Entering the premises of SZABIST, I felt a wave of nostalgia hit me. An alumnus myself, I took in the preparations that greeted me as I walked in as the moderator of one of the most intimidating panels organized for the annual ZAB Media Festival, titled, “The Renaissance of Cinema.” I was set to question the likes of Yasir Hussain, Farhan Saeed, Ali Rehman Khan, Nabeel Qureshi, Rafay Rashdi, and Fizza Ali Meerza, and as I inched closer to the green room to wait, the nervousness balled itself up and made a home in my stomach.
The Green Room
As I waited for guests to arrive, I made small talk with the students, seven of whom surrounded me as if I was, well, important. Alas, my imposter syndrome could not allow that, and I joked about how I had just graduated in February.
Rafay Rashdi was the first to arrive, and after a pleasant greeting and the arrival of Shahjehan Saleem, the lead teacher heading the whole affair, the conversation flowed easily.
One after another, the guests began pouring in, with Ali Rehman Khan, Nabeel Qureshi, and Fizza Ali Meerza following Rafay Rashdi. Farhan Saeed was worth the wait, as he entered in a desi shalwar kameez with the swagger of a hero who knows what he’s about. Yasir Hussain, unfortunately, could not make it, as he had fallen ill.
Taking To The Stage
At times like these, while I may not entirely be able to push down my anxiousness, I am cognizant of where I am and what all I represent at that moment. I was at the festival as an ex-member of another digital organization, but also as the current editor at Galaxy Lollywood.
There was a lot riding on the questions I asked and the discussion that ensued. We all left the green room with a cloud of anticipation hanging over our heads, and were met with a deafening applause by the students, especially as our names and profiles were read out.
Addressing The Recent Fiasco
The Marvel elephant in the room had to be addressed. Ali Rehman Khan, Nabeel Qureshi, and Fizza Ali Meerza gave answers to the query about the absolute fiasco that Eid films faced with the release of Doctor Strange, and while some answers followed a line of thought we have heard publicly, others were refreshingly different.
Ali Rehman Khan On The Issue
As someone who had Parde Mein Rehne Do release and become a part of the larger conversation, Ali Rehman Khan had some choice thoughts on the prevalent discourse.
First and foremost, Ali shed light on the fact that the films released on Eid have gone through a rigorous process of being for the past two years, with the pandemic impacting production processes as well, highlighting how his film was 18 days into the shoot when things had to be shut down. He drew a contrast between the world then, when people were showing interest in local cinema, and the post-pandemic world, where people have to be reacquainted with that previous vigor.
He shed light on how this was a huge deal for investors and producers, who had put in the resources, but also for actors, who had put in their time and work. He further details the painstaking process and actor goes through to become the character projected on-screen.
He took the opportunity to raise his voice on the matter, stating that it was only him and Amar Khan who did so in the first place, stating that belief in local content is pertinent. He took issue with people criticizing local cinema without consuming the content, explaining how the criticism then becomes unfair.
Ali also stated that comparing a local film to a Marvel, DC, or Hollywood giant is a baseless comparison, to begin with. Moreover, he asked for local films to be given a fair chance in the face of such comparisons arising, given that the ordeal is a business, at the end of the day, with money riding on the films. This may not necessarily be attained by a ban, but an extended period of consumption for local films.
Nabeel Qureshi And Fizza Ali Meerza On The Issue
Fizza took to speaking first, and opened with the irony of placing bans on all imported products, except films. She put forth a question, asking if the government does not consider the film business an industry at all, to begin with.
Nabeel spoke next, talking about the anxieties surrounding the upcoming release of Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad, given that an edition of Thor and episodic screening of Ms Marvel will be taking place. He began by stating that thoroughly enjoys competition, given that Bollywood films were the norm back in the day when his films would release. He placed his belief in the product and the audience, stating that Thor and his film would be the same price, but spending money on his film would be “paisa vasool.”
Nabeel was refreshingly honest about the need to improve the quality of local films. He talked about the hyperawareness of a post-pandemic audience that has consumed good quality OTT content, thereby raising expectations overall, and nullifying the need for the emotional war-cry of “supporting Pakistani cinema,” stating that the fraternity is not doing social work – it is, at the end of the day, a business.
Rafay Rashdi On Five Local Cinema Releases On Eid
Perhaps the most difficult question was posed to Rafay Rashdi, who took to answering the same in a straightforward manner.
He began by sharing that he has massive respect for the filmmakers who chose to release all these films together in a post-pandemic era, creating an avenue for future filmmakers, from which they can pick lessons as well.
However, he was clear about the fact that releasing all the films together is a dialogue between filmmakers – a union and association decision – whereby a unified decision can be reached, given that the filmmakers had prior knowledge of all releases, including that of Doctor Strange.
Rafay also emphasized on how an entire association, and not just five filmmakers, should address the press when dealing with such issues, reiterating on the importance of a unified front.
Farhan Saeed On Audience Agency
When asked about whether talks of bans or delaying foreign film releases takes away a certain degree of agency from the audience, actor and singer Farhan Saeed (who also blew away the audience with a song at the end of the talk) shared his insights without holding back.
He began by stating that on a creative level, Pakistan can match upto anyone in the world. He then went on to differentiate between the content one wishes to watch on television or OTT platforms, and that which one wishes to watch on the big screen, placing talkies, social dramas, and the like within the first category. He mentioned how people want to see things “larger than life” on the cinema screen. He then highlighted that in many ways, Bollywood, too, is failing, with South films ruling the markets, giving way to the belief that the medium has changed.
Farhan emphasized on the need for those high expectations and the limited resources of filmmakers to be met halfway, doubling down on the idea of giving local cinema a fair chance by waiting for a week before releasing foreign films.
He then shared his grievances with the five filmmakers as well, hilariously joking about how prior to the release of films, there was no unified discussion, but in the aftermath, all have joined hands while addressing the press and audiences.
However, he showed support for upcoming films, stating that despite the release of foreign cinema, he would much rather watch Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad or London Nahi Jaunga. He summarized his thoughts by saying, “Ya toh Marvel ki film 1500 ki kardein, ya toh humari films 500 ki kardein.”
Censorship As A Hurdle For Cinema
No discussion around rekindling the essence of cinema is complete without addressing the beast that is censorship. While the question was originally meant to be posed to Yasir Hussain, who, despite winning Best Actor at the UK Asian Film Festival, faced the banning of Javed Iqbal back home, it was opened up to the entire panel, all of whom treaded carefully.
The entire panel took issue with the bewildering set up of the censor boards and their certifications, while also hinting at other forces involved in the process. While jokes were made regarding the same and suggestions like placing scripts before censor boards were made in jest, the panel addressed the random banning of films in varying capacities, and how it is an impediment to growth.
How Can We Support Local Cinema?
As a final message, the panel was asked to share with audiences how they can support local cinema, to which both Rafay and Fizza stated that the words “support” and “revival” must be retired entirely. Nabeel mentioned how audiences must, first and foremost, go watch the films before passing a judgement – an opinion that Rafay and Ali also seconded. Farhan also resounded with the same sentiments and thoughts.
It’s A Wrap
The session came to a close with a quick Q&A with the audience over the content of local cinema, the reliance on English as a spoken medium, and the possible integration of a rating system for audiences. Farhan closed everything off with a quick song, and the panel ended with the guests being bestowed with gifts by SZABIST.
All in all, the conversation was engaging and riveting, with numerous notable points made that must become a part of the larger discourse. As time goes on and we ease into a post-pandemic routine, and with more films on the horizon, let us all kick back and bear witness to this rebirth and Renaissance of cinema in the time to come.