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THE ICON INTERVIEW: REBIRTH OF AN ACTOR

January 07, 2018

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Photography: Fayyaz Ahmed | Grooming: Nabila’s (N-Gents) | Coordination: Madeeha Syed
Photography: Fayyaz Ahmed | Grooming: Nabila’s (N-Gents) | Coordination: Madeeha Syed

“Ahsan Khan doesn’t have an agent,” I was informed by a well-connected publicist. “He does everything himself.” I was somewhat surprised. In this day and age, even a budding actor with barley one serial under his/her belt will have an army of professionals managing them — from their wardrobe and public relations to their production meetings and filming schedules. Only after first going through their ‘people’ can you finally get access to the artist. Gone are the days when you could simply call and speak to them directly.

Not in the case of Ahsan Khan, though. The actor, whose action-comedy film Chupan Chupai recently hit the big screen and is doing reasonably well, is best known for playing the antagonist in the ground-breaking drama serial Udaari (2016). It sparked off a conversation at the national level on child sexual abuse. Khan won a Hum Award for Best Actor for his role in the serial. He’s been vocal about the topic ever since — he recently spoke about the issue at a talk held at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST).

I meet the actor at The Second Floor in Karachi. He arrives early, not only for the interview but for his photo-shoot the next day as well. Dressed casually in a pair of jeans and a leather jacket, he evokes a James Dean-ish look. Khan is every bit as good looking in person as he is on screen, but there’s more to him than just that. He watches and observes everything around him. One gets the impression that there are a million thoughts racing through his head and when he speaks, it’s with a little impatience. He has opinions, knows what he wants, and preferably, he wants it done now.

Ahsan Khan played a baddie in the TV serial Udaari. He was so convincing that his very presence in the drama made viewers cringe. In the recently released feature film Chupan Chupai he does the role of a financially challenged young man, and is no less convincing. Icon talks to the actor about his uncanny ability to get into the skin of whatever character he plays on TV or the silver screen

We meet just before the release of Chupan Chupai and Khan is both excited and nervous. “I did Chupan Chupai because it was a comedy script,” he says, adding that it was while he was working in Udaari that he first got the script. “When I read the script, I kept laughing all night. Most of the comedy that you see on TV ka koi standard hi nahin hai [has no standard].”

“In Chupan Chupai, I don’t get those ‘funny’ lines — the punch lines are with the other actors,” says Khan. “I don’t regret doing it. Because I felt that the standard of work these new people are doing isn’t what a lot of old people are doing.”

How does he feel about the film? “Until [work on] the film isn’t finished, you don’t know how it’s going to be,” he responds. “Aadhi film to edit pe banti hai [half the film gets made on the editing table]. It also depends on how they’ve shot the rest of the film. When it’s all combined you can tell what kind of film you have.”

Speaking to Icon a week after the release, he says: “It’s doing well at the box office. I felt, in the beginning after Verna, Arth and Rangreza … I wished they worked at the box office as well and I wish them all the luck. Because it [would have been] good for the film industry. They were big films.

“I feel great that it’s doing so well, even though it’s not the right season — it’s not [one of the] Eid(s), it’s wedding season. I’m glad I was part of the film. I love what I’ve done and I totally own it. I’m glad I didn’t make any fake claims or go overboard [in predicting its success].”

Choosing to do Chupan Chupai was a conscious decision Khan made after working on Udaari. “I had never felt so heavy before,” he confesses. “When you do action or even some emotional scenes, aap theek ho jatey ho [you feel alright]. You don’t think about it [later], you’re out of it. But with this script, reading it, over and over again, living it, I became … [so overwhelmed that] after Udaari I couldn’t sign a play. I couldn’t work at home.” He didn’t do another project for around six months. He packed up his bags and left for London.

Choosing to do Chuppan Chuppai was a conscious decision Khan made after working on Udaari. “I had never felt so heavy before,” he confesses. “When you do action, or even some emotional scenes, aap theek ho jatey ho. You don’t think about it [later], you’re out of it. But with this script, reading it, over and over again, living it, I became … [so overwhelmed that] after Udaari I couldn’t sign a play. I couldn’t work at home.” He didn’t do another project for around six months. He packed up his bags and left for London.

In London, he was offered a different kind of project — a play at the famous Sadler’s Wells Theatre. “I remember sitting in Sadler’s Wells one day watching a dance performance there hoping to perform there someday,” he says. So, when he got the call he was completely taken by surprise. Titled Ishq, the play was an English adaptation of the popular folk story Heer Ranjha. Khan learned how to sing and dance for the titular role. He welcomed the opportunity as, according to him, monotony kills him.

