Sahir Lodhi is a phenomenon. He’s everywhere — on radio, television and film. He has a cult-like following which comprises in equal parts earnest, adoring fans and those who mock him but can’t look away from his narcissistic shenanigans. Both groups have cause to celebrate these days. The object of their attentions has just released a film, Raasta, in which he is the star, the director, the producer, the writer and the song-writer.
Just a day after the premiere of his film, Sahir agrees to meet Icon despite his hectic schedule of movie-theatre appearances, presscons, radio shows and morning shows on TV. Dressed in a black shalwar-kameez that accentuates his insanely clear complexion and haunting eyes, he looks preoccupied and subdued, unlike the exuberant morning show host we usually see on TV.
Thrown off by his unexpected demeanour, I start off on the wrong foot. I ask him about what seems to be his obsession with Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan [SRK].
Nobody can ignore him and Sahir Lodhi too believes the world revolves around him. But as much as he wants to pretend he is above it all, all he really wants is to be loved
“I don’t know why people ask me this irrelevant question. Mein thak gaya hoon is sawaal se. [I’m tired of this question]” His vehement denial is a double whammy – he’s dismissed the question and set the defensive tone for the entire interview. “Maybe it is just that our people have no respect or regard for anyone,” he says. “I respect and admire SRK as an actor and a person. What if the situation were the other way round? If SRK was here, would he be disrespected the same way as I am? SRK sat across from me in an interview and said two people can look alike and sound alike but that doesn’t mean that they copy each other. The worst part is that, in 11 years, no one has seen me. They wanted to see someone else and they have always seen someone else. But, this is a problem with just a fraction of the people in Pakistan who have the permission to write. Ye sirf unn ka problem hai! [This is just their problem!]”
The look in his eyes grows intense. “I’m going to be blunt. People who live along the seaside, on ‘that’ side of the ‘bridge’ — the pseudo-literate people — have a chip on their shoulder.” He speaks softly, almost with modulated radio perfectness. “They have never appreciated me. Not that I am dying to be appreciated by them. Reading books in the English language and writing a few reviews doesn’t really make you ‘educated.’ Whatever they say about me, or SRK, my response is that these people suffer from an inferiority complex. They enjoy putting others down, disrespecting them, making fun of them. Hum wohi loag hain jo America se qarza lete hain aur unhi ke khilaaf naaray lagate hain, hum hypocrites hain. [We are the same people who take loans from the US and then raise slogans against them, we are hypocrites.] If I haven’t been able to convince them in 11 years, will I do it in an 11-minute interview?”
I have to admit I am a bit taken aback. He laughs just like SRK, his expressions and SRK’s outstretched-arms pose in Raasta, it’s all there, sometimes almost natural and at other times contrived. He’s even read out whole scripts of SRK films on his radio shows, pointedly doing the SRK lines himself. But he continues to deny he’s in any way obsessed. “I have survived doing what I want to do despite all the criticism and accusations. Today, I am one of the most-known faces in Pakistan, one of the most talked-about people and ranked among the top stars of the country and it is certainly not without the will of God, so there must be a good reason to it. There is more credit to my talent than just copying SRK.”
“I respect and admire SRK as an actor and a person. What if the situation was the other way round? If SRK was here, would he be disrespected the same way as I am? SRK sat across from me in an interview and said two people can look alike and sound alike but that doesn’t mean that they copy each other. The worst part is that, in 11 years, no one has seen me. They wanted to see someone else and they have always seen someone else.”
Although he has a huge fan following — aside from his loyal radio listeners, he has almost 900,000 followers on Facebook — loads of people also love to make fun of him. Does he know that? “It is a sad situation but we must learn to support, respect and encourage our own people. Pagal logon ki baat ka mein bura nahin manta [I don’t mind the rantings of crazy people],” he declares. “They are not Sahir Lodhi, however much they may rave or rant. People don’t gather around them, people don’t want to take selfies with them. I’m not going to stop just because they want me to stop.”
Talking to him, one often feels what seems contrived might just also be real. Is he a drifter, dreamer and an idealist? “I live in moments,” he says philosophically. “Sometimes we spend our whole lives searching for a moment, sometimes we find our whole life in a moment. I am constantly in search of these moments,” he says, looking thoughtful and staring into space.
“I find peace in watching kids play. I am moved by two underprivileged individuals happily sharing the precious little food that they have got from somewhere, or when I see a family of five on a motorcycle and the mother is holding her baby as though the tiny being is her whole world.” I begin to wonder how much of this spiel is practised, but if it is, he is a very fine actor because he sounds entirely sincere. “My heart fills with pride and respect for the girl who leaves her home to support her family and who runs and catches a bus to reach her workplace. For others, maybe, it means nothing but for me this is the ethos of life.”
“What they don’t like is the fact that a common man is trying to challenge them. But they can’t stop me. I will work till I die. I will only stop if God wants me to stop or if I want to stop. To stop me you have to be me or God, and you are neither!”
I ask him why he thinks his fans like him. “The common man relates to me,” pat comes the reply. “I’m a commoner on TV and on the street. I’m an ordinary person, this is who I am. I have no attitude, no airs, no hang-ups. I have never refused an autograph or a selfie. I love being with and doing projects with ordinary people. A friend of mine, Shehryar, has cerebral palsy and he lies in bed mostly listening to the radio or watching TV. But he finds hope in me, so I always manage to find time for him. I run a clinic every day for 150 people and bear the monthly expenses out of my own pocket.”
Sahir claims that every day after his morning show, a small crowd waits for him outside the studio. “Some people find peace with me, some need help. They call me on the radio with all kinds of issues and I know that I have to handle them responsibly. But I always have time for them. I only sleep for two hours a day. I relax with my work. When I see them, I tell myself I am not a star, I am a postman, and I have to deliver. I help them in any way that I can. You should always have time for people who rely on you.”
