BEHIND THE LENS WITH UZMA ZAKARIA
'I got a call from Nadeem Baig (director) and Humayun Saeed (producer), and they were keen on me working on 'Sinf-e-Aahan' with them'
We exclusively speak with director and producer Uzma Zakaria who is known for her recent work as an Associate-Director for drama Sinf-eAahan. She has also previously worked on Jawani Phir Nahi Ani 2 and has another film in the pipeline - London Nahi Jaounga. In this interview Uzma fills us in on her journey. Read on…
Hi Uzma! Happy to have your here. Before we dive in, tell us a bit about yourself.
Hello, great to be interviewed by you. So, I did my undergraduate degree in Digital Film and Television from Malaysia. Whilst studying, I worked on several other projects as a freelancer. I then came back to Pakistan in 2013 and worked as an Assistant-Director with several production houses, including Six Sigma, Azadfilms and Ambience Films. I then went to NYFA (New York Film Academy) to do my Master's in Film. Studying at NYFA was brilliant. I picked up a lot of technical skills, and it polished me as a professional. I then got the opportunity to work on some major projects in Hollywood. I directed my short film and some other projects where I worked as an Associate-Director. I am very proud to say that I have worked with talented actors like Ryan Guzman and William Fichtner, which was a great learning experience. After spending a few years working in the USA, I came back to Pakistan and started working as an AssociateDirector. So, during these past 8 years, I have worked on several production houses both in the capacity of an Associate/ Director and a Producer. I now have my own production house, and I envision myself leading and taking on from here. I am a huge travel enthusiast and a foodie on the lighter side. I am quite an easy person and love to spend time with my friends. Also, I am a massive fan of Korean shows.
'I must admit that we need better scriptwriters and more thought-provoking stories. Many new stories deserve to be told and heard. I also feel that the quality of TV content still has a lot of room for improvement'
You're a Director and a Producer. According to you which is more challenging and how?
Well, both have their fair share of challenges and requirements. Having worked as both a Producer and a Director, I have to say that both roles are entirely different and require a different skill set. So, for example, a director's role has more to do with having a clear vision of the work, you must know the art of storytelling, and as they say, you need to be the captain of the ship. So you need to take charge of the entire cast plus story, and set a vision and pace for the team. On the other hand, being a Producer is almost like being a caretaker on the set. You have to make sure that the crew is happy and that the Director's vision is not being compromised while keeping the budget and the overall shoot aligned. So overlooking the needs of the cast and crew while also making sure that you are well within your budget! So that takes on your skills on mastering the financial aspect as well. However, I must say that both roles need excellent leadership skills. Above all, I feel that nothing is more important than your honesty, determination, discipline and work ethic. So, for each role, I am involved in, I make sure that I work with absolute focus and a lot of hard work, discipline and honesty.
We've seen your recent work as the Associate Director for drama ‘Sinf-e-Aahan’. Tell us a bit about this. How did you bag the opportunity and what was the experience like?
I had worked with Six Sigma before on Jawani Phir Nahi Ani 2 and was also working on London Nahi Jaounga, and they admired my technical, professional and soft skills. So, I got a call from Nadeem Baig (director) and Humayun Saeed (producer), and they were keen on me working on Sinf-e-Aahan with them. I took the project on as I felt it was different and a story I could relate. It has been a riveting experience to have worked with such a stellar cast, an extremely hardworking crew, and the ISPR. Above all, I think Nadeem Baig is one of our industry's most prominent and talented directors, and I have learned so much under his supervision. But working on the project was challenging but a life-changing experience for me. I have to say; I learned some of my greatest life lessons while working on Sinf-e-Aahan. It taught me a lot - from working in challenging conditions, sometimesextreme weather conditions, to dealing with the cast and crew and other team members, to be on your toes, calm and composed. We did work very hard on shooting some of the most challenging scenes outdoors - and they look gorgeous onscreen, and that's an achievement that I would love to celebrate! Also, so many people have called me, messaged me on Instagram, and they say they love the show and that it has been very motivating for them! So that feels great.
You've worked in quite a bunch of Hollywood films as well. How different is it from the Pakistani entertainment industry? Anything we can learn?
