Sparkistan – Confessions Of A Brand Manager
12.00 am. Lights go out.
There’s no generator. UPS has yet to been invented in this part of the world.
There’s cold. – 5 ⁰ C.
And then there’s the dread of what’s coming next.
All alone in the room, chilled to the bone, I had just returned from the other room listening to haunting stories about the cursed hotel we were staying at. Scared the shit out of everyone.
I should have accepted the team’s invitation to huddle together in one room. Damn me for being the aloof client who wants his own separate room.
And now I don’t have the balls to venture out in the dark. Who knows what lurks in the shadows.
Conjuring, Exorcist, Haunting….All the horror movies I’ve ever watched come vividly alive in the mind.
The next room is just 40m away….if only I can muster enough courage to get the hell out of here.
This is the state which we call in polite scientific terms as ‘split wide open’. The Urdu translation is more befitting.
To divert my attention away from the darkness, I’m penning this down, or to be more accurate typing it. Who knows whether I’ll be alive in the morning or not. At least the ‘Blair Witch’ footage would be there to document what transpired tonight.
Somehow, I survived to tell the tale.
The next night I dragged one of the client service guys in my room [no, not for that] so that if I did have encounters of the third kind at night, at least I won’t be the only one face to face with ‘IT’.
But how did I end up at this God-forsaken hotel in Skardu?
Time to go back in time.
Why The Confession on Sparkistan?
The following confession discloses a lot of happenings on the Sparkistan shoot – good ones, bad ones, scary ones, and of course embarrassing ones. It also reveals how and why the project came into being, and what made it what it is today.
It’s going to make some people very happy. Some will transform into the Hulk upon reading it. A few suicide attempts maybe made. And one murderous attempt on the author is most likely.
Now brand managers are inherently uptight creatures, keeping their pie-hole squeezed shut, not revealing anything, toeing the official line especially if things go awry, just burying their head in the sand a la Ostrich style.
That’s why this article is going to work, being one of a kind.
Or get me fired.
In which case it would have still worked. But only the wrong way around.
So if I’m doing this, there’s a high probability I’ve lost it.
How Sparkistan Was Conceived
In the beginning, there was a spark. To be more precise, it was just going to be a normal calendar with 12 people on it.
Then we had a brainstorming session. The details are a little bit hazy now, but a few psychedelics were involved. Ok, maybe a whole lot more. Mushroom. LSDs. Lost track of them all. Memories are a bit fuzzy about that night.
All I remember is that by the time it was over we had achieved Pure Nirvana. The name Sparkistan was born. It was a spark of genius.
And more Eureka moments followed. The 12 people were not going to be ordinary mortals, but extraordinary unsung beings. Being just put on the calendar wouldn’t do justice to their deeds, so individual videos had to be made for each of them.
Martin Scorsese was going to direct the videos. Soundtrack by A.R Rehman. Vocals by Arijit Singh with backing vocals by Sonu Nigham and Shreya Goshal.
Then came the desire to connect the photos with the video through Augmented Reality.
At that time, someone pointed out a small detail called money. Of course you couldn’t merge Hollywood with Bollywood with the kind of budgets at my disposal.
So we decided to get Malik Riaz on board to fund the Sparkistan project. In return we would shoot majority of videos in Bahria Town. Billboards of Bahria Town would be put throughout the videos in post. Drone shot of the perpetually under-developed Bahria Icon tower would be put in the song. Who knows, all this noble work might do some good to the cursed building and it might just finish before the end of the century.
Hell, there was even talks of making Malik Riaz one of the unsung heroes. That was our level of desperation.
Then we came down from Nirvana to our normal state, or senses, and things got a little less crazy.
Hunt for Endangered Species Called Unsung Heroes
One of the toughest tasks we faced right throughout Sparkistan was finding good people who had done good deeds but not yet gotten due recognition.
I perfectly fit the bill, unfortunately no one seemed to think that way, so that was that. Otherwise I would have been plastered over a wall just like the others, I mean a picture of mine.
Our initial list comprised of 50 candidates. We then filtered them out based on age, geographical location, category of contribution, gender, and level of ‘popularity’.
We wanted the final 12 to be as diverse as possible so that not only every region of Pakistan was represented but also people belonging to different walks of life had a chance.
The biggest challenge was to find people with the least level of ‘popularity’. What I mean by that is it is next to impossible to find people who are truly unsung. Even the people we’ve selected, most of them have been covered by some media outlet at one time or the other. That’s how we got to find them. One thing we were conscious about was not to select heroes already highlighted by other brands. That was our first screening filter.
But this was just one of the many challenges we faced in the 8 months leading up to the execution. Finding an appropriate director, securing funding for the shoot and then ensuring the availability of each unsung hero at the time of shoot were no mean feat either.
It was a long arduous task. The fear was endorsing a person who had a shady past. And that fear also came true when we shortlisted a supposedly respectable doctor from Lahore who was into philanthropic work. In fact he was part of the initial shoot plan. Then Bilal came across an article about how he had treated Osama Bin Laden at some point in his life. That wasn’t all. He had given an interview in which he had glorified Osama and how much he had done to spread good word about Islam in the world.
Now how we did miss this in the first place, I’m not sure, but this is how close we came to getting screwed.
When we think of heroes, we imagine perfect beings devoid of any flaws or shortcomings. In reality, every hero of Sparkistan has his own set of foibles, shortcomings and idiosyncrasies. Same was the case with our heroes. Although we have put them on a pedestal, that doesn’t mean they are not human. They had their own set of interesting behaviors which make for quite amusing stories. Alas, that part of the shoot cannot be revealed.
THE PR AGENCY CONUNDRUM
For the longest time I had been searching for a PR agency that doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg and while at the same time have a good record of getting the work done rather than just the bells and whistles.
It was tough work. You’ve got killer sharks patrolling this small pool. They won’t just bite off the arm and leg. They chew off the whole torso.
Prior to this project, I wanted the PR agency to handle the promotion of our BTL activities, mostly those done at Pakwheels Auto Shows.
