'Moor' director Jamshed Mahmood Raza (right) with actors Shaz Khan, Shabir Rana, Ayaz Samoo and Hameed Sheikh at the Hyatt Regency Dubai. Image Credit:

When Pakistani director Jamshed Mahmoud Raza set out to make his sweeping drama Moor eight years ago, he already knew it would be a commercial failure in his home country. Yet, he and his team trudged on, encouraged by the possibility that if they put their heart and soul into it, something would eventually give.

“We might lose all the battles, but we wanted to win the war,” says Raza, more popularly known as Jami. “We worked really slowly, we took our time and really polished our style. We were going against our nature where loudness sells and you make a lot of money. We said, ‘Forget about that and let’s just make a film’.

“We shot it in three phases. When the money ran out, we stopped, and then started again.”

Set in the beautiful Baluchistan province and in Karachi, Moor, which means Mother in Pashto, was this month named as Pakistan’s official entry to the Oscar’s Foreign Language Film competition. And, despite its failure at the Pakistani box office, it’s already winning wide critical acclaim on the festival circuit.

The film had a red carpet premiere in Dubai on Wednesday night, with the stars and director in attendance. It releases across the UAE on Thursday.

Moor’s evolution, says Jami, is the trajectory Pakistani films should follow if the industry is to find its place in the world.

“We’ve been under Bollywood’s shadows for many years and we can’t copy-paste that. It will not work. We have to tell our own stories, and we’ve got plenty,” he says. “We have to take our films from inside, out.”

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who chaired the committee that picked Moor as Pakistan’s Oscar entry, called it a boundary-pushing film.

“A visual treat, the film reminds us of the history of a land we too often ignore,” she said when the announcement was made.

Actor Hameed Shaikh plays Wahidullah Khan, a station master who lives on an old railway station in Baluchistan that is now in ruins. He’s being pressured by the mafia, which includes his conniving brother, to sell the land and the tracks for money. Meanwhile, his son Ehsaanullah Khan, played by the debutant American actor Shaz Khan, is also caught in his own moral dilemma regarding the career path he’s chosen in Karachi. Father and son’s lives eventually come crashing against each other tragically.

Jami, best known for his music videos, said he was lucky he got the best actors any director would dream of. Not just for their talent, but their dedication to the project.

“They believed in it and the best thing was, we were all on the same wavelength,” he said.

Shaikh, for instance, waived his fees.

“He took Rs1 [Dh0.03],” says Jami, who also wrote the script. “Once the story was written and I had them, all I did was just rolled the camera. They just knew what they were doing. They made it easy.”

Shaikh, who starred in the path-breaking 2007 film Khuda Kay Liye (For God’s Sake), said he agreed to do Moor after he saw one of Jami’s music videos for pop star Ali Zafar. But also for the Pakistani film industry.

“I believe in this industry and its potential and once I read the story, I knew it was the kind of film that needed to be made,” he says.

For actor and TV presenter Ayaz Samoo, who plays the evil Imtisal, a friend of Ehsaanullah’s, it was the chance to do something different.

“I’ve been working for the last 10 to 12 years and have been waiting for a character like this for a long time. It fitted me perfectly because it was very dark and the complete opposite to my spontaneous and cheerful personality.”

Shabbir Rana, who was first cast in the role of lead character Wahidullah, had to take a back seat after he was rushed to hospital on the first day of filming due to the extreme cold. Instead, he was cast as the brother, Zahir.

“It all turned out well in the end. Now I can’t see anyone else but Hameed doing this role,” he says.

The cast and crew spent months in Muslim Bagh in Quetta, near the border with Afghanistan, where temperatures averaged minus 10 degrees.

“There was no gas, no coal, just burning wood. It was that painful,” director Jami recalls. “It was like a scene straight out of Apocaplyse Now.

But for Los Angeles-based actor Khan, the opportunity to work in a project in his home country was something he couldn’t refuse.

“I’ve been playing small American roles and for them to let me do this, I could not resist. Yes, I was scared, but it’s just too good not to do,” he says. “Also in the States, a lot of people still think we’re all about gun-wielding Talibans. I wanted to be in a film that would change that kind of perception.”

Jami, who had to sell his 15 antique cars to finance the film himself, says the resurgent Pakistani film industry is worth taking risks for.

“This is the time,” he says. “Five years ago none of this could have happened. It would have been just too expensive to pull off. But things are happening now. It’s clicking.”

Those in the industry need to keep pushing the envelope, Samoo says.

“We are very good at drama and comedy. We’re not doing many action and sci-fi films, neither is Bollywood. Maybe that’s where we can come in. I recently just produced Pakistan’s first found footage horror film,” he says. “We are at a phase right now where we can experiment and we need to do it.”

What the industry needs, adds Jami, is “crazy people”.

“We need people who don’t always think about feasibility. We need insane levels of experimentation. Normal people will do what they want. They’ll go on to make Transformers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. But we can change this now.”


Don’t miss it

Moor is now showing across the UAE at Vox Cinemas.