The story behind my film, Maalik – From the horse’s mouth

Published: May 17, 2016
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I made a legitimate film, followed the due process of law, got certifications from the offices as prescribed by the government itself, ran a film successfully in cinemas for three weeks and as soon as I was getting a break, someone decided to ban my film. PHOTO: MAALIK FACEBOOK PAGE

Maalik is in the midst of a huge controversy; all kinds of motives are being attributed to my film and, although everyone is entitled to their own views, I thought a straight narrative from the one who knows Maalik the best may help.

A brief intro before going further: I was born in Quetta and proudly call Balochistan my home. I am ethnically a Punjabi and my ancestral roots may be connected to a village near Nankana sahib in the district of Sheikhupura, near Lahore. Being a common man, I have little use for title, surname and caste and I have never used my caste (Gill) as part of my name. The only reason I choose to bring this up is because one of the allegations against Maalik is promoting ethnic hatred and depicting Punjabi supremacy. Punjab is a province that I have little exposure to, and I have spent only two years of my life in Punjab, on two separate occasions and both on official duty. Besides, if I was promoting Punjabis, why would Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government ban Maalik and the K-P government allow it?

Coming back to Balochistan, where I was born, I was raised among the Pakhtuns and Baloch. All my childhood friends’, school and college friends are either Pakhtuns or Baloch. Balochistan is what I understand best and where I am at home. Naming just a few, Mengals, Raisanis, Bugtis, Marris, Hasnis, Magsis, Jamalis, Lehris are like brothers to me, among the Pakhtuns; Syeds, Achakzais, Durranis, Nasirs, Kakars are again family. We have played in each other’s homes, attended the same schools, laughed and cried together.

I moved to Karachi in 1981 as part of the Pakistan Airforce at Korangi creek. Military (Air force) essentially formed my personality, groomed me, trained me and disciplined me. Here I learnt that ethnicity, language and religion mean very little; that our country is our first priority and we would happily lay our lives for Pakistan and each other. In the Air Force, I learnt the simplicity of life; those that wear the same flag are on the same side. In battle, you happily take a bullet for your comrade without thinking of his language or religion. I wish other institutions of the country could equally impart this message. If this thinking makes me a ‘Fauji’, I am proud of it.

I later continued in Karachi as part of IBA, and then the Civil Services of Pakistan. Since 1997, I have continuously lived in Karachi and my friends and colleagues have been Urdu speaking and Sindhi. We have lived at each other’s homes; our mothers have cooked for all of us. We walk into each other’s houses and are welcomed by each other’s families. Our children have grown up together, attended the same schools and have become friends.

Since we belong to the middle class, we have experienced the life of ordinary people, we are not used to pickups of guards with machine guns following us around. We don’t envy them, we are not impressed by them, and we don’t share their attitude or their view of Pakistan. I don’t hate them, I don’t even dislike them; I am just not part of them and have no desire to move in their circle. I love all Pakistani’s and I am completely blind to ethnicities, all Sindhis, Baloch, Punjabi, Pakhtun, Urdu speaking, Shia, Sunni, Christian, Hindu, Sikhs are my brothers, unless they have pickups laden with guards following them around, as they then choose to become a different class that is above us mere mortals.

Repeatedly, I have experienced that this class has a different value system, they consider themselves above the law and suffer from the arrogance of power. That, to me, is true blasphemy; if you don’t respect the law of our land, if you consider yourselves to be above the ordinary people of Pakistan, then you are not democratic and you don’t wear our flag.

Sorry for the long intro, but my writing reflects my personality and my writing creates Dhuwan and Maalik. By virtue of the law of my land, I have the right to freely express myself and no one can take that right away from me because nobody is above the law of the land. Or, at least that is what I believe.

A few more things before we move on to Maalik.

1. I don’t seek attention or fame. If I did I would not have disappeared from the media after Dhuwan.

2. I have no political ambition.

3. I don’t seek money or power, because, at this juncture, film making in Pakistan is the best way to lose money.

Finally I have no use for power. What would I do with it, and who would I use it against?

I came up with the concept of Maalik somewhere in 2001. I lost the initial script and had to rewrite it. I kept improving it for years. I had no clear idea of the format because Pakistan’s film industry hardly existed and television channels had descended into a soap format. They preferred simpler, money making subjects. Nobody was interested in patriotic or thought provoking ideas. Pressures of a job and raising a family also weighed on me, so Maalik always took a back seat.

