Omair Alavi|Published July 1, 2018
Photography: Mohammad Ali/White Star
He featured prominently in the cast of two of the four Pakistani film releases on Eid — 7 Din Mohabbat In (7DMI) and Wajood — has another potential blockbuster lined up to release next month — Teefa In Trouble — and has just made his return to the director’s chair after a decade with Wajood. On the face of it, Jawed Sheikh — the constantly working actor whose face doesn’t belie his status as a veteran of Pakistan’s showbiz industry — should be a content man. But something is gnawing away at him.
I meet him at the office of Jawed Sheikh Films in the upmarket Defence locality in Karachi after the release of his directorial venture. He’s restless and takes his time to settle down but when he finally starts talking, he speaks from the heart, not his mind.
“One week before Eidul Fitr, I approached my distributors [IMGC Global] with the idea of postponing Wajood’s release till the first week of August so that every other Eid release could get a maximum number of shows,” Jawed Sheikh says. “With four [Pakistani] films being released on the same day alongside two Hollywood blockbusters, I knew that all the films will not get equal shows. They listened to my concerns and assured me that injustice will not be done to any film but that’s exactly what I got on my return to filmmaking after a decade — injustice!”
Hearing such comments from the actor-director who literally kick-started the Urdu film revival in the ’90s with his directorial debut Mushkil and later called the shots for hits such as Chief Saab, Mujhe Jeenay Do and Yeh Dil Aap Ka Huwa (YDAKH) was painful. Yes, there was always going to be tough competition between Dawn Films’ 7DMI, ARY Films’ Azaadi, Hum Films’ Na Band Na Baraati (NBNB) and Sheikh’s own Wajood, but getting fewer shows than 7DMI and Azaadi, it seems, had really hit the veteran actor hard. Wajood’s mediocre run at the box office would not have helped. Add to it the fact that the same distributor has potential Bollywood blockbusters Race 3 and Sanju lined up for post-Eid releases has made him angry. Very angry.
He’s been part of the film industry for 44 years and, if recent and upcoming releases are anything to go by, still its most prolific and hardest worker. Actor and director Jawed Sheikh opens up to Icon about why he’s still not content …
“Had my film been released on August 3 or August 10 — as per my later suggestion — it would have benefitted the cinema industry as there is no other Pakistani release in the pipeline after Teefa In Trouble [July 20] and it would have gotten a solo run instead of a divided one.” Sheikh points out that his film got 110 shows on Eid day while 7DMI (also featuring him as an actor) had 240. “Even Azaadi had more shows than us which was not what I was expecting. Such things are heartbreaking for a film person such as myself who has given his life to the industry.”
The seasoned actor does have a point. Bollywood filmmakers often help each other out by not releasing films simultaneously and the recent case of Padman and Padmaavat is proof that the release date isn’t always final and the shuffling of dates can be beneficial. “Ours is an immature industry, otherwise, we would not have released four films on the same day,” the director explains as he vents his anger at the distributors, the other producers and the government. “This is the first time I am releasing a film on Eid and that too because of some delays. Seven times I have released my film on a random date and most of them did well at the box office. At first, two films — 7DMI and Wajood — were announced as Eid releases, while Azaadi and Parwaaz Hai Junoon joined the bandwagon later.
“Later, NBNB replaced the PAF film and here, ‘the more the merrier’ was taken literally. I hope we learn from these mistakes and avoid clashes like these in the future. For that, we will have to mature as an industry, especially during a long and celebrated weekend. I feel Teefa In Trouble will change the perception by becoming a hit as a non-Eid release.”
Bollywood is like a second home for Jawed Sheikh who has also done various A-list films across the border. However, he feels that the government’s decision to release Indian films just one week after Eid isn’t a good decision if you look at it from a local filmmaker’s perspective. “I don’t understand the logic behind the previous government’s U-turn, that too on their last day in power,” the exasperated filmmaker says while sipping tea that seemed less hot than his temper. “They imposed the two-week restriction on the screening of Indian films, which was a good thing for local filmmakers, but suddenly they backtracked and reduced the restriction to just one week, giving the impression that they wanted to promote Indian films over local ones.”
I can’t make films for others because I need a free hand without any kind of influence from anyone, even a producer. That’s why, when I work with upcoming directors, I try to be up to the challenge they are offering. Maybe that’s why they like working with me.”
The elephant in the room is, of course, the fact that most viewers were not very charitable about the Pakistani films on offer over Eid, despite the restriction on Indian films. Most reviewers also thought Wajood’s filmmaking style was stuck in the 1990s. Is Sheikh using protectionism as a crutch? I feel raising this issue at this juncture might make him actually explode.
For someone who has been around for 44 years in films, Jawed Sheikh has come a long way since Dhamaka (1974). After the failure of his film debut — which was based on crime fiction writer Ibn-i-Safi’s characters — he took solace in TV, where he achieved stardom in no time at all. However, it took him 10 more years to return to films as an actor, delivering hits such as Kabhi Alwida Na Kehna, Bobby, Lazawal, Faisla, and then another decade to become a director with Mushkil. His knack for good music and soundtracks set him apart from other film directors at the time and his films always had the best songs — from Mushkil Hai Bara Mushkil Hai (film: Mushkil) to Suno Suno (Chief Saab) and Falak Se Sitara (YDAKH).
