So, quite a number of people have asked me what my experience filming a thriller in Karachi was like. Expecting me quite possibly to relate tales of being victimized by the violence of the city, by the male chauvinism of the patriarchal society that still rules my country but not much less like most of the world. In short, of being a “woman filmmaker” in a developing machisimo society. I would be lying if I said that a few instances of the above never happened but it would also be personal heresy to not speak about the refreshing surprises of filming in Pakistan. There is always a bit of bad and good…realistically, no? I know that doesn’t quite make the dramatic write up you might have been wishing for but I am a sucker for honesty, or atleast my humanly biased interpretation of the truth as it unfolds in front of me.
Let’s start with the good. As soon as I landed in Karachi, I hit the ground running. It did suck not to be welcomed by family since my sister’s husband, after five long years, conveniently got posted to Lahore, and so now I had no nuclear family in the city. Back to Jinnah International Airport, 7am, July 3rd, 2011. My co-producer, Saad, took a blackberry picture of an exhausted, sleep-deprived, massively anxious me at the airport. As we sat in the car after depositing my pregnant suitcases filled with survival tools for the 5 dreary months I would be away from LA and the comforts of a painstakingly caring fiance, there was silence in the car, and then Saad said it. The inevitable, holy shit moment. “Filum…banaein gi?!” aka, “So…are you really going to make a film?!” Not his way to challenge me but really to embrace the odds we were going against. This film was nothing short of a miracle to have come together the way it did but then again, most independent films are made by the might of tears, sweat and passion and the almost suicidal leaps of faith and not just the might of the dollar. We both couldn’t really believe that we were there. 3 months from shooting the film. 3 months before that car ride in Karachi, I didn’t have 80% of the funds and yet, somehow, masha’Allah, here we were.
Four days into my landing, there was a strike by MQM, one of Karachi’s defamed or famed, depending on whose side you are…but determinedly an “active” political party that certainly has the power to shut down the city. I was warned instantly by text messages in the comfort of the residence I was staying in, to stay indoors; this was a typical response to conditions being tense in the city. A slew of text messages warning friends and family to stay indoors. First of all, it was always Mama from Islamabad. “Beta (child no matter how old you might be), be careful. The TV says its really bad.” It was incredible, even local media in Pakistan was able to inculcate so much fear in Pakistanis of Pakistan, not very different to media in the US. Whenever you are NOT somewhere, you could be the potential victim of the media as it is not your eyes vs. theirs anymore. “I am fine mama. I don’t even have a car yet, where do you expect me to go.” That’s right, I didn’t have a car or a driver and I was dying of impatience. It took 4 drivers over the next 3 weeks to land my Babar, very punctual and respectful but victim of a piercing body odour. Back to being carless, trapped in my clinically bland guesthouse room, the thought kept bugging me, “Are you really going to make a film?” Nothing had happened yet but then again it had only been 4 days and Saad was a busy man. But I had come here to make a film, damn it! Right after the MQM strike, there was a gas strike for four days so even if you had a car and driver, there was not much you could do in terms of mobility without fuel.
Anyhow, the weekend came along and I had more time with Saad. We were searching for Assistant Directors and an Urdu writer to help me translate some of the dialogue. That was my biggest task first as I had only thought of translating the dialogue but then very quickly had to realize that I had to translate the entire script since most people on set would be more comfortable reading Urdu. Oh, crap! I couldn’t afford or rely a translation service. My script was my blueprint, I had to do it myself so that anyone atleast reading either version of the script, could have the original vision I sought to put out there. And so, it began. Translating the entire script by an English keyboard. Yes, I typed it. And much to my delight, I still remembered my Urdu alphabet despite 10 years of immigration and a broken relationship with spoken Urdu, lurking behind me. The Urdu writer was incredibly helpful and supportive and gave me just the right connection I needed to the current slang in the environment. The rest, my arty actors would do. In the meanwhile, we met a Production Designer we liked, a lot of ADs we didn’t like and I kept pushing Saad to meet with potential actors. Casting was hard as there is no directory online and we didn’t use a casting director. So I had to rely on suggestions by our small team of the writer, Saad and the “not to last ADs” and my avid drama series-watching parents. “Watch the drama tonight on HUM TV. I don’t remember her name but she is great!” said Mama. Despite having cable TV, I probably watched it for a total of 1.5 hours over the span of the 4.5 months I was in Karachi, most of that for casting research.
