Pakistani actors Urwa Hocane, Bilal Ashraf and Gohar Rasheed are earnest, excited and hugely enthusiastic — not just about their upcoming release but also about showing off the revival of their nation’s film industry and cinema culture.
In Dubai to promote Rangreza before it hits screens this week, the stars insisted that their romantic-musical drama is just the start of a new renaissance as Pakistan’s dormant movie business comes back to life.
“Pakistani cinema is moving in a very positive direction,” Ashraf said in an interview with Gulf News tabloid!. “There was a time when films had stopped being made but now we have managed to place ourselves on an international level very quickly and are making up for lost time.”
Pakistan’s film industry — or Lollywood — collapsed around the 1990s with changes in the nation’s political situation and the advent of a military dictatorship. Families stopped going to cinemas for fear of violence and screens were demolished.
The start of a slow renaissance was attempted some years ago with the release of Shoaib Mansoor’s Khudah Ke Liye in 2007 and Bol in 2011. The situation has since changed dramatically, especially over the last few years, with new releases like Jannan in 2016 and Punjab Nahi Jaungi this year.
“Today there’s some 140 or more screens and there’s multiplexes opening up,” Ashraf pointed out, compared to the 28 screens about five years ago. He added that the opening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia in 2018 also presents a “massive opportunity” for Pakistan’s filmmakers to expand across boundaries.
“It does sadden me that sometimes some political issue or some news can actually directly affect art in a country, which is why we had stopped [making movies] for many reasons, but I think we are all strong and standing up again and growing again,” Hocane added.
The 26-year-old, who played the lead in critically acclaimed TV drama Udaari and box-office hit Punjab Nahi Jaungi, believes that her country has so much to offer — from its rich culture to its actors, fashion designers, musicians and landscapes.
“We are all working hard to show people the true face of Pakistan with all its beauty and talent and music,” Hocane said. “All the films this year, and in the past year since the film industry has revived, have been received very well, and I think a musical like Rangreza coming out is even better.”
Rangreza is calling itself Pakistan’s first “romantic-musical drama”, complete with an a song and dance number, which Hocane believes is something audiences have been eager to see.
Directed by Amir Mohiuddin, and written by Akhtar Qayyum, the story revolves around Reshmi, played by Hocane, who belongs to a traditional Qawwal family and has been engaged to her cousin, Waseem (Rasheed), since she was a child. Conflict arises when Ali, a famous pop star played by Ashraf, falls in love with Reshmi.
Hocane describes her character as a “beautiful girl at heart” with very “strong family values” that serves as the compass for her decisions.
“She understands music very differently and she believes in love and music,” Hocane said, adding that most people can relate to Reshmi in some way.
Unlike the fairy tale film sets and over-dressed TV actors from across the border in India, Hocane said Pakistani filmmakers are very conscious of keeping their sets and characters “real”.
She explained: “I think it’s also the actors who think like that. Our mediums reflect closest to reality. Yes, you do add music and dancing but that’s part of entertainment. As far as the narrative is concerned, it’s going to be real and something everyone can connect with.”
Rasheed, who plays the villain in the film and also performs the item number, added that the musical isn’t just about songs for song’s sake.
The actor, best known for his work in internationally acclaimed Pakistani movie Seedlings, said the item number is “part of the story” in Rangreza.
“Usually item numbers aren’t part of the story,” he added.
“This is a musical love story with a little bit of drama and action and suspense — and it ends with a very important social message that addresses a global issue,” he said. “It’s light-hearted because we wanted to retain the entertainment value of the film but we also wanted people to leave the cinema with a social message.”
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Rangreza releases in the UAE on December 21.
RANGREZA CAST ON...
...the #MeToo movement, and how women are treated in the Pakistani film industry
Urwa Hocane: “I won’t say things are perfect in Pakistan. Things do happen. I would always tell whoever, and whatever capacity I can inspire in, to speak up against it [sexual harassment]. But Pakistan has a lot of good things about it and one of them also is that the men that I work around really trust in women there. They respect them. They give them platforms to work hand-in-hand with them so they can create better films. We see these stigmas around the globe that ‘oh, if you’re married you can’t be an actress’. I think Pakistan is the best in that way. It just values talent, brains, intelligence, beauty, and the strength of a woman. We’ve always depicted this in our dramas as well — like so many of the girls are married or dating or working... [and] our dramas are huge on people standing up against social issues.”
Gohar Rasheed: “Men in Pakistan love career-oriented women. We respect them for their work. In Hollywood, right now the biggest issue being talked about is inequality and a certain security after the Harvey Weinstein issue. On the other hand, if you look at Pakistan’s film industry, women are paid much more than men. They have more followers, they are more respected, they are more protected. We take pride in our women.”
Bilal Ashraf: “Our industry is small right now so everyone knows everyone. So if you do something, you can’t get away with it. Trust me, this is a fact, everyone will know within five or ten minutes if something has happened.”
...Pakistani actors being ‘stolen’ by Bollywood and the comparisons
Hocane: “I don’t call it stealing. I call it collaborating. I don’t think art has any sort of boundaries. It really saddens me when some political issue or news affects art right away — that’s unfair. I think actors should collaborate to create bigger things for the world, to entertain even better, to learn, and to spread love, music and art. Wherever actors go from our country, we take pride in that because they’re representing us internationally.”
Rasheed: “We are all ambassadors of Pakistan. Wherever we go, whether it’s Bollywood or Hollywood, it makes us proud. I don’t get this thing that when an [Pakistani] actor goes to Bollywood it becomes stealing but when they go to Hollywood, then they’ve hit big time.”