Pakistani director Adnan Sarwar
Pakistani director Adnan Sarwar Image Credit: Supplied

Filmmaker Adnan Sarwar studied to be a medical doctor, but as they say, he was destined for the stars.

His debut feature, ‘Shah’ (2015), made on a shoestring budget of PKR 8.5 million (Dh196,264.9), earned him rich plaudits. It also turned out to be a (sleeper) hit.

The movie was based on the real life story of a slumdog in Karachi who grows up to become an Olympic boxing champion. His next, ‘Motorcycle Girl’, again a dramatised account of Zenith Irfan, the Pakistani Christian girl who drove up north on her motorbike entirely by herself, made little noise at the box office, but the biopic was praised for its ingenuity and soul.

Director Adnan Sarwar in a still from his 2015 boxing movie SHAH-1613993689186
Adnan Sarwar in Shah Image Credit: Supplied

Sarwar had emerged as an auteur. By his own admission, he’s a soloist because he writes, produces, directs and composes music for all his projects. He even essayed the lead character in Shah. ‘Baarwan Khiladi’, thus, is a bit of a departure for him, as here he’s directing someone else’s script. But he regards it as “a nice experience.”

Sarwar admits that he attracts sports based films because he’s always played cricket and was an athlete. While filming ‘Shah’, he badly hurt his spine and was out of commission for two years. But it was thanks to his indomitable sportsman spirit that he was able to overcome the injury and return to work sooner than his doctor had advised him to. “It’s been a long, painful journey,” he tells Gulf News. “It’s good to be back on my feet and working!”

Like all his works, ‘Baarwan Khiladi’ promises to be “a very human story, of struggle and companionship, except that it revolves around cricket. It shows the hero’s journey, the obstacles that he has to overcome. Cricket is like a character in the story.”

Tell us how you landed ‘Baarwan Khiladi’. What attracted you to it?

Normally, I produce my own projects, through my own company. But knowing that Nina [Kashif] and Mahira [Khan] would be the producers was a big attraction. I am grateful that they reached out to me.

Having said that, I always wanted to do something related to cricket. When the opportunity came, I was, like, let’s do it! Also, I thought it would be fun to work with other people [as producers]. Otherwise I work in a small bubble of my own. I work in isolation, really cut off from the rest of the industry in whichever way. But it’s been a nice experience!

For ‘Shah’, you trained in boxing. What kind of preparation were you required on ‘Baarwan Khiladi’?

Director Adnan Sarwar in another still from his 2015 boxing movie SHAH-1613993691147
Adnan Sarwar in Shah Image Credit: Supplied

I’ve played cricket all my life — I was a batsman at college level — and I’ve watched a lot of cricket, like every other Pakistani, so it was a good starting point. Besides, I’ve been an athlete, so I’ve a natural affinity towards sports movies. Sports stories have a trajectory, the hero’s journey, which appeals to me a lot. [‘Baarwan Khiladi’] is also the story of the rise of the underdog. As the title suggests, it’s about the twelfth player rather than the playing eleven.

I am not acting [in ‘Baarwan Khiladi’], so I didn’t need to take any training personally, but as soon as I came on board I put my cast members on practising sessions for a month.

Was it in any way challenging to shoot the cricket sequences?

I’m clued in to how sports sequences have been filmed in Pakistani movies and dramas, so my idea was to try and elevate that to a degree that I’d be happy with. You aim for the stars and you’re always going to fall short but at least you end up somewhere reasonable. Lots of research went into how other people had shot cricket, and how people had shot baseball, especially in Hollywood movies. We took pointers and tried to pull it off within our limited budget.

What kind of training did the boys take?

We had professional cricketers attached with the team. Some of them are also embedded in the series — as characters. Fortunately, our boys are all zabardast [fantastic] cricketers; they only needed to polish their game a bit. So they trained for about a month. It also enabled me, as a director, to identify certain kind of strokes that I could focus on.

Tell us how you cast for the characters.

The credit for casting goes largely to Nina and Mahira. By the time I was brought in they already had people in mind for certain kind of roles. It’s such an unbelievable cast. When the trailer drops, you’ll be able to see that there are some heavy surprises!

Are you hinting at some special appearances?

My idea of a special appearance isn’t somebody who you put in for the sake of face value. So, yeah, there are what you can call cameos, but they’re good, strong pivotal characters.

Any sports based movies that inspired you?

I recently saw ‘Money Ball’; it really had an impact. ‘Million Dollar Baby’, ‘Cinderella Man’, ‘Any Given Sunday’ and ‘Dangal’ are a few other films I liked. ‘Rush’ is my all-time favourite. What a great picture! I’ve also done car racing, you know!

This was the first time that you were directing someone else’s script? How was the experience?

Poster of Baarwan Khiladi
Poster of Baarwan Khiladi Image Credit: Supplied

There are filmmakers in the world who are soloists, because they have enough to say in different mediums. For example, if I have time I try to do music myself, because I am looking at it in a multi-dimensional way. To have to explain it to someone else takes a lot of time and devastates me emotionally and physically.

I find it difficult to work with other people’s scripts for sure. So many scripts are pitched to me and I hardly ever pick anything up, because I have a certain kind of sensibility which might be peculiar to most people but it’s the direction that I’ve chosen for myself.

As for ‘Baarwan Khiladi’, I had multiple reasons to not go solo — I was coming out of a surgery, not being in a position to do the entire task myself, looking for a support system around me, and then obviously as a director I was given leeway by the producers to not to be tied to what’s on paper. Our scriptwriter is Shahid Dogar. I’ve only met him once, but I think he’s got some great ideas.

What is the status of the show?

We are in post-production presently. We shot it in 24 days flat, with pretty much the same team — my own DOP, my own editor.

When a filmmaker moves to a web series, what are the challenges that they face? Is there an element of self-doubt?

Producer Mahira Khan and director Adnan Sarwar calling the shots-1613993693123
Image Credit: Supplied

Doubt actually aapko cinema mein rehta hai [cinema has lots of doubt]! Because there you’ve to face a censor board and then there are box office considerations.

Technically speaking, episodic format was a new thing for me. In a film, you may only be able to permit a character five minutes of screen time, but in the episodic format you can give them more time to develop. But I didn’t look at it as a challenge, I looked at it as a canvas that had gotten bigger.

I think it’s a misconception that the level of execution for OTT platforms is somehow different than what it is for cinema. If you’ve seen ‘Queen’s Gambit’ or ‘Giri/Haji’ on Netflix, you will notice that people are taking lots of pains to make these productions look like cinema. Our intention was also the same. We looked at it as a proof of concept that this was what was possible in, say, crore rupees!

Are you playing a character in the film? Maybe that of the coach?

No. Honestly speaking, for me, my health right now is first. My doctor actually told me not to start working before October ’21, but I was so bored. I don’t work to overextend myself — I work only for a set number of hours a day. I wanted to take just about the amount of workload I could handle easily.