But this was a different ball game altogether. Here the PR agency had to do the bulk of the legwork in the preparation stage. From finding out about the unsung heroes we referred to them, to finding many on their own, getting in touch with them, pitching them this project, and then aligning their availability with the shoot. No child’s play.
I was already dejected about not having any luck so far. Then Ovais, the Senior Account Manager at Adcom suggested that I give StarlinksPR a try. Since I was already out of options, I thought why not.
The encouraging thing about this was that the CEO of the agency herself, Ms.Shanaz Ramzi was willing to meet with us. Having been a contributing writer at Dawn in another lifetime, I knew Ms. Ramzi was a celebrity journalist. What I didn’t know was that she was a very down-to-earth person and eager to work with a brand that had no past PR experience.
Unlike some of the other PR agencies I had approached in the past. One name that comes to mind is Walnut, created by Samra Muslim. Having followed Samra both on her blog and Twitter, I was impressed by her. But when I set up a meeting with Walnut to discuss a potential partnership and she sent in her two sidekicks instead of coming herself, that was a sign for me that Walnut wasn’t the right fit for Atlas Battery. What’s more, even those two didn’t seem that much interested in getting our account.
Now PR agencies in this part of the world have such a lean hierarchy that the owner not coming to a new client pitch is a Cardinal Sin. Perhaps it is due to the fact pretty much all the PR agencies these days are fixated on doing PR launches for Pakistani movies, blogger ‘meet-up’ being their favorite buzzword, as if the bloggers are going to sell the movie themselves. Business out of showbiz has ceased to exist for them. StarlinksPR seems to stand out from this myopic business philosophy.
Her son Turab was the one who traveled with us throughout the shoot, liaising with the heroes.
By and large I had a good time working with StarLinksPr. And I intend to work with them in the future as well. They may be new in this game but they sure are a hard-working lot, and they’ve got the right attitude to make it big. In an industry full of snobs, they can easily carve out a niche as the PR agency that actually cares. And I’ve a feeling they are going to make their mark sooner than later.
Selection OF Sparkistan Director:
Having done quite a few TVC campaigns, I now had a basic sense of director styles as to which director would suit what kind of concept. Therefore I had more say in the choice of the director for Sparkistan than in any of the campaigns before.
But we had Mission Impossible in front of us.
Most of the accomplished directors these days have got their hands full with TV commercials. The opportunity cost of going on a shoot that’s strenuous and stretches for 2-3 weeks is way too much. In that period of time, they could easily do half a dozen TVCs and bag a cool Rs.4-5 Million. Compared to this we were paying peanuts.
We needed a director who was not only accomplished but willing to forego his commercial projects for this kind of aspirational filmmaking. We knocked on many doors but most of the commercial directors just weren’t interested, or asking an astronomical price that, well, only NASA could afford.
Faisal was the only one who stood out. Not only was he willing to do this project at a reasonable price, he wanted this project badly. He was the one who came up with the idea that the videos ought to be shot story-style rather documentary style, and that they ought to be able to evoke strong emotions.
But there was a twist in the story and we didn’t get to hire Faisal right away. When I was shown the initial list of directors along with their showreel shortlisted by Adcom, Faisal was my choice, hands down. However, Adcom took him out of the race, saying he was either asking too much or wasn’t available.
We then went round and round, trying to find the right guy. But I reckon Faisal was destined to get it.
When Adcom first took me to meet with Faisal, they instructed me to pretend lack of interest so that we could negotiate a cost that was within our budget. The decision, however, had already been made.
I acted my part, asking probing questions. And Faisal delved into his sales pitch telling me all about his projects and achievements and I dutifully feigned just enough interest.
Faisal, if you’re reading this, you had me at hello. But I liked your pitch nonetheless.
Faisal justified his selection throughout the shoot with his verve and diplomacy. There was this one incident in Skardu, the handling of which showed that he’s a seasoned campaigner. Unfortunately, as much as I would like to divulge the details of that one, it has to remain a secret. Will I take it to my grave? Nah. Probably will get disclosed in my autobiography….
Who Will Do The Photography?
I’ve been taking my photography seriously for the last 4 years, ever since I bought my first DSLR.
Have I bloomed into a great photographer? Hardly.
A good one? I like to think so. At least I’ve taken a few interesting photos in my travels that have managed to surprise even me. But pretty much all of them were landscapes. In fact that’s all I had done until this point.
The idea to do the photography for this year’s calendar was implanted in my mind by Adcom, even before we had come up with a theme, but the decision to go ahead with it was largely mine. I wouldn’t say that the results are stellar, but these aren’t bad photos at all.
Portrait photography was alien to me. But I believed if there was someone who would go the extra mile to make this work, it was me. I knew we couldn’t afford a star photographer, and a less-than-stellar photographer would just treat it as any other project, rather than something special. He wouldn’t do what I did.
To begin with, I spent a fortune to get a professional gear. The Rimelight 600W strobe alone set me back by a cool $1000 buck. Prior to this shoot, I had been shooting with a Canon 650D. For this I bought the full-frame Canon 6D. Ok maybe not just for this shoot since it was something on the cards for a while. All in all, it was a hefty investment.
Then there was the time investment. I spent hours and hours watching videos on CreativeLive on commercial photography and lighting. In fact even on the shoot, when the guys were relaxing and hanging out at night, playing cards and stuff, I was boarded up in my room, either watching even more tutorials or charging the huge arsenal of camera gear.
I would like to think that all that tutorials-watching and expensive equipment helped me raise my game. Adcom’s team may disagree. In particular, Bilal the associate creative director, who was the poor guy in charge of handling me. In addition to his own responsibilities of ensuring the shoot were as per the script he prepared, he had to double up as the Arts Director and Still photography manager.
In spite of all my experience and training, I managed to make stupid mistakes off and on, like forgetting the rule of third or not composing the frame to leave space for the branding and text. You should have seen the look on Bilal’s face in those instances. Perhaps I should have captured it with the same DSLR. But then the DSLR would have gotten pulverized into oblivion, given the fire of fury in his eyes.
