‘JOHN’ comes out this Friday (July 14th, 2023) is a story about the struggles of a boy from the Christian community in Karachi. It’s a story woven together from incident from the life of director Baber Ali. Originally a screenplay writer (Pinky Memsaab), this is his directorial debut and stands out as a singular story in perhaps the entire history of Pakistani cinema.
We had a chat with him regarding his project.
The Story of ‘JOHN’
Baber Ali has been developing this story for five or six years now. He’s barely 29 and his experiences in Karachi dot JOHN’s script right left and center. Being a Karachiite, I immediately identified with the trailer since it showed so much of what is usually hidden about Karachi on film.
Yet, JOHN’s story is much different from that of other Karachi-centric films like ‘Na Maloom Afraad’ or ‘Laal Kabootar’. Strictly focusing on the Christian community is something that filmmakers don’t do. Christians are usually marginalized in Pakistan and work as sweepers or servants.
Baber Ali also notes that young people from the Christian community usually lack confidence. Yet there is a lot of violence where they live. ‘JOHN’ seeks to show both these ends of Karachi.
The Cast of ‘JOHN’
Baber Ali spoke about Italian Neorealism in our conversation and how he prefers raw performances to those that are theatrical and scripted. For those unfamiliar, the Italian neorealism movement had a huge effect on cinema around the world and produced such great filmmakers as Satyajit Ray and Federico Fellini. It was about focusing on life as it was rather than fantastical stories and larger than life novels.
It seems odd then that he chose Aashir Wajahat, son of Wajahat Rauf (Karachi Se Lahore, Lahore Se Aagay), Raza Samo (Awesamo) from YouTube, and Romaisa Khan from TikTok to play his leads. Only Saleem Meiraj seems to fit the bill of that raw performer here.
Yet, Baber Ali assures that through a lot of workshops and casting calls, he was able to cast these actors as the exact people he needed for the roles. He workshopped their characters for 1-2 months and took the actors to meet people from Christian communities. He took them to where they lived to get a sense of their lives.
He did his homework when it comes to the neorealism aspect.
The Screenplay of ‘JOHN’
What hits you immediately in JOHN’s trailer is the naturalistic dialogue. Baber Ali went through 12-15 drafts before he arrived at the final edit. And the script in the film was constantly changed during actor workshops as well.
Baber Ali’s done his homework since he learned from different filmmakers and attended workshops around the world. He encouraged his actors to develop their own backstories for their characters. And it shows in the final edit. Hardly anything seems staged.
The Karachi of ‘JOHN’
The Karachi of ‘JOHN’ has been shown in its totality. The areas of Lyari, Korangi, and Saddar have been emphasized, but according to Baber Ali, there is hardly an area of the city they didn’t shoot in.
Using the Arri Alexa, Baber Ali and his cinematographer Asghar Ali Ghanchi have framed Karachi in greens, whites and reds, both to reflect the themes of the story and the ambience of Karachi itself.
Karachi in Pakistani Cinema Today
Finally, we asked Baber about his thoughts on Karachi as a subject. From the ‘Na Maloom Afraad’ series and ‘Actor in Law’ to ‘Laal Kabootar’, ‘Madaari’; the city is constantly the subject of films today. He answered that the city breeds stories since it has it all. Being a microcosm of Pakistan, it has a lot of conflicts, a lot of humour, and a lot of crime. Stories naturally spring up from the chaos.
‘JOHN’ hits theaters this Friday. Go watch it this weekend to support a different kind of cinema.