Typecasting: A Pitfall For Pakistani Cinema

Let me begin by addressing my lack of writing as of late. There are two main reasons as to why: (A) I am on vacation, follow me on Instagram for full details, stories etc. (B) I wasn’t really inspired to write until a particularly long Uber ride earlier today to the North London suburb of Watford. Resultantly, I have come to believe that travelling through the United Kingdom produces sheer strokes of brilliance. I mean Jo Rowling came up with the idea of Harry Potter on a train to Edinburgh.

The Evil Within

I’ve registered your raised eyebrows. Forgive my earlier narcissism. I just can’t help myself sometimes. While no, this idea is nowhere near the epic brilliance of Harry Potter. It is still very pertinent to the current state of the Pakistani Film Industry. As the title, which no doubt is the reason you’re reading this suggests, this piece is about a dangerous pitfall that Pakistani Cinema is meandering very close to the edge off:

Type Casting.

Fair warning, I am about to employ an expression I loathe using. In layman’s terms, typecasting refers to an actor or group of actors only being offered and or cast to play a certain type of roles. I personally feel it’s more accurate to suggest that they are being cast to play different versions of the same character. A character they have invented. Perfected. Received acclaim and notoriety for. A role film producers are comfortable with that actor playing, and is ultimately seen as the most bankable role for the said actor. However, this is problematic. Both for the actors and the industry they are working in.

And we don’t have to look too far to see why.

Once again, the topic at hand compels me to turn to Bollywood in search of an example, as much as it pains me to do. I can however, take solace in the fact that I will be focussing on what I consider to be the industry’s greatest flaw. Well it may be an asset too. Nevertheless, in terms of quality content creation, it’s a glaring flaw. Stardom, and the resultant type-casting. The most obvious example of which is, Salman Khan.

An Exemplary Titan

Official Poster for Race 3
Theatrical Poster for Race 3

No, I will not be engaging in a detailed and meticulous analysis of his entire career. Not only will that produce vast amounts of angst on my part, more importantly, I would waver off course. So much, that this article would never reach its desired conclusion. While you will have wait for that epic conclusion, for now, you will have to do with my opening arguments. Arguments which will focus on the more recent films of Mr Khan’s filmography. In particular, the post-Wanted era.

I choose Wanted as a turning point for a reason. It introduced arguably his most successful character. While it wasn’t a particularly successful film, it helped lay the groundwork . On which future films, such a Dabang, built up further upon. That is, the overgrown, overzealous man-child with a heart of gold and penchant for beating up bad-guys.

As I mentioned before, other films built-upon this principle. Dabang added a fondness for one-liners. Sultan gave him mad wrestling skills and (my favourite) Race 3 gave him the power of flight… uh I mean gliding.

Essentially, what I’m saying is, Wanted introduced a character that went down so well, or was perceived to have done so, that in subsequently produced Salman Khan films, it was endlessly reproduced. It was a well-calculated risk. One, which for the first few films, payed off. Several of his films after Wanted ended up in a group of films known as the 100-crore club. A group they ended up defining.

That set off a domino effect. The budgets got bigger, as did the collections. Thus, the over-zealous, overgrown man-child has become a cash-cow for Bollywood producers everywhere. While  Salman Khan began settling in as a box office titan. There was  now a new bottom line: cast Khan for a sure-fire hit!

Except that’s not how it works.

Screengrab from the trailer for Tubelight
Taken from the trailer for Tubelight

Fool Me Twice…

It’s a gross underestimation of the audience to expect the same formula to work constantly. Especially, in today’s day and age where big corporations such as  McDonald’s claim that brand loyalty is falling. Especially among large and growing demographic(s) (often always clumped together as millennials) because they are ‘promiscuous’. Effectively, what that means is, consumers are now, more than ever, driven by utility. They are also not as forgiving as before when it comes to the acquisition of that utility. Should the established expectations not be met, even slightly, the consumer may just shift to an alternative.

