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First person: To newer ‘heights’

Updated May 31, 2015


Stephen Andrew / WhiteStar
Stephen Andrew / WhiteStar

Now if this was Bollywood, Ali Kazmi would have a different story. Being the son of veteran actors Sahira and Rahat Kazmi, he would have had a big banner project lined up for his launch, followed by publicity campaigns, premieres and promotional tours and TV commercials et al. He may have soared like Hrithik Roshan or flopped like Abhishek, but his launch vehicle would have been prepped in either case. But this isn’t Bollywood and his story is different.

On a recent visit to Karachi to finish shooting a TV serial directed by Azfar Ali and for some pre-production film work. Ali spoke to Images on Sunday (IoS) about his work, his family and how seven years of perseverance, hard work and a theatre play took him to where he stands tall today.

“Zany, energetic and optimistic” is how second-generation star Ali Kazmi best describes himself

Playing the villain in Mehreen Jabbar’s 'Jackson Heights' has been no less than a re-launch for him in Pakistan. “Jackson became pretty big and brought amazing feedback,” he agreed. “Mehreen is a family friend and we never had the chance to work together because when I started working here, she had already left. For about a year we were chatting about doing some work together. Vasay, the writer and I had worked together in Urban Desi so Vasay came up with this idea of me playing Sikandar.”

Ali studied the role in depth, researched the psychology of similar characters and tried to play it as real as possible to make Sikandar credible. “The role had a lot of shades. It was a difficult one even though I had one of the best casts to work with. The trick was not to make him a caricature. People didn’t outright hate that character because I would meet ‘aunties’ who were hopeful about the bad guy reforming and told me all the time, ‘betay ap please badal jayen’. It is sad how in our society, men are given a lot of margin when they are bad, there is so much tolerance for them.”

What was it like to do the violent scenes with Aaminah Sheikh? “Aaminah and I are school friends and we had a grand time. We would choreograph those scenes. It was particularly difficult because I have a natural (psychological) barrier to hitting a woman, since I come from a family of strong working woman like my grandmother, mother, wife, mother-in-law and then on top of that to have to slap an actor who was my friend!”

While Ali was being the horrible Sikandar who batters and betrays his wife, his personal life was going through its most beautiful period: his wife was expecting their first child. But that’s not the only ironic situation he has been in.

Despite being Sahira and Rahat Kazmi’s son, he wasn’t handed work on a silver platter. “People often tell me how they think it must easy for me to get work because of my parents. To quote a line from Spiderman, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Especially itnay dhakay khanay ke baad I would say that of course connections help but I still had to prove my skill and carve a niche for myself, and not copy my mum and my dad. You cannot make people like you just because ap kisi k betay hain. I mean look at Abhishek Bachan. Koi faraq nahin parta ap jiss kay bhi betay ho, jab tak kaam achha nahin hoga.

“The world is becoming more and more multicultural and filmmakers want to use that flavour to make their scenarios more credible. Indians have more and more Pakistani characters now who are not portrayed negatively. This way you also get a wider audience.”

“We grew with very strong family ties and living with grandparents, wisdom just comes across in an osmotic way. My parents are very private people and they were never stars at home. They loved what they did and when they stopped loving it, they stopped doing it altogether. They are my heroes. Even if they were not my parents, I would still say that they did some unique work.

“My first appearance on screen was when I was probably a year old. I was waving the Pakistan flag in Nayyara Noor’s song, 'Watan ki Mitti', which was directed by my mother. I was a very filmi child; I would do impersonations of family members in front of a drawing room full of my extended family.”

He may have a penchant for playing the villain on screen but his real life love story could make a fantastic plot for a romantic film. He fell in love with his high school sweetheart and moved to Canada to be with her.

“Well, for many years we didn’t want to spoil the friendship so pyar vyar ka izhar nahin kiya. As things would have it, jab woh gaye Canada to study at McGill that is when I felt that woh kyun gaye and we maintained a long-distance relationship for six years because 9/11 happened and it was hard to get visas. After that I went there, I married her but now there was a question of what would I do there!”

