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For many of us, Fawad Khan epitomises the modern-day Prince Charming. He’s utterly handsome and his acting trysts till now have affirmed him as Pakistan’s hottest romantic hero.

From the besotted young beau to the tragically jealous lover, Fawad’s romantic avatars have been the thing of paperback love stories. Suit him into a tuxedo and he’s the suave paramour; watch him live on a talk-show and he’s inexplicably polite, well-mannered, absolute crush fodder for masses of women all over the country. Now, as he jettisons into Bollywood with a Disney fairytale romance, Fawad’s just about to floor India.

Aptly, he plays a Rajisthani prince in his Bollywood debut. Khoobsurat, Disney’s first cinematic venture in India, is a production fairly entrenched in the Anil Kapoor family. Father Anil and daughter Rhea Kapoor are part of the production team while daughter Sonam Kapoor plays the female lead.

Fawad was selected as the male lead based on the acting accolades he had earned so far in Pakistan. If the initial sneak peeks are anything to go by, the role couldn’t suit him better. With a plot that loosely revolves around the original Rekha-starrer from 1980 with the same name, the new version promises to be a bumptious, light-hearted romantic comedy. A garrulous Sonam is paired opposite a besuited, urbane Fawad, speaking in formal Hindi, and looking every bit like royalty.

“I couldn’t improvise with the dialogue the way I do with my Urdu scripts but otherwise, the role wasn’t very complicated,” Fawad says. “Still, I wouldn’t go so far to say that it was tailor-made for me. Who knows, tomorrow I may be able to enact a serial-killer just as easily?”

He is currently the face of various big-budget ad campaigns, traipsing alongside a sultry Ileana d’Cruz or cocking an infamous eyebrow at a stunning Iman Ali. Now, his upcoming big-banner Bollywood release could have him preening and yet Fawad Khan remains the unassuming star, sensibly grounded in reality

Bollywood dreams

For now, though, other acting roles aren’t really on Fawad’s mind as he ricochets across India on a madcap promotional schedule for Khoobsurat.

I talk to him when there is still a month to go before the movie releases and his days — and nights — are filled choc-a-bloc with press interviews and talk show appearances. He and Sonam have already been part of the slapstick Comedy Nights with Kapil and Farah Khan’s Entertainment Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega, and he’s due to make promotional trips to mainstream Indian cities in the next few days. Late into the night — the only time he manages to get free time — Fawad sits down for an exclusive one-on-one with Images on Sunday.

“I’ve learnt a lot from working in Bollywood. Pakistani films are certainly on the rise but in India, movies are already a huge, money-churning business,” he observes.

“They’re extremely organised and professional. For instance, wherever our team went to shoot, we were accompanied by an auditing team. They’d work in a separate room and make sure that we’d never go over the budget. There is so much to learn that I find the entire debate that Pakistani actors shouldn’t work elsewhere senseless. By working in other countries, we’re able to move out of our comfort zones, learn more and bring that back to our own industry,” he surmises, succinctly addressing the inane, repetitive criticisms against local actors seeking work beyond the border.

Another eye-opener for him was the extensive pre-release promotion that is a requirement for actors starring in big-budget commercial Bollywood movies. “Talk shows and interviews prior to a major release are part of working in Indian cinema,” he observes.

It was the job, then, that lead him to be part of Comedy Nights with Kapil — a hugely popular show relying on outrageously bawdy humour.

Unlike the show’s usual slate of guests, Fawad couldn’t break into dance or make suggestive quips, and he blushed and smiled his way through the flirtations of an on-stage salacious Daadi who addressed him as chikna, kissed him umpteen times on the cheek and dabbled into bathroom humour.

At one point, he jokingly told Daadi that he was already married — endearing, really, but not quite along the lines of Bollywood’s brazen young stars.

 “Since I am new here, it’s not necessarily a brand of humour that I understand. As it is, I am generally a very reserved person and shy away from TV interviews. I’d similarly be terrified if I was part of a talk show with Umar Sharif. His satirical repartee would probably leave me speechless.”

It makes me wonder how Fawad would fare with a lewd David Dhawan-style script. India’s particular brand of filmi masala often goes a tad overboard. Some very fabulous scripts are interspersed with bouts of ribald comedy, complicated dance routines, extreme action sequences and intimate love scenes. His predecessor in the field, Ali Zafar, is yet to make a major mark in India and while Khoobsurat looks promising, how does Fawad plan to pave his way to Bollywood stardom?

“I am taking things one step at a time,” he smiles. “Dance numbers and intimate scenes have also often been part of Pakistani movies. If I am ever required to perform such scenes — in India or Pakistan — I hope to work my way around it.”

“And I’d love to perform an out and out comic role. It would be a different experience to put my own spin to a slapstick script. Even in Pakistan, I’ve enacted different characters although people know me better for my romantic drama roles.

As for dancing, I am considering hiring a dance tutor to help me get over my two left feet. Right now, I don’t think I’d be able to pull off an all-out item number with class. It’s not something that makes me feel insecure about my future — I believe that every actor has his or her own weak points and strong points.”

The Khoobsurat chronicles

While Fawad remains reticent regarding his role in Khoobsurat, the movie’s being touted as a family entertainer. With his Bollywood debut, then, Fawad appears to be in fairly safe territory, putting his ‘strong points’ — great acting, a killer smile and an arrogant cocked eyebrow — to good use.

With his last hit drama Zindagi Gulzar Hai having just aired in India, he’s already won a considerable number of admirers.