Elaborate plans were made in Bilal’s room during the night for my quick and easy disposal. Brainstorming sessions were held. Moodboards were made as to how to carry out the execution.
The Pakistan chapter of Advertisers Against Badass Clients [ABC] was contacted to get their expertise on this sensitive matter.
They solemnly advised to declare me a fornicator and get me stoned to death. Trouble is, quite a few people in the team fit that category, so pretty soon Adcom would have run out of stones.
Spanking me with a cast iron chastity belt with spikes. Again, too many candidates.
Throwing me in a ditch, and filling it up with mud instantaneously, making it look as if a landslide had occurred.
Skinned alive, burnt at the stake, pour molten lead all over the body, impaled on stakes, all medieval methods of mutilation and horrible deaths were entertained.
Even more painful methods were contemplated like tying me to a chair and forcing me to watch Tahir Shah’s Eye to Eye and Angel continuously for 24 hours.
But since I’m still alive writing this down, I guess they thought better of it. It’s always better not to slay the hen that lays the golden eggs.
In the end, the photos turned out to be more than fine.
Just have a look at the results. And while you’re at it, you might want to download Blippar and scan these photos to see the videos as well.
Beware! Bloggers on Board
The idea to take bloggers along with us for Sparkistan shoot was purely mine. In fact Adcom was opposed to the idea, that they might interfere with the production in some way.
But like a ‘Khabthi Pathan’, I stuck to my guns. I did, however, lower both my demand and expectations. I wanted to take along six bloggers. Adcom thought I was nuts. They seriously contemplated getting me declared insane.
But why on earth did I want to complicate matters and add to the already burgeoning cost?
For some inexplicable reason, it got to my head that we should try to promote the project right from the word go, a la Hollywood style where a movie’s promotion keeps on going throughout the production process, so by the time the movie is actually released, the pre-hype has created enough momentum that you don’t have to spend that much afterwards.
In the end we settled on just two bloggers, both for monetary reasons and creating the least amount of nuisance.
Bloggers have evolved as a species from the time when I used to be one. We used to be simple cavemen who would get excited at the mere invitation to attend an event. Not today’s species.
This mutation now wants the brand to deliver a pot of gold [Bori is more like it] at their doorstep in person, and then they might consider taking up the offer. Not exactly sure how this state of affairs came to be. Perhaps it has to do with the pampering done by the mushrooming PR agencies. And what passes for a PR agency these days is questionable too.
You read a couple of books on PR, you know a couple of bloggers, and BOOM! You open a PR agency. Just like that.
I fit the description. So if this brand thingy doesn’t work, I’m opening up my very own PR agency.
But what to name it?
I like the name Walnut. Too bad it’s taken. Perhaps Whole nuts? Completely Nuts? Or simply ‘Aakhrot’? Yeah! Like the sound of it.
Let’s not digress too much.
So prospective bloggers wanted us to transfer a few million dollars into their Swiss accounts, after which they’ll check with their secretaries to see if they had the time to go on the shoot.
My offer was a no-frills one. Go on the shoot with us, all expenses paid. You won’t get paid for it, but you’ll get to experience a real shoot and what goes on behind it, plus the chance to travel all over Pakistan without having to spend a dime. If I was them, I would have grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
At the very last moment, two bloggers finally expressed their willingness, courtesy StarLinksPR. Now I’m not exactly sure whether their Swiss accounts were already brimming with Moolah, or they didn’t have one in the first place, but Amber and Arslan were willing to go on the shoot unconditionally.
I wanted bloggers who were eager to do it for a sense of adventure instead of money. And by what I saw of these two throughout the shoot, they were exactly what I wanted in my bloggers. They were happy just to be on board instead of worrying about money and did their best to promote Sparkistan as much as possible. So my decision was justified.
The Story Behind the Sparkistan Song
The Sparkistan song was never part of the project. It was only much later that we decided to go for the song since we’re already shooting so much footage.
The reason I was more interested in the song than anyone else was I wanted to create a Corporate Anthem for Atlas Battery. I had pitched the idea to the CEO. While he didn’t flatly refuse it, he did tell me to hold my horses for now. To really ignite his interest to go for the corporate anthem right away, I needed something in between that didn’t cost that much but created the perfect hook.
It was easier said than done.
The first step in any song creation is the lyrics. Adcom’s creative team created two set of lyrics, shown below.
I preferred the first one owing to its simplicity of words. It didn’t play around with words but focused primarily on getting the inspirational part right. GM Marketing felt the same way and seconded it.
The second one although equally good sounded more like a Tapori song like an item number as opposed to being a corporate song or even patriotic song. Remember I was looking more for a low-hanging fruit rather than a radical piece of art that got rejected right off the bat.
Adcom’s team was leaning more on the second option. In the end, we took the chorus part of the second option and embedded it in the first one, removing its own chorus segment.
Then came the tough task of choosing the composer. I would have loved to have A.R Rehman as the composer. In fact the references we had finalized for the song were actually Rehman’s compositions. But wishes are just that. Wishes.
Coming back to reality, the first choice was Shaani Arshad, the composer who had come up with the mesmerizing jingle of AGS TVC which had become an overnight success. There was no reason to change a winning formula.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t available, and the second choice was made by Adcom – Kaami, who also happened to be the ex-partner of Shaani.
Our song references remained the same – Chalay Chalo from Lagaan and Chak De from Chak De India. Both are motivational numbers and that’s what we wanted Sparkistan song to be.
It was a week later after returning from the shoot that we went to hear what Kaami had composed. He was going to be showing us two rough compositions to choose from.
Interestingly, Kaami had played around with the lyrics a bit to make them match the beat of the song.
Here are the revised lyrics:
I liked the first version because it was composed in the same style as A.R Rehman. But the problem was it was too flat and monotonous; lacking bridges, and after a little while you looked forward to when the ordeal was going to be over.