The responsibility to tell the story of the common man (Maalik) and how he experienced society kept nagging me. Two things happened. One, Hassan Waqas Rana, a friend of over 25 years, made a film called WaarWaar opened the doors of film in Pakistan and paved the way for Maalik. Two, a chance meeting with an unassuming man at a friend’s residence one evening.

I did not recognise the plain shalwar kameez clad gentleman to be General Asim Bajwa, the Director General of ISPR. The man had no airs, not according to my concept of a General. No pickups of armed machine gun men followed him. He drove himself and his car was as ordinary as mine. He was a common man, humble and dignified in his speech and manner. I could see he wore my flag.

It is today that you learn, Sir, that it was ultimately your demeanour towards us common Pakistanis that compelled me to work on Maalik.

General Bajwa asked me why I had stopped after Dhuwan. I told the General that I had written numerous scripts but never really had the time or direction to be able to proceed further. General Bajwa encouraged me. He said that the ISPR wanted to promote the film industry as it was necessary for our economy, our image and as our soft power. He said the ISPR would extend all possible assistance to capable film makers, especially on patriotic subjects. Time went by and I got involved in my usual routine again, but the idea of Maalik as a film was rooted in my mind. The General called me a few times, but since I was too busy and hence, humbly declined, his humility however stayed with me.

By the close of 2013, I was convinced that Maalik was only possible as a film. I also knew that my script was not possible without logistic assistance from ISPR, but I had many apprehensions. I had been told that ISPR was a difficult organisation to work with, that they unnecessarily interfered in all aspects of the creative process from story to casting, hiring of crew etc.

Writing is my passion. My stories are my babies and I never give my script to another. When I conceive an idea, I carry it all the way. Bad habit? May be, but that’s me. I decided to visit ISPR and take the bull by the horns. I met General Bajwa and requested him for logistic support, but I also submitted that I would not be able to accommodate any input in the creative process. I have no doubt in saying that General Bajwa is one of the finest people to work with in Pakistan, he has clarity of thought and is a great visionary. He laughed and said, I won’t let you drive my tank either.

You need much more to make a film like Maalik than just ISPR. Films in Pakistan are mostly funded by commercial organisations for sponsorship and for ultimate sale of their products. Very soon we discovered that no commercial organisation was willing to touch a concept like Maalik, they wanted lighter, commercial and non-serious subjects. As all doors closed on us, we approached public sector organisations for support. These organisations are ultimately controlled by ministries and we were refused. The refusals, however, strengthened my resolve to tell the story of Maalik.

A society that closes its eyes to reality in preference for fantasy is like a drug addict. Drug addicts find their reality too bitter and choose to escape in the world of fantasy. They do not realise that by doing so, they only worsen their own condition and become susceptible to further manipulation. The realisation that through largely invisible hands that control finance and market access, we were being forced into an escapist society that is easily led into a direction chosen by the invisible masters horrified me. I knew Maalik had to be told. I was now involved and I had to carry it to the end.

Work on Maalik started, we could not afford Ari and RED so we went with cheaper options, we had cheaper lenses, tripods and sliders. We knew “it was not the gun but the man behind the gun” that mattered. We had the most competent and dedicated people on team Maalik and we decided to turn our dream into a reality. The film was planned for release on August 14, 2015, but we couldn’t make it. Our next target was March 23, 2016 but due to the T20, decided to postpone Maalik till after April 3, 2016. The first opportunity was April 8, 2016.

We did not have the support of any of the major media houses, because we had no commercial organisations standing behind us. All we had was PTV and FM 89.4. Lack of heavy marketing and commercial support meant we had lesser shows in the cinemas than are generally available to other films. We knew we would be competing with two Indian films and a major Hollywood film, but we also knew that marketing can only get you a good start. After the first show it’s the word of mouth that counts. We had faith in the common man.

Maalik is a labour of love. We worked tirelessly for over two years, braving all odds and pushing on. We did with little sleep, worked with a lean team and did most of our work in house. We could not afford to go abroad for post processing, so we worked completely in Pakistan. We saved wherever we could, avoided air travel by hiring vans and buses, stayed in low end hotels, hired cast from the same area as we were shooting in, avoided expensive costumes and mostly wore our own clothes. By the end we had the pride of being the first film that was completely made in Pakistan. Not a single frame had been taken outside the country for CGI, VFX, colour correction, sound and sound mix. We were truly proud to have shown the world that Pakistan had the technology and the human resource to do everything on its own soil.

