Murder by Starlight

As the curtains parted and the spotlight came on, it was obvious that Starlight was going to be an interesting experience.

The first play for Stage Fright Productions, written by Mariam Viriani, and co-directed by Virani and Ali Junejo, Starlight is set in the early 19th century and is a murder mystery. The tagline of the play states, "They all had the motive but only one had the drive to kill." So who is that one?

Starlight starts off with the basics. We discover the premise; Starlight is a club owned by Jaselle Castillo (Fatima Hasan) who also sings at the club regularly. Jaselle is also the murder victim and the suspects are all connected to her in one way or another. The stake being not only the Club itself but also a vast fortune that Jaselle recently inherited. A special aspect of her character is that although she dies in the first act, we get to see Jaselle in flashbacks with regards to the suspects. And it is in these flashbacks that Fatima explores the complexities of her character's relations with the others.

Enter the suspects.

The club is managed by Victor Lemur (Nadir Siddiqui), who is clearly uptight and displays an almost rude attitude towards everyone—except for Jaselle. But that doesn't mean he didn't have a motive to kill her. Nadir is at ease in this role, though at times it seems his character has nothing to do, but when he does do something the moment is hardly dull.

Ronald Wong (Chaudry Talat Mazhar) plays the bartender of Starlight. Quirky yet shady, Wong is likable from the start thanks to Mazhar's unique approach to the character. Whereas others would have gone with an "over the top" approach, Mazhar balances his acting with both zany and lucid aspects. To the shock of the audience, we discover the shocking connection between his character and Jaselle, a connection that indicates an apparent motive and instability of Ronald.

Cornelius Farriera (Adeel Azim Siddiqui) is a regular customer at Starlight, all because of his undying love for Jaselle. It is because of that same love that he surrenders all of his wealth to Jaselle and ultimate gets into trouble with his wife, Vivian Farriera (Sania Jamal). The chemistry between Cornelius and Vivian (Adeel and Sania) is quite clear, though at times quite straining, nevertheless quite entertaining. Cornelius is torn between his love for Jaselle and his wife Vivian, and Adeel's expressions of angst and heartache come through perfectly. Vivian is a character that could have been explored much more as simply the wife of Cornelius. Her moments at the bar, especially her interactions with its other visitors are a delight to watch.

Brute Piero (Osama Tahir) is a known thug and gang member who has made his desire to own Starlight no secret. Although Osama fits the role well with his costume, his character could have had more vocal opportunities throughout the play instead of looking angry around the stage.

Detective Vincent (Ali Junejo) and his assistant Harold (Raza Virani) are hot on the trail of the murder that occurs right before their eyes at the Starlight club. Being the lead character, Vincent carries the play through seamlessly through his narration before each act. His monologues fill in audience with the story and even – through a clever flashback sequence – backstory of the murder and Jaselle. Ali's hard work has paid off as the lead, but it is Harold and Raza that often steal the show. Through Vincent and Harold, we discover the motives of each of the suspects and their connections to the deceased.

Though this was murder mystery, thanks to characters like Harold and Ronald the audience wasn't bored for a moment. And it shows a clear balance on the part of Mariam Virani, the first time writer and co-director of the play. Though the first few acts seemed to drag on for a bit, once the murder occurs there's no stopping the ball from rolling.

Speaking about her inspiration for the play she said, "I was always inspired by Agatha Christie stories and that's how I wrote this." For Mariam, whose previous association with plays was only helping out backstage, her efforts and her inspirations have paid off. And already she's working towards her next project. "I'm working on my next play now, and it'll come out hopefully in later in the year."

Co-director and lead Ali Junejo is no stranger to plays. Having participated in 5 previous Mythos productions, he spoke of co-directing the play with Mariam. "It was an awesome experience, and I think it's important that we were on the same wavelength as far as this play was concerned, which took it forward."

And all of this culminated in a special twist at the end. Though all the suspects had the intentions and motives to kill Jaselle, none of them did. We learn that Vincent has been playing the role of the detective and as well as the unreliable narrator. And the audience erupted with applause as it is revealed that it was him and Jaselle that had orchestrated such an event at Starlight. So technically, there was never a murder in the first place.

Starlight proved to be an interesting and thoughtful play with minor faults, overlookable considering the big twist and payoff in the end.


Hey Mr. DJ!

