Deconstructing the first PISAs

February 16, 2020

The first Pakistan International Screen Awards (PISA) 2020 were a glamorous experience for those who managed to get flown out but the highs were tainted by extreme lows of mismanagement and subsequent ill will.

The biggest star on the stage that night was Ali Zafar and though he wasn't scheduled to perform, he stepped up and gave fans in the stands something to go wild over by going through a brief medley of his favourite songs, even having Aima Baig and her amazing vocals accompany him on the Teefa OST.

More than a dozen exotic cars waited patiently, queued up outside the luxurious Palazzo Versace in Dubai; the Rolls-Royces, Bugattis and Lamborghinis growled in racy submission as celebrities from Pakistan’s Milky Way of entertainment made their way out to be escorted to the Coca Cola Arena. It was a sparkling evening, dotted with big stars, high fashion and equally high expectations. But wait. The first Pakistan International Screen Awards (PISA) 2020 had already been marred by mismanagement and controversy back home. Those stars, many of them nominees and even winners, who had not received their travel protocol (visas and tickets) were up in arms. Would this shining event survive the eclipse?

Prior to the awards, one spotted Mahira Khan, accompanied by her manager and several bodyguards, stepping out of the hotel while Humayun Saeed pulled  up to a frenzy of fanfare and selfies. Though Khan did not perform, her presence onstage with Saeed did have its moments. 

The experience for those who had made it to Dubai was great. One pulled up to the hotel, on a cool Friday afternoon, to find several stars networking in the lobby; Asad Siddiqui, Zara Noor Abbas, Adnan Siddiqui and Ushna Shah seemed quite happy. A beaming Jawed Sheikh stepped out of the elevator, all praise for the event, the organisers and the honour they had bestowed upon them all. Suddenly, one spotted Mahira Khan, accompanied by her manager and several bodyguards, stepping out of the hotel. Humayun Saeed pulled up to a frenzy of fanfare and selfies. Ali Zafar lounged outside, parked for lunch on the hotel’s gorgeous outdoor cafe while Umair Jaswal, Aima Baig, Sana Javed, several Vloggers and countless stars and starlets traipsed in and out, having a good time.

Then there was the ground reality of the show. The Coca Cola Arena is a magnificent facility that has already hosted Maroon 5, John Legend, AR Rahman and our very own Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. This evening was expected to be equally buzzing and tickets had been sold in advance to ensure that Dubai-based fans of Pakistani TV and film got a chance to witness the hoopla, live. The show began insanely late, thanks to celebrities who couldn’t make it on time, but it began with the National Anthem, performed by popular starlet Sara Khan who may not be a professional singer but held her own; it was also refreshing to have a female recite the National Anthem.

Unfortunately, there weren’t too many uplifting moments during the show, which occasionally felt like it was wobbling all over the place. The optics, acoustics and technology was world-class, better than one has ever witnessed at a Pakistani Awards show, but the selection of acts was not so befitting. Umair Jaswal put up a powerful performance but then Hareem Farooq, Momina Mustehsan, Sara Loren and Eeshal Fayyaz were not the most entertaining choices. A good actor does not necessarily a good performer make. Why did Sarwat Gilani and Fahad Mirza perform to Baaji and Parey Hut Love songs despite Meera being willing and available (she was rightly upset about not performing to her own songs) and why did Fakhr e Alam get a chance for a stage comeback when there were so many other, more relevant and appealing acts? These are just two of the many questions being asked.

With Fawad Khan being a no-show (that’s another story altogether) and Mahira Khan not performing, the biggest star on stage that night was Ali Zafar and though he wasn’t scheduled to perform, he stepped up and gave fans in the stands something to go wild over. Ali went through a brief medley of his favourite songs, even having Aima Baig and her amazing vocals accompany him on the Teefa OST, and it was evident that this was his big moment, his grand return to stage.

Another cute surprise was Manchester-based co-host Mani Liaqat, who had been flown down for the event, and was undoubtedly one of the funniest people on stage. His humour flowed naturally and his Punjabi/Urdu/English humour had everyone in fits and giggles.

Each high was accompanied by an equally disappointing low. The show was running terribly late (one could blame Fawad Chaudhry and many of our stars for making really long speeches), resulting in Hira Mani, Strings, Urwa and Farhan Hocane’s anticipated performances being compromised. Apparently Urwa and Farhan were going to unveil the Tich Button teaser at the Arena; that couldn’t materialize and needless to say, they must have returned quite upset with nothing but a few selfies taken in a private jet to show for their trip.

What about the merit of the awards?

Sana Javed won the Best Actress award for her performance in Ruswai; seen here with Faisal Khan, founder of Mesmerise Events that organized PISA 2020.

I wouldn’t even go there because PISA, as an award show, had very little merit. Other than Omair Alavi, there was no credible person from the Pakistani entertainment industry (especially media) on the jury. The award categories lacked consistency; some categories had no nominees while some had 10. There was no audio-visual introduction to the nominees. The voting process was not clear. There were four Lifetime Achievement recipients; it’s customary to honour ONE person at a time. It’s always pleasing to be recognized for one’s efforts and those who walked away with PISA trophies were happy; some were even deserving. It’s the nature of the beast that those who don’t win will always complain but it would have been nice had there been some method to the madness.

The evening ended well past 3am and as the Arena officially shuts down at midnight, one can only imagine the kind of surcharge that was being paid to keep it alight. Rumour had it that the organisers were paying a hundred thousand Dirhams per hour after midnight to keep the electricity on. Again, the on-ground dynamics kept it going; the light and sound and stage was truly dynamic. The fact that the stands were populated by animated, interactive fans kept things buzzing. The arena had a well-stocked cafeteria so food and drink was no problem; people were happily well fed and satiated (unlike the starvation they often suffer at local shows). And of course, there was major star power at the event. Millions of dollars must have been spent on hospitality and event management, from start to end, so it’s actually really unfortunate that it hadn’t been spent sensibly. No one invests this kind of money and makes this big an effort for a bad review and general disgruntlement.

So, what now?

An official post-event press release issued an apology for the miscommunication that certain stars suffered. And it reassured that next time would be smoother, meaning that this was not a one-time affair and there would be a next time. I have to say, conclusively, that investment is a major concern when planning similar events in Pakistan but here we had someone who was willing to invest in projecting Pakistani talent. Autonomy is another major concern at award shows in Pakistan; except for the Lux Style Awards, channel-operated award shows are hosted to honour and celebrate their own successes only. Hum Awards, for example, will not recognize Mere Paas Tum Ho, an ARY blockbuster and vice versa. PISA may be aired on ARY but it was not channel directed and thus did nominate and recognize artistes from across the spectrum. These were PISA 2020’s redeeming factors and one sincerely hopes the organizers will learn from their mistakes and build on their strengths to ensure a truly international level event that it surely has the capacity to become.

Mahira Khan, Ali Zafar, Aima Baig, Humayun Saeed at the First Pakistan International Screen Awards 2020