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All about Balu Mahi

In conversation with the  Osman Khalid Butt and Ainy Jaffri about their movie releasing on Febuary 10th 2017 – An edited version will appear in Dawn print Newspaper

The Pakistani Film industry is going through a renaissance at lightning speed , making a great leap in terms of skills and technology to catch up to a level other industries took decades of trial and error to achieve . One of the most exciting aspects of this resurgence is the incredible diversity of styles and subject matter from comedies like Jawani Phir Nahi Aani and Na Maloom Afraad, to a biography like Manto, a romance like Bin Roye, action/adventure movies like Maalik and Waar and an intimate exploration of modern relationships like Dobara Phir Se.

The one thing that was missing from the list was a traditional family movie; the kind that not only entertains but touches on our deepest values, while challenging us to look beyond them. With the recent release of the teaser for the film BaluMahi it looks as if that gap will now be filled. Set for release on February the 10th 2017 , this movie has been intriguing Pakistani film fans for some time : beautiful visuals , a strong production team , an award winning director and fresh cast make this one of the highlights of the new movies being released . Balu Mahi stars Osman Khalid Butt, Ainy Jaffri and Sadaf Kanwal. We caught up with the lead pair , whos appearance in the teaser Ghazal  (sung by the inimitable Rahat fateh Ali Khan ) “Rung de Chunar “ has caused quite a stir .

Answers from Osman Khalid Butt

  1. Of your three most popular characters which was the easier character to play: Wali, Aunn or Balu? Of course we want to know why …

Definitely Aunn. There was a hint of theatricality in his bachganapan, which, given my background, I took to like a fish to water. Also given the comedic nature of the script, there was a lot of room for improvisation (case in point: Aunn’s musical montage; the ‘ullu ka patha… machar’ moment). Comedy comes naturally to me – see: my v-logs – and so the only challenge was that balancing act between comical and over the top. That being said, tone-deafness aside there are few parallels between Aunn and myself, but given the high energy on set the transition was the easiest to pull off.

Wali was a huge challenge because there were so many expectations – with playing a Farhat Ishtiaq hero comes great responsibility (see what I did there?) A complete contrast to Aunn, I had to rein those expressions in and tap into a lot of hitherto unexplored emotions (at least on television). I relished the challenge, though.

Bilal aka Balu comes across as an enigma on paper – the character goes through so much right off the bat and yet has an aura of mystery, a certain quietude about him. Plus acting for film is a different ball-game altogether: you have to unlearn a lot of the tropes and familiar expressions from television and completely rebrand yourself. Given the nature of the film and the way I had to tap into his various shades all the while keeping it understated, I think this was the biggest challenge for me, acting-wise.

 

  1. For the fan girls desperately trying to decipher your personality which one is nearest to the actual Osman Khalid Butt? Or none of the above?

I believe there’s a little bit of me in every character I’ve played – wish I had more of Wali’s patience, though. I definitely have more of a sense of humor than Balu!

 

  1. Tell us about Balu or Bilal. You have said in on HIP that Balu is a British returned Pakistani, how did you build his persona? What did you have to do make him authentic? I ask this because so many portrayals of the Pakistani diaspora often ring hollow.

Bilal is your average twenty-something guy who is thrust into one impossible situation after another (courtesy Mahi) – so it was really interesting to portray an otherwise self-assured (or so he thinks) man unravel – and eventually reconstruct himself into a mature, more confident, more at-ease with risk individual. Despite coming from a fractured family, he’s beloved by his grandmother and so comes across as generally well balanced, with that distinct British politeness… and passive-aggressiveness (laughs). Haissem, our director, had a clear backstory for Bilal in mind so it became quite easy to tap into his psyche once the ball started rolling. I did not give him an accent, though, because that rang false with me.

 

  1. Actors often complain that they are very limited by the characters they have to play in TV serials. Male leads inevitably end up as a husband with some kind of issue. Was playing a character on the big screen liberating?

I’ve been quite fortunate in the roles I’ve gotten in television, to be honest. Call it an extended training for my debut in commercial cinema. But yes, it was definitely liberating. There’s a lot more room to improvise, a lot more freedom to really explore the depths of your character.

 

  1. From the teaser to BaluMahi it seems as if you and Ainy Jaffri share some amazing chemistry, an element which can make or break a movie. Who is responsible for bringing that to the screen, the director or the actors?

I think the responsibility lies with both the director and the actors – you can’t fake it on the big screen, and I think both Ainy and I were aware of that. There is something incredibly unique about the Balu Mahi dynamic; the romance is organic (a far cry from the ‘love/lust at first sight’ we’re used to watching in local cinema), and the pair goes through a gamut of emotions before even realizing they’ve quietly become emotionally intimate and codependent. Haissam was fully aware of this graph and would tell us immediately if we were preempting an emotion. I also think we subconsciously mirrored the graph of our respective characters – the initial reservation (read: walking on eggshells around each other), the slow opening up and feeling more relaxed around each other to… wait, I should stop right here for fear of spoilers. But you get the drift.