I took pictures of the TV whilst drama serials were playing and showed them to my team for names of the actors. Most of the actors I knew growing up were now too old or for some reason, inappropriate for the character descriptions we had. We needed 10 or so ensemble main cast members and around 30 or so “junior cast” as they say. I highly dislike the word but people with “bit parts” are called “junior cast” no matter how senior they are. Between the strikes, delays and the generally low “coefficient of responsiveness”, I knew casting won’t really get complete till the very last days and hence I was very pushy about it. We had all but one main person cast one month out of the shoot. However, junior cast was a whole other story. It was a disaster as it was the duty of our 2nd AD who kept getting replaced day after day. I began to learn, “hojaye ga. fika na karein” aka “it will be all right, don’t worry” as the exact point where I had to begin worrying. I began demanding specifics. When and how will it happen? They hated me, they were annoyed but I could see through their bull shit. And so AD after AD, we were left 2nd AD-less and junior cast-less. But I am jumping ahead of the gun.
Oh but I skip, we finally had the script completely done. A 120 page script in English was 200 pages in Urdu because we had to write every scene on a separate page. We also finally got a first AD. One not as experienced, she said, but I could tell by the sparkle in her eye, loyal to the core. After flirting with other more experienced ADs, my heart kept coming back to her and I offered her the job. Turned out to be one of the most important decisions I was going to make. She was the backbone of the production. However, I was surprised at how much burden ADs had to carry in Pakistan. Everything was somehow the job of an AD. I realized that was because of the lethargy or one can say, lack of habit of reading the script. So every department expected the AD to break the script down and provide their respective information to them. No one wanted to be liable or responsible for reading the script. Probably one of the biggest differences from production in the US. The script is what everyone reads here. But that is common in South Asia not to do that. People are used to “narrations”…when actors and execs, much like pitches here, want the entire, that’s right, the entire script “narrated” to them. I attended one such narration of Bollywood film in development, Agent Vinodh by Sriram Raghavan back in 2008 when I was in Bombay for a Screenwriting Lab and wow, might I tell you, directors and writers better be good presenters in a room as that “narrating” bit is an art in itself. But where were we? My ADs had a lot more pressure in Pakistan than they would have here as they had to manage the set since the job descriptions were very different from here. I still have to say I am not quite sure who was liable for what. For instance, my AD was more a line producer on set and the line producer, more a UPM. But do in Rome as the Romans do and so I would sometimes plead but then learn to absorb. As a result, I had to manage time on set myself quite a bit which took a toll but thankfully I was always somehow programmed to be internally conscious of time, so things were fine. We all knew we would have to do a lot more than just our job on this set, so we quickly got over it. A lot of this experience was about “letting go” as hard as it was. There were times, I still could not “let go” completely because I knew it for a fact, after trying for short periods, that things went haywire if I did. I had to choose my battles of letting go. That is the beast of small budget filmmaking. You can’t be lucky enough to just direct on set.
So we had a cast, most of our locations were done. Half of our 7 week shoot was going to be a commute outside the city and pretty much outdoors in the heat of Karachi! Our locations were, let’s say, featured quite a lot in the news recently but then again, every place in Karachi seemed to suddenly be in the news in August. I had Pakistani friends abroad changing their travel plans to Karachi during those days. Family in Islamabad, questioning “if I were going to shoot”. “What do you mean if? I have to. I have money lined up!” I was not going to back down now, come what may…but safe to say that the entire team was a bit scared. “Let’s just get through those first 3 weeks.” Day by day, hour by hour. My mother, so much so told me to take a one way ticket to Islamabad for Eid to which I chuckled. “Well, you don’t want to waste money on the ticket if you can’t return because of Karachi’s situation,” she lightly announced. I was somewhat shocked at how removed she was from my commitment. My family didn’t quite realize how involved and big of a project this was. I wondered if it was just lack of communication or experience. I thus demanded that they all visit the shoot if they could, just to see the scope. This was certainly the biggest project I had undertaken in my life and I was shitting bricks.
