"Nothing prepares you for your first film"

September 8, 2019

Interview with Saqib Malik

Saqib Malik had dreamed of making feature films for as long as he can remember. Indeed, most of his childhood revolved around cinema. From the lure of hoardings outside theatre halls to the photo stills on tantalising display in lobbies to the sheer euphoria at spotting a single-screen cinema boasting a ‘House Full’ sign. Pocket money was spent on film glossies like Nigar, Noor Jehan, and Filmi Parcha. "I’d cut out images of film shoots and paste them in a scrap book," he tells The News On Sunday, in an exclusive meeting. "I’d also calculate the number of weeks a film had run for. It all delighted me!"

Malik grew up with his two siblings in Islamabad in the 1970s. It was a time when filmmaking would be a curious career choice for the young, something that was reflected in the absence of film schools in the country. All of which prompted Malik to pack his bags and head off to Syracuse University, New York, in 1986, where he studied advertising and communications. His parents fully supported him. It helped that his mother, Parveen Malik, had been an actress on PTV. "Their only advice was that I should be good at whatever I do," he says.Yet his formal pursuit of filmmaking did not last long as he "wanted to return to Pakistan" even though he knew there was "no scope" for cinema here. "I thought I’d make TV commercials and take that route to film."

By the late 1990s, Malik had emerged as a successful director of ads and music videos. But his heart still longed for the big screen. Several of his works such as Khamaj, which he has admitted to being a tribute to Guru Dutt’s Hindi classic, Pyasa, and Deewane, where he brought together Indian and Pakistani stars Resham and Urmila Mataondtkar, clearly show his orientation towards cinema -- in terms of style of filming. In 2006, he came very close to starting his first movie, Ajnabi Shehr Mein (In an alien city), with Ali Zafar, Shaan, and Meera, but the producer pulled out at the last minute and the project was shelved. In 2011, he got the rare chance to work with internationally acclaimed director Mira Nair on The Reluctant Fundamentalist, as Second Unit Director, Pakistan.

Today, finally, Malik is living his dream. His debut feature, Baaji, has just completed a successful run at the box office, with Meera playing the title role of an aging actress who is consumed by the struggle to stay relevant. The film has been received well by critics both at home and abroad -- it bagged two awards, including the Jury Prize for Audience Recognition, at the Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival (MISAFF), in Mississauga, Canada. Columbia University is scheduled to host a private screening later this month. "It’s an honour that leading festivals around the world have shown interest in Baaji. The film has truly been a labour of love," he says.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

The News on Sunday: Khamaj offers a nostalgic glimpse into the world of films. Baaji, too, is set against this backdrop. Given that you had no prior industry experience, would you say that your narratives were based entirely on your impressions as a cinemagoer?

Saqib Malik: Films have always fascinated me. When I made Khamaj, the song naturally lent itself to the film world. As for Baaji, I just thought it was a good story that captured Lollywood in all the chaos of the 1990s. Running parallel to this [theme] is the angst of a fading star from that era, an aging actress whose position is threatened by a younger entrant.

TNS: You have been quoted as saying the idea was inspired from American film-noir, All About Eve. Comment.

SM: Actually, I was more inspired by Sunset Boulevard, which follows the journey of Norma Desmond, a silent film actress who is trying to remain relevant in the age of talkies. That said, Baaji is a very Pakistani story. It shows the death of Lollywood and the emergence of contemporary cinema. That makes it topical.

On another level, Baaji explores doors being closed on people who’ve reached a certain age. And we all go through times like that in our lives, don’t we?

TNS: Parallels have been drawn between Meera’s real life and the character she plays on screen. Was that intentional?

SM: Well, that’s a bit of a meta-narrative: Because Meera is from that particular era [the 90s], the character became her. If she hadn’t taken this role, I might not have made the film at all.

TNS: Is cinema a huge departure for a director used to making TV commercials and music videos?

SM: Yes, definitely! Before this, I had never made anything longer than three or four minutes, and here’s a film whose duration is 130 minutes. So, I was out of my comfort zone, to begin with. Commercials and music videos taught me how to tell a story very precisely, but they didn’t really prepare me for the magnitude of cinema.

TNS: So, how does a first-time film director prepare?

SM: Nothing prepares you for your first film more than having an understanding of the language of cinema. For that you need to watch a lot of films and be genuinely in love with cinema. And then you should be able to break it down structurally because film is, after all, a laborious and technical process.

TNS: How easy was it for you to put together a production team?

SM: I’d say that putting together a technical/production team isn’t difficult; the real challenge is whether you can visualise a story that will play for two hours or so on screen.

TNS: Have you ever considered directing TV dramas?

SM: No. TV is too regulated [for me], and its scale is limited. After doing commercials and videos where one has so much to play with, I think film suits me best.

TNS: What was it like working with Mira Nair?

SM: [Fellow filmmaker] Mehreen Jabbar, a friend, had introduced us in New York. So, when Mira was going to shoot The Reluctant Fundamentalist, she asked me to take care of the Lahore portions. It involved lots of shots of the city. And then there was a sequence of Kate Hudson and Riz Ahmed hanging around on a bike. Unfortunately, filming wasn’t authorised in Pakistan because of security concerns. So we shot the sequence using body doubles.

I’ll give you a piece of interesting trivia: they were shooting on ARRI Alexa but since we didn’t have that camera we shot on 35mm.

TNS: Any important lesson that you learned on the job?

SM: There are so many! For instance, the script is something you can never work enough on. When you’re writing it, it’s another story, and when you’re filming you realise what works and what doesn’t. At the editing table, there’s yet another lesson in scriptwriting waiting to be learnt.

TNS: Many years ago, you announced a film, Ajnabi Shehr Mein. What became of it?

SM: I was very enthusiastic about that project; it was going to star Ali Zafar, Shaan, Meera, and Tooba Siddiqi. But our producer backed out at the last minute. In some ways, Baaji is like Ajnabi Shehr Mein which focused on the relationship between two guys, whereas Baaji is about two women. Maybe that story lingered in my head.

TNS: Have you moved on to your next project?

SM: My mind is full of a bunch of great script outlines but I’ll come to them after the festival screenings.

"Nothing prepares you for your first film"