Redefining the ABCD as American Born Creative Desi

January 19, 2020

Shaz Khan talks about producing his first international film with desi origins, The Martial Artist, which channels two of his passions: filmmaking and mixed martial arts.

There is a world beyond rom coms and family dramas and Shaz Khan, working on his first international film with desi origins, is out to prove it can work in Pakistan too. The year 2020 is gearing up with the promise of movie breakthroughs and amidst the troupe of debutante producers, directors, writers and actors is the young artiste. Formerly seen as an actor in films like Moor, Dobara Phir Se and Parwaaz Hai Junoon along with several television serials including Yaqeen Ka Safar, Shaz is now stepping into movie making with The Martial Artist, which he’s producing, writing and acting in. Recently in Pakistan for the pre-production of TMA, he sat down with Instep to discuss his film and how he came up with a subject so unique.

“Some of my favourite films ever have been sports action dramas,” he began talking about the passions that convinced him to leave a career in finance for movie making. “You have two camps essentially; you have the warriors, fighters of the world and then you have the Rocky and Van Dammes. I would jump at the chance to be one of those back in the day. But for me it all started way back when initially I was auditioning in New York and I was doing indie work in LA at drama school. I noticed that the roles I would get were very desi even though they didn’t have stories that would represent the desi culture.” It’s called type-casting.

Shaz already had a history in boxing as he used to box at university. “I was a paid punching bag,” he laughs at the memory, thinking of all the times he showed up for a game after a night of partying. “I always had that regret that I didn’t give it the kind of discipline it needed.” Shaz also believed that his true calling wasn’t finance, the degree he was studying for, but film.

“This is exactly what I wanted to do in my life so there is no looking back,” he laughed when I asked him about giving up a lucrative career in finance for the rocky road to films. “I made a decision to do this and if anything, I feel Allah put me on this earth to do this kind of stuff; to just be storytelling, to act. I may have gone into it for superficial reasons but honestly, now I think I’m so blessed because to me it is not about the star aspect. I just love acting. I really love the craft, I love storytelling, I love writing, I love production, I love film and the collaboration.”

Shaz then went to drama school and did around 16 short films during the time he was cast for Moor, Jami’s debut film.

Moor was really hard,” he reminisces, “but it had soul. Yes that’s the perfect word for it. I learnt so much from that movie because it was a long movie and I came to treasure my relationship with Jami. Say whatever you want but the actor-director relationship is so sacred, which is why I can’t wait to work with him again. Jami really let me develop that character the way I saw fit and then obviously guided me with his own instincts of what he wanted. It was incredible; Moor was a gem. It was so cold in Baluchistan that at times I used to curse myself, thinking where I am and wondering if it (the film) is ever coming out. It released four years later but Moor came from the right place.”

Shaz acted in several films before he eventually decided to channel his energy into his passion for filmmaking. He started working on a story that would address two things: his love for martial arts and the lack of desi representation in foreign films.

“We decided that we need to tell a global story, sort of a mythology that has desis in it but it shouldn’t be about religion or desi-ness and in fact should be a relatable global story,” he shared how the idea took off. “It all started with a short film but later evolved into a story of two brothers fighting Mixed Martial Arts, which is one of the fastest growing sports in the world.”

Shaz started writing the story around two years ago, and to get a better feel for it, he dove in and began training too. His film would be about desis in the MMA arena, so it would have both Pakistani and international appeal. He wanted to expose martial arts on the screen but he also wanted to give desi characters exposure beyond what they were stereotyped as. Living in the US and having worked in Pakistan, he had the framework to work within.

“I collaborated with a buddy from drama school. He is a playwright. When it came to production, I realized that no one’s going to make the movie the way I wanted to make it, so I just had to do it myself. It’s like there was no other choice.”

And so he began work on the first international sports action film with desi leads. The story revolves around an American kid who discovers a love for MMA. Raised by a single mother, as his father passed away when he was little, this boy is rising to the top but faces resistance from his brother, a former fighter.

“I don’t want to give away the whole story but essentially the story has loss, redemption, betrayal, passion, desire, ambition, the ability to understand who you are and it is a sports action film underlined by spirituality,” Shaz elaborated.

The film would be bilingual, in both Urdu and English, he shared. He had been working on the script for over a year and had already roped in American-Pakistani actor Farhan Tahir on the cast. They would be announcing the female lead soon, he smiled. Moreover, it would be shot mostly in America with around 20 per cent of the filming in Pakistan and Abu Dhabi. It’s tricky territory and Shaz has put a lot on hold to pursue his life in film, as an actor and filmmaker.

What did he think were the three primary aspects of making a good film, I asked him, conclusively.

“To be honest, the reason you are making it and what the story is, like being completely tied to the truth, that is the number one thing. If you deviate from the truth then you lose the plot. Then there’s the team, the collaboration and the atmosphere that is created on set; there has to be openness, there has to be order and preparation, there has to be freshness. When you are shooting there has to be that ability that anything can happen and that is where great acting happens, some of the great accents happen and all that together makes a film rise above the normal film. Even when it comes to promotions and finishing the film and edit and post production and all that, it is just about being a little mindful about what is possible out there. So it is hard for me to pinpoint one thing or the other but it is just being diligent and being creative. The creative process in general is the most important thing.”

Redefining the ABCD as American Born Creative Desi