‘Mehwish and Sohai are the only two real dancers,’ Wahab Shah on choreography in Pakistan and more

Dance is amongst the oldest art forms mankind has created and with the advent of cinema, it forayed into layman’s lives. Where mainstream Hollywood may have a breakup/patch up the relationship with choreography, Lollywood, and Bollywood, two of the oldest film industries of South Asia, born from the same mother, have always loved dance to be an integral part of their films. This love has resulted in the works of countless dancers and choreographers in the subcontinent who have helped shape what today, the region’s cinema, is.

The resurgence of Lollywood is again witnessing the rise of choreographers and dancers who are contributing to its identity and Wahab Shah is just one talented man amongst these. Albeit Wahab has an extensive portfolio, it’s his two big upcoming films, Baaji and Chhalawa, that he’s choreographing, that is catching everyone’s attention.

We talked to him extensively about the art form that he so dearly practices in today’s rising Pakistani cinema. Read and Enjoy!


You’re choreographing Chhalawa and Baji, is there any difference between the modes of the films with respect to their choreography; the requirements of both the film and the director’s vision and the treatment of their choreography departments?

I am a director of the choreography so every time I am choreographing a film, I go through its narrative. I understand the director and its creative team, their vision and visual treatment of the whole project and then I bring my own ideas to the table that suit the film’s narrative and treatment. Both Chhalawa and Baaji have their own narratives, unique in their own ways. Both directors have different styles and different requirements and are clear regarding their requirements.

As the director of the choreography, I call the shots. I basically direct the song, I edit the song, their angles, costumes and I am involved in pretty much every process. These two great directors have allowed me to bring in the freshness or whatever that I wanted at the table.

Pakistani filmmakers have been notorious for not giving enough time to choreographers for preparation or incorporating their vision, from the 90s cinema for example where Syed Noor employed Nigah Hussein and an Indian choreographer for two different songs of “Deewaney Terey Pyar Ke”, Nigah complained about lesser space and time given to him compared to his Indian counterpart, has the trend changed or does it still prevail?

It’s true that Indian choreographers are accommodated much more than their Pakistani counterparts. I guess it’s the inferiority complexes that are embedded in us which makes us think that whatever is brought from a foreign land has to be better than its local counterparts. I don’t want to comment on their personal outlook of how they see things but I do feel that if the same level of confidence, remuneration and “accommodation” is given to Pakistani choreographers, we have the potential and drive to create our own individual style.

Also, I think these things are directly proportional to each other. I do seventy percent of my work in my office, taking time to plan it and then the rest of it on the field where we decide the camera angles and shots. So we, the choreographers, also need to do some introspection to see what better things our Indian counterparts are doing so we could achieve the same level. Having said that, I still maintain that Indian choreographers are unjustifiably treated better than us the locals.

What are the challenges a choreographer has to face in Lollywood and what are the things that you think make it easy to work here?

As far as the challenges to a choreographer in Pakistan are concerned these days, number one is finding the right team of professionals ranging from dancers to the artists and even the director or producers themselves. Unfortunately, the nascent industry in which we are working these days doesn’t have that many people who are experienced enough in the field of film. Everyone is at the start if their careers. EXPERIENCE is important to exposure and vice versa. For that, we have to work more and more to learn and be a pro at it. This does have a positive side to it as well, though. We do a lot of experiments, being in the nascent stage. Although it takes efforts to convince a director of a certain vision, being a “Virgin land” does give an opportunity to create something new and original.

Talking about Chhalawa, it’s heard that you have designed some demanding steps that some people thought would be difficult for Mehwish to follow. How did that turn out?

Mehwish Hayat is a fantastic dancer and amongst the current lot, Mehwish and Sohai are the only two artists who have established themselves as the real dancers. When you are working on a film’s choreography, it’s important that it’s only done once and later when it comes out, people copy and follow it at their functions if they find it interesting. So I try to create a dance which has originality to it, for it to be interesting. As far as how difficult my dance steps were, I think Mehwish can answer that in a better way, but I do know that she tried well and did justice to the steps. Both Zara Noor and Mehwish have done brilliant work and their dances are gonna be fun. Now that the song videos are coming out people will see and will surely like it. I have tried to incorporate steps that will get people intrigued to copy them and that feels easy yet “Mazedaar” and fun.

What’s your Modus Operandi while designing a Chorio Sequence for a particular song or film? Do you look for inspirations around or follow a certain fixed template to work with?

My modus operandi does involve inspiration because nothing in the world is original. Everything in the world has been done at one point. I take inspiration from the classic era of Lollywood as well as other great choreographers like Handed Chaudry, Ashraf Shirazi, Papu and Khanu Samrat and simultaneously western choreographers like Mia Michael and of course, Bollywood. By inspiration, I don’t mean to copy them but see their work and incorporate them in my work with a different take. Dance isn’t just about body movements, it’s equally about angles and camera movement as well as the environment in which it is done. So I do believe in seeking inspiration to create my own work.

