A few hours before the premiere of Jami’s much-anticipated Moor, I met Shaz Khan.
He was waiting for me, deep in thought on a black couch but jumped up to greet me as I entered the spacious living room in Jami’s house. I apologised for being a bit late, thinking about how he’s certainly not acquired the ‘star’ disdain for punctuality just yet, and asked him how anxious he felt on this big day.
“I know I should be a lot happier, but I am kind of just numb because there has been so much talk about the film and no one has seen the work as yet. So I’m just waiting for the film to come out and hear the feedback,” he says.
Four years ago when Jami confirmed his selection for the male lead in the film by sending him a message: ‘You are the one,’ Shaz knew little about Pakistani cinema. “I had seen Pakistani films as a child and wasn’t particularly inspired."
"When Moor auditions were happening, I was already working in indie cinema in the States and was taking a break to come down and see family here in Pakistan and to just hang out. Through someone I heard that Jami was casting for this film. I randomly auditioned and got the lead role,” he smiled.
At 31, Shaz Khan acts, writes and produces, and has lots of indie cinema and theatre experience in the US to his credit. Making his debut in Pakistani cinema with Moor is a turning point for him.
Did he always want to be an actor? “I did and for the most superficial reasons, ever since I was a kid,” he grinned. “But I was also awed by and very scared of venturing into this strange world so I just did what everyone was doing; I became a finance grad and I got a job in a bank.”
At college, he met someone at a party who declared that he was making a film. “I fooled around and said, really? I’m an actor!” It actually materialised into an independent film after which work consistently poured in.
“It may have been that I felt the need to express myself by being creative following a heartbreak at the time, or it could be the inner reflection that each one of us goes through from time to time. Sometimes you sit and wonder for what reason have you been put on this earth? What is it that you should be doing really? It so happened that after thinking about it for 10 months, I quit my job as a banker and decided to train as an actor.”
Did his family support his decision? “Of course not! My dad didn’t speak to me for some time, and my mother dropped to the floor telling me that I was throwing my life away. I don’t blame them though for their reaction. Even the guys at work were shocked, although I received an email from them when they saw my work, saying that they were very proud of me.”
For the following three years, Shaz trained and worked on independent movies and plays in New York City, graduating from the prestigious Actors Studio Drama School with a MFA in acting. “I mainly joined for the discipline so that I was doing something and working towards something every day. Some of the things I don’t agree with but mostly I got trained in everything like dancing, singing, acting. I also kept doing auditions and landed more acting jobs. Don’t know if it was my ego or blind confidence. I knew it always that my work would speak for itself.”
Shaz feels that it was in his formative years that he truly learnt to act. “Going to America was a big shock for me, I was only 11 then. I was seen as someone who looked American but actually I was this desi from Pakistan with an accent. I do have an identity crises sometimes because I am a Pakistani but people don’t take me for one. I started to figure out that I was good at observing people, gauging things about them and I was always interested in and sensitive to human behaviour. Later, as I grew up and blended in, it was always a process of learning about people. I was just observing people all the time. I feel that I have always been acting in my real life and only when I have found acting, I know that this is what I want really want to do. Ironic!”
“It didn’t take me long to understand what went on in the mind of Ehsan, the character I played.”
Several independent shorts and feature films later, he moved to Los Angeles and produced Flutter in 2011 where he played a cancer patient. He also produced a feature called Circumference (A Desi Story) that he also wrote.
And then Moor happened. “When I started work on Moor, I had never been to Balochistan and didn’t know what was going on there. So to play a character from there was not simple. I lost about 20lbs for the film and had to work hard on the accent, there were continuity issues, the location was dangerous, the conditions would be severe but I was up for it.
"I knew I had to do it with all the sincerity that I had in me. It didn’t take me long to understand what went on in the mind of Ehsan, the character I played. But anyone in their mid-20s would relate to the character. It is a universal thing how the big cities are ready to eat you up when you come from somewhere else and are working against the odds to make something out of yourself.”
What was the romantic angle like? “There are only undertones of romance because Ehsan, the character I play, has had a romantic connection in the past, and Soniya Hussain who plays the female lead comes in the film as a significant character from the past to drive some sense into Ehsan.”
Many Hollywood actors inspire him. “There is a new one every month! Al Pacino is up there for me, then there is De Niro, Sean Penn and some British actors. I love classic American cinema of the ’70s.”
Confident that he would only accept a role that would inspire him, Shaz doesn’t rule out Bollywood. “There are some fabulous romantic comedies, action films musicals there. I could fall for a Bollywood offer, but mostly it has to be something that I would want to watch — films like the golden age of American cinema, nothing less. Since I’m on the West Coast now, I think that I can bridge a lot of cultures by playing different ethnicities with my kind of looks.”
Speaking of looks, he mentions that he used to box for the Penn State University College team but has second thoughts about it now that he is an actor and “my wife threatens to leave me if I continue boxing,” he chuckles.
Upcoming is a project with Mehreen Jabbar plus a few films, including The Servant for which he has done the screenplay. “It takes me back to my childhood when I used to wonder who all these people living in the servants quarters were, what their lives were about other than being paid for taking care of my family.”
So how does his mum feel now that he is about to create history in the Pakistani cinema? “Oh, mum is the biggest celebrity herself now!” And so is he.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 23rd, 2015