First Version of Sparkistan Song:
The second one had its highs and lows, with perfectly timed bridges and a chorus that made you sing along with it.
We chose the second one and made it even better, taking the clapping part from the first option and putting it here, plus adding a regional touch to the bridges.
And here’s the final version, with the picturization and all:
Talking about the name Sparkistan, there’s a misconception that we’ve modified the name of Pakistan. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even when you ponder over the lyrics in the Sparkistan anthem, ‘….tum ho Sparkistan, tumse hai Pakistan’, it is clear that the two words are treated as two distinct words and the sanctity of the word ‘Pakistan’ is maintained.
Sparkistan is basically a merging of two words – ‘Spark’ and ‘istan’. Spark, because it has multiple connotations. It denotes the spark that our heroes have ignited in the lives of people they have helped, while also creating the association with battery, because a battery basically provides the spark that brings your car engine to life.
‘istan’ is a suffix which means land of a particular people or tribe, in this case the particular people being our unsung heroes.
Glimpses From Sparkistan Shoot
What Transpired At Capital Hospital
What happens when you throw a group of desperate bachelors in a roomful of prospective female doctors?
Well, if it was the West, a lot. In this case it just fizzled out.
But it was an interesting experience in more ways than one. We had planned to shoot Dr. Naeem Taj, the Guinness World Record Holder for removing the largest as well as the most number of stones from the gallbladder. And it made sense to shoot him at Capital Hospital Islamabad, his natural habitat, like we did all our heroes.
But for some inexplicable reason, it felt like a potential marriage recce rather than a shoot.
I mean where else would you find the tea table laid out with chairs on both sides, the girls – ahem, the lady doctors on one side, and the production team [prospective grooms] on the other. Looked straight out of a set for a wedding arrangement. The only thing missing was a girl bringing in the tea and pouring it for the guests.
There was this one girl that Bilal was smitten with. And was he smitten! He sang all the way to Bhisham, and for some inexplicable reason, we happened to pass cars all dolled up for weddings along the way.
Love was in the air.
Elaborate plans were made as to how to woo the prospective girl. Noel took over as the chief architect of these plans. After the shoot, the girl’s pictures were zoomed to unbelievable levels to check whether she had an engagement ring or not on her finger.
Even taking the help of Dr. Naeem Taj was considered. I mean if the shoot culminated in a wedding, what could be better.
Nothing, however, came out of it.
I haven’t seen Bilal for a while now, so for all I know he’s already hitched to the lady doctor and conceived a baby. I mean he’s that kind of a guy. Get started with raising a family right from the word go.
The second interesting incident that took place at the Capital Hospital is that we were [forced] to witness an operation – a laparoscopy to be precise. I say the word, ‘forced’ because not all of us had the stomach to watch a live operation, even though we weren’t in the operation theatre ourselves but watching the live feed in the conference hall projector.
Only a skeletal crew was present in the operation theatre to shoot the operation, snippets of which became part of Dr. Naeem Taj video in the Sparkistan campaign.
Captain Salehyar Janjua Takes Us To Skardu
This section is dedicated to the loving memory of Captain Muhammad Salehyar Janjua. In fact the entire campaign is dedicated to him.
He was the nicest pilot I’ve come across in my travels, and I’ve traveled a bit. Have you ever come across a pilot who actually invites you to come and have a look at the breathtaking views from the cockpit?
I seriously doubt it.
When I took him up on his offer, he was kind enough to not only tell me about the mountains we were passing over, but also take a selfie with him. Lady Finger and Trango Towers were the mountains in view when I walked in to the cockpit. So he knew his geography.
You instantly sensed that this was a guy who loved what he did for a living. He had a GoPro installed on the front of the cockpit. In fact he was passionate about it, which is evident from the many videos he had uploaded to Youtube about his journeys. Amazing guy.
It was a brutal shock to all of us when only a week later after returning we heard the news of the PK661 crash.
I want to bring this up after all this time because a section of the media had raised doubts about a pilot error being the cause of crash. Believe me when I say that I’ve come across shaky pilots on simple flights to Lahore and Islamabad, who had a knack of creating turbulence when the sky was crystal clear. Dropping the plane with a resounding thud on the ground while landing, and nearly as bad on the take-off too.
Captain Salehyar Janjua on the other hand handled his aircraft as if he was born to fly. And to think that we were on one of the most treacherous air journeys you can take in the entire world. The take-off, the landing – all aspects of his flying capabilities were picture perfect. We flew over Nanga Parbat, K2, K3, Lady Mountain – the complete works. And there wasn’t a bump in the entire journey. That’s how good he was.
And he took us back to Islamabad as well, safe and sound. Yet another flawless ride.
He truly was an unsung hero.
What Happens in Skardu Stays in Skardu
There’s a widespread perception that the 20 odd people who went to Skardu had a rollicking time there. And the selfies that we took just added to that perception. The reality couldn’t be more different.
I for one would have loved to explore Skardu. Skardu truly is a heaven for tourists and trekkers alike. It is home to four of the world’s fourteen Eight-thousander peaks (8,000 m and above). Then there’s the stunning Sadpara Lake and Shigar village.
But we were in a race against time, and the bone-chilling mind-numbing cold didn’t help matters either.
When we first landed at the airport, it was midday with the sun bearing down on us in all its glory. We were relieved at the pleasant weather.
The relief was short-lived. Come night, the temperature dropped to -5⁰ C.
We stayed at a dubious hotel called the ‘BC’. No one from us dared check in on Facebook with this dubious acronym [yes, it was listed on FB as ‘BC’], for fear that people would get the wrong idea, after all BC does have some raunchy connotations in the Urdu language. Just ask the rock band ‘Noori’.
By the way, BC stands for Baltistan Continental. Just wanted to make it clear lest someone gets the wrong idea.
It was a quaint little hotel, the one where you have the generator but don’t turn it on when the lights go out.
The second morning I asked the cheeny looking Gilgiti at the reception why the hell doesn’t he turn on the generator when the lights go out at night.