So, they were finding chopped up bodies in wheat sacks in one of the locations we were going to shoot in. But that was 7 weeks earlier. You laugh at how light-hearted I am but the reality is that you have to desensitize yourself. What matters is the moment you are in. And in the moments we shot, things couldn’t have been better.
During our 7 weeks of shoot, I don’t remember a single strike which was a miracle since a strike was averaging every 2 weeks, and as I was reminded by my Karachiite counterparts, the city was smooth for the entire year I had been away but the strikes resumed the moment I landed. Just 30 minutes before we wrapped our shoot, there was a bomb blast close to one of the locations we had shot in. But we were safe. We completed the shoot.
We had so many problems every day but somehow, we managed to complete our shots on time. Much to my American DP’s dismay, our 12 hours of shoot was 12 hours of shoot not including commute time, so yes, the days were tough but it was an indie and we were in Pakistan where apparently our days were very efficient compared to other shoots. What was challenging for the crews though was the long haul of a 35 day shoot since mostly these crews were just used to 2-3 day commercial shoots. So they could stretch their shooting times, but not for 35 days in a row. Yes, there was set tension but hey now, when isn’t there set tension? My actors seemed to think all was super smooth. :o) Now that’s a quality of a professional team that somehow kept it behind the scenes and worked on solutions. Sure, shit happened! From extras not showing up at all, to location permits magically disappearing at last minute to sudden air firing to an actress stuck in a rain storm in another city a day before her shoot, to equipment, you name it all. It all happened but so much that could have gone wrong didn’t and so, somehow in those quiet hours in the night, I was still grateful. Anxious for each hour that we still had to complete of the shoot but grateful for I, as much as anybody else on the crew, knew how kind Karachi was being to our shoot. We were blessed. That’s right, we were.
Somehow, everything that went wrong, worked to make the film better. A location would fall through, a better one would appear. An equipment failure would cause us to reshoot something we wanted to reshoot for other reasons but would not have pushed because of the budget. It was nothing short of a miracle.
I was very strict on some accounts. I had no tolerance for lateness, inefficiency but in the heart of heart, as much as I eagle-eyed my team, they worked so loyally. It is just that I wouldn’t settle for an answer, “this is what happens in Pakistan.” No! I fought for it to be different. We can be different, we can be better than the standards we have set. My favorite team members were the “spot boys” or “runners” as they would call them here. So hardworking, so efficient. They would stand with umbrellas over my head and the cast and the DP’s heads. Constantly asking me for water or “ORS” (My savior in Karachi’s heat. It was my water for the first month of the shoot. It was the much less fancy tasting, local version of Gatorade.” And they didn’t just say, “ORS?”…no, I was called “boss”. Yes, straight up! “Boss, water? Boss, ORS? Boss, chair? Boss, umbrella.” The director is really spoiled there. So much respect is given to you and regardless of my gender or age, I received that. I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised by the support I received despite being a young woman on the team. With my cast, I put it out in the open the first day I had a workshop with them.
That’s right, one of my favorite moments was the workshop we conducted for two days on acting and terms and what I expected of my actors and would offer as a director. I wrote “trust” on the blackboard and put the elephant in the room up front. “How many of you are worried to be directed by someone they think to be so young?” There were chuckles, nods, denials and Khalid Ahmed, a delightful and veteran actor, said, “not worried but fortunate.” I was very nervous that day. My insecurities were surfacing. Would I be able to direct these actors, some of whom I had watched as a child and never dreamt of being in the same room with. Would they open up? They did. I love actors. Yes, I am one of those directors…because we all know the directors who don’t like actors as well…but I cherish them and am grateful for them. In fact, working with actors is why I direct. They are so emotionally vulnerable. I find solutions to my emotions in going through emotions of my characters as a writer and working with the emotions with my actors as a director.