 

  1. You have worked with One of the industries most talented and creative directors Haissam Hussain in a lot of projects from the blink and you will miss it scenes in Durr e Shehwar , to Aik Naeey Cinderella to AunnZara and now BaluMahi . What has brought you together so many times?

Haissam is a remarkably intuitive director; he knows exactly which actor fits into the character he envisions. I’ll chalk it up to my incredible good fortune! He challenges – and sets a new bar for – himself with every project he does, and that draws any actor in like a proverbial moth to flame. He brings out the best in you, forces you to rethink your strategy as an actor; constantly keeps you on your toes. I think that, coupled with our comfort level, is a major reason for me at least. He is a dear friend and even when we are not working together he always, always has my best interests at heart; I always seek out his counsel. Even during the maddening, frustrating times during the shoot I had an unwavering faith in his creative process.

  1. The fledgling Pakistani film industry is going through a difficult phase with a Bollywood ban and some complaints about the quality of films produced. Do you think critics are being too demanding? Or is the Pakistani film industry taking its audience for granted?

I believe critics have some valid concerns with the direction our cinema is taking, but then, the industry is still so young. It’s definitely going to take more time for everyone involved – be it directors, actors or writers – to evolve and find their identity and that distinct voice. It is, however, unreasonable to expect the kind of finesse and diversity Bollywood (or, with some critics’ comparison-meter) Hollywood brings to the table – I mean look at their budgets, their manpower, the technical facilities, their… everything. I also believe there is a huge difference between criticism and spewing vitriol. If a critic thrashes a project without explaining why, how is anyone involved in said project supposed to feel anything but… shit? Less throwaway, cutting lines and more detailed analyses, pretty please. Also, unless a film really doesn’t have a single redeeming factor, it would be nice to balance the bad with a little bit of good, too.

 

  1. BaluMahi looks like a traditional,” something for everyone “, entertainer, or what I would call a movie with a big heart. Am I right? How would you describe it?

You’ve summed it up really well: the film does have a big heart. I think people who’re judging it by the Qawwali are under the impression it’s perhaps just another ‘traditional’ romance: in reality, Balu Mahi is quite the contemporary film with a beautiful message about (Gaah! I don’t even know if I’m allowed to say this!) empowering women; giving them the freedom and liberty to pursue their dreams – a message that will resonate deeply with our society, no matter the class. There’s romance, there’s honest, heartfelt conversations, there’s situational humor, moments of unabashed masala, a breathtaking aesthetic – but at its core, the film is about two polar-opposite people brought together by happenstance… and how that one encounter changes the both of them. Call it a journey of self-discovery, of seeing the world in a new light because of how a stranger’s actions and words impact you.

 

  1. It’s been said you are a good dancer. How difficult were all the choreographed dance sequences? How did you cope with the Lip syncing?

I loved it – was a bit nervous about the lip-syncing during the first takes but, I don’t know, having grown up watching Bollywood classics there was something quite exhilarating (and surreal!) about being given the chance to do the whole song-and-dance routine on celluloid (yes, I am unapologetically filmy that way). I think I had the most fun during these choreographed sequences – both Wahab Shah and Pappu Samrat did wonders with their respective songs.

 

  • What was the hardest thing you had to do for BaluMahi?

I was injured every spell (and there were four major spells!) – there was a lot of physical as well as emotional investment in Balu Mahi… the phrase ‘blood, sweat and tears’ turned quite literal during our shoot! I think the choreographed fight sequences and the stunts were a real challenge to pull off convincingly. Oh, and there’s this extended sequence where… let me put it this way: it just wasn’t just Balu’s emotions that were laid bare. So, err… that was incredibly tough.

 

  1. BaluMahi isn’t your first Movie that would be Slackistan. Do you think there is room for an innovative movie like that in the brave new world of Pakistani cinema today?

Actually, my first film was Omar Khan’s ‘Zibahkhana’ – a horror movie about a zombie outbreak and a mace-yielding Burqa Man released back in ‘07!

But back to your question: Of course. I think because we’re still in the nascent stage of our cinema revival, our focus is on hardcore entertainers for that cinema footfall and returns, but I mean for every ‘Jawaani Phir Nahi Aani’ there is a ‘Manto’; for every ‘Janaan’ there is a ‘Moor’. Good cinema will always find appreciation, whether commercial or indie, art-house or awaami.

 

  • Finally what was the best part of making this movie?

The experience and the opportunity itself; the learning curve for me as an actor; the new friendships formed (here’s looking at you: Ainy, Jamal and Sadaf!); the behind-the-scenes shenanigans; the self-discipline, control and patience it taught me. And of course, as mentioned before, the strong message the film has, comfortably nestled within a beautiful, outrageous, palpable, masalay-daar exterior!

Ainy Jaffri’s  Answers

  1. Producer Sadia Jabbar said in her recent interview with BBC Asia network that your character Mahi is a modern, contemporary Pakistani girl. What did she mean? How do you see your character Mahi?