‘Sahab raat 10 bajay kay baad kis ko light ki zaroorat parthi hai’.
I had no reply.
For some inexplicable reason, while the local populace went to bed at 5pm in the evening, they didn’t start business the next day until much later in the morning, around 10 or 11am. You would have thought that they would be up and running by 5am in the morning.
Makes you wonder. Whether they have really long dreams at night. Or maybe they’ve an enormous libido which they use to the hilt at night. After all, this is the home of ‘Salajeet’. One of the most potent aphrodisiacs on the face of the planet. In fact all of us were given a ‘goodie’ bag brimming with this dangerous weapon, to be used at our own discretion.
Coming back to our darling hotel BC, it had a lot of another amenities that make your heart swell with pride. The geyser had enough oomph to turn the water from killer cold to icy cold if kept running for 30 mins straight.
The DOP Imran had the misfortune of getting up in the wee hours of the morning to take a leak. When he turned on the tap, there was a hissing sound for a few seconds, and then a single piece of ice fell out.
He went back to sleep as it is.
There was no central heating. The portable heater each one of us was given in our room was actually the LPG stove that is used for cooking during camping. I first placed mine a good 10 feet away from my bed for fear of being roasted.
I then moved it to 8 feet.
No heat. 5 feet. 3 feet.
I finally discovered that not until I almost sat my sorry arse on the damn thing, no heat was felt. Of course in that case my bottom would be on fire. So it was a Catch-22 situation.
The rest of the team discovered this too pretty soon. I wonder how many asses were burnt in the process.
On the first night, I turned off the stove on the advice of the team that the gas will suffocate me to death. After spending the first night with three quilts and still shivering, I kept the stove running the second night.
It’s better to die of heat suffocation rather than being frozen to death.
During our stay there, a major chunk of the team stopped eating. Probably a bout of depression. Their logic – if you eat, you’ve to take a dump, if you take a dump you have to wash your hands, and your behind. Given the glorious geyser at our disposal, no one entertained the prospect of getting frost bite from the tap water in all the wrong places.
We had a lot of time on our hands to do some soul-searching. And the one I did was what the hell was I thinking when I kept pushing for this project.
I’m still not exactly sure why I was possessed like a demon to pursue this project to the hilt.
Was it because I’m an old fart who still yearns the spotlight and have a need to brag about his accomplishments in front of friends and family?
Or maybe the reality is that I needed a larger-than-life project to embellish my dwindling brand career and drag my sorry ass stuck in the same place for the last 10 years into some other organization, preferably that paid more Moolah.
Hmm… the last theory sounds more plausible. But I’ll stick with the holier-than-thou justification that I’ve turned over a new leaf and that selfless devotion to such noble causes is my inner game now.
In any case, I worked fiendishly like a man possessed to get this project through. So no two thoughts I was the driving force behind it. There did come a time right before the execution when the project looked likely to be folded up, but I stuck to my guns. That much credit, I’m willing to give myself.
The morning we were to return to Islamabad, I was determined not to leave Skardu without experiencing at least one tourist attraction.
I was up early the next morning, and pushed the few people who showed a semblance to interest in my idea to get ready right away. We didn’t even wait for the breakfast.
As fate would have it, we had just reached Sadpara Lake when we received a call from the team that our midday flight was leaving earlier in less than an hour because of bad weather forecast later on in the day.
From that instance it was race against time to not only get back to the hotel, but pack our stuff and then leave for the airport.
But when we got back to the hotel, everything was already packed and loaded onto the jeeps. Ovais who I had left in the morning sprawled on the bed like a mongoose with a hangover, had managed to jolt himself into emergency mode and pack even my stuff.
The driver of our 4X4 drove like a man possessed. My heart was in my mouth. Not because of the breakneck speed, and certainly not because of the damn flight. It seems someone had put my lighting gear kit on the top of the jeep. And it wasn’t strapped to anything. There goes my money, I kept thinking the entire ride.
Luckily, it didn’t fell off.
Unluckily, when we got to the airport, we learnt that the flight plan wasn’t changed and that it was going to take off at the original schedule. What a bummer.
It seemed someone from the BC hotel had ‘informed’ one of the team members that the flight was leaving early, and in a state of panic no one had bothered to check with the airline.
So here we were, 20 hungry people, at an airport in the middle of nowhere with nothing to eat.
Why did Baltistan Continental play such a cruel joke on us? Our theory is that it was a quiet little hotel, and they wanted it to keep it that way. They were quite satisfied with the nice little hauntings that went on there, and didn’t want us to disturb the ghosts.
Our barging in on them had certainly disturbed the balance, and their own peace of mind. And because now they had to tend to 20 savage creatures as opposed to just a few benign ghosts before us.
What’s more, they don’t feel like making breakfast for 20 people with voracious appetites that day. So the easiest solution? You guessed it.
Coming back to the airport, the small departure lounge did have a canteen with a cake and a dozen or so samosas. Which were wolfed down by us. We asked for more. They had nothing left to feed us. I’m sure the passengers of the next flight must have cursed us for emptying out the canteen.
Journey to Shangla Via Bhisham
We had just landed from Skardu, and there were coasters waiting for us at the airport itself. From there we started a non-stop journey to Shangla/Bhisham in KPK. A stomach-churning journey.
Just a few hours into the journey and everyone was flat. Ovais we were certain was dead. We were really worried where we would find a coffin size to fit him. We thought of disposing the body in the sea a la Osama Bin Laden watery burial. Trouble was, there was no sea. And dumping it in a lake would have been catastrophic. The toxic waste would have wiped out the entire population of the nearby villages.
The rest of the team was feeling no better. It was the twists and turns of the road. And we had stuffed ourselves with dumba karhai en route.
The torturous journey totaling 12 hours finally culminated at midnight at the PIDC hotel in Bhisham where we were going to spend the night. Stomach churning and yet famished at the same time. Not a good feeling.
I was delighted to find that the hotel had prepared my favorite dish – Daal Chawal. After all the meat devouring in the past seven days, this was the best thing to consume, that too at the dead of night.
