For a quiet man, Asim Reza has a lot to say. His work speaks for him, whether in the mythical setting of an advertisement or in the documentation of a dancer’s synchronized footwork. The quest for artistic greatness influences his life and though he doesn’t blow the trumpet on his own work, it shouts for itself. But when credits are mismatched and his achievements ignored, Asim becomes verbose. He turns away from his creative pursuit very briefly, and lodges his displeasure in minimum words, careful not to contaminate his creativity in the process.
Why, he asks, is he expected to protest against sponsor-manipulation in music videos when songs like Supreme Ishq wave the banner in the face and get all media attention? How, he asks, can the media rave on and on about mediocrity and completely overlook his contributions which are always ground breaking trend setters?
More than a decade into the profession, Asim’s multinational clientèle now transcends beyond Pakistan into the Middle Eastern market. Undoubtedly one of the most respected names in ad-film making and direction today, he is also one of the highest paid. But his picture presents a dilemma and we ask, is Asim Reza a true visionary, or simply a man with displaced aesthetics?
We have seen your work. Tell us how creativity influences your everyday life?
Creativity is all about individuality. If you’re a creative person it’ll touch everything you do. I can’t help it whether I’m selecting my clothes, buying art for my house or getting a haircut. I look for the edge, the difference. I avoid things which are mundane and boring.
My wife and I are collectors. Whether we come across something we like, a piece of jewelry for instance, we look for reasons to justify buying it. We’ll buy it for the kids and then realize that what if they hate it when they grow up? That would be so painful.
But creativity does go on and I see my children being taken in. It doesn’t end and goes on for generations.
In comparison, how frustrating does the world around you get?
So what’s your creative contribution?
We all have our duties. One person cannot change the whole country without any support. I try. I’m a very small part of the system and am sitting in a very small niche. But I’m trying to make whatever difference I can make sitting there. I try to educate my clients and By the Grace of God today have the position that whenever the client is suggesting something very mundane I have the stature and credibility to convince them otherwise. I don’t misuse that credibility. I’m in constant search for improvement. One small example is the music video I just made.
Mahive is quite the talk of the town these days.
Yes, I’ve had such great response, believe me. In one week my cell phone was vomiting feedback and had to delete faster than I was receiving. And as I was telling you the other day, I was shocked by the response, or lack of it, from the newspapers. The media just ignored it completely. That’s one thing I get very upset about. I think media plays the most important role in order to give a certain look and creativity to a country.
You mean to say that no music journalist ever approached you regarding the music video?
Never. Not a single journalist called me and said it’s good piece and we want to cover it. This is a challenge from me. Can any music journalist get up and say they tried getting in touch with me? This is something which I can’t do anything about. I may play my part but the media can either kill it or promote it. I don’t want to take these things to the grave. Just because I don’t party or socialize or invite people home for drinks should not become the reason for my disastrous demise. It’s as simple as that. I’m not asking the media to praise me for doing something bad but this was something the whole country was appreciating. Still not even a single newspaper or magazine claimed and write-ups on mediocre work being done. But on the other hand this!
Tell me, hadn’t you stopped making music videos in protest to the monopolization of sponsors?
I had stopped because music videos had reached a point of stagnation, though I must confess that Pakistani videos are still much better than Indian videos. Here there still is some experimentations in conceptualization and video making. But the why should we compare ourselves to mediocrity? We should improvise and improve ourselves. At that time I felt there was too much of either the Bhangra Matka or a group of boys head banging in some psychedelic site or ruins. Then there was this movement against sponsors too.
You must have been appreciated for the decision you took?
My clients were after my life to do a sponsored video but I put my foot down. I was offered huge amounts of money but I refused them because I had taken up a cause. It was something I felt was lethal to creativity and I condemned them totally. I played my role but on the other hand when the Supreme Ishq video came out, it got so much coverage. You could see pages and pages being written on it. What happened to the morals of the situation? I’m a big fan of Shoaib Mansoor’s work and really respect him but I do believe that criterion should be the same.
Why do you think you’re being subjected to this apartheid?
