A veteran of the entertainment business, Shoaib Mansoor has enthralled audiences in this country with unforgettable productions that have become landmarks in Pakistan Television history.
The trend-setting serialised drama Ankahi, the outrageously funny Fifty- Fifty and the music nostalgia buff’s dream, Silver Jubilee, all possessed a freshness and vitality of the kind that rarely makes it to the mini-screen in this country. With these and many other memo-rable television programmes to his credit, Shoaib Mansoor has proved time and again that he is a breed apart.
More recently, Mansoor has ventured into relatively uncharted terrain, directing two drama series based on life in the Pakistan Army. The first, Sunehrey Din, aired in 1990, was notable for its slick editing and glossy production values — qualities that are sadly lacking in standard PTV fare. For his most recent venture, Alpha Bravo Charlie, a sequel of sorts to the 1990 series, Mansoor is not only in the director’s seat, but has written the script and handled most of the camera work as well.
What sets him apart from other directors or producers? How does he keep the creative spirit alive, when others at PTV seem stuck in a rut? In this tete-a-tete with the Herald, Mansoor talks about the making of Alpha Bravo Charlie, his unique style of working and the difficulties of getting army jawans to deliver their lines without staring straight into the camera.
Navaid Rashid. You have done two serialised dramas about life in the armed forces. Is there a special reason for your fascination with this theme?
Shoaib Mansoor. It is just coincidence. When Sunehrey Din was aired in 1990, the response from viewers was tremendous. As a result, the people at the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) asked me to do another serial about the army.
Rashid. How did you come up with the idea of Alpha Bravo Charlie?
Mansoor. It is actually a sequel to Sunehrey Din. The Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) cadets who featured in the 1990 drama are now lieutenants and captains. They have completed their training and are commissioned by the Pakistan Army.
I initially based the new serial on the life of officers in a single unit but when I started writing, I felt the play would be more interesting if it was not limited to a particular unit. And since Pakistani troops are frequently sent overseas, I decided to place some characters in a foreign setting. So, one of the captains in Alpha Bravo Charlie is sent to Bosnia.
Initially, we had decided to shoot in Somalia but Pakistani troops had already returned from that country, so Bosnia became the only option. The earlier part of the serial was actually filmed in Bosnia. I had not even completed the script at the time, all I had was the portion based in Bosnia.
I wrote the rest of the script on our return to Pakistan and then shot the remainder of the play. Many facts about the Bosnian war, which very few people are aware of, have been portrayed in this serial. The real reason behind the war is also discussed, but all this information is knitted into the plot.
Rashid. Writing and producing a play on the army is a sensitive task. How did you go about your work?
Mansoor. I started work on the serial in 1995 and completed it in 1997, spending the first eight or nine months doing research. I lived in army units for several weeks and spent a lot of time with officers and jawans in Lahore and other cities to see how they live and what they do.
I wanted to add a touch of reality to the serial. When you watch it, you can’t tell that a civilian has written the script. I have captured the language, the lifestyle and the various situations that arise in real army life.
Rashid. Like Sunehrey Din, Alpha Bravo Charlie is also sponsored by the ISPR. Was their involvement a problem for you?
Mansoor. I have enjoyed a good rapport with the ISPR ever since we did Sunehrey Din together. I feel army men are comparatively better people to work with as they are more disciplined. Perhaps if someone new was doing this serial, he would have encountered a few problems. But since I had worked with the ISPR before, I did not face any difficulties. I am satisfied with my work.
Rashid. As far as the officers in the drama are concerned, you used the entire cast of Sunehrey Din with the exception of Saleem Sheikh. Why was he not chosen?
Mansoor. I like to work with fresh talent. Saleem was a newcomer in Sunehrey Din, but over the years he has evolved into a popular film and TV star. So I decided not to cast him in Alpha Bravo Charlie. There is no other reason why he was not selected. In fact, I am on very good terms with him.
Rashid. The three main characters of Alpha Bravo Charlie are not professional actors, or even civilians for that matter. Why is that?
Mansoor.Actually, one of the three boys playing the lead roles is not an army officer. The reason that I used these young men is that, as I mentioned earlier, Alpha Bravo Charlie is a sequel to Sunehrey Din so I felt I had to use the same actors. At the same time, I had worked with them before and knew that they had the potential to carry a serial.
Meanwhile, if I had chosen a professional actor he would have had to be thoroughly coached first. I felt that army officers would play the roles more authentically. As far as the supporting cast is concerned, when I am choosing newcomers for the lead roles, it simply does not make sense to make the play seem stale by adding a known face.
And in any case, I don’t like to hire stars for my serials — I make stars. I am not being conceited, it is just what I prefer. As long as I work, I will always work with newcomers. Stars don’t excite me. They never have.
Rashid. But wasn’t it difficult to get army personnel to act?
Mansoor. It was both easy and difficult. Easy because the officers were not really acting, but merely doing what they do in their professional lives. What one needs in this kind of work is self-confidence, and that is a quality army officers possess in abundance. They faced the camera confidently, which is a great help, so it was easy to work with them.
There were some problems, though, with the jawans because many of them had never seen a camera before. The first few days of shooting were wasted because the jawans would look straight into the camera while saying their lines. They did not understand that an actor must not look into the camera. I had to re-shoot a number of scenes, especially the ones in Siachen, because of this problem.
Moreover, since the jawans are not educated they could not read the script. So I had to make them memorise the lines by reading them out. At times, when a jawan had to speak more than one sentence, I had to shoot each sentence separately, and that too after several retakes. You might not have noticed this while watching the serial because of the editing. But when I am working with newcomers, I am prepared to face these kinds of problems.
Rashid. What was the most trying aspect of the project?
Mansoor. People might think that it must have been difficult to shoot in Bosnia, with a war going on, or in Siachen, where the weather is unforgiving. But I was at ease in both these locations because when I work, the problems that crop up don’t bother me. The only problem that I had was with the jawans, as I mentioned earlier.
I also had to keep my recording unit small, so I handled the camera myself, besides writing the script and directing. At times, there was just one man accompanying me who carried the equipment. Part of the camera work was done by someone else, but I had already shot most of the difficult scenes in Bosnia and Siachen myself, and the results were equally good. And since I was more confident when I was operating the camera myself, I thought I’d handle it on my own.
Rashid. What feedback have you received about Alpha Bravo Charlie?
Mansoor. I get my feedback through the print media because I lead a secluded life. In fact, I stay at home most of the time and my social life is practically nonexistent. Sometimes, I spend weeks at a time in the house without going out. So I did not get a direct public response, just what I heard from the press shows I attended for the serial.
Before it was aired on PTV, though, the serial was viewed by a committee comprising generals – somewhat like a censor board – who approved it and then the chief of army staff watched it and he too approved of the programme. Their reaction was very positive.
Do not mistake this for arrogance but, frankly, I do not wait for any sort of reaction to my plays. The director should have a basic sense of what he is doing, which audience he is targeting, what appeal it has for them and how to handle the theme. I knew the audience for whom I made this serial.
Alpha Bravo Charlie is not for the uneducated classes. In fact, they might not even be able to understand a major portion of the play, the scenes shot in Bosnia, since it is in English. But I could hardly force the Bosnians to speak Urdu, and dubbing their voices would have spoiled the entire effect. This section has Urdu subtitles, but to read them you have to be educated as well.
Although it is important to produce something that has mass appeal, at times one must do something for a certain class alone. I made this serial from that point of view.
This was originally published in the Herald's July 1998 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.