But my earlier question has obviously agitated his mind because he comes back to the issue of those who mock him. “Just like I can’t figure why some people love me so much, I also don’t understand why some people hate me. Meri samajh mein nahin aata, mein ne kya kiya hai inn ke saath. [I don’t understand what I have done to them.] I don’t go to parties, don’t socialise or hang out with them, don’t smoke or drink, I don’t have scandals, girlfriends or extra-marital affairs. What have I done to instigate so much hate? I don’t claim to be the most handsome or the most talented person on TV, I have never been arrogant. Maybe just looking at me, they get irritated. The best thing is, inko inn ke ghar mein koi nahin janta [nobody knows them]! They are unhappy people. That has to come out somewhere so they take it out on a person whom 80 percent of the country likes. What they don’t like is the fact that a common man is trying to challenge them. But they can’t stop me. I will work till I die. I will only stop if God wants me to stop or if I want to stop. To stop me you have to be me or God, and you are neither!”
“When I die, they will write articles about me and discover the ‘thinker’ in me! They will not do things that will enhance a person’s life, they will wait for him to die before they can praise him.”
And does that scenario affect Raasta, his debut film, I ask. “The media has mixed reviews. The public loves the film. The cinemas where the general public goes to are full,” he says. “People who don’t like me don’t like my film either. Ab kya karoon, film to ban gayee aur mujhe bohat acha laga [What can I do, the film is made and I liked it a lot],” he says slyly. “If Raasta is destined to be a hit, it will be a hit, or be a flop if that’s its fate. I am overwhelmed by all the attention that I have received in my career so far. It is not my right, it is a gift. Am I really worthy of it? Ek aam admi ke liye to yeh bohat duur ki batein hain. [For a common man, these are big things.] I’ll try again and make another film for sure.”
But he has obviously read some of the reviews or read some of the social media reactions about his debut venture and this is playing on his mind. “The state and the situation in which I got the film, I had to see it through to the end. I was not supposed to be the director. How I completed the film from that point onwards, nobody will appreciate my struggle. Bohat se logon ne loota aur chalay gaye. [A lot of people fooled me and left.] I will not mention names of those who messed up. I had two options, either to go on making the film or stop.
“They say I hogged all the scenes. That is not true. Everybody had scenes and acted well. They say if they don’t see me, they hear my voice. Have they thought that I might be covering a technical flaw by doing that? There are so many little things that have to be taken care of in a film. If they have decided to find issues then they will. It is just like relationships, saath rehne ke sau bhanay, chhorne ka aik [A hundred reasons to stay together, a single reason not to]!”
Up until now, he has been speaking softly but suddenly his tone becomes much louder, as though he is reprimanding someone. “Has the media thought of giving me a pat on my back or saying a kind word? Outside the cinema, people are hugging me, repeating dialogues from the film, singing the songs and showering me with hugs and appreciation. They said ‘you have made a film, good or bad, but you have not put up a TV play on the big screen.’ There is no double-meaning dialogue, no cheap comedy and no obscenity. It had dialogue, a script and if you want to revive Pakistani cinema, you need to make films. Aap drama bechte hain cinema ko aur kehte hain ke film banayi hai? [You sell television drama and say you have made a film?] You made the same drama for TV all your life and then put it up on cinema and people spend 500 rupees to see it. Then the film critic dresses up, goes to the premiere and the next day writes that it’s a fabulous film.” His voice rises even more. “Jhootay! Jhoot boltay hain aap! [Liar! You are telling lies!]”
He calms down a bit, suddenly aware he’s shouting. “If anyone of them had made this film — if they were capable of making it in the first place — the critics would be raving about it and it would be a milestone and set a new standard for the Pakistan’s film industry. And I am not talking about Javed Sheikh and Syed Noor, they know what a film is. I have learnt from them.”
Sahir says he doesn’t see a way out of this attitude against him. “When I die, they will write articles about me and discover the ‘thinker’ in me! Ye murda-parast loag hain [These people worship the dead]. They will not do things that will enhance a person’s life, they will wait for him to die before they can praise him. They will run to [my sister] Shaista [Lodhi] and ask her ‘Aap bataayein aap ka bhai kaisa tha?’ [Tell us what your brother was like.] That is who we are as a nation.”
There is obviously a lot of pent-up bitterness in Sahir, which leaks out despite all his insistence that he is above it all. And there is vulnerability too. “Dekhiye, no matter how strong I am, I’m bound to get hurt at some point. There are instances when I need some kind words, someone to hold me and say everything is going to be okay.”
I try to move the conversation towards more pleasant topics such as his family and those that inspire him. He tells me his baby daughter Zara is the most special person in my life and that Waheed Murad and the boxer Muhammad Ali are his inspirations. But everything inevitably circles back to himself. “Mohammed Ali Clay continues to play the greatest role in my life every single day,” he says. “He was a fighter, a survivor and a winner and his life holds lessons for us all. People didn’t believe in him and he worked against all odds and his faith in himself was remarkable. When I am down, I draw my courage and inspiration from him. I tell myself that duniya ki saari nafratein mil ke Khuda ki mohabbat ka jawab nahin hosakteen [all the hate in the world on one side is still no match for God’s love]. I think I’m all right with this belief,” he says in his typical drawl.
I wonder if all the mockery may have broken him. But he tells me of three new film projects he’s working on and the hospital he’s having constructed, whose ground-breaking is expected soon.
“No challenge is bigger than my spirit!” he exults. “People like to discuss hate more than love. I guess I have more friends than enemies, that is why I am here today,” he says with a smile, that reminds me very much of SRK’s. I decide not to point it out.
Published in Dawn, ICON, April 9th, 2017