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‘Working on Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam gave me the joy of taking over a male universe’: Meenu Gaur

Director Meenu Gaur’s Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam, a web series featuring actors Sarwat Gilani and Sanam Saaed, taps into the world of 'film noir' to create a fablesque feminist show set in a fictional Pakistani town

British-Indian filmmaker Meenu Gaur is the director and co-writer of the web series Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam, which isBritish-Indian filmmaker Meenu Gaur is the director and co-writer of the web series Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam, which is streaming on Zee5
Nearly five years ago, writer-director Meenu Gaur started working on a feature film titled Barzakh: Between Heaven and Hell, which was going to be her take on ‘film noir’. Her idea of a feature film set in the moody and mysterious world of noir appealed to many. In 2017, the project was picked up by Locarno Film Festival’s Open Doors Lab. The next year, Nipkow film residency in Berlin followed suit. An errant writer’s block delayed the feature film. However, since Gaur had already taken a deep dive into the world of noir and its nuances, she tapped into this genre for her first web series, Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam.
The British-Indian filmmaker conceptualised Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam, a desi noir anthology, when Shailja Kejriwal (Chief creative officer, special projects at Zee Entertainment) approached her some years ago. Within a week of their conversation Gaur developed a pitch deck about this dark and pulpy show that revolves around some fascinating desi femme fatales. Still, there was work  out there for her.

Even though ‘film noir’ is her favourite genre, Gaur is aware of the stereotypes prevalent in its “sexist” world. The filmmaker focussed on making the genre her own by getting rid of the stereotypes and bringing in the “female gaze” as she built the characters. She even found herself grappling with “some fun questions”, such as “What’s desi noir?”. Even though she tried to find suitable answers to these questions, Gaur had certain clarity from the beginning. “I didn’t want my characters to look as they do in classic noir. So, the question was how does one combine a sari to noir,” says the director about the show, which is currently streaming on Zee5.

Gaur roped in Farjad Nabi, with whom she wrote and co-directed the acclaimed feature film, Zinda Bhaag (2013), to craft the story about a bunch of plucky women driven by love, desire, ambition, revenge, and redemption while navigating a deeply patriarchal society. The six-part series captures noirish moodiness and expressionism as it remains true to the genre in its treatment and tone. Crucial to any ‘classic noir’ is the setting. “Usually, noir is set in suburban, Chinatown-kind of spaces — like urban decay spaces. What’s the equivalent of that in our world? What would give the genuine feel of a crumbling universe? One that is corrupt and falling apart. We knew our own authentic noir had to be set in an old city,” says Gaur. The story of Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam unfolds in a fictional town in Pakistan called Androon Sheher (roughly translates to inner city), where lives of the residents overlap with each other.

These challenges apart, there was another factor Gaur had to consider. “I realised early on that I’d be working with a diverse range of actors. They have their own unique ways of essaying their roles. For instance, the way Faiza Gilani, who plays nurse Kanwal, works is different from how Sarwat (Gilani) or Sanam (Saeed) approach their roles. And, Sarwat and Sanam follow different methods themselves,” says Gaur. The writer-director knew that imposing her methods on the cast which included Samiya Mumtaz, Faiza Gillani, Beo Raana Zafar, Eman Suleman, and Mehar Bano, was not going to work. Instead, Gaur tried to be their “collaborator”. “I adapted myself to their ways. They tweaked the parts and made them their own,” says the director, who found it an enriching process.
Zindagi Gulzar Hai actor Sanam Saeed plays the role of ambitious and unapologetic Zuvi, who is wronged but manages to have her way

Common link to the six episodes of Qaatil Haseenaon Ke Naam is Mai Malki (Mumtaz), who is abandoned by her husband for a younger woman and is often spotted at the local dargah. There are other key characters such as Anarkali, a sex-worker played by Bano; Zafar as Massey Ma who believes that justice must be delivered; Gilani as Mehek who has a weakness for beautiful verses and is trapped in an abusive marriage; and Saeed as Zuvi, an ambitious sculptor who doesn’t hesitate to resort to manipulative ways. Even though several male characters are cruel and manipulative, there are some interesting characters who become allies of women in fulfilling their wishes.

In the opening episode of the show, popular Pakistani actor Sarwat Gilani plays the role of Mehek, who is trapped in an abusive relationship.

During a video chat, Gilani and Saeed wax eloquent about the look, feel, artwork and soundtrack of the show. They are also thrilled about not playing goody-two-shoes characters. “The audience (in Pakistan) are happy to see some of us actors in a new show as they don’t get to watch us often on television these days. While some of them are excited, some are also surprised to see us in these roles — very badass,” Saeed says and adds “You can’t please everyone. Those who are into the genre really liked it,” says Saeed, who has been part of several successful television shows including Zindagi Gulzar Hai (2012-13).

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Prior to the shoot, the team did a few rounds of reading together, besides discussing the scenes a lot on the sets. “It was a great collaborative work. None of us had done this before and we didn’t have any reference. We had to look at strong female characters in Kill Bill (I and II), even Game of Thrones. Everyone offered their two bits and Meenu would listen to all our suggestions,” says Gilani, who says that the show took them back to the era of black-and-white movies featuring glamorous femme fatales.

What Gilani finds most impressive is that the show had a female director presenting the perspectives of these flawed woman characters. The popular television and film actor also enjoyed doing her hair and make-up in the noir style. “The wardrobe and styling really helped me get into the character. I decided to look a few shades darker. I thought that made my character more namkeen,” recalls Gilani, who was one of the lead actors of the much-talked about web series, Churails (2020).

With film noir, come certain liberties. “When you are a woman storyteller, the audience mostly expects issue-based and realistic stories from you. You have to tread on those familiar lines while telling a women-led story. Noir gave me the opportunity to break away from that. Noir is the most sexist genre. So, we decided to claim this space. Make it ours. It gave me the joy of taking over a male universe,” says Gaur. Saeed agrees. “It was liberating for me not to feel like a bechari. Though my character Zuvi was wronged, she had the freedom to take control of the situation,” says the actor, who is the lead on a new show for Zee5 along with Fawad Khan.
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