‘Making a film is like giving birth — painful but incredibly rewarding’

A lot of individual and collaborative activity goes into getting a character ready for stage, but when the curtain goes up, only one person — the actor — is responsible for delivering a good performance

One of the most promising young men in show business today, the talented, determined and confident Usman Mukhtar sits down with Ally Adnan for an exclusive interview for Daily Times.

You have worked in both cinema and theater and will soon be seen on television. Which is your favorite medium: cinema, theater or television?

I will answer the question, first, as an actor and, then, as a filmmaker.

As an actor, my preference is to do theater. No other medium allows actors more room for performance. Theater has a lot of energy. It requires protracted confidence and assurance. It affords immediate feedback to actors. It tests their mettle. It lets actors forge a unique and invaluable connection with the audience during each performance. It allows actors to use little more than histrionic talent, intelligence and stage presence to prove themselves on stage. It forces actors to face, conquer and discard many fears: the fear of performing inadequately; the fear of rejection by critics; the fear of not being able to attract audiences; the fear of being singled out for criticism; the fear of forgetting lines; the fear of not having stage presence; and the fear of a lot else. What could be better than that? I just love that!

A lot of individual and collaborative activity goes into getting a character ready for stage, but when the curtain goes up, only one person – the actor – is responsible for delivering a good performance. I thrive on the associated risk, daring, independence, responsibility, and freedom. As an actor, I am most at home in theater.

As a filmmaker, on the other hand, I prefer cinema. It allows me to use a lot of devices – editing, retakes, multiple angles of view, shot framing, colour grading, rapid scene changes, time, and many others that do not exist in theater. There is more money in cinema and the scale of projects is generally larger. Cinema also has greater reach and is rarely as elitist as theater can sometimes be. It affords actors, directors, cinematographers, and everyone else involved greater recognition. It is truly international. Cinema also holds an allure, a glamor that is enormously intoxicating. Personally, I like how many disciplines come together in cinema to create what can sometimes be a true work of art. I enjoy seeing things come together as they only do in cinema. Making a film is like giving birth – painful but incredibly rewarding.

Your recent film, Parchi, received mostly poor critical reviews but, if the film’s producers are to be believed, did well commercially. What do you think of Parchi?

If I was not personally involved in Parchi, I would say that it was a good feature film. However, I shot and acted in the film and, because of that, my opinion is a little different. I hold myself to very high standards and feel that the film could have been better in some areas. I certainly could have done better both as an actor and as a director of photography. At the same time, I am proud of the fact that Parchi, which was released together with three other Pakistani films, held its own amidst the competition.

I have read the reviews of Parchi, some were good and some were very critical. A few, in my opinion, were unnecessarily harsh and almost vindictive. That being said, I will say that each and every person who saw Parchi, including but not only the critics, is entitled to his individual opinion. I respect that and have tried to find value in both positive and negative reviews of Parchi.

The Pakistani film industry is undergoing a renaissance. It is in its early stages and dealing with teething issues. We need to be cognisant of that fact. I do not think that undue concessions need to be given to Pakistani cinema just because it is in its infancy but I do think that kindness, encouragement and compassion are in order and would be helpful.

What hinders Pakistani cinema?

I think our cinema is hindered mostly by a dearth of finances, an aversion to taking risks, and a lack of proper filmmaking infrastructure. Otherwise, we are strong in many areas, especially in acting, a script-writing and music.

You worked both as a cinematographer and as an actor in Parchi. How did you fare in each role?

I think I did moderately well and not great in either role. I am fortunate to have received praise both as a cinematographer and as an actor in Parchi but, to be honest, I find the praise a little embarrassing. I think I could and should have done better both as an actor and a cinematographer.

Where did it go wrong?

I think I made an imprudent decision to work both as a cinematographer and an actor in Parchi. I should have done one or the other.

Doing the two jobs simultaneously was very stressful. It required a lot of hard work and involved working some very long hours. As the cinematographer, I had to be on set hours before other actors and get the team ready for shooting. That was tiring. I could never totally switch one discipline off completely. While acting, I was worried about lighting, cinematography and shooting and, while shooting, I worked hard to stay in character and focus on acting. It was not easy. The two jobs are immensely demanding and I found doing them together to be forbiddingly difficult. I do not think I will work both as an actor and as the Director of Photography in the same film, in the future.

