UAE-based filmmaker Shihan Shoukath gets candid about his award-winning thriller 'Deadline'

The film, which also stars his brother Ishan in the lead role, won multiple awards at film festivals including Cannes World Film Festival


Husain Rizvi

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Published: Tue 20 Sep 2022, 6:22 PM

Last updated: Wed 21 Sep 2022, 12:15 PM

Shihan Shoukath has always been into technology and software, and even a bigger film bug which led him to win multiple awards at various film festivals across the world including the Cannes World Film Festival.

At the Cannes World Film Festival, Deadline, directed by Shihan, won three awards; Best Actor in a Short Film for Ishan Shoukath, the lead actor, who is also Shihan’s brother; Best Original Story, and Best Director.

“A disturbed 811 call centre operator navigates through connecting grieving callers amid another troubling day of disclosures - and realisations,” reads the official synopsis of the film.

With Deadline, Shihan marks his directorial debut. Shot in one night, the film is based on years of intensive research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

And now, the film is coming to UAE cinemas on October 27-29 at VOX Cinemas Nakheel Mall. For Shihan, who grew up in the country, it is a “surreal” feeling. “Growing up watching films here at the theatres, and to have your own work on the same big screen is a feeling I can’t describe,” he tells City Times. “I’d say more than anything I’m excited to see the live reactions of audiences and their perspectives and interpretations of the film.”

Shihan, who studied at DPS Dubai, moved to the US in 2012 for his further studies. And after bagging a job in his field of study, Shihan was back in the UAE and decided to start his independent production agency in Dubai. He partners on nearby independent film production, and often gets ideas for characters in his movies from his various experiences in Philadelphia.

He has previously worked on micro-short student films such as Anybody There? and TENSHI in 2018, which was chosen by various film festivals and was nominated as a finalist at the Gagarin.Doc International Student Film Festival. Shihan wants to direct a thriller, and dreams to cast Edward Norton in it one day.

We speak to Shihan to find out more about his directorial work. Excerpts from the interview.

You studied computer engineering, how did you get into filmmaking?

I’ve always been into technology and software from my school days in Dubai, but I’ve also loved films since before I can remember. I got into film editing first and truly found joy in that whole process. Being behind the scenes and stirring that pot of imaginative elements —even in the smallest of ways—is an amazing feeling. After graduating and working in software for 3 years, I left the field and quickly set up a production rental company in Dubai called Lensman Express. Meanwhile, I also made short films and corporate films of all sorts. I strongly believe that if you want to learn how to make films, just go out there and make some films.

The film is based on a year of research on PTSD, what is your stance on the same now?

I’d say a lot of my research on trauma involved watching films surrounding characters handling loss in numerous coping mechanisms. The way a person may deal with trauma can be quite complex and varied, so as a storyteller it is important to make the decision whether to draw out and connect the emotions of the character with the audience, or to elevate the story into a world of fantasy, where the audience sympathizes with the character.

The film was shot in one night, how did you manage the entire process?

On a film set, you have to find the perfect balance between the quality of a production, the budget and the intended deadline. The name ‘Guerillaman Productions’ comes from the word ‘guerilla filmmaking’, which roughly translates to zero-budget productions - and I find myself to thrive in these kinds of productions. In this project, I scheduled the production to be shot in one night so that quality and consistency didn't falter. I also found that working with small sets and crews helps align everyone to your vision for the film more than it would otherwise. Although it was my brother Ishan’s first role, the fact that he was able to channel all his emotions to perfection helped in completing the shoot in one night. Don’t get me wrong – the pre-production and writing took us months to navigate through. Thankfully, my experience as a director on corporate projects and working with budgets and deadlines helped me mitigate these situations.

What was the toughest thing you encountered during filming?

Through the process of writing the script, I did think we had something incredible in the works. To translate that to the screen, and to shoot scenes where we had to portray the mundane nature of the character’s job, but also keep the audience engaged, was a challenge. Moreover, my main aim was to capture the character arc within the short 10 minutes, and my biggest apprehension was to see if Ishan would be able to bring out those emotions for certain scenes. But once we got to that point and saw how effortlessly Ishan pulled off those scenes, my job got a lot easier. I can’t credit Ishan enough for how flawlessly he portrayed the character.

Deadline has won multiple awards at Cannes, how do you feel about it?

The way I work usually is when I complete a film, I don’t think about it much. But the response to Deadline and the accolades that followed was truly incredible. I often find it hard to accept the fact that film festivals such as Cannes, Milan and New York, or anyone for that matter, honors my work. But to see the people involved in the film win accolades brings me more joy than I can put to words. I can’t thank everyone involved enough, and these honors motivate me more than ever.

What's next for you as a director? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I’m currently researching and working on another narrative short script, which I’m quite excited about. Over time, I’d like to work bigger casts and crews and work my way up to full-length films. Ultimately, I want to be a producer, but until then, I want to keep moving forward and using my creativity to create and support great films.

What is success to you?

I evaluate success based on happiness - not only on my happiness but also of my team’s happiness. In order for me to be considered successful, the team needs to achieve both our individual and our team goals.

Who are your inspirations in the filmmaking world?

David Fincher is a filmmaker who has had a huge influence on the way I like to work on films. He has a reputation of being a director obsessed with attaining perfection no matter how many takes it needs or whose feelings he hurts. His film Fight Club is by far my all-time favorite, and the way the audience sympathizes with Edward Norton’s character all the way till the twist at the end is exactly the kind of storytelling that inspires me. I’m also an admirer of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, and I’ve used his scripts as reference points on several treatments. In Moneyball, for example, it is fascinating to see how he can translate a simple conversation into incredible scenes in the most unique fashion.

What's that one genre you really like and want to get into?

I’ve always been drawn to thrillers and dramas that portray or follow a single character arc, but end in a twist. Something about the idea of a character that connects with the audience, gains their sympathy, only to have it broken in a matter of moments, really resonates with me. Perhaps this is why Catch Me If You Can was one of my favorite movies growing up. Of course, morality gets in the way there at some point, but I am deeply drawn to finding some obscure flaw in the system, inventing a fake identity, and then lying to people's faces in an attempt to make money.

What's the best part about filmmaking for you?

Collaborating with my fellow creatives. From the co-writers to the colorist, it's rewarding to see one's vision built upon. I always find that when you have a great creative team, they are able to take your direction and run with it. I am always positively surprised and get excited as I am presented with various versions of visual references. Let's not forget that this creative team includes the actors. The relationship between an actor and director is key. Most actors treat the director as their guide — a sort of "omni" friend who only wants the best of them. I loved guiding Ishan moderately yet intensely through his character development. And as much as I would love to take credit for his performance, it was truly all his talent and hard work that got him the Best Debut Actor award at Cannes. This process is rewarding, especially when an actor like Ishan trusts in the vision.

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