Q&A With Asif Akbar

When Jaaz Multimedia decided to produce an international action film, and that too, feature an iconic character like Masud Rana, they knew they needed a director who would not only do credit to Quazi Anwar Hussain’s vision, but also be familiar with the workings of Hollywood. They found the most apt choice in Asif Akbar.

By Sabrina Fatma Ahmad

Born in Khulna, Bangladesh and raised in Cleveland, OH, USA, Asif Akbar is an award-winning film-maker that straddles both worlds. He produced his first Bangladeshi commercial film Ochena Hridoy-Unknown Love with his father Enayet Akbar Milon, which released in Bangladesh and the U.S. in 2015 the same year that Smoke Filled Lungs, a film he directed, won the best feature film award at the International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema in Milan, Italy.

MWB got on the phone with the young talent to talk about the film of the moment MR9: Do or Die

You grew up in the US. Did you have exposure to the Masud Rana phenomenon?

Of course! I’m a child of the 90’s. Even though we moved to the US when I was very young, I grew up immersed in the stories of Quazi Anwar Hussain. Masud Rana was huge in the diasporic Bangladeshi community. I would watch all the action films and thrillers in the cinemas in the US, be it Rambo or James Bond, and look for South Asian heroes, people with the same skin color as mine, and not see any. I think the urge to see a Bangladeshi lead was always there in me, and Masud Rana was a natural choice.

How did this project happen?

The initiative was taken by Abdul Aziz Bhai of Jaaz Multimedia. He obtained the film rights from Quazi Anwar Hussain in 2017. I came on board in 2018. Aziz Bhai and I both felt that Masud Rana was the best option for a collaboration with Hollywood, given the massive fanbase of the series, and also because the themes and stories in the series were suitable for a global audience. 

We started adapting the story from Dhongsho Pahar, the first book in the series, and met our first challenge. It’s never possible to be completely faithful to the book when translating to film, as these are two different mediums. And given that this would be a Hollywood production, intended for worldwide distribution, we needed to bring in some American characters and foreign locations [beyond what was depicted in the book], so the script changed quite a bit. 

We wanted to do this right, so we had a big budget for it, planned the shoot in multiple locations, and designed the first film as a sort of origin story, like they do in Marvel movies. It is not exactly the plot of Dhongsho Pahar, but more a setup where we introduce the major characters, the foreign agents working with the BCI agents, and then tease the premise of Dhongsho Pahar, which we will get to in the sequel, which we have started working on. 

Let’s talk about the man behind Masud Rana. There was a lot of hype regarding the hunt for the actor who will play the titular character, and you finally settled on ABM Sumon. What was it about Sumon that made you sign him on?

Our vision for Masud Rana was to cast an actor who isn’t famous yet, but has experience. If you look at the James Bond movies, you’ll notice that they all starred actors who had experience, but weren’t big stars until they stepped into 007’s roles and became synonymous with that role. ABM Sumon had the perfect look that we wanted, and he passed all the screen tests and was able to groom himself for the role. I’ve actually known Sumon since about 2013-14, and know he’s a massive Masud Rana fan, and he always expressed a desire to play MR9. Nonetheless, Jaaz wanted to get it right and hosted a series of auditions in 2019 to give all applicants a fair shot. Sumon just outperformed everyone else and impressed not just Jaaz Multimedia, but our Hollywood partners. We even sent the photo stills and audition videos to Quazi Anwar Hussain, and got his blessing for the title role. Now that the film is out, we’re hopeful that the audience will also see their Masud Rana in ABM Sumon. 

How has the response to MR9: Do or Die been?

Overwhelmingly positive, Alhamdulillah. With any creative project you can expect some criticisms and not everyone will be happy, and Masud Rana is such a longstanding favorite, there are bound to be a lot of strong opinions. Factoring all that in, we’ve heard good things, and received a lot of praise here and abroad. We’ve had the pre-sales worldwide, and our sequel has been greenlighted, so that’s definitely a vote of confidence. We’re now focusing on building the story of the sequel.

Having seen the film on screen, do you feel like you could have done things differently?

Absolutely. I think it’s part and parcel of being a creative person. If you’re looking at a finished product and not thinking of ways to make it better, how else would you grow?

“For creative artists, Take Two is always better”

Whether you’re an actor, a producer or a film director, it is important to be able to evaluate yourself and look for avenues for growth. For us, our audience was a big judge, we studied their feedback and responses and worked out how we can improve on our subsequent offerings.

This was a very difficult project to implement. There were many obstacles – the scripts changed, the producers changed, cast members changed, locations changed, shoot dates were rescheduled, and then there was Covid-19. There were moments that made us feel like this project would never take off. We had to keep our eye on the ball and get the film finished, so we could make a gift of it to our audience members. I didn’t take any remuneration from the project; what I would have made as a writer, director and producer, I invested into MR9: Do or Die. This was a pioneer project with high stakes for both our film industries. This would be the first time a Bangladeshi plays the lead role in a Hollywood project; we had the challenge of convincing our investors that this would work. I’m glad it worked out. This is the first Bangladesh-Hollywood joint venture, and we were bringing to life the iconic Masud Rana, so you can imagine, there was a lot of pressure. 

We’re working to correct some of the mistakes we felt we made with this first project, and now that we have the opportunity to do so, we hope we can do it.

What was your favorite part of the whole process?

It’s hard to pick, but I think it was during filming. It was the most challenging, but also the most fun, seeing all our preparations and visions coming to life, making tweaks, adapting to fluid circumstances. Of course, post production, editing, all of that is enjoyable, and it’s an opportunity to take the raw material and polish it. But there’s nothing like the energy of being on set. 

So what’s next for Asif Akbar?

 I just finished shooting a project called Boneyard,  featuring Mel Gibson and 50 Cent. It’s being distributed by Lionsgate Studios and should be available in Bangladesh soon.

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