By Edward Loupe
This fall the students at the Ohio University Film Division were treated to a special screening – a Pakistani musical romance, filmed both in New York and Pakistan, and populated with the biggest Pakistani screen stars speaking Urdu. The film, Dobara Phir Se, was written and produced by Bilal Sami; an alumnus of the Film Division, who received his Masters of Fine Arts in 2012.
“It’s an amazing experience,” says Bilal. “Steve, Tom, John, Rajko, David H., Shelly, [and] Jeannette meant a lot to me and seeing them again was amazing.”
The film, which was released to enthusiastic audiences in Pakistan in November of 2016, is a romantic chess match full of star-crossed lovers crossing swords as loyalties and affections ricochet hence and thence. Dobara Phir Se in Urdu means “Again and Again,” which Bilal says refers to the “cyclical nature of romantic encounters” present in life and in the film.
It centers on a group of Pakistani ex-pats living in New York City, where many scenes were filmed. Mehreen Jabbar, a prominent and well-established female director in Pakistan, directed it. At the time of production it was one of the most expensive Pakistani films ever produced.
Before Bilal attended OU, he was a young man working in Pakistan’s television industry. He was both in front and behind the camera as a writer and an actor (he’s still recognized on the street in Pakistan to this day). But his operation was rag-tag, and he felt that he needed formal training to become a better filmmaker. There was no Internet, no textbooks in Pakistan. He knew the best place to get that training was to go to the source – the United States. However, Bilal couldn’t afford to travel to the U.S. and attend school, so he applied for the Fulbright Scholarship and put his fate in their hands. They took him, and found him a new home – Athens, Ohio. “It was the greatest time because somebody was paying me to watch and make movies,” says Bilal. OU is where he learned the tools of the trade.
At the same time, as Bilal was in Ohio, the film industry back in Pakistan was undergoing dramatic changes. For twenty-five years the Pakistani film industry was heavily regulated – Bollywood films from neighboring India were banned. Any foreign film that entered into the country was heavily censored – cutting out nudity, sex, even kissing. Bilal explains that this absence, rather than invigorating Pakistan’s film industry, lead to lackluster motivation amongst audience members and filmmakers alike – both production values and audience attendance were low. As a result, financiers were reluctant to fund large productions, which even further reduced audience enthusiasm, which lead to greater reluctance, and the cycle continued.
But while Bilal studied, and just after, Pakistan’s censors loosened their grips. All of a sudden, Pakistan’s theater doors opened to films from abroad – Bollywood musicals, European dramas, American superheroes – and all of a sudden, theaters were packed. At the same time revenues for Pakistani productions shot through the roof – after all, when lobbies are full, every showing is likely to fare better. This gave financiers the confidence to mount larger and larger productions. By the time Dobara Phir Se was ready to shoot, the stage was set for a professional-scale Pakistani production.
Dobara Phir Se’s production and post-produced lasted from 2015-2016; Bilal wrote the script in 2014, two years after graduating, and the film was released domestically in Pakistan in late 2016 (then later, for Pakistani ex-pats abroad, in early 2017). Making the film was not easy. “Working in two different continents... Getting the financing together... accommodating the wishes and desires of the producer/distributor... And that’s something one has to live with,” says Bilal. Plus, “making a movie takes a tool in one’s personal life... It’s like an intense relationship with an expiration date attached,” he adds. The film was also saddled with an unusual set of obstacles: Pakistan’s ‘Production Code’.
Much like the Production Code of Hollywood’s yesteryears, Pakistan regulates the content of its native productions strictly. There are a whole slew of requirements every Pakistani production must meet, including:
- Minimal physical contact between characters
- The film’s runtime must be at least two hours long
- There must be at least five ‘lip-sync’ songs (meaning, the actors must appear to be singing the song played on the soundtrack)
- There must be an intermission halfway through (so theater owners might make more money on concession sales)
Bilal’s producer also had a set of requirements, including:
- It must center around a family drama
- There must be a wedding scene
- If the film takes place in New York City, the film must show various New York City landmarks – Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, and so on.
Bilal and his fellow filmmakers took deliberate steps to reinvent or subvert the tropes bred by this production code; a family is featured but not the central plot, songs are inserted in naturalistic situations, the marriage which results from the film’s wedding scene goes in an unexpected direction, and so on. “The nature of love is unpredictable. It stretches itself from the simple to the grandiose to the mundane. It’s all valid... Whether it’s a melodramatic contentious moment, a quiet moment together, a sad moment alone or even the big produced song and dance sequence... If the movie can take people through that carnival ride of experiences – we’ve done something as storytellers,” says Bilal. Pakistani audiences received the film enthusiastically, and many hope for even greater productions to come.
Bilal’s future is bright. Next year, he will be finishing a feature-length documentary 8 years in the making. “That I know is going to be a reasonably high profile release. So I’m excited about that.” He’s consulting on other productions, teaching, and running a corporate/commercial video production company. Perhaps most excitingly, he’s in the process of finding funding for his next feature – his first as a director.
As for the future of Pakistan’s film industry as a whole, Bilal has uncertain: Pakistan is an unstable country, with a populace rocked by terrorism and an underdeveloped film-going culture. There is no ‘art’ cinema in Pakistan, and no place to watch classic films from history. Still, Bilal has hope – after all, filmmakers like himself are aspiring to make enduring, meaningful films. Dobara Phir Se is a first step towards that goal. He believes that if Pakistan’s cinema is allowed to grow organically, taking in influence from the outside and developing its own industry slowly, that the country has promise.
And his best guess for where the growing pool of Pakistani filmmakers will go to do their work? Netflix Pakistan.