Two ‘filmwalas’ & their bigger pictures

February 2, 2020

Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza may have taken a break in 2019 but they’ll be back with two releases this year. In this Instep exclusive they talk about the film industry, its direction, and their vision as filmmakers.

With both box office numbers and critical acclaim to their name, it wouldn’t be wrong to call Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza of Filmwala Pictures two of Pakistan’s most successful filmmakers of the millennium.

With four successful films to their credit since 2014, Fizza Ali Meerza and Nabeel Qureshi have become the power-packed pair of filmmakers that no calendar is complete without. With both numbers and acclaim to their name, it wouldn’t be wrong to call them one of Pakistan’s two most successful filmmakers of the millennium, a position challenged so far only by Nadeem Baig. While Nadeem Baig’s films (Jawani Phir Nahin Aani 1 & 2, Punjab Nahi Jaungi) have enjoyed bigger successes at the box office, Fizza and Nabeel’s films (Na Maloom Afraad 1 & 2, Actor in Law, Load Wedding) have been considered more responsible in the social responsibility they take and the way they resonate with reality in a light hearted and uplifting manner.

It hasn’t been easy, the duo – that produces, directs and writes their own films under the banner Filmwala Pictures – shares in an exclusive heart to heart with Instep. They’ve been up against the current with each release, thanks to lack of investment, government support and threadbare resources that the industry has to work with. But Fizza and Nabeel are passionate as well as optimistic about their work and the future of films.

They will be responsible for two of the 30-odd films rumoured to be in the pipeline for a 2020 release: Quaid e Azam Zindabad and Fatman. QAZ features their lucky charm, Fahad Mustafa in the lead with Mahira Khan, a highly anticipated pairing that hasn’t been seen yet. Fatman stars Ahmed Ali Butt in the lead as the proverbial superhero. Needless to say, both films will be family entertainers with a strong social message.

Settling down to talk about their films, the film industry and its future – problems and their solutions included – this was a conversation that ran into hours of passionate discussion. Here are excerpts…

“Somehow, I think all of us get affected by the smallest things happening in our social surroundings. Instead of putting up a status on Facebook I would rather make a film that has a social message.”

– Nabeel Qureshi

Instep: This year you’re producing two films, Quaid e Azam Zindabad and Fatman. Why two films?

Fizza Ali Meerza (FAM): We’re making two films because we see the lack of content in cinemas right now and we do feel the responsibility as filmmakers. I think all the directors and producers who have experience and who do have the potential to do more should actually take a few more steps than routine, which I think they are. We have never heard of so many movies announced in a year. Even if 70 per cent of these actually release in 2020, there’d be nothing like it. And the following years would get better. The dependency on Indian content has to now end.

Instep: Would you say you are in favour of the ban?

FAM: You have to bring your quality to a certain level that people choose you. If we are cutting Indian films because we can’t compete then that is not a good enough reason. But if we are forced by a political situation where the country’s integrity and honour comes in between, then I’d say yes. Being a Pakistani, if our products are not treated well or welcomed in India then why welcome theirs here? It is very clear.

Instep: Nabeel, as a director, your films are entertaining, high profile, big budget and they always have a social message as well. What is the vision for your next two films?

Nabeel Qureshi (NQ): Generically speaking I think every kind of movie should be made, but it should be good. It is great to have diversity and viewers should have the option to watch movies of their choice. Every director has his/her own vision; each one of them has a different thought process when they are telling any particular story. So I think there should be multiple people who can make different kinds of films. As for making an entertaining film with a social cause, that is because we make movies that come from within and are close to our hearts. We’ve never thought that a certain kind of film would work or this particular formula will become a success. We tend to follow our hearts or go for subjects that we think are problematic in our society. I believe it’s our social responsibility and that we have to give back to the society. Somehow, I think all of us get affected by the smallest things happening in our social surroundings. Instead of putting up a status on Facebook I would rather make a film that has a social message.

Instep: What do you see as the future of Pakistani cinema? Realistically where do you see it in five years?

FAM: I am an extraordinarily optimistic person. My wish would be to have 500 plus screens in five years but the problem is that in this country things are so unpredictable that you cannot tell what tomorrow has in store for us. Two years ago we were assuming that by 2020 we would have about 400 screens and that was a very legit, data based thing. But suddenly the scenario took a dip. The last government was about to finalize a film policy and I think three or four days before the bill was to be signed, the assembly got dissolved.

Instep: What does the government need to do?