The next morning we were supposed to move to Shangla to shoot Shabana, the woman who had started a movement for proper sanitation for women in her area. However, something happened that morning which is beyond the scope of this article. So you won’t get to find out. Unless of course you buy my autobiography.
The Sparkistan Team
Ovais Khawaja – Senior Account Manager
Ovais is the most amazing snorer I’ve come across. There’s a rhythmic quality to his snoring. Believe me, I would know. I have the unfortunate distinction of sharing room with some of the mightiest snorers on the planet in my travels. And on this shoot I had the pleasure of sharing room with Ovais.
Coke Studio would do well to hire him. He can add a new dimension to their musical fusions. They’ll just have to keep him sedated during the whole session though.
But don’t be fooled by his lethargic style. He’s a worker ant through and through. Have been together with him on quite a few branding quests. Very dependable. Except when he’s in ‘Topi’ mode.
I’ve the growing suspicion he has got some kind of supernatural being under his control. Or he himself is one. He has the uncanny ability to disappear from the shoot, and then suddenly appear out of nowhere, quietly standing right behind you, giving the impression he was there all along. Very spooky.
Noel Francis – AV Manager- Adcom
Noel was our Swiss Knife. You know that resourceful guy in prison who can get you anything?
Whether it’s cigarettes, liquor, Kalashnikov, Bondage furniture, Kegel exerciser, Ben Wa Balls, spanking horse, or even a con…. well, you get the idea.
That’s Noel for you. We had rechristened him as Noel FrenchKiss on this shoot for reasons I rather not get into in this article.
He can’t sit still. Call it a blessing or curse. That’s just the way he is. He managed to impersonate quite a few people on the shoot – the director, the PR agency, and did client servicing too himself.
He was the second person on the shoot I was most impressed with. He had an indefatigable supply of energy. Ate rarely. Slept seldom. And still had an unlimited amount of energy. I could sleep all day and still not match his energy levels.
He’s that Energizer bunny that just goes on and on and on…
I wish I could be that bunny. Without the pink color and long ears.
Bilal Alvi – Associate Creative Director
28 year-old good-looking Jawan. Wheatish complexion, height 5’ 9’’. Earning 3-figure income. Can sing. Cracks jokes at the drop of a hat. Aspires to be a model someday.
Actively seeking a life partner. Preferably a fair-skinned girl from Islamabad. All the better if she works in Capital Hospital as a resident doctor under Dr. Naeem Taj.
If you qualify, you have to submit your application to Adcom first for pre-screening. Then get it approved from the client.
He’s also ultra-sensitive to anything related to blood. How sensitive? He could faint at the mere sight of your paper cut.
The amount of photos I took of him to compose the right frame for our heroes , soch hai aap ki. I’m now thinking of … no not thinking, going to force him to sign the model-release form and sell his portraits as stock photography.
I might earn a few dollars while he’ll end up realizing his dream of becoming THE Model.
Saad Saeed – Digital Executive
Saad was the youngest bloke on the shoot and it was as clear as daylight, even with his furry beard and macho voice.
You know the kid who always goes first for the mithai when you go to someone else’s house, or wants to cut the cake himself at other children’s birthdays? And if he doesn’t get to do it, he just shoves it up the birthday boy’s arse.
Well, that’s Saad in a nutshell.
But why did we take him along with us? He was supposed to manage the bloggers. Or were they going to manage him? I’m not sure how it was supposed to work.
A hugely talented guy, someone who’s going to be at the top of the food chain in a short span of time, after trampling on quite a few toes and bodies, of course. He has that cut-throat ability about himself.
You know what? He would make for our very own Donald Trump.
I asked him once why he wanted to join the agency when he’s a talented photographer and got everything going for him. He said he wanted to learn how to handle a client. Poor kid. I didn’t have the heart to tell him with his mental state he’ll never learn that. He’s a brilliant photographer, no doubt, taught me a thing or two about photography too, but his management skills, well that’s a different story.
But since he’s going to be opening his very own ad agency sooner than later, I don’t think dealing with the client would matter that much, right?
And he was a stickler for girls. Well, aren’t we all? I mean what good would a man be without some old-fashioned ‘tharak’ running through his veins. But he took it to new heights.
I discovered this trait while at Capital Hospital. While I was struggling to get a good shot of Dr. Naeem Taj under the constant and incisive glare of Bilal, Saad was happily clicking away the female doctors. From every angle imaginable. And unimaginable.
Some of the photos I’ve placed in this article are taken by him. And like I said, the guy’s forte is certainly his photography.
I had told the agency after just a few days that he wasn’t gonna stick around and would leave them in the next 3 to 4 months. News just came in that he has resigned, after exactly the time I had predicted. I reckon I can use this to become the Nostradamus of Advertising World.
But who sends a new kid on the job on a joy ride after just a week on the job? Someone you don’t know anything about, how’s he gonna behave or do on the shoot?
For all you know, he could have turned out to be an ambitious serial killer who would killed the whole team, shot the massacres on video, and submitted a very ‘realistic’ looking short-film to Cannes Film Festival.
You never know with ambitious narcissistic kids these days. But the digital agency ignored all these seemingly trivial details.
So I’m extremely delighted to learn I’m not the only one working in a senior position with an IQ level of less than 100.
Turab Ramzi. The son of the great Shanaz Ramzi. I instantly liked the guy. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because of the fact that being a rich kid and all, we all expected him to be a spoilt brat. And he wasn’t.
Or the fact that the guy had faced some daunting personal challenges and overcame them. Who doesn’t love an underdog who wins the day?
There was something endearing about him that you just can’t explain, a very down to earth guy. We were convinced he was a reincarnation of Sanjay Dutt.
Just prior to joining us on the shoot, he had returned from Switzerland [or was it the entire Europe?] with his wife.
Normally I just shoot the person who says he has been holidaying in Europe out of pure jealously. In his case I made an exception.
He had his own set of idiosyncrasies, though. While we all have them, his were more intriguing.