I would say their pre-production and paperwork is very strong, from taking permits through official channels to securing the rights of the cast and crew to having a solid vision and leadership is all there. I see Pakistan as a growing industry, and hence there is a lot of scope for improvement and a lot of opportunities. I believe that there is a need to build a proper infrastructure. We need professional production houses that are not limited to only hiring the cast and crew and reading scripts but goes beyond that and is also involved in protecting workers' rights, for example. I believe in workers' equality, diversity, and inclusivity, which is largely missing. I am currently setting up my production house, which will be more dynamic and fluid and will have various departments and specialist people working and heading those.
We all hear so often about the lack of original stories in films/dramas/commercials.How do you set yourself apart from others? And what makes you think any of your work will be different from the rest?
Pakistan is the fifth largest youngest country in the world. And we are not catering to this target audience! The content we are creating - well, most of it is dated, and we do need writers to come up with new stories. At the same time, we need universities that can offer degrees in scriptwriting and families to support careers built around these. We need new people to come in with new-age content. I am cautious when choosing projects. As an independent girl working in the media industry, I think I carry a big responsibility on my shoulders to portray the positive side, a different side of our society. Our responsibility is to present material that can positively impact the community. Media can do it - and it is high time we start producing fresh content and different from what we have seen in the past. I do feel that when you work for various production houses, you are limited to choosing the content and working under certain conditions that you are subject to. However, now with my production house, I will have the liberty to do the work I always wanted to do and bring in that change for others.
Tell us some of the specific skills you learned in your early days of joining the industry that helped you become a director and producer?
In NYFA, they placed a lot of emphasis on the theoretical part. I think that really set my base very strong. The skills I have acquired are not just on the job but also from what I learned in my universities. When I joined films in Hollywood and Pakistan, that helped me move up fast and quickly make a place and name for myself. A lot of emphasis in both my universities was also given to dissection of the script and editing, and being consistent. I also picked up a lot of soft skills - very early on. So working in the media isn't just hard technical skills. Still, the reality on the set is that you work very long hours, show a lot of patience, be decisive, and need problem-solving, communication and leadership skills, amongst many other soft skills.
What aspects of your upbringing would you credit for making you the person you are today? What expectations did your family have of you as far as work was concerned?
My family, especially my parents, gave me absolute freedom in making my path. I am the first one in my family or extended family and friends to enter the media industry. But my parents always encouraged me and supported me in my decision. They knew I was passionate about this field and let me follow my dreams. Yes, they were worried because I was new to this sector - but they always showed their trust and believed in me. Plus, they have given all three of us (sisters) great values. That helps us all stay grounded and be thankful for what we have. I have learned a great deal. I think many soft skills I have today have come down from my parents. My parents and family trust my vision to work in this sector and believe that I can bring in the change that it needs. I have been blessed to have supportive friends and family, who motivates me to get going. To wrap it up I would say that one thing is still the same, the questions haven’t changed: ‘Why would I, a woman, choose to be in the media industry?’ I look forward to the day when our society realizes that gender has nothing to do with it. This is a skill based profession that I own it and very proud of.
'We need universities that can offer degrees in scriptwriting and families to support careers built around these'
Where do you see the Pakistani entertainment industry headed towards in the next five years?
Considering how far the Pakistani entertainment industry has come and how it has so much potential to flourish, I see it growing by leaps and bounds. We have so many t a l e n t e d a n d c o m p e t e n t professionals joining the industry who are well-versed in their craft and are here to bring a change. However, at the same time, I must admit that we need better scriptwriters and more thought-provoking stories. Many new stories deserve to be told and heard. I also feel that the quality of TV content still has a lot of room for improvement. One can't deny that we are still making highly toxic dramas, monotonous and laced with stereotypical themes. We change the narrative, think more effectively, and create inspiring content that makes a difference. I am also pleased that we are back on track after a long covid break of three years. Finally, all the movies that were in the middle of being released are going to be premiered soon, and people will have unique Pakistani content to watch on their screens.
What more will we be seeing from you in the coming year? Are you currently working on something?
I am currently working on commercials and ads as a director and producer. I am also setting up my production house to bring in new stories and narratives that I always wanted to bring in the change in the worker's treatment that I feel should have happened a long time back. Apart from this, I worked on London Nahi Jaunga as an AssociateDirector, which is in the pipeline to release. I hope to bring in the change our media industry needs, and the people crave! I want to create content that motivates and inspires people and positively impacts society. I feel this is just the start of a new beginning.
INTERVIEW: SAFA ADNAN
PHOTOS: COURTESY UZMA ZAKARIA