I honestly don’t know. I think that unfortunately we’ve gotten stuck at a very early stage of the building of the industry. We are stuck in clans. The ‘my friends-your-friends situation has become so bad that we have become insecure about ourselves as professionals. You’re a journalist but as my friend every other director has to become your enemy. This is the way it is working. But you have to look into your own responsibilities as a journalist first. Asim Reza should never be in a position to dictate things to you. But this is happening and almost everyone is stuck in it.
That’s why I don’t see ourselves going anywhere. We will keep celebrating mediocrity. We’ll keep cherishing bad work.
Do you blame the new generation for this degeneration?
No. Unfortunately it’s the pioneers who are in it deepest of all. And when the pioneers behave like this, what hope can you have for the newcomers? The icons are at fault. What’s happening is that each newcomer goes and finds a mother for himself and attaches himself to her, milking her to get himself through. I mean that’s the way we have become.
Another reason you had for avoiding directing music videos was the lack of inspiration. Do you mean to say that in two years only Hadiqa’s ‘Mahi’ and Fakhir’s ‘Mahive’ have been motivating?
No, very honestly it just boils down to practicality. What happens with me is that I’m very very busy. I’m now also directing ad films for the Middle East so my commitments are huge. I travel a lot and usually end up spending more than half the month outside Pakistan. It’s a complete zigzag situation. Music videos can never be my first priority. There are a lot of people doing good work in this field and I think people like me should move on and give others a chance. So I only do a video where I feel I can make a difference to it. I don’t pick up masterpieces but songs which sound a little experimental. Of course other things come under consideration like contacting me with the right project at the right time. If I have a slot available I take it.
Which musicians today do you feel could inspire you?
I think Atif is really good. Strings. There are lots but I’m quite bad at remembering names.
From Sayonee to Mahive, you’ve done it all. How would you describe the transition?
When I did Sayonee it was a time when the concept of making videos had just started. At that time videos meant a very western way of doing things: head banging and dancing around a microphone. So in Sayonee I went desi. At that time it was an absolutely new approach. I also did Buleya and Yaar Bina with the whole courtesan scene, again very traditional. After that everyone got stuck on mazars and malangs. Now what is happening is that high budgets do elaborate traditional videos and low budgets simply bang heads in a smoky shed. With Mahi and Mahive I wanted to make a 180 degree turn. I wanted to make a Devdas in English. At one point I would hear ‘O that’s so Asim Reza’ about everything I did. I said ok fine, if you think that’s all I do, then take a look at this. I gave a totally new concept to Hadiqa’s ‘Mahi’.
But that wasn’t received very well, was it?
If you’re speaking in terms in terms of media coverage then even Mahive hasn’t done well. But no, I got great feedback on Mahi. Comparing the two, Mahi probably was more intellectual than this one. It offered a lot more to think about but the song wasn’t catchy enough to get mass appeal. I tried to make it visually appealing. I wanted to create a vampire but a beautiful one. I didn’t want to scare people away. Beauty, to me, is visual delight.
In Mahive, how difficult was it to get Fakhir to dance, considering that he’s famous for having two left feet?
Quite. Actually it was quite quite difficult but I don’t want to bitch because he tried very hard and we all had a great time.
I believe the choreographer and dancers came in from India?
Yes they did. The dancers were two very important characters of the video and the roles they played had a lot of meaning. I wanted them to have expression and be good at dance. Since we in Pakistan have managed to kill dance altogether I didn’t want to have someone from here who wouldn’t be good at it. I wanted to meet a standard.
We have to get out of this Pakistan India syndrome. If we can benefit from India we should take the opportunity. I got an Indian choreographer for his technical superiority. And when we were rehearsing I invited Farrukh Darbar, our choreographer in Karachi, to come and learn from the Indian. I feel we should observe them and learn whatever we can. Aminah Haq was capable of pulling off her act so I never even thought of getting an Indian lead. The choreographer was something I felt we could not manage on our own. I didn’t want it to look tacky.
Asim, isn’t what you’re saying a complete contradiction to your comments about the LSA last year? You objected to the Indians being involved and the subsequent Indianization of the event.
I stand by what I said. Put the show and this video together and you’ll see the difference. By no way does the video look Indian. It’s international. When the choreographer came I told him that the first thing you have to forget is how you dance in Bollywood. I told him that Kaanta Laga was not allowed here. I wanted a Chicago musical version. That show was anything but class. I had no problems with involving the Indians. We had given the Awards a lot of Class a year earlier and I had problems with that Class being compromised… whether it was done by the Indians or Pakistanis.