He used to call his mother ‘Boss’. Now you might tempted to call your mother the boss for the benefit of other employees and to show that even her son was no different from the rest of the team. But he took it to new heights. Even while celebrating her birthday, he had written on the cake ‘Happy Birthday Boss!’. I have a feeling he addressed her as boss even at home.
He spent 22 hours out of the 24 talking on his cellphone. People sleepwalked. He sleep-talked. That too on his cell. I mean, that may very well be the origin of a new mental disorder.
Exactly who he talked with all night was a matter of great debate between us. He of course justified it by saying that it was his wife.
According to Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it’s a scientific impossibility that a married man can withstand more than half an hour of his wife’s chattering on the phone without getting pulverized. Of course if it’s another woman, then the principle doesn’t hold true.
Then he had the strange habit of looking someone standing next to him straight in the eye while talking on his cellphone through an earpiece. Now since you can’t see the mobile, and the mouth is spewing out words, it’s obvious that you’re trying to talk to the person who you’re making eye contact with.
The first time it happened to me, we were in the bus at Islamabad airport going towards the terminal. I obviously thought he was trying to make conversation with me and responded accordingly. Turned out he was actually talking to his wife [how many hours did he really talk to her?], and I naturally turned a beetroot red.
It turned out quite a few people in the team had turned into beetroots courtesy Turab.
Faisal Rasheed – Director and Producer
Faisal Rasheed first and foremost is a brilliant storyteller. A natural. Someone who evokes intense emotions.
The kind of person who can make you shit in your pants when narrating a supernatural tale. We would know.
Or induce multiple orgasms when telling an erotic tale. That we wouldn’t know. But I bet he has a very satisfied wife.
When he told me his inspiring story of how he quit his job to start his production company, I almost quit my own job the next day. But common sense prevailed.
And the fact that I’m not good at anything other than making my agency’s life hell. If I quit, I would have no one to traumatize. They would have welcome the opportunity though.
So he’s a very dangerous character in this respect. He can mesmerize with his chanting tales and make you do crazy things.
Did I tell you about how he messed up our brains and made us shit our pants in Skardu? I did? Well, here’s one more time.
It so happened that Faisal who was also the producer and in charge of choosing locations and all, chose this rather non-descript hotel in Skardu for all of us to stay.
After we had settled in the hotel he told us it was haunted. I was intrigued. I’m the kind of guy who would rather hear a terror tale just for kicks, get a high and then shit my pants, after all.
So I was on his case all the time. He first started out with haunting tales from his own life. Which were scary enough. But I wanted the real stuff. He just toyed with us, reasoning that we wouldn’t be able to bear a single minute in this hotel if we heard that tale, that it had happened to him the last time he was in Skardu. And that the ordeal went on for the whole night.
Now I’m having my doubts whether all that did happen. Because he never came around to narrating that tale. Not even after we had left Skardu.
So Faisal if you’re reading this, you owe me that tale. If it didn’t happen, better make it up yourself.
Ali Memon – Co-Producer
It’s a small world. I met Ali on the shoot, the co-producer at Shoot-At-Sight. He turned out to be an old school friend of mine, with whom I used to share a school van with when we were in 8th grade. He taught me the subtle art of ‘Taarna’ at which he was a pro, even as a kid. He laid my foundation based on the scientific principles of Ogling, and was a very abled teacher even at that tender age. But that’s another story.
We were meeting after 23 years. That’s a lifetime. And we were in the same city all this time.
He had a very diminutive demeanor back when we were in school. He still has it. Until he opens his mouth. His wisecracks divert the attention from his physical features, putting the focus squarely on his effervescent personality.
A fun person to be around.
Asif Mumtaz – Director
Asif and Hasan were the two freelance directors employed by Faisal to help him Sparkistan since he had the added responsibility of being the producer.
Asif is primarily an editor, and a veteran in the field, having such credible feats to his name as the Editor of the movie Actor-in-Law.
From what little I interacted with the guy, he was overly passionate about his trade, and the reason for his sticking to it in spite of quite a few obstacles early on.
Hasan Saqib – Director
Hasan told me something which I still can’t fathom to this day. He’s the younger brother of Mani. I reject his claim. Maybe his father had a secret marriage, and that Mani is a step-brother.
I mean look at him. He’s an educated fair-skinned bloke with a sprinkling of sophistication, while Mani is a Fair n Lovely induced fair-skinned un……. well, let’s leave it at that.
He’s far less experienced than Asif, being young and all, but he had the added advantage of having a proper degree in media sciences, something which is lacking in most of our media professionals.
Faisal used to teach media sciences at Iqra, Hasan was his student, and the rest is history.
Imran Haroon – DOP
Imran is the kind of guy who doesn’t say much but when he does, they are mostly witty one-liners. He started out as a still photography enthusiast and has now graduated into a full-fledged videographer.
Was impressed by the guy, the way he was able to swiftly analyze the light and camera angles as soon as we had landed at a particular location and make a snap decision, while I would just stand there looking like a fool, and would have continued to be there till eternity had not Imran found his frame.
Truth be told, I made use of the same frames that he had composed for the unsung heroes, at least for one of the numerous compositions I did for each hero. That’s because I was confident that whatever flaws in my own compositions, at least I would have one shot in my arsenal courtesy Imran that would do the job.
Dody Baba – Drone Operator
I didn’t get to know him that well, given that most of the time he was somewhere else shooting the terrain. But he seemed to be a colorful character.
Zulfiqar Ali – Operations Manager
Zulfi bhai was our genie in a bottle. You just had to say the word and there it was.
For me it was managing my lighting gear, setting it up, taking it apart, carrying it. He’s the sort of kind-hearted guy who never gets annoyed, even if you beat the shit out of him. We never tried of course, given his burly demeanor. For all we know, he might have turned into one big angry Hulk.
I bet whenever the snatchers have come to loot him [which is inevitable if you’re a Karachiite], he bestows the same respect and care as he did to all of us. Might have even offered to drop them home.