“Zindagi Gulzar Hai couldn’t have been shown in India at a better time,” he agrees. “I appreciate the efforts of Hum TV who are trying very hard to make their productions popular all over the world. It’s very fortunate for me.” With his first Bollywood movie yet to release, he’s already being asked for autographs and the recent Khoobsurat press conference was attended by quite a few female fans.

Despite this, does he feel insecure that he may get pushed into the shadows in the movie’s final version? He is on a new turf, after all, acting opposite Sonam Kapoor in a movie produced by her father and sister.

“An actor is always insecure that his screen-time may get cut off but I don’t believe in dwelling on negativity,” Fawad admits.

“I try to invest faith in the people that I work with so that the final result turns out well. Even in Pakistan, I have been working for 14 years and have only really gotten recognition over the past few years. This wasn’t because I was treated unfairly in my initial projects — it’s just how my career panned out.”

Working alongside established senior actors like Anil Kapoor, Kirron Kher and Ratna Pathak, Fawad says his reception in India has been very warm.

“Anil Kapoor has an extremely infectious laugh and I easily struck a friendship with the Kapoors,” he smiles. “The entire Khoobsurat team was extremely kind and friendly. From my co-actors to the director, publicists, wardrobe designers, coordinators and assistants, everybody worked with a very positive vibe.

“Last year, on my birthday, I was unable to go home because I was busy with shootings. At midnight, the entire cast and crew gathered in the central courtyard and had me cut my birthday cake. Suddenly, somebody pressed ‘play’ on a laptop and I could hear my wife and son wishing me. They had recorded the message for me and secretly mailed it to my co-workers who made sure it would be played out to me at the right time. Then, in my room, they had placed a huge hamper filled with sugar-free treats since I am diabetic. These are memories that I’ll always cherish.”

“Sonam’s a great co-star and host,” he continues. “I’ve also, in the course of promotions, met Farah Khan, Anu Malik and Anupam Kher and they’ve all been very welcoming.” I can’t help asking him if he’s met any of Bollywood’s ruling Khans? “Not yet, although my friends keep asking me to come back home with Salman Khan’s autograph,” he laughs.

The unassuming hero

That, in a nutshell, is Fawad Khan. He’ll joke about getting another actor’s autograph even as the hype around Khoobsurat multiplies and social media gets inundated with messages from love-struck fans.

He’s a coveted guest at local talk shows and awards ceremonies particularly because having Fawad Khan sitting in the front row can work well for channel ratings.

He’s already won an entire array of local awards and is currently the face of various big-budget ad campaigns, traipsing alongside a sultry Ileana d’Cruz or cocking an infamous eyebrow at a stunning Iman Ali.

Now, his upcoming big-banner Bollywood release could have him preening and yet, Fawad rem ains the unassuming star, sensibly grounded in reality.

“People do sometimes recognise me in India but I can’t say I get crowded the way I do back home,” he observes.

“Even in my home-city, Lahore, I don’t get mobbed any more the way I used to although fans do still approach me for autographs. It doesn’t bother me. I am genuinely happy that other actors are entering the industry and gaining popularity. There are enough opportunities in the business for everybody.”

His sincerity balanced with a well-earned confidence in his talent is very appealing and it makes me wonder why he’s accused of being arrogant.

Recently, veteran actress Badar Khalil openly criticised Fawad for being disrespectful to her and having airs and graces such as demanding his personal stylist at shoots.

“People tend to fabricate stories and I can only assume that perhaps Badar Khalil heard something wrong about me and believed it to be true. I wish she had discussed her problems with me rather than declare them to the public. I am extremely respectful of our senior actors and I think she took offence due to some misunderstanding,” he says, visibly disturbed.

And does he insist on having a make-up stylist all to himself?

“No, even my current haircut was done on set. My hair was getting untidy so some guy I didn’t know was called in and he just cut my hair,” Fawad laughs. “I am not finicky at all regarding my appearance. If tomorrow I decide to take on a personal stylist it will only be because I need to maintain a certain appearance for a role.”

“I could go hoarse clarifying myself but there will always be people who spread rumors and want to believe the worst about you. I once heard that I had allegedly fallen out with Momina Duraid and walked out of her upcoming serial Bin Roye Aansu. In actuality, Momina and I remain cordial and I couldn’t sign up for the project because I wasn’t feeling well,” he says.

Last year, in fact, was tough for Fawad as he went through a bout of weakness due to his diabetes.

“With time, I am learning how to balance my workload with my condition but I certainly can’t take on as much work as other actors probably can.” Fawad calls his diabetic condition, where his body is unable to produce any insulin, a ‘disability’.

“I am currently contemplating a new externally administered insulin-pumping therapy with my endocrinologist. I like to discuss my condition publicly because if I, with this disability, am able to fulfill some of my ambitions, so can other diabetics.”

Fawad’s ambition for now: a super-hit in the form of Khoobsurat, a movie that he’s worked hard for, that induced him to enlist Hindi tutors, that has him away from home for months as he learns how to play the Bollywood ballgame.

Soon after, he’s all set to begin work on no less than three Pakistani movies that he can’t talk much about since they are still in their initial stages.

“I am just praying that everything turns out well,” he says. And so is the rest of Pakistan. For even beyond the border, Fawad Khan remains true to his roots; straightforward, hardworking, talented, a bona fide star.

Our fingers are crossed for Khoobsurat — and whatever comes next. Fawad deserves it!

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 10th, 2014