I did things that surprised me myself on set in those few moments when I could just lose myself into working with my actors. We would suddenly yell to release the tension in the middle of a pitch dark night on the outskirts of Karachi at 3am, or slap each other, or whisper in our ears. Anything, to bring it out. To bring it out. To roar into the camera. Some of my actors would keep asking me if I had it? Doubting their performance or my judgment, whichever. I would assure them that I would keep taking till I did have it…sunlight, time, money, energy permitting. I was blessed. My actors rocked! And that is one of the things I hope to achieve with JOSH. Give them the platform for international recognition they deserve. So many films about Pakistan that are being made out there should feature these actors. They deserve it and the world deserves to see them, to know them, to watch them.
And so, day by day, the last day came. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was on Facebook till 4am but still somehow glowing with excitement on 4 hours of sleep, I wore my favorite black flamenco skirt and dressed up to go to set. Oh, the days when I was really low or upset, I would tie up pig tails on set to lighten the mood but I dare not have done that till my entire crew and cast had atleast worked with me a bit to know me as their director. Then I let the guard down and the pig tails up! Faraz, a lovely camera assistant who I became close to, would joke on the days I donned my colored contacts that I would lose my temper as he had somehow correlated the two. I suspect Faraz was just teasing because I “rarely” lost my temper, did I now? ;o) Apparently, in Pakistan, people are used to directors having a bad temper on set! I had to exert it sometimes to make things happen, not really the bad temper but the loud voice. What can I say…I was being “Roman” in Karachi.
Anyhow, the last day we were shooting a fashion show scene and there was so much excitement in the air, that in breaks, since we had a music set up for the scene, my 2nd AD would put on a famous dance song, either “Chammak Challo” or “Sheila ki Jawani”, the two ridiculously famous Bollywood dance songs on everyone’s minds. One memorable moment was when one of the grips started ripping it up standing on a ledge on a 20 foot wall whilst wiring the lights as “Sheila ki jawani” was playing. It was hard to get calm. We all were quite amazed at what we had just gone through for the past 40 days and couldn’t wait to “pop the champagne”, certainly metaphorically. That morning, as sometimes I would during the course of the shoot for inspiration, I sent my team a text message, “Today, pause for a moment and think of how far you and we have come along and just smile. Release. Congratulations.”
I remember, right as we were about to shoot the last scene, which was about my lead asking her friend “how many were dead” in a bombing as they left oblivious Karachiites partying, we found out about the bomb blast at Sea View and much like in the script, we digested the news in 5 minutes and went on with our lives. We directed the ironic scene and I don’t know if it was me trying to stretch the experience or I was genuinely trying to get something more out of the shot but I did 10 takes of the last shot. Apparently the director slated the last shot. Everyone kept looking at me to shout, “pack up!” which would end our day everyday but today would wrap up the entire shoot. 10 takes, I say “Pack up” and there comes the Punjabi dholwala (drummer). We all break into dancing and cheer. Saad comes up with a bouquet of flowers and hugs me. We both can’t believe it. Safe to say, completely shocked at what just happened. And so, we wrap Josh. Spot boys and producers, dancing side by side. We had a lovely buffet dinner that evening and were practically kicked out by the location people. The good byes and thank yous didn’t end.
The next morning I woke up and felt I was levitating on my bed. There are few moments in life when you feel completely fulfilled and nothing can ruin your euphoria. That week I hovered just a tiny bit above the ground, cut off my locks after 2 years of growing them out and dreamt every night of a scene or two that I had forgotten to film! It was a miracle, yes it was. And I am blessed. I am now a feature film director.