ISLAMABAD: This very tract marks my Golden Jubilee in-print – it had to be worthwhile for myself and the readers; hence I decided to travel to Lahore where I set up an interview with the lead-pair of Nadeem Beyg’s anticipated release, Punjab Nahi Jaungi (PNJ).
I remember feeling slightly stung, yet hysterical. Pakistani cinema this year has only managed to disappoint – critically as well as commercially – contenders this Eid, however, promise differently.
Exactly four years ago the revival of local cinema and protagonist cum co-producer on the film, Humayun Saeed’s first cinematic production, Main Hoon Shahid Afridi inspired me to write and lend my support to the recovering fraternity.
Proceed to today: I coincidently find myself hopping onto the same elevator as Humayun as we reach the offices’ floor from the hotel lobby where we were expected to be joined by the sultry and charismatic leading lady, Mehwish Hayat. It feels like coming a full circle. I know for a fact that I’m not the journalist, or even the person I was, but it was a pleasant surprise seeing the two evolve as artists as well (more-so, Humayun as a film-maker).
“I think you learn something every day. Specifically for PNJ, my character Fawad (Jagga) was poles apart from what I’ve done thus far. I had to pick up a very different accent and undoubtedly, there are some fearless actors who would take something like this up immediately, but then there’s always something that remains missing. I didn’t want that to happen,” Humayun began of stepping outside of his comfort zone, adding, “I’ve always been very apprehensive of taking up a different dialect while taking up roles, because I don’t want it to seem as if I’m making an effort, so I practiced very diligently to get it right.”
Mehwish, too, saw PNJ not only as a great learning as an actress, but also connected to it emotionally. “You know PNJ has a lot to say. It tells its viewers to take a stand for themselves, but not at the cost of disrespecting their elders and forgetting their family values,” she asserted. “As an actor, it was very challenging because my character Amal comprises a lot of shades. And I also discovered that I can dance till seven in the morning – amid heavy rain and freezing temperatures,” she chuckled.
Humayun, who completes two decades in the industry as an actor and producer, feels he’s a blank canvas before fitting into every character’s shoes. “I’m never too confident; I always have butterflies in my stomach before starting any project, in fact the first day…” An eager Mehwish then interrupted Humayun, “The first day is like my first day of school.” And we all burst out laughing before Saeed continued, “Also I am never satisfied with my first scene; it definitely takes me a few days to get into the groove of the character.”
Experience doesn’t replace emotional rawness, Hayat gives her pragmatic two cents on the matter: “You don’t have a written formula for acting, it’s a process and it naturally takes time for you to adopt a certain character. If you think you’ve completely learnt the craft and everything about film-making, you’re living in a bubble.”
Assuming they’re both passionate about getting it right, workshops and rehearsals prior to rolling the cameras is usually the way forward to getting into the skin of a character for actors following the Stanislavsky school-of-thought. Saeed and Hayat both have their own versions and convince me with a factor that is imperative to their work – emotional rawness.
“I think more than anything, it depends on the director. Nadeem for instance believes in minimal rehearsals, he doesn’t want his actors to overdo it,” Humayun observed and Mehwish acknowledged, “I agree, you know something that I’ve learnt by working with Nadeem is that the first or second take is usually the best. After that, you start putting in way too much effort and it all looks very mechanical.”
Objectification seems to be embedded in commercially viable films, in our part of the world. It was majorly first highlighted in local cinema by Humayun’s Jawani Phir Nahi Ani (JPNA) co-star Hamza Ali Abbasi, who refrained from promoting the film because of its derogatory content surrounding women, – the film though, ended up being the highest-grosser till date. Not only responsible as a seasoned actor, but Humayun also runs one of Pakistan’s leading production houses; his take on the debate is convincing to say the least.
“Even if a girl is wearing sleeveless on-screen, there’s a lot of hatred that comes in, and that is simply wrong. As a film-maker, I try my best to never incorporate a scene in my film that makes a family sitting in a theatre, uncomfortable – which also includes dialogues with double-meaning because to me, that’s the worst of all,” he confessed, adding “JPNA did have a bikini shot, but that was only because the scene was shot at a beach in Thailand. But because of the reaction we received, I’ll try to avoid that going forward.”