Ali Safina is a Radio Jockey, Video Jockey, Disc Jockey, aspiring actor and a musician. Not only is he a man of many talents, he clearly enjoys working hard on being all of them too. His show on Radioactive FM96 attracts a loyal following of bhangra listeners from across the nation. His television show on MTV, MeraMTV, is also a favorite amongst his fans. And more and more people are beginning to tune in to his shows.

And it's easy to see why: in person, Ali is laidback, calm and friendly. He meets people with ease and without hesitation, blending himself into conversation with them. His accent shifts from an English-born-Pakistani to a pure Punjabi lehja and right back without one even noticing it.

Born in Multan, Ali moved to Oman with his family when he was three where he completed his schooling. For higher education, he then moved to Scotland where he pursued a degree in Mechanical Engineering. And while he wasn’t studying, instead of getting a part time job, Ali became a DJ. “All my friends at university would pursue it because it was easy money,” says Ali. “I got hooked onto it because of the music. Before that I was interested in the guitar, I kept trying to look for a guitar instructor, but due to my schedules there, that never happened.” But he did take time out and become a DJ, which eventually led him to be on Scottish Radio.

Time passed and eventually, Ali returned home to his family hoping to continue his studies by pursuing a Masters degree. It was then Ali realized that he was at a crossroads. Having had his family send him to the best schools all of his life; it was pretty clear to Ali what he should do. “My parents had already invested into my studies,” he states, “I was put through the best school; best college and the best university for engineering, even for someone like me!” He laughs and explains, “I say that because, my parents knew I wasn’t interested in learning engineering, but they did all of that so that I could have a better future and be prepared.”

Ali made his choice, he got in touch with Napa, packed his bags and arrived in Karachi. “When I landed here, I went straight from the airport to Napa,” recalls Ali. After signing up with Napa, Ali then made his way towards the offices of FM96. “I basically went to them and asked them if they were having any auditions, and they asked me for my experience. When I told them my background, they suggested that I produce my own show.” Ali stepped up to the entire experience, being one of the few RJs at the time to be producing their own shows.

But the hesitation wasn’t that there’d be too much work involved, but how audiences would welcome a totally Punjabi-based show. “I wasn’t too sure what the welcome would be like, what the situation in Karachi would be like, would it have a Punjabi community?” His answers came with the replies that he received following his show. “The majority of the feedback I got was, ‘finally, here’s a show that gives us information, latest updates and latest tracks, different mixes, and all about Punjabi music’, and it’s been constant like that since the past two years,” Ali said.

While he was RJing, he was contacted by MTV. “I remember, I was sitting at home and I get a phone call from Ghazanfar Saab, and he called me over. I had done an audition for them a while back so when I reached there, I was told that I’d be going live on TV in an hour’s time!” Instead of having a panic attack, Ali brimmed with glee. “It was a powerful experience, I mean any job on TV is a responsible job, but I always wanted a show of my own, where I can portray our people in a proper manner – and I did all of it without any support at all.”

Though Ali was now enjoying success on the TV and Radio, they weren’t his calling here. He had come to Pakistan to seek out training and refinement at Napa. But due to unfortunate events and political situations, he decided to pull out. “All the people there, especially my tutor Salamat Ali Sahib, were helpful and if it hadn’t been for the political scenario I would’ve stayed there polished up on my singing.”

So when will we hear of Ali Safina the musician? “Not any time soon, I want to take my time, learn more about music and then see how the situation is. Because I don’t want to be judged as ‘oh look here comes another VJ-turned-musician’, I want to focus on a career of music that is purely retro and classical, something I’m looking forward too.”

For the time being Ali continues to host both his radio and TV shows – which is an amazing feat unto itself. Ali remarks, “There was a time when I clocked in over seventy hours of live shows in one month, both radio and TV.” And it’s clear that Ali’s energy translates well on live TV and radio because of his personality.

With such determination and dedication to his work, it’s pretty clear that this is just the beginning of Ali Safina’s journey. “I have a long way to go, may be five, may be 10 years. I need polishing, I need refinement and then perhaps more and more people will appreciate my skills.


And the winner (probably) is...

Let us now look at the Oscar nominees and the predicted winners

The road to Oscar glory is paved with many things. Like many before them, this year’s nominations have come a long way. Whether it is the story of the slum dog that became a millionaire or the curious case of a man aging backwards, or that whose last laugh was silenced too quickly, each of these categories determine some of the finest performances and stories we’ve seen this year.

