to talk in a dimly lit creative room, where smoke and caffeine appear to be fixtures; the room also flaunts several stills from TnT frozen across several computer screens.
Expectations from Teefa in Trouble run high and that’s mostly because of Ahsan Rahim, a shy, bearded bear of a man whose good will and warmth has the peoples’ support behind him. Truth is, several ad-film makers have tried their hand at filmmaking in Pakistan but not many have succeeded in striking the perfect balance between visual excellence and engaging storytelling. Why do people expect so much more from Ahsan Rahim?
"I have the same question. Why such high expectations from me?" Ahsan laughs, admitting to a pressure that is mounting as the film’s release date comes near. "Jaan nikli hui hai," he smiles. I ask him why every ad-filmmaker wants to make a film and thinks he can make a film.
"It’s quite simple," he replies. "Everyone who steps into this profession intends to make a film. I’ll give you my example. Even when I started working in 1993 (part-time during his time at the NCA, Lahore) my inspiration was always film. Be it actors, directors or anyone in this field, their main and end goal is film. Unfortunately, when I came and started working, the film industry wasn’t functional and I couldn’t make a film so I tried fulfilling that desire through songs and ads."
Teefa in Trouble was conceptualized two years ago, he says, and it took six to eight months in pre-production before they actually began shooting. It was kicked off as a high budget project with an insane level of attention given to detail. Ahsan was leaving for Turkey a day after our meeting; out of several colourists they had tried, he liked the one in Turkey most.
"When Ali and I sat down, we decided there are only a limited number of stories in the world. It’s all about the approach. The scenes and sequencing, that’s the real thing that connects the story and makes it stand out. Man vs man, man vs beast, man vs machine… these are the few stories we have. It’s always a quest, within or external. But how do they look different? Because these stories are being told differently. The unique narration is the winner. I pray that people enjoy my narration."
Ahsan went on to share how he and Ali Zafar spent months discussing and working on the story to ensure that it had no loopholes.
"We spent 6-7 months in Ali’s basement," Ahsan shared. "We’d wake up in the morning and we’d continue working till it was night. We scrutinized the script from every angle and from every perspective. We changed it a lot of times on paper. We started shooting when we were on the 10th or 12th draft."
"Ali wrote the script and did all the hard work," he elaborated. "We had three things in mind: the film should look like a film and not a TV serial, it should be larger than life and the story should be engaging. We could garnish it with all the technique that we wanted but technique wouldn’t work until the storytelling was engaging."
Teefa in Trouble’s casting also took a lot of thought and time, especially for the role of Anya, which eventually went to Maya Ali. Apparently several actresses had auditioned for it. Why did they decide on Maya?
"First of all, Maya is a good actor," Ahsan replied. "Second, she looks good with Ali. It was important that they look compatible and we kept that in mind while auditioning. Third, her ethics and work attitude was exceptionally professional. We had 12-hour shoots in Poland and to ensure that we didn’t waste time during those 12 hours, she would get up at 4am and her get makeup done before the shoot began. I was lucky that everyone on set was cooperative, professional and gave zero tantrums. That attitude helped the film immensely."
"We wanted to cast Ali in a different light," he continued. "Ali had done romance and comedy and I had to show him in a unique avatar. So much thought went into the development of his character because I wanted him to look convincing, larger than life as a hero."
Speaking of Ali Zafar, I had to address the elephant in the room. A lot had changed since the teaser launch of Teefa in Trouble in February and the trailer launch last week. Ali Zafar had been accused of sexual harassment by Meesha Shafi and people were opposed to the release of his film, narrating Kevin Spacey’s expulsion from hit TV series, House of Cards, as example. Ahsan Rahim, of course, had nothing to do with the controversy but there was a strong chance it would effect his film.
"I’ve known him for over 20 years," Ahsan nodded. "I knew him from his NCA days, shot him in ‘Preeto’ and then did ‘Channo’ and other music videos together. I can say this with confidence, with 500 per cent assurance, that Ali Zafar is not the person he is being accused of. I’ve worked with him for 20 years; I would have seen the signs. I would be able to judge the person that he is. I don’t know why this issue has arisen but I know that Ali is not capable of this. What we’re hearing are allegations and the issue is now in court. The truth will emerge soon."
Until it does, will it impact the film?
"I don’t think this controversy will or should effect the film," he said. "Why should it? The film is a separate entity. So many people have worked on it and every single person who has worked on Teefa, from the AD to the spot boys, have a sense of ownership for it. To sabotage or boycott a film on the basis of an allegation isn’t justified, I feel. Allegations need to be proven before we can pass a verdict on either of them."
It is difficult to prove sexual harassment or assault though, especially in a system like ours.
"Wait…there’s a dangerously thin line between sexual harassment and rape or sexual assault," Ahsan pointed out. "Sexual assault is heinous, it’s the worst case scenario. We don’t know the details of this case and therefore people have been led to imagine the worst case scenario. Facebook and Twitter, social media is a fasad ki jurr, I think. We need to let the courts decide. When we talk about Kevin Spacey, we need to understand that he was alleged with sexual assault and his allegation were proven; the scale of what is happening in Hollywood is much, much bigger."
Our conversation continued with Ahsan talking about the work ethics and the culture on his sets, how women were now stepping into every field that was previously male-dominated. He spoke about the zero tolerance policy for any kind of unprofessional behavior or harassment on his set.
Back to the film, we spoke about its ideas, their execution and the challenges (and cost) that came with achieving the kind of standard they were looking for. Music, Ahsan said, was the strongest component of the film; the OST was superb.
"I’ve given it my best and once it leaves my nest, the film belongs to the public," he concluded. "What now? I’m back to my day job…I haven’t made an ad for almost a year."