Award-winning filmmaker and script writer Uzair Merchant has linked up with local artists in Qatar to produce the latest addition to his very own ‘universe’.
In the early 1940s, a young Stan Lee began his journey into history books by taking on menial jobs at his uncle Martin Goodman’s company, Timely Comics. From erasing pencil marks on comic books to writing and editing his own stories, Stan Lee quickly became a key component at the company, which had by 1961 morphed into the now-famed Marvel catering to the niche comic enthusiast audience.
Decades on, Marvel Cinematic Universe now rakes in billions of dollars and attracts the young, old, keen comic geek and everything in between. However, despite its resounding success, some critics say Marvel is outdated and has lost the art of connecting with people, especially beyond the borders of the west.
Cue Uzair Merchant, a multiple award-winning filmmaker with a vision to propel the region’s art scene by creating his very own universe.
“The age of escapism has been taken over by the age of diversity,” Merchant told Doha News while shooting a project in Qatar.
“Marvel was built in a time of escapism that is larger than life. You see a hero stand for something and saving everyone – it’s hopeful, it created an aura that the rest of the world looked up to, and still kind of does in some way. But the difference is we all don’t need to become that, we just need to be the best version of ourselves,” he said.
Touching on the notion of US-centrism and generational shift in narrative, the filmmaker added, “America does not always need to be saved, the USA is not the only place that is affected usually – my heroes don’t have ‘super powers’ but they are gifted.”
Merchant is no stranger to Hollywood. The 31-year-old Indian-born, Dubai-raised filmmaker already has some of the biggest movie franchises in the world under his belt. Skyfall, Star Trek: Beyond, Fast & Furious 7 and Deadpool 2 are just a few of the blockbusters he has worked on as an art director before moving on to production design in recent years, all while teaching budding creatives in workshops hosted by the New York Film Academy.
‘Grow the universe out’
More than a decade ago, Merchant wrote his first script-turned-book, the Elixir of Life, inspired by the original love story between Adam and Eve. “I knew at the time that I would grow the universe out, I just didn’t know what the stories would be, and life has now pieced it together,” he said.
Merchant says his world, dubbed the ‘Kreativ Universe’, is designed to tell an alternative story based on reality to allow for readers to tap in with relatable characters, themes and storylines. In contrast, Marvel in Asia isn’t deemed to be relatable, he says, noting it is “still considered an outsider story.”
Now, the young creative is working on releasing his third book, the 8th Sin, a piece written in script form that has already won an award at the Los Angeles Film Awards. Sitting in a cafe in Qatar’s bustling and futuristic Lusail city, Merchant is buzzing with charisma, and his enthusiasm to tap into the creative scene in the Middle East and wider region is unquestionable.
“I think the region can sometimes look to the west as the place for ‘originality’ or to lead the way,” he said, explaining that originality actually relies more on culture and authenticity from within peoples and societies.
A futuristic vision
Merchant made a pit stop to Qatar from nearby Dubai to work on an innovative music video with local artists to bring to life his latest addition to the Kreativ Universe, noting “it only made sense” to link talents from various sides of the world.
The music video, shot in both Doha and Los Angeles, brings together Qatari rapper Saad Al-Suwaidi, Qatar-based producer and manager, Waleed Maisery and Egyptian artist Abood, as well as famed Bollywood singer Shannon K.
“Another unique aspect of the music video is we’re experimenting with AI to reverse engineer certain VFX components and using it as a pilot project for what cinema could look like in the years to come,” Merchant told Doha News.
His knack for futuristic, or rather, current, technology is clear to see. Merchant made headlines last year after releasing the world’s first ever NFT music video at the height of the blockchain hype. The award-winning video, ‘Stardust’ was made available to mint, allowing producers of the TV show Black Rose who bought the track, as well as the owners of the song an equal share.
Notably, the script for the TV show Black Rose, which is being directed by James Bamford, was written by Merchant and is his prequel to the 8th Sin.
“The 8th Sin is a fictional book with graphics that talks about immortality and the seven deadly sins, the eight being – immortality. Also set in the Kreativ universe, this book is about a mother and daughter, and addresses what is currently the trend into futurism – which is immortality and automation,” he said, promising touches of science with fiction topped with rich cultural ideations.
“I want it to come out from the region, so just like I was there 25 years ago looking up to Batman, I’m hoping another kid can be inspired to be who they are and to hold value for who they represent and still be able to dream without boundaries,” he added.
Still, Merchant is keen on joining forces with the veterans.
“I’m hoping that Marvel see what we are doing, and hopefully even join forces. This isn’t a competition to me in any way, it’s about inclusion, it’s about the fact that this story could happen on this side of the world as well as the other because that’s the world we live in. We’re connected and Web3 allows us to build on that connection,” he added.
“I think there was a point where we all looked up to Hollywood as the holy grail of cinema without ever looking at why or how their stories can be relatable to another part of society. This is changing now.”
According to the young filmmaker, the Gulf region as well as the ‘other side of the world’ contain ample ‘hungry talent’ though lack in creative outlets that allow budding artists to to be pure and true to their creations.
“I think places like Doha, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Jeddah are cities where a certain common ground to push the art scenes is now beginning to shine and I think that will show in a few years because it cultivates a sort of culture that the next five generations will be born into,” Merchant said.
“The normality of it and exposure of it is going to allow for the future creators of massive franchises to come from the Middle East.”
Between the stardust settling and the green screens, one this is clear for Merchant, and it is that: “not all heroes have to wear capes.”