He had already got recognition back home; Urban Desi was a hit and the audiences were ready to see more of him but he decided to start from scratch. “My wife was a big support and I went to drama school and film school. I guess I never wanted to take no for an answer. People suggested I should become a cabby or do real estate but I was like kyun karun? Wohi karunga jo mein karna chata hoon! So I stuck with it.”

Then a theatre play changed his life. “I was intrigued by a poster about auditions for 'The Indian wants the Bronx', a stage play by Israel Horovitz. It was being done by an Indian theatre company. The lead role of Gupta that I did was originally done by Al Pacino (before he became Al Pacino) for the off-Broadway Astor Place Theatre in 1968. It was about an Indian who has just arrived in New York to look for his son and speaks only a few words of English. He is approached by some young locals who tease and taunt him, and finally he is stabbed.

“There were lots of people waiting to be auditioned. At last my turn came and I gave an audition for which I got a standing ovation. They were quite curious as to where I came from because brown actors have a small pool and are known to each other. They told me that they were looking for an older person. I left feeling dejected. But they called soon after. They told me that I was the best so I was called in. The first three days were half-full, then reviews came and then finally we got a houseful. I got my agent through that audience and then work started coming in.”

Instead of just pursuing work in the South Asian diaspora, he opted for the mainstream and did many TV series, commercials, documentaries and voiceovers. Presently he has plenty of films on his plate.

“There is a Hollywood film called The Dependables and I’m playing the villain. Another is a Deepa Mehta film, The Beeba Boys, which is based on gangsters and the cast includes Sara Alien, Randeep Hooda and Gulshan Grover. Then there is Sardarji, a Punjabi Indian rom-com directed by Rohit Jugraj who was the assistant director to Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Ram Gopal Varma.”

Since he came back, he has done a music video 'Tu Beh Gaya' with Komal Rizvi, a commercial or two and has been busy with an upcoming film, Shivaay.

“I was dying to work with Azfar Ali and I am doing that currently. It is good to be able to have a rapport with the director so you can improvise something that you think is not a 100 per cent there. I would love to work with Sarmad, Farooq Rind, Adnan Wai Qureshi.”

What kind of roles is he looking at? “After starting from scratch in a different place, you learn to lower your expectations. I believe that when you do a role, the objective should not be to become a star but to do it well and from the heart. It is good to do the hero type roles because if the masses don’t like you, they won’t watch you. Actors should value their jobs because there are so many people who want to do this job but never get a chance. All kinds of people from all walks of life who want to be an actor stand in long queues for an audition. Here people don’t know what an audition is although the culture is beginning now because of increasing competition. Qadar karna zaroori hai, this is a dream business, you give people dreams, its magic.”

And who does he reckon is his competition? He chuckles, thinks and chuckles again. “Competition is healthy for any industry to grow. I have had tremendous growth in the past few years. In one’s 30s, of course, your thought process matures. A journey is sometimes very important because it sometimes thrusts you into situations where you build bigger fires than those that you would normally do. Exposure does wonders. Now that I am back here to work, I approach work with a different mindset. I have grown up with most of these people, saaray he dost hain but of course there is competition. There is Fawad, Imran, Mikaal, Ahsan and Azfar. Fawad is conquering Bollywood which is great because it only reflects nicely on us as Pakistanis.”

There is no lack of talent in Bollywood, so why does he think there is suddenly a bigger influx of Pakistani actors? “The world is becoming more and more multicultural and filmmakers want to use that flavour to make their scenarios more credible. For instance, 'The Big Bang Theory' has an Indian guy is one of the main leads. Indians have more and more Pakistani characters now who are not portrayed negatively. This way you also get a wider audience.”

Currently, Ali is enjoying fatherhood. He loves running and is a certified scuba diver. “I run marathons, and do triathlons. Running gives brilliant cardio, is good for the heart, soul, body and mind. I don’t diet; my wife is a great cook so it would be foolish to do that. Eating on time is a big thing with me. I eat a big breakfast, small lunch and a tiny dinner and stop eating three hours before going to bed.”

“Zany, energetic and optimistic” are the three words he chooses to describe himself. “If I wasn’t an optimist, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 31st, 2015

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