Finally, we handed over the completed DCP to the distributor and waited for the results of the censor boards. We were not tense about censor; Maalik was a straight forward, noncontroversial patriotic movie that could be seen by the entire family. It did not contain nudity, item numbers, anti-state or anti-Islamic ingredients. As expected the film breezed through all three censor boards. The Central Censor Board at Islamabad and the Punjab Censor Board at Lahore gave us Unrestricted (U) certificates without any observations. I received personal calls from censor board members congratulating me on an excellent film. They said they had censored so many films, but Maalik was the best they had seen so far. I do not wish to disclose the names since I understand that the government is not too pleased with them and I do not wish to get them in any more trouble than they already are. All I can say is that I thank you, I know of your real feelings about Maalik, and I understand the pressure that you are going through.

The only observation came from the Sindh Censor Board, which observed that all references to Sindh should be removed in the Oath of the CM. Although the Oath was completely in accordance with the official Oath as prescribed by the government, we understood and respected the concerns of the Sindh Censor Board and volunteered to remove all references to a particular province (Sindh) from the film across the country.

Next started the battle for shows in cinemas, we were given lesser shows across the country as were given to most films on opening weekend. We still did good business and then word of mouth started. Our ratings started to grow steadily, as more and more people saw the film, the word spread and the movie continued. The next weekend Fan was being released. The SRK film was given huge number of shows across the country and our film was marginalised to either the most expensive Gold/Platinum Cinemas or to very odd timings.

However, since the crowds kept booking the cinemas (even at odd hours) and Fan started going down, the cinemas soon gave us better timings and more shows. The next weekend was the launch of Hijrat; Maalik was further squeezed for shows between Fan, Hijrat and The Jungle Book. Yet, since the crowds filled the cinemas for Maalik, we survived. As the third weekend passed, we started to see the silver lining. Maalik was given more shows by the cinemas and all advance booking reflected house full shows. Maalik had passed the acid tests and was finally on its way. Our hopes however, were short lived.

On April 25, Monday, I suddenly got a call from the distributors, saying that unless we ‘beeped’ out the word ‘CM’ from the entire film, Maalik would not be allowed to run in cinemas in Sindh. This made no sense to us, we argued that there are four CM’s in Pakistan and the other provinces do not have a problem, if we beep out the word ‘CM’ only for cinemas in Sindh, it would not make any sense and would actually become more conspicuous. I was told that there was tremendous pressure and that the film would be blocked for evening shows. We immediately beeped out the word ‘CM’ and issued modified copies to the cinemas and informed the Sindh Censor Board. Our film was allowed to continue that evening.

On April 26, at about three in the afternoon the distributor told me that Maalik had been banned across Sindh. Notification of the Sindh Censor Board was sent to the cinemas and the film was ordered to be removed. We were in shock, and trying to make sense of the matter when a few hours later, once the issue was picked up by the media, the Sindh Censor Board lifted the ban. This, however, was not the end. Sindh cinemas started telling us that despite the government’s decision to lift the ban, they would not be running the film from the next day and were refunding tickets to the viewers. The cinemas refused to give a reason, saying they had instructions. We were confused and were hoping that the situation in Sindh would resolve in a few days, since the film was doing well in other cities.

On April 27, the distributor informed us that Maalik had been banned across the country. As the news hit the media, a wave of verbal allegations started against the film. As we countered each allegation, a new allegation would appear.

I made a legitimate film, followed the due process of the law, got certifications from the offices as prescribed by the government itself, ran a film successfully in cinemas for three weeks and as soon as I was getting a break, someone decided to ban my film.

By what right?

The allegations being hurled at the film are clear after thoughts to justify a wrong and dictatorial decision by someone or a small group – who are used to being followed by guards in pickups and their ego has been hurt. Who is too high and mighty to respect the law of the land and can ride rough shod on the rights of a common man and can whimsically decide to silence the voice they do not like. Are we, the citizens of Pakistan, destined to silently endure the injustices of pharaohs and continue to obediently serve them for the crumbs they choose to throw at us from the spoils of a land that is legitimately ours? Why are we slaves in our own land?

What is so special about a patriotic film that it had to be discouraged and finally banned? First by a province, and then the federal government? What is at stake? Is it just about a film or are bigger forces at play? What would the repercussions of the ban on Maalik be on the film industry in Pakistan? What would the repercussions on free speech and censorship of media be? What would the personal repercussions for me and my family be? Who stands to gain? Is our democracy so fragile as to be threatened by a film, or are the reasons deeper? Will any film maker venture into a serious film again?

