The many faces of Alyy Khan

Updated May 03, 2015


Meet Alyy Khan. Tall, dark and handsome; in any other film industry (besides Pakistan and India), he would have been the perfect leading man material but the man prefers to stay close to home. This British-Pakistani actor has worked everywhere from Hollywood to England and from Bollywood to Pakistan due to his ability to adapt and adhere to varying work environments.

Born in Karachi, Alyy Khan left Pakistan for the UK at the age of nine. He also attended school in India and his mother still resides in Mumbai. After getting a diploma in Film and Television Production from London’s Pimlico Arts and Media College, and polishing his skills on TV and theatre, the young actor ventured into films.

Alyy is apparently the last active member of his family who once were a part of Pakistan’s showbiz fraternity. “Junaid Jamshed is my cousin and that makes me related to Humayun Jamshed and Sherry Jahangir (of Jinnah Se Quaid-i-Azam fame) as well. They have all said goodbye to showbiz so that makes me the last one carrying the flag,” he says with a laugh.

He is one of the few actors who chooses to work in local plays even after gaining international exposure — be it with Shah Rukh Khan in Don 2, Raveena Tandon in Stumped, Guy Pearce and Don Cheadle in Traitor or Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart, he has already lived the dream.

And when he talks about his latest international venture, Indian Summers, Alyy enters a different era altogether. “I play Ramu Sood, a typical brown sahib but it is the setting that is important — the TV series takes you back into the days of pre-Partition India, something that hasn’t happened since David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984).

Alyy Khan’s work on television, film and theatre has taken him beyond boundaries

“Working alongside the best technicians of Britain — the ones who also work on Sherlock and Game of Thrones — was a welcome change whereas the budget allocated is over £14 million for the first 10 episodes. Actors like Julie Walters are leading the cast while Bollywood artists Roshan Seth, Lillete Dubey and many from the UK as well are also part of the show that airs on Channel 4 on Sundays at prime time. It has got the best ratings in the last 20 years and the ratings for the opening night were 3.5 million-plus viewers. What else can an actor want?!”

So is it all about the budget? Alyy doesn’t think so.

“They know their work; if you are passionate enough, then even in a tiny budget you can have the same level of preproduction anywhere in the world. If you aren’t ready on paper, you can’t produce good work. Outside Pakistan, shooting from 9am to 10pm is considered to be a good day but in Pakistan it all happens as per the stars’ availability, which is so wrong. Here, the camera doesn’t get turned on before 1:30pm, and it doesn’t get turned off before 10pm or 11pm."

"People take numerous uncalled-for breaks and then there are their tantrums — something that doesn’t usually happen in Hollywood. We should learn to manage our time properly instead of being dishonest with our work. We can do so much better, and proper planning can make it happen.”

With Pakistani dramas also going the way of saas-bahu clashes and other stuff that is far from reality, is an actor like him happy with the kind of work he does on TV?

“I can’t understand the audience of the subcontinent, the target market is ajeeb. They like plays that are far from reality so that’s why I do my job as a mercenary. I have been extremely cynical of writing in the subcontinent and anyone who has seen the world would be too. While returning from London, people caught hold of me at the airport and started praising Aap ki Kaneez. One of them even said that he told his wife not to have dinner until he returns from work; like my character in the serial!”

“People take numerous uncalled-for breaks and then there are their tantrums. We should learn to manage our time properly instead of being dishonest with our work. We can do so much better.”

For an actor who has worked in Hollywood and Bollywood, Pakistan has so far been uncharted territory. “I am working in Anjum Shehzad’s Mah-i-Meer and I play a nawab in this period drama. I have tried to give it a real touch."

"The cast (Fahad Mustafa, Iman Ali, Manzar Sehbai, Sanam Saeed) is strong, the topic is different and because the writer Sarmad Sehbai had the courage to take the other path rather than follow the norm, I think it has scope. In recent years, the only film that I have loved in Pakistan is Dukhtar; as a paying audience I would love to watch such movies because they show the true face of the country.”

In a scene from the film Traitor
In a scene from the film Traitor

Alyy Khan has also been active on the theatre circuit, from performing in front of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to working with veterans. “Hema Devi picked me from school and we used to train every weekend at the Trinity School of Song and Drama. After my return from the UK, I did Hamlet and was dressed by Bhanu Athaiya who had earlier won an Oscar for Gandhi."