Mehwish, on the other hand, not only starred opposite Humayun in JPNA with little substance and more glitter, but made her silver screen debut with a-much popularised item number, Billi in Na Maloom Afraad’s first installment. As much as her spins and twirls were admired (and rightfully so, as she stole everyone’s thunder), she was also severely denounced for pioneering a departed trend that is more often than not, looked down upon.
“I think criticism comes with appreciation. Again, that very situation in Na Maloom Afraad was a goons’ after-party. Billi was a character – she represented the lust of a certain class and none of it was forced,” she justified. “Look at yesteryear cinema in our country, they even had mujras. It’s not that we’ve been inspired by India or we’ve started something new; it’s been a part of our cinema for ages. Then again, it shouldn’t be vulgar, it should appear sensual and appealing, but there’s a fine line between the two,” she stated.
“I do have to closely look into every project I decide to take up. Billi was a very bold step for me and I asked my family for permission before doing it and I have no regrets,” she added. “I could’ve done Dedh Ishquiya alongside Madhuri Dixit, which Huma Qureshi essayed, but I didn’t because there was this scene with Arshad Warsi that I knew I couldn’t do. Had I wanted to do it, I could have, so I know exactly what and what not to do.”
On set insecurities brewing between contemporary peers are only natural in show business. Bearing witness to negative energies over the years in the industry, Humayun struggles to find a middle-ground, but reveals he’s been successful with maintaining optimism and dedication with his recent and forthcoming projects. “You do get an idea as to how to handle negativity after being a part of the industry for so long and the only way to make the haters secure is to look into where the problem occurs and what exactly went wrong,” he noted.
“I was speaking to Nadeem regarding how our last three projects together with Mehwish had such happy sets. Sohail Ahmed Sahab, who features in PNJ, told me the other day how lucky he was to have a set where every single person is so involved in their respective jobs. There’s a lot of industry politics that goes around. Thankfully, I haven’t had a chance to indulge in any of that recently.”
PNJ also features Urwa Hocane opposite Saeed. Earlier in JPNA, Mehwish shared the screen with not one, but four actresses, yet she claims to be certain of her presence, and I agree. “I can’t keep waiting for that one film where I’m the solo lead. That being said, in both, I do take the lead. After all, you do need supporting characters to take the film forward,” the Actor in Law actress maintained. “Every story bodies certain characters and why would I be insecure of that? I am very content with what I’ve done so far; I own my characters and I’m least bothered by what others are doing. What matters to us is the final product.”
Humayun lends his support too, also clearing the air of him purposely starring in his own productions. “You know all of our films so far have had ensemble star casts, be it MHSA, JPNA or even PNJ. And yes, that one male lead is always there, but I make sure everybody is given their due, in fact I try my best to make everyone feel important on our set,” he says of rationalising screen time and space. “Hamza, I think completely stole the show in MHSA and that’s because all of our films have these moments that allow every actor to shine.”
PNJ is your quintessential love-triangle, but Humayun concludes our chat by promising the film to take you back to the good ol’ days. “After a very long time I came across a very simple, family-oriented story with a great flow and all the ingredients that were present in our films from the 80s, I had to take it up as an actor and producer. There’s nostalgia, but people will know what a true, contemporary Pakistani film looks and feels like,” he says on a parting note.
There’s a reason why Humayun and Mehwish keep pairing and delivering phenomenal hits together, they’re as fascinating in person; they complement each other and bounce off of each other’s energies. One of the many reasons PNJ is a potential chartbuster include the two’s electric chemistry. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to celebrate my landmark story; PNJ hits cinemas near you this Eid.
Mehwish Hayat’s outfits by Saadia Mirza
Humayun Saeed’s outfits by Fahad Hussyan
Makeup by Maram Azmat
Photography by Azeem Sani
Jewellery by Samreen Vance
Styling by Fahad Hussyan
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