Khan has produced around 21 short films for television as well as a short film on the hearing-impaired called Chashm-i-Num, in which he acted as well. He’s now got his sights set on writing. Not just a script, but a whole book.

“Udaari wasn’t just a game-changer for the industry,” the actor says. “It was a game-changer for me too. I get emotional when I start talking about it. That’s when I decided to write about it — to vent, let it all out. A lot of people don’t understand. Many actors have said, ‘What’s the big deal? It was a character’. [For me] it wasn’t just about the character.”

What was the most difficult scene for him in Udaari? “The attempted rape scene wasn’t difficult because Ehtesham Bhai [Mohammad Ehteshammudin, the director] didn’t sensationalise it,” he responds. “I take the girl into the room and that’s it. It was acting sleazy, to show how dirty this man really was, that was hard.

“For example, there was a scene in which Urwa’s character comes to my house and I look at her. The writer wrote ‘Gandi nazar sey dekh raha tha’ [looks at her in a dirty way]. What is that? Should I put sand in my eyes to make my gaze dirty? Then it struck me and I did this …” He flicks his tongue on an imaginary chain around his neck. “Those standing at the other end [of the set] immediately went ‘Ew, that was disgusting!’ I responded, ‘Yaar, that’s what they wanted me to do!’” He laughs.

“I don’t copy,” he asserts, strongly. “I get inspired, but I do not pick things up from people. I do things which are my things. I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he was like Shah Rukh Khan in this drama, Aamir Khan in this one etc.’ I want to invent, create, craft. Method acting. You don’t have to go crazy doing it. You just have to think more.” 

I later reflect on the irony of Ahsan’s commitment to originality, given that Chupan Chupai is being called out for blatantly plagiarising a Tamil film. But it is highly unlikely he even knew that the script he was handed was a lifted one. That is a cross the film’s producers have to bear.

“After Udaari I could’ve asked for double the money actors usually charge and I’d get paid,” he says. “But I refused projects left and right, like crazy. I’m not exaggerating, I’ve left at least five films [offers] only because I didn’t want to do them. I did Chupan Chupai and another film with Ayesha Omar called Rehbra — it’s a love story with a twist. And I’ve just said yes to a third film.” Rehbra, which along with Khan and Ayesha Omar also features Sarish Khan (former Ms Pakistan, lead actor in Chain Aye Na) was slated for a 2017 release, but has been delayed.

“The third film is bigger than Chupan Chupai and Rehbra,” he says. “It’s a bigger budget and production house. But I’m not talking about it right now.”

Khan is also working on a period drama. He’s very careful to mention that it’s not based on Partition, but is based in that era. “Because when I signed a play after Udaari, people thought it must be a social issue,” he says. “But I don’t want to stereotype myself. If I want to do one, I’ll do it a year later — when I feel like it or strongly about an issue. I’m an actor, I want to experiment. I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again.”

The period drama play is titled Angan and is being directed by Mohammad Eshteshamuddin, the same director Khan worked with in Udaari. “I love working with him,” says Khan. “I made up my mind to work on this, when I read his name on the script, before I even read it.”

What’s it about? “The script doesn’t say anything about India or Pakistan,” he responds. “There is a surprise in the play, I don’t want to ruin that. It’s the story about a family, how they get together, grow up, and fall apart — three sons go to three different places with their wives and children. [It’s about] men who’ve also kept mistresses. It’s romantic as well. I think you can call it a love story to a certain extent, but not a typical one. It’s about relationships. It’s based on Khadija Mastoor’s novel. She’s a very popular writer, so people know the story.”

His role in Angan is completely unlike the fanatical, patriotic character he played in the Partition-era drama Dastaan (2010). “That was very intense,” he says, “This is an acha, masoom aadmi [good, innocent man]. He’s not the hero type either. The locations are beautiful. We’ve shot in a 100-year-old haveli in Wazirabad, near Gujranwala. It might come out in March maybe. I don’t know for sure.”

You’ve opened the conversation for child sexual abuse, I ask, what about adults — sexual harassment in the entertainment industry? “I haven’t seen it happening around me,” he says, thoughtfully. “If it would have, I would speak out about it. Maybe I haven’t been observing that well. It might be happening, it happens everywhere. But I’ve also seen people give a lot of respect as well, especially to our female actors — even while working in Lollywood.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 7th, 2018