Ali Zafar: Balancing act

Updated June 01, 2014


He’s a star, no doubt, but Ali Zafar isn’t one for starry airs and graces. Meet him and he’s polite to the core, undeniably good-looking with a charming, effortless smile; good-naturedly posing for umpteen photographs with fans as he works through a crowd of milling aficionados, all wanting to shake his hand or have a word.

He can play up the glamour at the LSAs, dancing and singing to his hit songs and he can smolder on a magazine cover where he decides to bare all, literally. He’s the classical gayak who mesmerised us in previous seasons of Coke Studio and the desperate, lovelorn comic hero in Bollywood. Ali Zafar, at present, has the confidence, the ease and certainly the six pack abs of a superstar.

In India, he’s been managing to climb the hitherto insurmountable-for-Pakistanis heights to stardom and holding his own in cutthroat Bollywood. His fledgling Indian acting career boasts names like David Dhawan and Yash Raj Films and though all his movies haven’t been hits, he’s certainly become a known name amongst audiences beyond the border.

And of course, we love him in Pakistan — we know all his songs and like them or not, we always do watch all his movies. Also, his face is currently dotted on billboards everywhere since Ali’s now the rage with the country’s corporate sector. “He’s the only celebrity to have widespread appeal among all age-groups, all over the country,” says Asima Haq, Marketing Director at Unilever Pakistan while explaining Ali’s latest association with Lipton tea.

Ali Zafar gracefully waltzes the Indo-Pak divide

Ali delivers, also. He’ll practice for days just in order to get a complicated dance routine right. And when asked to sing and dance for an advertisement, he offers to compose the music and lyrics as well. “I don’t want to trust anybody else with it,” he laughs.

Does he feel that he’s endorsing far too many brands, all in one go? “I agree to a project if it appeals to me. If different brands want me to be in their campaigns, it’s their choice. I just make sure I give it my best shot.”

This perfectionism, perfectly blended by doses of humility, defines Ali Zafar. He’s just about friends with everybody and diplomacy comes to him naturally. A case in point is when actor Shaan openly criticised local artistes who ‘sold out’ to India at the recent ARY Film Awards. With Ali, the only Pakistani to have significantly succeeded in Bollywood, sitting right there in the audience, the diatribe seemed to be pinpointed particularly towards him. His reply was confident and clear-cut without being offensive.

“Patriotism, to me, does not mean confining myself to my country. It means proving my mettle to the world and showing them what we can do,” he reasserts, when he meets up with Images on Sunday. Had he prepared his speech beforehand, in anticipation of such a verbal assault? “No, I never prepare my speeches. This is how I feel and I had no inhibitions in stating it clearly.”

Always Pakistani

Justifiably, Ali Zafar can hardly be accused of having switched loyalties to India. He may have been focusing on building his Bollywood acting career but who wouldn’t, considering the opportunities, professionalism and profits to be gained from working in the Indian film industry? Still, Ali’s consistently shuttling back to the motherland, for the occasional awards-ceremony or ad campaign or just because he wants to spend time with his four-year-old son!

“I deliberately haven’t shifted base to India,” he explains. “I may be there for long durations but I am always living in a hotel. My family lives in Pakistan and I rush back to see them even if there is a two-day break in my work schedule.”

His schedule veers back home by the end of this year, when he’s all set to begin working on his first Pakistani film. “It’s going to be directed by Ahsan Rahim,” explains Ali. “We’re hoping to take on new actors and musicians.” Ali will, of course, be acting in the movie but as a first, he will also be producing and writing the script.

For anyone else, it may seem like far too much to handle but Ali Zafar’s quite a pro at multi-tasking. He’s sung playback for almost every movie he’s starred in — who can forget Mere Brother Ki Dulhan’s ebullient Madhubala or the kooky Ullu da Patha from his debut Tere bin Laden? He also composed the lilting soundtrack for his London, Paris, New York that may not have stormed the box office but certainly made waves with its melodious music. If Ali Zafar now intends to become actor-scriptwriter-producer extraordinaire then there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll be able to nail it.

“The planning is still in its initial stages but we have finalised the general concept of the movie,” he reveals. “I believe that Pakistan has tremendous talent and I want to provide a platform for it with this movie.”

‘Kill’ing ‘Dil’s in Bollywood

And while Ali’s faith in Pakistani talent is heartening, one wonders if his tryst into Pakistani cinema is a strategic career move? There’s no denying that Bollywood is fiercely competitive with its constant surge of new entrants including groomed-and-glossed star-sons. Is Ali’s Bollywood career flailing, leading him back to the domestic turf?

“I am still being offered movies in Bollywood but this doesn’t mean that I can’t also work in Pakistan,” he replies. “A role has to interest me, regardless of where the movie is going to be shot. I am going to organise my schedule so that I can set aside time for shooting in Pakistan after which I could revert to India if a movie offer there interests me.”

In the meantime, Ali’s hoping for a blockbuster with his upcoming Kill Dil. Slated for a November release, the Yash Raj Films’ production features him shedding his soft, sweet romantic avatar to become the latest assassin on the block. His hair’s longer, he has a French beard and those well-toned six pack abs are certainly going to help in shoving away adversaries in the movie. Also starring in the movie are Ranveer Singh — the other assassin — Parineeti Chopra and Govinda as the villain.

“I had always wanted to act and dance with Govinda and I got the chance in Kill Dil,” says Ali. “Once we would be done with shooting on location, we’d all sit around a bonfire at night, sing songs and dance. It was great fun. I also performed the longest, most complicated dance routine of my life in the movie. It was a five-and-a-half minute long dance number choreographed by Ganesh Acharya and I practiced for days before I got it right. There were 300 dancers accompanying Ranveer, Parineeti and me in the song.”

Beyond the apparent bonhomie, was there any competitive tension between him and Ranveer Singh? “No, there wasn’t. A film takes months to create and if co-stars don’t get along, it makes the entire process very painful for everybody involved. I am very competitive in the sense that I give my best to my role but I also want to enjoy myself in the meantime. I am not an insecure person and luckily, the co-stars I have encountered so far — Imran Khan in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan and now, Ranveer Singh — have been very level-headed.

“My favourite memories from the making of Kill Dil will always be the hours Ranveer and I spent on our motorbikes. As assassins, we had plenty of scenes where we rode motorbikes and we’d practice riding them in our free time. By the time shooting ended, I would have happily driven my bike from Mumbai to Lahore!”

Does he feel threatened by the next Pakistani hero vying for Bollywood stardom, Fawad Khan? “I wish him all the best,” says Ali. And you can tell that he truly means it.

For it doesn’t matter to him what anybody else does while he focuses on paving his way to new heights. Ali may stumble with a flop or two and the competition may be growing, but his hard work and genuine talent continues to keep him at bay. He’s gracefully walked the precarious balance between India and Pakistan thus far — may he waltz and groove further!

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 1st, 2014