Films from the Heart

Maham Sajid talks to filmmaker Asim Raza about his work, the creative process and Pakistan’s film industry

Films from the Heart
Maham Sajid: From an architect to a filmmaker par excellence, what caused this creative shift?

Asim Raza: Art was my favourite subject in school and I remember even as a child whenever somebody asked me I wanted to become when I grew up, I always said I wanted to be an artist. I probably didn’t even know what kind of an artist I wanted to be, but all I knew was I wanted to something to do with the arts. Storytelling, yes, was also very exciting for me, and I do remember making storyboards as a child where I used to cut pictures from newspapers, magazines and calendars and put different characters together and place them in different settings to make my own stories. I have done some crazy things as a child to the point that my parents were worried as to how come I never play outdoor sports – which is obviously a very healthy thing to do! But I would rather sit in my room and look at books with beautiful pictures and do all kinds of crazy artistic things in my own little way.

When I grew up, I had to choose a line or a subject to pursue my career. The reason I went for architecture was not only because I knew it has a scientific side to it and parents would be happy to see me doing something which in their head sounds more scientific than just artistic. Because they thought there might not be much of a career for me in just an art-related field. Nobody in my family was an artist, they are all bankers and mathematical-minded people. So then when I decided for architecture, it was a win-win for everyone. I also knew that I would be very happy pursuing my career as an architect because designing houses, or for that matter spaces, and making them not only look beautiful but also feel beautiful and usable was itself a very artistic challenge for me.

But once I started studying, I was really lucky to get an opportunity to start, as I would say, flirting around with the concept of filmmaking too. I got some opportunities with some ad agencies where I could indulge in a couple of assignments for TVCs. I would say that was the start of my diversion. By the time I was finishing my Masters in Architecture, I already knew where I was going to go when I had my degree.

M.S.: You have ventured in to all sorts of feats of writing: story, screenplay and lyrics. Which do you find most creatively satisfying?

A.R.:Writing a story, screenplay or lyrics, to me they are all a part of storytelling, and storytelling as I said earlier, is something I thoroughly enjoy. I do not find them different from each other. I believe in writing my own stories or at least working on stories that I can immediately connect to. I don’t think I can work well or tell a story that I can’t believe in. So I only pick those stories that are believable and relatable for me, and I know I can do justice when I tell them to others. Similarly, screenplay I think I take it for granted because as a director, I think it becomes a part of my job to work on the screenplays myself.

And lyrics are an aspect which I developed while I was working on my first film, Ho Man Jahaan. I used to ask people to write lyrics for my songs but then I realized that when others wrote them for me, the lyrics were generic and not actually depicting the feelings of the characters very well. And I felt that in a film, even a song needs to tell the story or take it further. Unless and until the song is not expressing the story or developing it, I find it very mundane. So that is when I realized it that only a director or a storyteller can carry that progression within their own story. That’s when I tried to work on the lyrics myself and I think I managed alright. I don’t think I’m a great lyricist but I can tell what my character is feeling pretty well.

M.S.: Do you feel a cultural decline in the content being churned out by our film industry today? What factors do you hold responsible for this?

A.R.: I do feel that we are all a little scared to tell bold stories or true stories that are coming from our heart because right now the film industry, or for that matter the media in general in Pakistan, is still developing, and money is not something that is very frequently invested in films. I do know the pressure on a filmmaker or a producer. If a certain amount is being invested, what kind of a return are we expecting from it? So it’s no more about personal expression unfortunately. Also there is no support system here. I do understand that the government is obviously not in a state where they can start supporting films. So, to make it viable commercially, we have to indulge in impurities; some of us do a little more and some of us do a little less, and I think that’s the difference we get to see in different films.

But I think that has got nothing to do with the filmmakers themselves. I believe every filmmaker has his or her utmost desire to tell a beautiful film which is coming straight from the heart – but some of us buckle more under the pressure more and some of us push back a little more.

M.S.: Writing requires relentless patience. Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

A.R.: It is very true that writing requires relentless patience. I completely agree with you. I think an artist in general, if I may say so, loves to sleep over his or her ideas. Art cannot be produced overnight unless you are a magician. I believe in hard work. And hard work obviously takes time and patience. The reason why I don’t find it painful is because I enjoy every single moment of it. The whole process of sleeping over it: writing, rewriting, scratching it down, dismissing ideas, reworking the ideas and reinventing the wheels. I always tell people it’s the journey of a film which is a lot more rewarding than actually finishing that story or film. At the end what happens is not exciting enough. What is exciting is the process of developing it.

If you ask me what tips I can give to aspiring writers, all I can say is that firstly you should only write it if you think that you are passionate about it because you can never get bored of something you’re passionate about. Also, when you’re writing something, you have to understand that first thoughts can be great but rethinking them or revisiting them later can actually make them greater. I have done it and I have seen it happening. In my experience I realized that the more you sleep over ideas, the better they shape up. So if you want beauty and perfection in every single line of your story and every single frame of your storytelling, you have to believe in spending and investing time in that piece of work.

M.S.: Much like Ho Man Jahaan, it seems Paray Hut Love is the complete entertainment package: shiny star cast, soulful melodies, visually appealing backdrops but also promising high quality content. Did you deliberately tick out the boxes required to make a commercially successful film or did this genre of cinema come organically to you?

A.R.: To be honest, this genre came organically to me. That much is for sure. For me, cinema is a very personal expression but obviously it’s an inclusive medium. So as I have said earlier, you need to tell stories to people that are exciting for them also. Now, a story can only become exciting if you know how to tell it right. So if you’re telling a story that is coming from your heart, and if you know the right way of telling it, then any story can become exciting for people. I do believe that “content is king”, but other than that, what is also important for me is how entertaining my story is. When I say “entertaining”, it’s subjective concept. So for me, entertaining is where I can enjoy music, dance, colours and culture. As I said, I love to look at beautiful visuals with beautiful people, beautiful sets and beautiful props. I admire beauty and I am not ashamed of that.

So, I feel very comfortable doing all of this. That does not mean every film of mine if going to be a Paray Hut Love or a Ho Man Jahaan, obviously they all would differ as I come across a different story, I would also look at the possibilities of where the music or dance fits in. If it fits wells, I will include it and if not, I might not include it. But I know that the kind of stories that would excite me always are the ones where I can have as much fun, culture, drama, emotion, song and dance as much I can possibly afford.

To me, they are all a very important part of the package when it comes to a feature film.