“Shift into Turbo” From Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie

A similar occurrence happens in the case of type casting, and films that bank on the typecasting of the lead.  Yes, the audience will, at first be drawn in by the larger than life persona. The gliding off buildings and the beating up of more bad guys than humanly possible. However, we stay for the story, the characters, their chemistry on screen and in the case of Bollywood, good songs. When everything else takes a back seat, as evidenced in films like Tubelight and Race 3, to a type casted lead, not only does a film suffer, but so does the audience. Left to endure dribble for the sake of entertainment.

There are other evils to stem from type casting however.

Kollective Typecasting (Pun Wholly Intended)

Yes, while some people are typecast based on characters they have portrayed. Like Salman Khan, with Dwayne Johnson rapidly becoming the Hollywood equivalent. Many are also typecast based on other factors. Factors that most can’t help or change however, like race, gender and even sexual orientation. This is extremely prevalent in Hollywood.

The easiest way to see it, is by looking at the kind of roles people of Asian descent get. An excellent illustration would be Matthew Moy’s Character, Han Lee, on the sitcom, Two Broke Girls.

Matthew Moy as Haan Lee in Two Broke Girls.

Let’s see, generic Asian-sounding name? Check! Chinky eye jokes? Check! Constant emasculation? Check! Jokes about sexuality and small appendages? Double Check! Jokes about cultural and physical inferiority? Check again.

Hey, I know what you’re thinking! Nusair, Han is an exaggerated character created for comedy! I’m sure it’s a one-off. No. No, it’s not. Ross Butler and Charles Melton in Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why are exceptions. Han is the norm. Please don’t tell me you forgot about Leslie Chow from The Hangover Series? A character built on racial stereotypes in a film about hangovers. Let’s all appreciate the beautiful irony here.

Typecasting and Gender Bias

Though, the examples I have given thus far illustrate the type casting of Asian Men. With Asian women, it’s a completely different ball game. Asian women are portrayed as exotic objects of desire. Demure and soft-spoken, but hyper-sexualised. A great example of this is the opera, Madame Butterfly and the musical it inspired, Miss Saigon. Both have an Asian woman taken as a temporary bride for an American Soldier. A solider whom would eventually abandon her. The abandonment thus being the great tragedy of her life.

Poster for the Russian State Opera production of Madame Butterfly in York, United Kingdom

It’s also not like great roles aren’t written for characters meant to be off Asian descent. We don’t live in the 1960’s where Mickey Rooney can get away with portraying a grossly exaggerated set of stereotypes. We have roles like the Major in Ghost in the Shell, and Light in the live-action adaptation of the hit anime; Death Note. However, because Hollywood is so comfortable with typecasting that these roles end up going to white actors. Heck, there are adaptations of Asian media, like the aforementioned Death Note, that keep most everything the same. They just write out the need for Asian actors.  

A Little Closer To Home

So that’s two examples, from two industries, as to why typecasting is a pitfall. To surmise, typecasting can and has lead to substandard filmmaking and casting biases. But, by now, you must be wondering. How does this applies to the Pakistani Film Industry?

Random Commenter: Nusair, it’s Lollywood, call it by its proper name!

Me: NO! I absolutely refuse to define it as a regionalised Hollywood clone!

Anyways, how does this relate to the Pakistani Film Industry? I agree, in most Pakistani films, you are hard-pressed to identify type-casting. However, in recent years, if you’re keen and observant, there is a budding trend that could evolve into typecasting. Think of the trend as the slithering second form to typecasting’s full-grown Shin Godzilla.

A Home-Grown Titan

To illustrate this, let’s look at Pakistan’s very own Khan-equivalent (though generally much more preferable), Humayun Saeed.

Two out of his last five films feature distinguished characters. The mature, level-headed, romantic Irtaza in Bin Roye and the fearsome, ruthless and conniving TROJAN in Yalghaar. The other three, both Jawani Phir Nahi Ani’s and Punjab Nahi Jaaongi  feature Saeed as largely the same character. The over-zealous, sometimes pompous man-child with a heart of gold.

Official Poster for Jawani Phir Nahi Ani 2 (2018)

However, this man-child differs from Salman Khan’s. Largely because he doesn’t take himself as seriously, repeatedly making jokes at himself. At times, even breaking the fourth wall to do so. In my opinion, that makes Saeed’s character infinitely more palatable. But, I must ask, how many helpings of kheer can one have before getting sick of it?