I don’t know the answers to all these questions. I am just a common man who worked very hard for years and put everything I had in making a film that views Pakistan from the eyes of a common man, the perceptions of an ordinary citizen about the state of governance in our country. It is the voice of a common man, a voice that is never heard, a voice that is drowned under the unrealistic soaps on television and in music and dance fantasies in our cinemas.

I believe that banning of Maalik and the events that followed the ban vindicated my concept of our society and communicated the story more effectively in reality than was ever possible for a film in cinemas.

Maalik has achieved its purpose.

The longer the film is blocked, the greater would be the clarity among the masses. What happens to me next is of no consequence. Our job is over, the message stands delivered, it’s now for the people to decide. We have done what we set out to do.

میں پاکستان کا شہری پاکستان کا مالک ہوں

This post originally appeared here.

Ashir Azeem

Ashir Azeem

The author was born in Quetta and was an Aeronautical Engineer in the Pakistan Air Force. He was at the IBA Morning Campus Karachi University and joined the Civil Services of Pakistan in 1988 (Pakistan Customs). He directed Dhuwan (1994) for PTV Quetta and is the director of Maalik (2016). He tweets as @ashirazeemgill (twitter.com/ashirazeemgill)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Karachi Muhajir

    Your so called “safai’ itself contains the answer of the grudge of other ethnic communities against your movie .
    You were brought up in Balochistan with the Baloc and living in Karachi with your Muhajir friends you claimed .How ironic that instead of directing a movie on the plight of the missing persons of Balochistan or the victimization of the Karachi Muhajirs , you preferred to go for a controversial movie depicting Punjabi people as the most patriotic.Recommend

  • HK

    Thank you! I haven’t watched the movie as I live oversees but thank you for being the Pakistani that you are! God Bless!Recommend

  • umar

    Great article.Recommend

  • https://twitter.com/talhafarooq Talha Farooq

    Sir, very well said indeed. The law of the land doesn’t apply to a specific group/class of individuals who not only consider themselves above the law, but use their immense resources to keep it that way. They have kept in this current state for many decades. This makes them non-democratic and since they do not believe and abide by the law of the land this also makes them something in line with separatists, miscreants and traitors. The only difference is that their cause is the lust of wealth and power.

    A common man (or woman) who tries to make them abide by the law of the land will easily get crushed by these powerful individuals, furthermore, they may make an example out of him for generations to come. However, if that common man is to unite and form a horde of common men (and/or women) then the easily expendables will become a nuisance and then a threat to their acquisition of wealth and power.

    It is an honor to share this land with an individual such as you, sir!

    May God help us!Recommend

  • SAIF

    We are all with you Ashir! We will have it screened very soon. :-)Recommend

  • Nomad1412

    OK, so let’s make some sense of this ramble. No one from the entire film industry in Pakistan was interested in your script, production or movie except DG (ISPR) whose help you also took to create the movie. And what does the movie show? It has a hero retired from the SSG and in the climax, the CM of Sindh (the villain) is assassinated (not democratically removed from office) because he is corrupt. Pardon my French, but how much of a moron do you think we are to not see through your masters’ agenda? You may claim to be Baloch, but the fact is that you are very much a brainwashed product of the institution you worked for.Recommend

  • talha usmani

    I know one thing for sure, if the ban gets removed this movie will surely be a blockbuster.Recommend

  • Asad Ali

    QUOTE

    I met General Bajwa and requested him for logistic support, but I also submitted that I would not be able to accommodate any input in the creative process. I have no doubt in saying that General Bajwa is one of the finest people to work with in Pakistan, he has clarity of thought and is a great visionary. He laughed and said, I won’t let you drive my tank either.

    UNQUOTE

    What a pleasure reading your discourse Sir ! count me as one of the unluckiest to miss the last show of the day which I booked and very next day “Maalik” got banned.Recommend

  • atShehzad

    Our job is over, the message stands delivered, it’s now for the people to decide which Govt is standing with corruption free Pakistan, its KPK where ‘Maalik’ is not banned.Recommend

  • itrat

    Ashir is right. It’s a movie , as far as those people who are pointing racism , Guys, Tell me one thing , are you people really living in pakistan ? Don’t you see armed guards convoy raising there hand and voice to keep distance from their masters cars. Ignoring Reality will only hurt in the end. I don’t want this culture in my city karachi and that is why I support him.Recommend

  • Hassan

    Sir, we support you. Don’t lose hope because of the corrupt politicians …..Recommend