Are you a good actor and cinematographer?

Yes, I believe that I am. There is, however, a lot for me to learn. I take my career very seriously, have high standards, and want to continue to evolve, progress and grow as an artist. The long road to excellence is ahead of me.

You are listed as the Director of Photography in the credits of Parchi. How is a Director of Photography different from a Cinematographer?

A Director of Photography is different from a Cinematographer, in many ways.

A film can have several cinematographers but only one Director of Photography. The cinematographer is responsible, primarily, for holding and operating the camera. He deals with the selection and operation of visual recording equipment and with the arrangement and employment of lighting. The Director of Photography, on the other hand, is responsible for the look and feel of the entire film. He deals with colour correction and grading; selection of cameras, lenses and related equipment; design of lighting; framing and shot composition; editing and scene transition; art direction, make-up and costume; and the management of camera and lighting crews.

Your mother – the very talented Nasira – was one of the most prolific actors of Pakistani cinema. Did she influence your choice to take up a career in show business?

She did not. I always wanted to be an attorney like my grandfather, with whom I shared a very close bond. That I ended up in show business is pure happenstance. I am in awe of my mother’s acting talent and her body of work. She worked in one 158 films and was the top-rated villainous actor – known then as the vamp – throughout her career. India had Aruna Irani, Bindu, Helen, Lalitha Pawar, Manorma, Nadira and Shashikala. Pakistan had only Nasira. No one could ever compete with her in playing the villainous. Her accomplishments and contribution to Pakistani cinema have always made very proud but she was not the reason I ended up in films. It really was fate.

You seem to have become jaded towards friendships? Why is that?

Yes, perhaps, I have. I have had my share of betrayal, deceit and disappointment.

It appears that you have a greater interest in being a part great films than in becoming a big star. Is that a fair statement?

Yes, it is. I believe that when one truly loves what he does, he puts his heart and soul into his work and does not want anything but the pleasure of doing a job well. I love cinema. I adore it, in fact. I believe in the art and craft of filmmaking. I did not get into show business to become a star. I wanted to be a part of great films. That is still my wish and desire. If money, recognition and stardom come as a consequence of my work, I would be very happy and grateful for it but securing money, recognition and stardom has never been my goal in life and will never be.

The Parchi actor says he has read reviews of the film, “A few, in my opinion, were unnecessarily harsh and almost vindictive. That being said, I will say that each and every person who saw Parchi is entitled to his individual opinion”

What is wrong with money, recognition and stardom?

Nothing at all, if money, recognition and stardom come as a result of having done good, honest work but everything is wrong with them if they are undeserved, unmerited, and manufactured.

Your short film, ‘Aasiqui’, was appreciated by critics both in India and in Pakistan. Why did the film not make it to the festival circuit?

A lot of time and energy was spent on making Aasiqui. Everyone involved with the short wanted to release it, as soon as it was done. The film got a great reception, upon release, but it should never have been released online, in haste. Most festivals like to showcase films that have not been released online. Our decision, wrong in retrospect, to release it quickly, prevented us from submitting the film to a lot of festivals. I am, however, actively looking to have it shown in festivals that do not have the afore-mentioned requirement.

What do you think of Aasiqui?

I am a huge fan of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur films. Aasiqui was an ode to the films. I think it was a well-written, well-acted and well-executed short film. I am glad to have done Aasiqui.

What projects do you have in the pipeline currently?

I am developing a feature film, working on a documentary about my mother, and talking to a few television producers about doing a serial. 2018 is going to be a busy year.

What do you plan to accomplish, personally and professionally, in 2018?

Personally, I want to make my lifestyle as healthy, pure and clean as I possibly can. I plan to eat well, maintain a judicious exercise regimen, sleep adequately, focus on spiritualism, and develop personal discipline.

Professionally, I want to work in good, ground-breaking projects with good, talented people. I want to surround myself with the best of people so that I can grow, learn and achieve more. Positive work environments bring out the best in me.

The writer lives in Dallas and writes about culture, history and the arts. He tweets @allyadnan and can be reached at allyadnan@outlook.com

Published in Daily Times, February 9th 2018.