Note: I didn’t include Project Ghazi in the count when listing Saeed’s last five films. Much like the Loch Ness monster, this seems, an urban myth fading into irrelevance.

Brothers In Arms

Humayun Saeed isn’t the only person, having found themselves in danger of being typecast. And I won’t have to stray far at all, to show you the next, would-be victim to the giant murderous lizard that is typecasting.

Ahmed Ali Butt!

From the Song, Mera 24/7 Lakh from the Movie, Punjab Nahi Jaungi (2017)

In the same three films that Saeed plays the same character, so does he. The pudgy sidekick, who has a very unique way of dancing and provides the best comic relief. Don’t get me wrong, he is amazing. His scenes are always some of the best in the films he’s in. Butt again ( I do not regret that pun), how much before a change becomes a requirement?

Beyond that, it isn’t just the actors that are in danger of being typecast.

To Typecast a Gender?

The kind of roles that are offered to women in the industry, may just fall prey as well. Once again, let me reiterate, that what I’m referring to, is still just a budding trend. There are still sufficient opportunities to curb it. Beyond that, I hope that me writing this, can further highlight those opportunities.Or at the very least, highlight the need to break the trend.

Atiqa Odho in Humsafar

In spite of all that being undeniably true, it doesn’t change the fact that I can still count the films, from the last 15 years with strong female roles, on my fingers. It also doesn’t help that three of them are by the same director. In fact, Pakistani Television has already fallen prey to this. Barring very few exceptions, roles for females fall very cleanly into 4 categories.

A woman is either a tragic heroine. A “kharus” mother-in-law. An oppressed and helpless mother or a vamp hell-bent on causing problems. Given the popularity of Pakistani Television, and the significantly blurred lines between the two industries, there is a great chance of those tropes carrying over to the big screen.

In fact, there are some examples already. Samina Pirzada played an oppressed and under-appreciated mother in Motorcycle Girl. Sadaf Kanwal was the problem-causing vamp while Ainee Jafri was the tragic heroine in Ballu Mahi. Beyond that, who could forget Urwa Hocane as Durdana Butt in Punjab Nahi Jaungi.

The endlessly memeable line from Punjab Nahi Jaungi

A Legendary Looming Likelihood 

In 2016, the 29th Toho-produced Godzilla Movie, Shin Godzilla, had the titular lizard go through constant, on-screen metamorphosis. It’s initial form remains largely submerged, unable to make landfall. The second form, however does make landfall. It then causes massive destruction and proceeds to change forms a further two times, gaining enough power to almost cripple Japan completely.

Godzilla using his signature ‘atomic breath’ in Shin Godzilla (2016)

How is this relevant? Well, this is a continuation of my earlier, long-winded metaphor to illustrate the evils of typecasting. Currently Shin, I mean typecasting, in the Pakistani Film Industry is transitioning from form 1 to 2. It’s barely making landfall. Unlike Shin however, we know where to strike it, rather than wait three forms for an opening.

A Historic Masterclass

Moreover, we are also already armed to take on this threat. All we need to do it turn to one of the greats for inspiration. A legend that not only faced typecasting in battle head on, but triumphed over the beast.

I could be referring to no one else, other than the utterly incomparable, Moin Akhtar. I stand at risk, of regurgitating Ushah’s video on his most iconic performances. However, the man is most remembered for the multitude of stellar comedic roles.

How, you ask, can a man then be considered a champion against typecasting given he favoured a single genre?

Moin Akhtar and Anwar Maqsood on Loose Talk.

Simple, he favoured his craft above all else. No two roles were identical  but each was played with the same conviction. Beyond that, he did occasionally, and effectively foray into more serious roles. Roles such as a mother (yes mother) conveying her story on Loose Talk. He ended up proving, that by honing and favouring your craft above all else, one can resist being boxed up neatly for ease of consumption.

The hope now is, we don’t fall into a pitfall we are now fully aware off and know how to avoid.

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