The 81st Academy Awards will be held on February 22, 2009 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood with actor Hugh Jackman hosting the ceremony. It will be Jackman’s first time as a host and past outings have shown that a host can make or break the entire show.

But it isn’t a show about the host. For 80 years, the Academy Awards have bestowed its honor amongst many motion pictures, actors, writers, composers, directors and producers in Hollywood. This year is different however; there is strangely more competition with no clear winner in sight until the envelopes open on that fateful February evening.

Let us now look at the Oscar nominees and its predicted winners.

Best Motion Picture of the Year:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire
This one’s a tough category. With 13 nominations, Benjamin Button is clearly in the lead to win this category if not for the Best Director. Though Slumdog Millionaire is the one that is clearly winning all kinds of awards, The Reader’s subject matter (Nazi Germany and the Holocaust) has always been a favorite of the Academy and could give it an edge.
Predicted Winner: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:
Richard Jenkins for The Visitor
Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn for Milk
Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler
Again, competition is tough but with an avalanche of critical acclaim behind him, Mickey Rourke is set to pin the rest of the competition. Though actors like Frank Langella and Sean Penn shouldn’t be ruled out for their performances either. However, the underdogs, Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins could pull an up-set with either of the performances.
Predicted Winner(s): Mickey Rourke or Frank Langella

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie for Changeling
Melissa Leo for Frozen River
Meryl Streep for Doubt
Kate Winslet for The Reader
This is Winslet’s sixth nomination for an Academy Award, twice for supporting roles and four times for leading roles, though she hasn’t won any of them. Perhaps this time around the bridesmaid will finally be the bride. As for the rest of the contenders, Hathaway is ahead with her critically acclaimed role, but Melissa Leo’s underdog status shouldn’t be underestimated. Meryl Streep is the clear outsider here, but her strong performance gives doubt to the others in the race.
Predicted Winner: Kate Winslet

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Josh Brolin for Milk
Robert Downey Jr for Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman for Doubt
Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon for Revolutionary RoadHeath Ledger’s untimely demise means that he is clearly in the lead for posthumous award. Though performances such as Brolin’s, Downey Jr’s and Hoffman’s are particularly impressive, the Academy is surely to honor the short lived career of one of its finest actors.
Predicted Winner: Heath Ledger

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams for Doubt
Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis for Doubt
Taraji P. Henson for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler
In the past, this category has proved to be one of the most contested nominations amongst the actresses. Each actress has truly given her all in each of the performances and the Oscar is up for grabs right up until the name is read out.
Predicted Winner: Too close to call

Best Achievement in Directing
Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire
Stephen Daldry for The Reader
David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant for Milk
Fincher’s Benjamin Button is already the leader in Best Motion Picture, but he’s facing some tough competition here especially from Danny Boyle. But if Boyle wins, he’s already under pressure to accept the award along with his co-director/casting director Loveleen Tandan.
Predicted Winner: Danny Boyle

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Published:
Eric Roth, Robin Swicord for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley for Doubt
Peter Morgan for Frost/Nixon
David Hare for The Reader
Simon Beaufoy for Slumdog Millionaire
Writers played an important role this year, considering the WGA writer’s strike that crippled not only the TV industry but also the Academy. Though animated movies are unlikely candidates, WALL-E’s story did strike a cord with audiences. However, this category has proven time and time again that it is outsiders like Martin McDonagh, John Patrick Shanley, could be in the limelight.
Predicted Winners: Martine McDonagh and John Patrick Shanley

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Picture, Original Score:
Alexandre Desplat for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
James Newton Howard for Defiance
Danny Elfman for Milk
A.R. Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire
Thomas Newman for WALL-E
A. R. Rahman has gathered special attention from the academy, three nominations in the categories of best score and song. But the music and song speaks (sings?) for itself as no other movie has its score so closely related to the story.
Predicted Winner: A R Rehman

The Academy Awards are a night of celebration for everyone in Hollywood. Though everybody has their predictions you can’t really tell which way the result will go. There have been many surprises in the winners revealed but that’s part of the excitement.

There’s never a dull moment, whether it is the presenter with an off-hand remark, or the strong acceptance speech that is cut off, with plenty of controversy for everyone. But more than anything it is also a moment of the highest triumph for the actors, writers, composers, producers and directors, who put their complete heart and soul into their work.