“Actually, lack of policies is the reason behind all problems. The government should give subsidies to filmmakers and give us some incentive.”
         – Fizza Ali Meerza

FAM: The major problem is the taxes and we as a film industry need acknowledgement so that our issues can be resolved. For instance, if I say that I want to make a film in South Africa, how are we supposed to send money outside of Pakistan? There is no way because we are not recognized as an industry. If I go to the State Bank and ask for a loan they will not recognize my business. So I cannot ask for a bank loan for a film. Having done four films I’d be able to go and ask for a lease anywhere in the world except here. The banks don’t even plan a policy just because they know there is no industry.

NQ: Forget the loan; I am a freelance director and I can’t even get a credit card because it’s perceived like I don’t have a job.

FAM: Actually, lack of policies is the reason behind all problems. The government should give subsidies to filmmakers and give us some incentive.

Instep: Would you be looking for grants or investments from the government?

FAM: I would not talk about grants because they don’t have money for that. In Iran when Khomeini took over, 60 per cent of film’s budgets were given by the government and the filmmakers would pay a certain amount...of course they were narrative based. We were in Islamabad with the Minister of Information and Broadcasting and they told us that they have a budget of 50 crores. We were happy and said that if you have this amount of money then invest in filmmakers who need the budget. But they replied that they would put this amount in the bank and would invest the profit that would come after a year. You can’t make a film with 5 crores.

We also met the DG for the Directorate of Electronic Media and Publications; films fall under them. We spoke about basic things and told them to stop taking taxes and correct our percentages. And that cinema houses should make it clear how much percentage they are willing to give us, be it 50 per cent or 40 per cent, there should be clarity because every cinema has a different contract. It’s also important to have a quota, like it is done everywhere else in the world. Like in China, the exhibition quota for foreign films is about 17 percent. In that 17 per cent they will give space to Hollywood and Bollywood movies and we are also trying to take our films there. The government helps them make Chinese content and provides them with subsidies, studios. On the other hand we don’t have studios, like a professional studio. We used to have three in Karachi but they have been closed down. We go to industrial sets to shoot our films. There are hardly one or two studios where TVCs or Ramazan special programs are shot. We don’t have proper studios to shoot movies. You need a film city. The last time we talked about making a film city they said that there is land near Islamabad; we are making a film city there. My question is, who will go to that film city? I mean the industry is here; make one in Lahore or Karachi.

Instep: There is so much politics within filmmakers, distributors and channels and we have seen how detrimental and damaging it was in the past to the industry and films at large. How can this be controlled?

FAM: It is very simple. It can be controlled just like it is done all around the world where different bodies are involved. There shouldn’t be conflict of interest; you cannot be my distributor and my producer and my exporter... now channels are becoming the 360 degrees of everything like they want to produce the film as well as distribute it and I think in a few years they will also own their cinema houses. So an independent producer, someone like us, where will they go and how will they work? If I don’t want to be with a particular channel for my films, then who do I make films with? There has to be a balance. The government should also take into account that if there are 10 channels then there should be one policy for all of them and make sure that the films get equal promotion. If two channels are coming out with two films simultaneously, what happens is that they are not even covered in the news. If two films are not being released simultaneously even then it doesn’t get coverage in the news.

NQ: Only if my film is sponsored by some brand and money is involved will they run it.

FAM: The thing is that you can buy everything but there is no price for a creative person’s mind. What’s happening is that channels dictate the kind of content to run because they have rating based thinking. TV also works like this, production houses are told what kind of content to produce. I don’t want to compromise on creativity.

The conversation continued past the lack of government support to the desperate need for an evolution of the film industry; the fact that there has been no independent film festival since Kara and that there are no independent movie awards. Channels only support their own content. “Channels make movies and then give their own films awards,” Nabeel pointed out. “There aren’t any independent awards except Lux Style Awards, which we actually look forward to because we know that there aren’t any influences or agendas.” Casting is such a big problem because the pool of faces investors want is limited. If 20 films are being made then the cast has to come from this limited pool. “If we try to launch new faces the exhibitors and distributors start saying that we should make a cheaper film,” Nabeel adds.

In this current scenario, with cinemas struggling to stay afloat due to lack of local content and with extremism preventing local content like Zindagi Tamasha from releasing, it seems like the industry is struggling between a rock and a very hard place. It’s important to feed off the positivity and optimism of filmwalas like Nabeel and Fizza, who know what they have to do, despite the odds.

Pakistani producers Fizza Ali Meerza, Nabeel Qureshi talk about the film industry, its direction, their vision