"The experience of working in The Legend of Ram (based on Ramayan) was amazing as the director Aamir Raza Hussain broke the taboo and constructed a 2.5 km set; the platform on which the audience sat was managed by the Indian Railways by remote control whereas the actors had to travel on foot from one set to another; we wore thermals under our costumes to keep ourselves warm in the winters, since Delhi and Lahore have a similar weather. Shehkar Suman played Ram to my Laxman while Saleem Ghouse was Raavan, and the audience was amused because it was a one-of-its-kind entertainment.”

Alyy Khan says he hasn’t done much stage in Pakistan — just directed one stage play Aapki Sonia.

“Javed Siddiqi’s Aapki Sonia was a world-class project when I brought it to Pakistan. But since I wanted to do it my way, I didn’t succeed. You have to understand how things work here — first go with the flow and after getting the know-how, break the norm. There is a lot to do here in theatre as people are always looking for quality entertainment.”

Alyy Khan has also been hosting shows in India and abroad for more than a decade … but not in Pakistan, except the dubbed Master Chef-wannabe Foodistan.

“I have done over 150 live shows and those include ones with Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Miss World pageant and one at the Royal Albert Hall with the Queen of Jordan. No one offers me hosting in Pakistan while I was in Mumbai a few weeks back to host an event. The only time I did go on stage here was for an event done by Frieha Altaf. I want to do a quiz/game show that is entertaining and educational.”

So what is he working on these days? “I’m looking forward to the release of Pakistan’s first-ever animated flick 3 Bahadur where, besides giving the voice over for the antagonist, I’m also the voice behind the father of one the superheroes; Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy must be commended for coming up with the project and also the students who have made it possible. I’m also due to appear in Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime for television. The mystery features her detectives Tommy and Tupence.

“Some of my plays with Angeline Malik, Syed Ali Raza Usama, Barkat Siddiqi and Ahson Talish are either on air or ready, so you will be seeing a lot of me on TV.” Alyy says, adding, “Bollywood projects are under discussion and I plan to show the adventurous side of Pakistan through documentary films. I’m looking forward to paint a better picture of Pakistan; as a country that is fun-loving, exuberant etc."

"Pakistan has so much to offer the world and for that very reason I have shot a documentary about the Cholistan Desert Rally and plan to do the same with the Shandur Festival in summer. If I can give back something to Pakistan, I’ll be content and happy.”

The big bang theory

“Working with Shah Rukh Khan in Don 2 was a wonderful experience. He is a relaxed actor who takes his work seriously. During the car chase scene shot in Germany, SRK and I were sitting in the front whereas the director Farhan Akhtar was in the back. For the nine-day scene, we had especially manufactured left-hand drive Hyundai cars (SRK is the brand ambassador). There was a two square kilometres lockdown and we had the whole road to ourselves.

“The rehearsals went well but before the first take I asked Shah Rukh if he had ever bumped his car before and he said ‘Allah ka shukar hai yaar, never’. The next instant, we bumped into the first car that we were supposed to avoid and there it was — a loss of €200,000 worth of equipment! Neither of us had seat belts on as it was the start of the chase, but thankfully, no one was hurt. Since SRK was also one of the producers, it was treated as just another day in the business. The incident was however caught on tape and was included in the behind-the-scenes shots.”

Hollywood high

“Michael Winterbottom is a different kind of filmmaker; he doesn’t conform to the norms and doesn’t believe in conventions. For A Mighty Heart, he called me up and while I was expecting a lengthy shoot since my role of Omar Sheikh was important to the script, it turned out to be short due to his gonzo style of filmmaking.

“His technique doesn’t follow continuity; he doesn’t believe in costumes; scripts and doesn’t even let the actors worry about camera angles and all. All he does is prepare the actors by giving them a dossier about the character and expects them to be the character on the set; not the actor playing the character."

The first couple of days were frightening … then we got used to it. Although after the shoot on location in Rawalpindi, I wondered at one point whether I was working in a film or someone was playing a joke on me!”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 3rd, 2015

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