Who else was involved in the team of Mahive?
Nabila did the wardrobe and styling. We’ve been working together for a long time now and she always comes up with big ideas. We inspire each other in work. I have a lot of faith in her.
Is there anything about the video that you now feel you would’ve liked to change?
I wish we had more time to rehearse. I would’ve taken more time to shoot the dance sequence. I would’ve given the video many more cuts and dimensions. Every time I watch it I feel I could have done more. I would have made Fakhir practice his dance for at least a month. Having said that, I must not sound ungrateful. It did turn out to be quite exciting.
What do you put into the conceptualization of a video?
I feel we have to educate the masses through it. We have to communicate with them. They wouldn’t understand Bono so we have to create our own versions of U2. We must make exciting videos that appeal to a layman who only wants to be entertained for 4 minutes and also by a person who wants to go home with the thought behind it. When I did these two videos I wanted to make them thought provoking and visually appealing at the same time. I don’t want to make shallow products.
Now that you have the biggest name in ad-film making in Pakistan, how much of your work is about creativity and how much about making money?
It was never about becoming the biggest money-making machine in the country. To me it’s always about the art, always about the creativity and I’m very lucky to be doing all that today. Just the way I always wanted to. I can’t turn the motive of my entire life into a money making business. Even if someone pushes me, and believe me it happens quite a lot now-the offers get very lucrative-I can’t give in my creative hand. Even in advertising I constantly want to raise the bar.
How do you maintain standards?
First of all I’m not doing a lot of work in terms of campaigns. I try to be selective and try not to take more than 2-3 projects a month. When I take a project I give complete attention to clients from day 1 to presentation day. I get involved in everything personally, even down to the wardrobe. Even if there’s a little bit of margin I use it to bring in an edge, a difference, as in Sprite Zero. Some people will like it and others will hate it but at least it will be talked about. People will discuss it.
Are clients today breaking away from preset mind sets?
There are certain clients who stick to a routine but they bring a lot of respect. I’m somebody they can trust, somebody they can completely be at ease with. I’ve earned that. I respect their needs and feel there is nothing wrong with that. I’m happy even if I have one creative project, one mainstream yet classical project and one commercial for the masses a month. Nevertheless it’s pure creativity which drives me. The day that I feel I have no creativity left and that I’m losing the Midas touch, I’ll be the first one to resign.
What is creativity to you?
Creativity is finding intelligent solutions to the most mundane problems. It’s how cleverly can you find the solution and make things more exciting. When you create something unusual, that is creativity.
Do you see that creativity being applied to fashion and the arts in Pakistan?
I’m no authority on fashion but from where I see it fashion has landed on a capital D for Death, Cinema, unfortunately stopped looking up to creativity a long time ago. It has died and now we don’t even discuss it. Television is going down the drain. Advertising picked up 10 years ago but now has approached stagnancy. It got stuck 4 to 5 years ago. People who have been managing advertising for years and years now should either retire or get brain washes. The music industry is the only thing moving and looking up. It’s doing well. People are experimenting. It may not be excelling all the time but at least is progressing. It is moving towards vertical heights.
You did try your hand at directing a documentary on dance in Pakistan. How was the experience of Raqsan and how did you feel about the criticism it met?
Yes at that time there was a lady who came up to me and said that the film didn’t focus on footwork enough. But you see this was the first film made on Fasih with the reference of Kathak. It was made for a completely different audience in Japan. Fasih was to perform there and this video was meant as an introduction to his performance. It was more of a souvenir than an xyz of Kathak. It was a large frame presentation rather than one dwelling on details. That’s why I did not focus on footwork too much. But I take the criticism very well.
What do you dream bout?
I dream of us becoming much more sensible, more creative. I dream of a very bright future for my kids. I want to have a very peaceful life and it upsets me that my babies are born in this day and age. What kind of environment are they going to grow up in? I dream of making dreams real.
What did you see in life up ahead?
I would like to see myself graduate from an ad film maker to a film maker.
Do you worry?
Yes I worry because I’m a perfectionist and I want excellence.