Iqbal Masih is our hero, his story is our story not a borrowed narrative: ‘Gunjal’ team

  • Gunjal
  • January 28, 2024


On April 16, 1995, Easter Sunday, a single shot from a 12-gauge shotgun claimed Iqbal Masih’s life in the village of Muritke near Lahore. Belonging to Pakistan’s impoverished Christian minority, Iqbal became a formidable opponent to factories running child labour sweatshops after the Bonded Labor Liberation Front of Pakistan (BLLF-P) rescued him from the looms at the age of 10. Two years later, the child activist, having amassed international attention, would become yet another tale of injustice.

Taking ownership

Among those honouring Iqbal’s heroic legacy is Shoaib Sultan, a theatre artist and debutant director bringing the story to the big screen with Gunjal. “There should be all sorts of films…romcoms, action, comedy but we should also have films like Gunjal that surround a certain issue. Something that addresses a social injustice or offers commentary on a community. With Gunjal, I tried to merge commercial and arthouse cinema,” Sultan explained, speaking to The Express Tribune.

“This is our own story, not a borrowed narrative, inspired by Bollywood or Hollywood,” he said, stressing the need to platform our own voices first and foremost. Sultan’s foray into cinema began with two short films; having spent long years in theatre, he is confident in his ability to understand his audience and is steadily gathering receipts to prove that. “We won the best screenplay award in France, we earned nominations in Jaipur Film Festival. Our film was also screened in Barcelona Asian Film Festival in October. There are other festivals on the way,” he shared.

Despite the comfortable tradition of the Urdu social film in Pakistan’s cinema, the filmmaker is adamant on keeping his distance from offering a “preachy” commentary. The star of the film, Ahmed Ali Akbar, cited this nuanced blend of fiction and past as one reason why he partnered with Sultan. “When I first heard that Sultan wanted to tell Iqbal Masih’s story, it was a big opportunity for me. I’ve always wanted to do stories about our heroes, about real true events,” the Parizaad actor remarked.

Akbar’s method

Essaying the fictional journalist Shahbaz Bhatti who commits to unveiling Iqbal’s murder, Akbar’s versatile acting portfolio made him the first choice for the role from the outset, as per Sultan. For the Laal Kabootar star, the script’s dynamism reciprocated his energy. Speaking about his character, Akbar shared, “Shahbaz’s role is actually not as intense in the beginning, as it is to the end and that arc is what drew me to the script.”

Given Akbar’s penchant for unconventional roles, how demanding was Shahbaz? In response to the query, the actor-musician revealed that he refrains from approaching his different roles with a “certain method.” Akbar described, “I think the answers are all between the lines when you read the script. I read it multiple times to truly try to understand who he [Shahbaz] is. I try to draw a past, with the director, with the writers.” 

“It’s important to understand where a person comes from, what background, what social strata, what religion, what belief system, what ambition that person has. So you build on that and then you bring it up to the past which is the beginning of the story to see how time changes that person,” the 37-year-old delved deeper into his artistic journey.

Bulk of this process demanded a thorough look into the past; from interviewing people to reviewing archives, Akbar internalised the rigour of the film’s brief, action-packed timeline. “Gunjal revolves around a certain two weeks in Shahbaz’s life. I have a lot of empathy and respect for journalists, how they dive into new worlds, connect with new people, confront different challenges. They’re psychologists, they’re explorers, they’re discoverers, they’re so many things encapsulated in one person,” he added.

New industry, newer stories 

For veteran actor Resham who plays Sarwat, the owner of a newspaper outlet, Sultan’s script and Akbar as the protagonist prompted an immediate yes. “I said yes because of Ahmed Ali Akbar,” the Jeeva actor disclosed. “I was watching his Parizaad and shortly after it ended, I was offered the character. It was an honour to work with a new and seasoned artist. He’s very grounded and down-to-earth. I learned a lot from him.”

As per Resham, her role is of a “strong and authoritative woman” that reflects today’s woman and how she stands at par with men in every arena. The actor also emphasised the importance of adapting to the passage of time. “Storytelling has changed over the years. It’s not just about the hero and heroine anymore, now we have stories and characters. I try to keep pace with the changing times,” Resham said.

“I watch Amazon and Netflix. I keep up-to-date with what sort of work is emerging and try to immerse myself in those projects,” she added. Remarking on her contemporaries, the actor contended that some artists remain “stuck in the 90s” and fail to grow. Ultimately, she maintains that Gunjal demonstrates this sensitivity towards a changing industry by offering a “strong message” about child labour packaged as “an entertaining thriller.”

Ahmed Ali Butt’s role of what would appear the “bad guy” further underlines the complex storytelling that Gunjal strives for. According to Butt, his character Salman is simply put “a businessman with political influence who operates in many grey areas” and yet, he would refrain from reducing him to a typical bad guy. 

Reflecting on the film’s political themes, Butt noted, “Iqbal Masih’s murder was a very unfortunate incident in Pakistan’s history. Just to make a film on this demands courage and if we don’t showcase our own untold stories, I don’t think we’ll ever understand the potential of true cinema.” 

Aside from Akbar, Butt and Resham, the film’s leading cast features Amna Ilyas and Syed Muhammad Ali. Gunjal is slated for a December 15 theatrical release. 




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