I believe basic orthodox templates should be followed to choreograph a song as it’s these templates which ensure a song looks like a song and sometimes you aim for a kind of nostalgia or a particular feel for which you do have to follow certain set rules.

You have worked with artists from 90s like Meera and the current crop of actors like Mehwish etc, is there any difference in your work experience with actors from different eras?

Yes, I have worked with Meera before back in 2007 on “Davdaas” but after that, I didn’t do any films because not much quality work was happening. Apart from that, I have worked with Laila, Noor, Sana as well as Mahira, Mehwish, and Sohai. I feel the ladies from the 90s are much more expressive with lesser inhibitions. They are taught by their own Gurus of the film industry hence giving them the industry of the word “Filmy”. Obviously the younger lot have their own style but unfortunately, sometimes, it is difficult to explain it to them. “Filmy, filmy hi huta ha, aur puraney logon ko iska pata hai.” The younger generation is yet to understand what’s filmy and what’s drama and it will take time.

Who do you think is the best dancer Pakistani cinema ever had? And who’s the best dancer, currently, in the local cinema and why?

I don’t know if I could actually pick a single dancer but I do feel we have had great dancers in Pakistan in every era. For example, in the 60s, Zamarud was a great dancer and so was Husna and Mehtab. In the 90s era, Reema has been a phenomenal dancer and so was Anjuman and Nadra. Nargis with her expression was matchless and so is Deedar whom I would love to choreograph for, in a film. Amongst the younger lot, I think Sohai, Mehwish, and Amna Ilyas have the quirkiness, sass and energy and fewer inhibitions. Besides that, I haven’t seen too many dancers in films. Although off screen, I know people who are underexplored such as Faryal Mehmood who is a great dancer although I have yet to work with her.

Do you think Pakistani dances that we have in our films will evolve to have a different flavor or identity than the one practiced in its closest relative, Bollywood, or not?

Yes, I do believe that Pakistani dance has its own flavor. Right now our film is finding its own identity and as soon as that’s done, everything attached to it would naturally get its own flavor and identity. We should keep trying and look into our own culture than looking to India. That’s what I try to do in my songs where I try to put that “Wahab Shah” signature to it. As we get to understand our culture and use it in our dance, it will definitely go on to have its own identity.

Are the taboos surrounding dance in Pakistan decaying or do they persist?

Choreography or dance is still a taboo in Pakistan.

In our society, to dance and dance freely and emote through it is so difficult. Unfortunately, we have mumbled jumbled our social norms, culture, and religion so much that it has led to a lot of confusion. If we look at some of the old works in Lollywood, especially the Pre Zia Era, it had the beauty, innocence, and swag but then the gap brought by the regime has affected our culture and dance in terms of morality, mentality and sacredness this art form is all about. The distortion of the art form that has happened in the 80s and 90s has brought a bad name to the industry in general and dance in particular.

Taboos attached to dance have increased over time. With the advent of social media and smartphones, every person has a “hammer” that makes him a judge and pass any kind of judgment on the work of artists which ultimately affect them and their work. But it’s not entirely the audience’s fault, people who have wronged the art of dance by doing objectionable and tasteless work are equally to be blamed for contributing to these taboos. But looking at the brighter side, taboos and inhibitions are everywhere around the world and we still have a large chunk of the audience that likes cinema and dance so I prefer to see it that way.

Where do dance stands in our society compared to the past?

If I am to compare it to the past, we were more accepting of dance in the past. The beauty of it used to be celebrated. There used to be dance teachers in schools and we have our elders who narrate stories of learning dance from their teachers. The time for dance is still conducive but we have to work to bring back that golden era that we lost and it’s the collective responsibility of both the viewers and the dance creators.

What song in your opinion, from Lollywood and Bollywood, you think could have choreographed by you in a better way?

It’s such a subjective and difficult question that you have asked (laughs). I think “Lollywood mein tu saarey hi gaaney.” Actually, whichever song I see, I see it through my artistic lenses and feel the ways in which it could have been done better. It is not just me, think it happens with every artist who has their own way of seeing things.

Any future projects? Anything that you feel excited about?

This year I have four films that are releasing. Apart from Baaji and Chhalawa, there are two films including Cha Ja Ray in which I have choreographed Aditi Singh, a thorough professional and a super hardworking girl. The other is Shab e Barat which is slated to release later this year.

Our team is working on two projects, Tich Button and Senti Aur Mental and both are expected to hit screens by 2020.


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