An enigma of sorts to those who aren’t always readily onboard to his distinctive storytelling-
Sarmad Khoosat is an eccentric player in the world of entertainment who doesn’t play by the rules.
His work speaks for itself. Be it his stimulating performance in Manto or critically acclaimed 24-hour-long live act in No Time To Sleep, Sarmad never fails to impress. What he creates isn’t cautiously tied down to the mainstream formula and most of the time, comes with its fair share of criticism and outcry. While the maestro continues to passionately pursue stories and art which define the process rather than the end product, Sarmad also has his fair share of anxiety episodes. And with his globally acclaimed ‘Joyland’ finally getting its domestic release on November 18, getting a tad overwhelmed over the kind of response it may get seems justified. “Joyland” received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film festival and is the recipient of the Un Certain Jury Prize as well as the winner of Best Film of the Subcontinent from Indian Film Festival of Melbourne. Despite being Pakistan’s official submission to the Oscars, this film is yet to cater to its Pakistani audience. However that didn’t stop the cries of assumptions and allegations about the film to echo through the masses- at a time when even the trailer wasn’t unveiled, neither the synopsis was given out for that matter. And this is what the producer of the film ‘Sarmad’ feels is what leads to passionate projects getting their own misconstructed individualistic narrations which usually stand in sheer contrast to what a project is actually depicting.
Excerpts from the interview:
SD: Joyland releases in a matter of days in Pakistan. How nervous are you?
Sarmad: Yes the jitters are there. But now the actual film is being released for the public to see what it is actually narrating. It is fine for people to form their own viewpoints. But that works only when something has been unveiled and seen. We have our own narrative in the movie. Experience it first before becoming opinionated. But the good thing is people are opening up. So let’s see what lays ahead.
SD: Your openness and vulnerability to seeing how things can’t be designed in perfected patterns is incredible. Yet you create films like Zindagi Tamasha which was also subjected to public scrutiny?
Sarmad: The thing is I go for what my heart sets itself onto. I mean you can spend years on a draft of a story and suddenly it stops making sense to you mid way. So you need to decide whether to keep it or ditch it. And I never created something to prove a point. My creative spark doesn’t rise from that. Zindagi Tamasha took me to dark places- internally and externally. But I accepted that if this is something that is going to break me, it will break me.
SD: How does one person portray and put forth so much ? Was it a constant struggle or did you inherit in-built confidence through family legacy?
Sarmad: For me, I think the key would be the lack of unnecessary confidence. It was all about trying something out at least once. In the starting years of my career I was still a guy in college and for the first 4-5 years, I only did comedy. It was an easy format to begin with and production wise, not a lot of time had to be invested. However I left comedy only when I got bored with it. Shashlik was one of a few comedy series in my kitty. And don’t get me wrong- while I did enjoy it, it truly exhausted me and I knew I had to make that transition now.
Sarmad: I’d say it doesn’t come with a route map, however you do need clarity on direction. Ever since I was a child, I wanted to become an actor. And once I got into this field, I had absolute clarity and knew I had to learn the craft, considering I had a psychology degree.
SD: Looking at the kind of raging storms you’ve passed through- did it ever come to a breaking point, where you said “Hell with it. This country doesn’t deserve my talent”?
Sarmad: If I am to say that thought never crossed my mind, it would be wrong. There’s just so much around you-itching to break you in whatever way it can. But here’s the thing- I have learned to not let anyone take the joy of my process from me. It’s not the end product- but this whole scintillating process that I have actually consciously worked so hard for. Sometimes with immense anger even. But it’s mine to cherish and protect.
SD: If we look at the raving success of Humsafar- an audience approved, beloved series- it stands in stark contrast to your recent cinematic and somewhat troubled work- did you not feel its approval had paved the success formula for you?
Sarmad: The interesting thing is Humsafar happened about 12 years into my career and people were identifying me as the new director on the block. I was 31 years old and working for 11-12 years. So there wasn’t anything new about me. Just a show which got mainstream approval. Yes, that massive success could have become a getaway for me to continue the same kind of work throughout. I know when something clicks, people consider it to be a major success formula. But for me, it wasn’t like that. That’s not how I function. Coming years brought forth ventures which were poles apart but equally fed my creative intuition. I mean Manto was everything Humsafar was not. I have always adhered to not bringing in the fear whether a project will work or not.
SD: So commercial success is not a dominant factor for you in regards to film making?
Sarmad: Don’t let either success or failure get to your head. Sure Humsafar gave me success I had never tasted before but with it, came the struggle on how to handle it. Then there is the not-so-constructive criticism to deal with. You just need to decide how much value you are going to give to how success or failure hits you. Go by that as opposed to allowing other people to judge you. So that built my morale to continue doing what I do. Only you decide the kind of reward you want, whether it’s money, enjoying a good review or satisfying the creative bug in you. But sure, getting any financial gain allows me to bring some capital back into potential new projects. But then I cant apply the same formula for every film for it to provide me the same kind of return.
SD: Your recent theatre performance ‘Limbo’- a dramatic reading of letters of prisoners on death row was quite stirring. How passionate are you about theatre as a performer?
Sarmad: I’ve been proudly associating myself with such projects for a long time. However capital punishment is a tricky topic. It’s about setting up a filter where your emotions and assumptions should not be taking the reins and the more time it takes for you to understand a certain situation or problem, the bigger the responsibility it becomes for you to work harder and portray the narration as it deserves to be presented. For you to empathize with something, it is important that you first understand it well and then present it. Limbo truly represented literature in such a thought provoking manner. I find theatre very indulgent, very therapeutic.
SD: With so much going on, all the time, how do you unwind and do you even have time to do so?
Sarmad: I have worked hard to pace myself. Also I am practicing the task of anti-multimasking. That means committing myself to one thing at a time. For instance, I am committed to this interview right now. I aim to steer clear of distractions and commit my all to a single thing. However I admit it’s a bit of a struggle- the chatter doesn’t always stop.
SD: Your take on Pakistani talent finally getting the Hollywood nod. Do you feel we even needed that?
Sarmad: Why not. In this day and age, you cannot exert boundaries, limiting interaction of cross-border ingenuity. We are finally a global village and we proudly need to present ourselves as part of a large group of creative artists. But I am all for producing content at home which creates ripple effects that will be felt globally.
SD: If you could name one single project as being your baby- a project that made you cry and laugh, satisfying while breaking you simultaneously- what would it be?
Sarmad: Zindagi Tamasha almost became that very dear child that brings certain problems. At times, I was very protective of it but I did hold a kind of love-hate relationship with it. And while it inevitably became a baraat I had to turn back without sharing with the audience, the fact is it’s mine and will remain so. And before that was Manto; it was a ride I wasn’t quite ready for and it marked my debut and conclusion of a double role as an actor and director.
Sarmad: I’ll let you in on something. Making a film is the easiest part of the job. But putting it out there involves a lot of work. And while sometimes you begin working on something with conviction that this will click but as you spend time with it, it stops breathing, it stops talking back to you. So there is a film idea which is still an idea but I’m working on it quietly, waiting for it to synergate and make noise when the time is right.