My aim was to do something that would put Pakistan on the map, says 1978 producer Abid Aziz Merchant

The short film follows a rock musician whose occupation and way of life is threatened under a repressive regime.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Hamza Bangash’s short film 1978 examines a turning point in Pakistan's history when rapid Islamification altered the lives of several people. One such person is the rebellious rock musician Lenny, loosely based on the real-life experiences of Norman D'Souza, a famous rockstar in Karachi at the time. Lenny and his younger brother are of the Christian faith. Faced with the changes in the country, Lenny struggles with his choices.

1978 review: The struggle to stay true to oneself amidst an oppressive regime

Starring Muhammad Zeeshan, Rubya Chaudhry, Sherwyn Anthony and Naveed Kamal, the film recreates the clubbing scene in Karachi at the time. The film was premiered in competition at the Locarno Film Festival in 2020 and was recently screened at the recently concluded Palm Springs ShortFest. The film has been produced by Rashid Maqsood Hamidi and Abid Aziz Merchant. Merchant spoke about how the film was conceptualized, saying, “Karachi was known as the Paris of the East in the 1960s and early 1970s and there was a big party scene in Karachi. There were discos, bars, nightlife. it was always a cosmopolitan city but when the call of Islamization was given in 1977, things started to change. The musicians at the time all belonged to the Goan Catholic community. There were lots of bands in Karachi during this time and in 1977 it all came to an end.”

The film’s executive producer, Hamidi, wrote a concept note for the film, wanting to capture the glory days of Karachi and how it came to an end overnight, in a feature film. However, there were budget constraints since a period feature would require large budgets. Meanwhile, Merchant brought filmmaker Hamza Bangash on board to do some research and to write the story. Bangash suggested that the film be turned into a short. 

“This film took about a year in research and there were 16-18 drafts of the script. One of our producers is from the Goan Catholic community, Carol Noronha. She and Hamza went out and met musicians from that era who are still in Karachi. Most of these musicians migrated from Pakistan to other parts of the world because their work came to an end but there were a few left. We started talking to them and listening to their stories and how their life was affected by the ban of nightclubs.”

The film started to take shape when they heard about some of the experiences of D’Souza, “Lenny is inspired by a real-life person, Norman D’Souza, who was the rockstar of the 1970s in Karachi. He was the man at that time and was very popular. Norman is in his 70s and we spent time with him.”

Despite the story being in place, there were several challenges in making an independent period film. One of them was finding the right lead actor. “Finding Lenny was a challenge. We auditioned many people but could not find anybody and then finally, Zeeshan, who is a very famous visual artist. We contacted him and called him for an audition and he played the role perfectly. He looks like Norman, so he was our perfect choice. He is a non-actor who is playing Lenny.”

Muhammad Zeeshan as Lenny in a still from 1978

Although the budget of the film was not small, it was still a constraint, given the scope of the film, which posed another challenge. However, the creators decided that they would not compromise on their vision despite this hurdle. “For an independent film which is less than 20 minutes, we ended up putting in a lot of money to get the desired results as far as the visuals are concerned. It was not a film that was shot in just a few days. The sets had to be made and a lot of effort went into it.”

“In Pakistan, I would say that film is in its infancy stage. Filmmaking in Pakistan had come to an end and for a long time, films were not made here. There are no cinemas on in Pakistan right now. It’s mostly people associated with television who are making films and of course, they are mainly inspired by Bollywood [Hindi cinema]. Our aim was not to make a Bollywood inspired film but to have our own niche. So there were challenges. We got a person who used to make sets for Pakistan television at that time and discussed the set design with him. Making a period drama is itself a challenge on a budget. The challenge was to get the desired result while also managing within a certain budget,” Merchant added.

Merchant’s own journey into film production has been an unusual one. A banker turned film producer, his first film was I'll Meet You There, a collaboration with Parveen Shah Productions. His second feature, Wakhri, was selected for the Cinefondation's Atelier at Cannes Film Festival in 2019 as a project in development, making it the first Pakistani film to be featured there. Speaking about his passion for cinema, he said, “Cinema has been my passion for a long time. My passion was Hindi cinema for a long time. I was passionate about films and still am… I strongly believe that if you really aim for something, you can do it irrespective of all the odds.”

“I don’t want to tell stories inspired by Bollywood in Pakistan. In 2007, there was a film made in Pakistan Khuda Kay Liye (2007) and Bol in 2011-12 and everyone started saying that there had been a revival of Pakistani cinema but we were still making those masala films targeting the masses. I think we can do more than that and that was my aim…to make films with some message attached to them. Of course, cinema is entertainment but along with that, we should be able to show people that we also have writers, directors and talent of a certain calibre. Our TV dramas were very popular at one time, even in India, but our films have not been at that level. My aim was to do something that would put Pakistan on the map.” 

The film was screened at Palm Springs International ShortFest 2021.

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Palm Springs Short Festival