I think when Sadia says modern and contemporary, she means a strong and determined girl of today. Mahi to me is a very brave and confident person, someone who is passionate about pursuing her goals and dreams and won’t let anything stand in her way. She has a keen sense of what is right and wrong and is willing to do what it takes to carve her own path because she feels it is her right. She does not mean to hurt anyone or betray anyone’s trust, but truly believes that it is her destiny to set out on the journey she chooses to take. I really admire Mahi’s gumption, and think she’ll make an excellent role model.

  1. Is there any part of Mahi that you identify with? Did you use any of your own experiences in life to project her character, or is she very different to you?

I identify a whole lot with Mahi. Like her, I have had to, at many times, fight for what I believe in, and have never let anyone’s pre conceived notions or ignorance get in the way of my pursuit for a happy and fulfilling life. Like Mahi, I don’t believe in giving in to traditions and expectations if they are not relevant today. To answer the second part of your question, I think all actors pull from their personal experiences for any role they do; it is one of the most important tools we have, so yes, I have definitely done that.

  1. What does Mahi see in Balu or Bilal?

At first Mahi sees Balu as just a means to an end, but eventually as the story progresses and we see Balu open up about himself, his experiences and hope & dreams, she sees him as a fellow comrade.

  1. What made you decide to choose this role? Was there something about the character you could relate to?

Several factors helped in this decision. Firstly, I’m a big fan of Haissem’s work and he was the one who approached me for the project. I knew that this being his first movie, it would be amazing. After reading the script, I was completely on board. Mahi’s character goes on an enviable journey and as I don’t want to give away anything, I’ll just say that when you watch the movie, you’ll surely see why the role is a dream role. Just wait and see!

  1. It is often said Pakistani dramas are female oriented but the females tend to be victims in a lot of the stories. Your characters in dramas like Aseerzadi, Meri bahen Maya etc have rarely fitted that mold of mazloom aurat. Was that a deliberate choice?

I am attracted to roles that portray strong, independent woman who break the norms of society. So yes, that is partly why I chose those roles. I would not be averse to playing the victim in a drama/movie as long as the project concludes on a worthwhile note.

  1. What was the hardest part of shooting for BaluMahi?

The shoot for Balu Mahi was both emotionally and physically demanding and almost all of the film is shot outdoors. This in itself was especially hard. We shot in the winter during the night in Lahore and then in the North; both spells were extremely tough. We have literally been bruised and battered, and I think OB even got a hairline fracture during his shoot! There was another part of the shoot which was very hard for me but I can’t give details without giving away an essential twist in the plot. You’ll have to wait and see J

  1. Did you know the director Haissem Hussain before began working on the movie? How was your experience with him?

I had met Haissem a few years earlier when he cast me in an earlier film, which didn’t end up being made. I remember going through several rounds of grueling auditions before he cast me. Balu Mahi was the first project we have worked on together and it has been a very rewarding experience. Haissem is a very intelligent and insightful person; he knows just how to inject the right amount of drama and romance to take audiences on a magical journey. I really appreciate the fact that he values the importance of an actors preparation (be it workshops or rehearsals) before the start of a project. He is tough in the sense that he doesn’t let anything slide; he is always looking for perfection and is able to extract the best performance from any actor.

  1. The first teaser to Balumahi was just released and the onscreen chemistry between you and Osman Khalid but was fantastic. How was your experience working with him?

It was great! It has been a pleasure to work with OB. Like I’ve said before, the guy is a triple threat, he’s an actor, a writer and a great dancer. It’s always good to work with people who you admire and respect and I’ve been a fan of OB’s since I first saw his online parodies. He gives great advice when needed, doesn’t believe in false praise and his off screen humour and shenanigans keep everyone thoroughly entertained during tough days.

  1. Model Sadaf Kanwal is also part of the star cast; can you share anything about her role?

Sadaf plays a sort of femme fatale in the movie. I was amazed to learn that this was her first attempt at acting because she is a natural. She took to the camera very easily and is extremely convincing in her role. And she looks hot!

  1. 10. You look absolutely beautiful in the Qawali teaser. Was that blue and silver outfit designed specifically with you in mind?

Yes, I believe Haissem wanted something to compliment me and took great care in choosing the designs and colour combinations of each and every one of our costumes. He wanted the costumes to not only work well with the individual actors but with the colour palette of the backdrops against which we were shooting.

  • South Asian is cinema is unique in that it requires its actors and actresses to know how to dance and act while their lip-syncing. How did you find that experience?

Oh wow, this was very hard for me. I had never done this lip syncing to songs before and on the first day, I sort of fell apart for a moment and burst into tears. But our team was very supportive and it didn’t take long for them to get my morale back up. I hope the audience finds me convincing singing like that.

  • BaluMahi is billed as a Rom com but does it have a serious side?

I would categorize Balu Mahi as a romantic adventure with certain comedic elements. I think it has the right amount of serious and funny to keep audiences engaged throughout. Overall, I’d say it’s a light hearted film.

  1. What was the best part of working on BaluMahi? What will you remember the most?

The best part was working with great people including but mot limited to a fantastic director, a very supportive producer, an extremely talented makeup artist, and of course great co stars. We had a lot of fun on set, and I have made some great friends.

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