When we were in Skardu having all sorts of discussions on hauntings and exorcisms, one of the production guys told me that his mother was possessed and that she died in that very state. He told me I should ask him about the details, and being the inquisitive type, I would have. But I just didn’t have the heart to ask him about this tragedy.
The Bombastic Bloggers
She made her entrance onto the scene with a bang.
It was Islamabad. I was asleep in my room when suddenly I got woken up by people talking at the top of their lungs. I thought maybe it was morning already and the shoot had started right outside my room.
I checked the time. 2.00 am. That’s strange, I thought. It wasn’t supposed to be a night shoot. And there was no shouting match involved, at least that wasn’t part of the script. And none that had a woman harassing a man. Which clearly was the case outside.
Perhaps there was a second script I didn’t know about. And they were shooting behind my back! How dare they!
When you get suddenly woken up from a deep slumber, reasoning isn’t exactly your forte in that instant of time.
The shouting match died down just as suddenly as it had started, and I went back to sleep without any further interruptions.
The next morning I woke up thinking that last night was just a nightmare, until I get to the breakfast hall where I encountered the Being from last night in flesh.
She was chatting with Turab. It didn’t look like a conversation. A contest perhaps. In fact a no-contest.
Turab was no match. I joined them. Made no difference. Still remained a no-contest.
Amber was a bullet train. I mean, figuratively speaking. When she started speaking, there was no stopping her. Come to think of it. I wonder how she ever became a blogger. I mean, bloggers are supposed to be introverted and hermitic kind of beings. She’s the exact opposite. She would just as soon tear apart a being as feeble and frail as a blogger.
And she told me she used to be on the client service. I just couldn’t visualize it. Her on the receiving end. In fact it must have been them at the receiving end. Poor souls. My heart goes out to them, whoever they were.
She had that truckload of infectious energy, always going on and on. I wonder how she managed to fell asleep.
But for all her idiosyncrasies, she proved to be an important part of the team. She’s the kind of person who makes a connection with a person at the drop of a hat. And she helped our cause immensely wherever there were women or children involved.
Samar Khan who lives in Islamabad and who we wanted to take to Skardu to shoot her there, was reluctant to go. But when she found out we had a girl with us, it made it that much easier to persuade her.
We just put her in front, and the rest just took care of itself.
What most people don’t know about her is that she has a sweet voice. When she sings, that is. Otherwise her voice lies on the other end of the spectrum. Kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde condition.
If I were her, I would start a podcast, using my normal voice to intimidate my audience and then singing to them to endear them to myself. But she was kind of shy to make use of that part of her voice. Which is strange, because shyness is something alien to her.
In her own words, she’s ‘A food/ Travel/ Lifestyle blogger and an independently working Digital PR consultant with Digital Advertising experience in Account Management of 4+ years.’
Travel Instagram: @thetraveluster
Facebook page: www.facebook.com/AmbyZee
Facebook page for TasteNTell: www.facebook.com/groups/TasteNTell
Have you seen The Orphan? The Hollywood horror flick where a mature woman lives inside the body of a small girl? That’s Arslan for you. Only in this case it’s a man inside a boy’s body.
He’s almost touching 30, but by the looks of his physique and mental state, he might as well be sweet sixteen.
But don’t underestimate him. The guy left his job to get into blogging full-time, which takes a lot of guts, so he’s far more successful than I am. For a period of time, he worked as a member of Youth Parliament Pakistan, a project by Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), where he served as Secretary General for some time.
His wisecracks and witty one-liners were a constant source of entertainment, especially when the going got tough.
He was given the nick of Behtareen on the shoot, based on the name of his own domain.
Blog Url: www.behtareen.pk
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BehtareenPK/
The man behind it all. Perhaps the most good-looking brand manager this side of the Atlantic. Maybe a little behind on the brains part. But why would you need brains when you’ve got the looks!
Fawad Khan is touted to be the 7th most sexiest man in Asia. Saqib Khan comes in just a little behind him, by two zeroes at 700. Or maybe that’s three zeros. Doesn’t matter.
Likes to think of himself as the man who heralded the art of branding in Atlas Group. He didn’t.
Thinks he’s the most creative brand manager on the face of the planet. He isn’t.
He claimed he’ll make it big one day. That was 17 years ago.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Advertisers (RSPCA) predicts he will die a disillusioned lonely man.
A cruel death indeed, claims PAWS (Pakistan Advertisers Welfare Society).
Travel – www.travelhustling.com
Branding – www.brandasy.com
Eating Out – www.restaurants-uncut.com
Photography – www.willshootformoney.com
The End of the Beginning
Having done Sparkistan, I feel like a new man.
A new man alright. A man who has outgrown all his pants in just a matter of weeks and grown a beer belly.
Men aspire to get the perfect V-shaped body. I’m at a loss of alphabets to describe what shape I’ve transformed into.
If the shoot had gone any longer, I would have needed to contact Adnan Sami Khan for his wardrobe from his pre-liposuction era.
At the end of the day, no matter how we started out, how skewed our initial ideas, in spite of all the hauntings and foibles and tantrums, the project turned out to be something truly special. And it gives me immense pride at having done this, that the 10 months of anguish and struggle was worth it.
While it won’t change the fate of Pakistan, will not eradicate poverty, corrupt rulers or the 16 trillion debt, it still is a beacon of hope in a land where good deeds go unnoticed and bad ones become the Breaking News on News Channels.
That’s it? Actually that’s just 1/4th of what went on. For the rest you’ll just have to buy the New York Times Bestseller ‘Explosive Memoirs of a Maverick Brand Manager’.
For now let me leave you with some memorable snapshots from different phases of the shoot.
Once again, to give credit where its due, the following are the companies that brought this project to life:
1. Atlas Battery – Idea initiator and project funder.
2. Adcom – Conceptualization, Design and Scripting.
3. Shoot At Sight – Production House
4. StarLinksPR – PR Agency –identified and coordinated with heroes.
5. Zenith Optimedia – Digital promotion