He was also the brains behind rediscovering the bombshell in Neeli (Mushkil), introducing a sexy Meera (Chief Saab) and a gorgeous Sana (YDAKH). But since his box office failure with Khulay Aasman Ke Neeche, he restricted himself to acting. That’s too long a wait for a director whose office houses pictures of legendary film directors from round the world including Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Satyajit Ray, Raj Kapoor and our very own Pervez Malik and Nazrul Islam.
“I can’t make films for others because I need a free hand without any kind of influence from anyone, even a producer. That’s why, when I work with upcoming directors, I try to be up to the challenge they are offering. Maybe that’s why they like working with me.” It’s true that the actor is often the first choice for all upcoming directors in Pakistan. “Nabeel Qureshi [Na Maloom Afraad], Wajahat Rauf [Karachi Se Lahore] and Yasir Nawaz [Wrong No.] had not done a film before they approached me but I appreciated their confidence and agreed to work with them. I even encouraged [ace ad-makers] Asim Reza and Ahsan Rahim to direct a film long before they actually went ahead and made one. Yes, their technique is very different from ours but in my opinion, content is king and ultimately it’s the public that should decide the film’s fate, not those who review these films.”
That, by the way, was a dig at the social media pundits whom Jawed Sheikh apparently hates from the bottom of his heart. “There was a time when knowledgeable people used to review films and readers looked up to them before buying a cinema ticket. Nowadays, people with no knowledge of filmmaking have become self-proclaimed critics who I am sure will even criticise classics such as Mughal-i-Azam, Ben-Hur and Titanic if they get the chance. Still, 80 percent of the people who critique films are genuine people and I believe that, with their professionalism, they will defeat the ‘yellow’ bloggers as I call them.” I can sense there is a lot of resentment bubbling under the surface of the evergreen filmmaker.
Unlike yesteryear heroes, Jawed Sheikh quit playing leading roles even before he turned 50. His first non-leading role was in YDAKH where he played Moammar Rana’s elder brother and, since then, he has played father to Shah Rukh Khan (Om Shanti Om), Salman Khan and Anil Kapoor (Yuvraj), Shahid Kapoor (Shikhar), Ranbir Kapoor (Tamasha) and even grandfather to his own son Shahzad Sheikh (Main Hoon Shahid Afridi).
“I had a change of heart because I felt that there was more to acting than singing and dancing. By quitting leading roles, I managed to make a place for myself in the domain of character acting,” Sheikh says as he relaxes on the sofa, closing his eyes and remembering his variety of roles. Going back in time seems to calm him. “It began with Jo Darr Gaya Woh Marr Gaya where I played the antagonist. Before that, I had Jeeva. When the current wave of directors approached me, I chose to be the antagonist in Main Hoon Shahid Afridi while I did comedy for a change in the Na Maloom Afraad franchise. In 7DMI, I play a good-looking djinn who changes get-ups and makes life miserable for the protagonist Tipu. In Wajood, I play a detective who gets to solve a case in true filmi style.”
Jawed Sheikh was, contrary to popular belief, always comfortable while working in India and is hopeful that one day the two industries can work together peacefully. With the recent visits of Indian artists Vinay Pathak, Vishal Bharadwaj and Nandita Das for the Pakistan International Film Festival (PIFF) as well as his own casting of Indian actress Aditi Singh in Wajood, he feels that the people of the two countries have different views than their governments. “Officially the Indian government has never banned actors from Pakistan but they stay quiet due to the internal pressure from their own industry. It can be due to the change in government or because of bowing down to the outrageous tactics of Hindu extremists or insecure Indian artists — whatever the reason, they must address it by either not giving actors from Pakistan a work visa or telling them they are welcome in India. Trust me, filmmakers in India want to work with Pakistani talent — be it an actor or a singer — and I am hopeful that soon, we will resume the cross-border interactions. As for Aditi Singh, she loved Pakistan on her first trip and was anxious to return because, wherever she went, she was welcomed with open arms.”
If things had been perfect between India and Pakistan, Jawed Sheikh would have had four releases in June and two in July — he was supposed to play Moammar Rana’s father in Azaadi (a role that eventually went to Nadeem) and Kareena Kapoor Khan’s father in Veere Di Wedding, a film that was eventually banned in Pakistan for being too bold. “Due to some date issues, I couldn’t do Azaadi while Veere Di Wedding succumbed to Indo-Pak politics.” He has been in multiple simultaneous releases before: Wrong No., Bin Roye, Jawani Phir Nahi Ani and Hulla Gulla all came out at the same time as well.
“I can only term it a coincidence,” Jawed Sheikh says with a smile. “I play the central character in Jackpot [releasing July 6] and the leading lady’s father in Teefa In Trouble, after which I don’t have many films slated for release.”
Could it be that this is what is really troubling him? For a workaholic like Sheikh, the prospect of sitting idle might be the real problem.
“Who knows I might announce another directorial venture where I will apply everything that I learned during the making of Wajood,” he finally laughs, his innate resilience winning out over his resentment. “Things have changed but you can’t stop trying just because it has become difficult.”
Published in Dawn, ICON, July 1st, 2018