Sarmad Khoosat On The Moral Ambiguity In Zindagi Tamasha

Dr. Hasan Zafar interviews Sarmad Khoosat about his film Zindagi Tamasha, and the reception to its release on YouTube.

Sarmad Khoosat On The Moral Ambiguity In Zindagi Tamasha

This is an excerpt from an interview conducted by Dr. Hasan Zafar in August 2023.

Hasan: I've heard that you invested your own money in "Zindagi Tamasha" and raised your own funds. Is that true?

Sarmad: Yes, indeed. I invested my own money in the project. People tend to assume that a film tackling problematic societal issues must have external support, but that wasn't the case here. To gather funds, I sold a piece of land – a 14 marla plot. In Pakistan, this type of cinema doesn't have a highly profitable market, and I was fully aware of that. There were financial risks as well as the potential for controversy, but I was willing to take those risks.

Hasan: It's intriguing how you were conscious of the risks tied to such themes in our society. Were you aware of this from the outset?

Sarmad: This film isn't an agenda-driven one. There's no foreign influence, and I'm not backed by any lobby. To my critics, I'd like to point out that my film company, Khoosat Films Private Limited, is transparent, small, and audited annually. I wanted to tell the story my way.

Hasan: Given the controversies surrounding the film's content, did you face any direct threats regarding its release?

Sarmad: I'm an artist, and I draw inspiration from the world around me. The various subthemes in my film reflect what mattered to me. If someone were to ask me for a logline, I couldn't provide one.

Hasan: One standout scene is when the eunuch steps forward to offer niyaz. This character appears as the only humane figure in the chaotic world you've depicted.

Sarmad: Absolutely, that was a conscious choice. It felt like a burden during development, but as artists, we understood our role. My primary audience is the Pakistani people, and I wanted them to connect with what I portrayed.

Hasan: Were you aware that this type of film would have a limited audience and not be commercially successful?

Sarmad: Indeed, this film has a distinct mood. It doesn't adhere to the standard three-act screenplay structure, and it doesn't follow textbook guidelines. Our protagonist is morally ambiguous, much like the film's overall tone. I wanted regular cinema-goers to experience this, not just a niche audience.

Hasan: The film's narrow streets contribute to its grey and claustrophobic atmosphere. Could you comment on the choice of location?

Sarmad: I was determined not to be a tourist in Lahore. I grew up in the old part of the city and know its streets intimately. The city itself becomes a character in every film, and we carefully selected locations that fit the narrative. Many symbols and metaphors arose serendipitously.

Hasan: Let's delve into the production details. The film was shot in 2017. How many days did the shoot take, and if you're willing to share, what was the daily production cost?

Sarmad: While I might not want to disclose the exact cost, I can share that we used a small Sony A7 II camera for shooting. The shoot was meticulously planned and completed in 21 days. We had to time it around Eid Miladun Nabi (SAW), as staging it differently would have been expensive. Saim Sadiq, the director of Joyland (2022), served as my unit director and directed the sequence I was in. This film was made on a modest budget and with a moderately sized crew.

Hasan: Would you like to talk about the lighting style of the film – it’s quite dark.

Sarmad: My cinematographer, Khizer Idrees, and I share a strong bond. He's an NCAA graduate and previously worked with me on Manto (2015). We collaboratively developed the visual language, and restraint was a key element. Given budget constraints, I couldn't focus excessively on cameras.

Hasan: Did you use your own facilities for post-production?

Sarmad: Yes, we handled everything in-house, renting only the cameras.

Hasan: You're credited as an editor as well.

Sarmad: Indeed, and the writer also took on editing tasks. We went through several drafts, ensuring the film's content resonated with me. I had a significant role in choosing what made it into the final cut.

Hasan: With your background in film, particularly your interactions with European cinema, did any European directors influence your filmmaking style?

Sarmad: While I've been influenced by several filmmakers, my style has evolved over time. I've admired directors like Satyajit Ray and Ingmar Bergman for their use of close-ups. Despite influences, I've strived to develop my own distinct style.

Hasan: Moving to the actors, many were newcomers. How much guidance did you provide? Did you offer acting training?

Sarmad: The actors varied, ranging from novices to veterans, theatre artists, and models. I aimed not to over-direct actors, as each take brings forth new beats and moments. The film's most genuine scenes are often from the first takes. While I conducted camera drills, I wanted the actors to be confident in their roles and actions, embracing their imperfections.

Hasan: Did you encounter challenges molding theatre and TV actors for the film?

Sarmad: Not particularly. We conducted extensive readings, even bringing in a physiotherapist to guide Samia on her physical portrayal. Arif, who isn't a native Punjabi speaker, adapted well. While minor language slips might exist, emotional authenticity takes precedence.

Hasan: The film's long takes remind me of the French New Wave style, like Godard's films.

Sarmad: While I haven't explored French New Wave extensively beyond Godard, other influences like Bergman's and Iranian cinema have shaped my style. The film's quiet nature and emphasis on silences led to the design of extended shots.

Hasan: Currently, the film has gained nearly a million views on YouTube. Are you satisfied with the reception?

Sarmad: The initial views are heartening, but it's YouTube, and full views aren't guaranteed. The comment section has been disabled due to its toxicity, as platforms like Twitter and YouTube can breed impulsive negativity and even threats. The backlash I faced in 2020 led to mental health issues, reinforcing the harm such platforms can cause.

Hasan: An Indian filmmaker from London suggested adding an elderly, calming character to balance the portrayal of the maulvis. How do you respond?

Sarmad: While I appreciate the feedback, the film's direction reflects my artistic choices. It might not be the most superior decision, but I wanted the portrayal to remain true to my vision. My main concern was challenging the idea that respect should be granted to individuals purely due to their positions, regardless of their behavior.

The author holds a PhD from the University of Glasgow, UK. He hosts a political talk show on TV and appears as a political commentator in TV shows.