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THE ICON INTERVIEW: FLYING HIGH

March 24, 2019

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Mikaal Zulfiqar plays Flight Lieutenant Haris in Sherdil | ARY Films
Mikaal Zulfiqar plays Flight Lieutenant Haris in Sherdil | ARY Films

I’m scheduled to meet with the star of the recently-released Pakistan Air Force (PAF) feature Sherdil, Mikaal Zulfiqar, after a customary pre-release press conference in Islamabad. It’s difficult to spot Mikaal at first, surrounded as he is by cameras, the press and fans, something the capital isn’t very familiar with, to say the least. The hustle bustle is usual, but rarely does the city, in its quintessential inclement weather, warm up to a film this ecstatically. Sherdil has managed to catch eyeballs and for reasons that the film itself might not be responsible for.

The PR team for the film escorts Mikaal out of the mob that he’s — for want of a better expression — trapped amidst for about an hour now, no less. I patiently wait as he continuously obliges requests for selfies and answers the same questions over and over, of what truly makes his latest offering worthy of being watched.

Mikaal’s a bit frazzled, to say the least, by the time we sit down to talk, for promotions are tedious, but he’s equally pleased with the surprising turnout. Sherdil might just do wonders at the box office, but it has more to do with its subject than its cast, crew, treatment etc.

Mikaal Zulfiqar hopes that playing the lead in the recently released Sherdil will finally put his career on the right trajectory after the misadventures and bad choices of the past

The film, whose release is purely coincidental with the ongoing political circumstances between India and Pakistan, narrates the ‘fictional’ story of Indian fighter jets infiltrating into Pakistani airspace. Owing to social media and the exaggerated news flashes, you’d be living under a rock if this is the first time you’re reading of Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan or the almost-war that took place last month. The film, though privately helmed by Azfar Jafri — best known for Janaan and Parchi — and under the debutant banner of Noman Khan’s NK Productions, has been officially commissioned by the PAF, and supported logistically throughout. One wonders, however, if a film with such a nationalistic peg might further propagate conflict.

Photo: Rehan Qureshi | Grooming: Tariq Amin
Photo: Rehan Qureshi | Grooming: Tariq Amin

“I think one of the most beautiful things about Sherdil is its message and how we deal with the Indo-Pak conflict,” begins Mikaal as he sips on some tea to calm his nerves from the hordes he has just encountered. “India has always been very aggressive when it comes to Pakistan in its language, which is foul, and what it wants to show. There are also a lot of stereotypes. As an artist, I’ve worked across the border on several occasions and I commend Pakistani artists who have spoken for peace. We have always been the ones to extend our hands for friendship and build bridges through cultural exchanges.

“But we’ve always been taken advantage of, either by being scandalised, banned or being associated with any anti-Pakistan content, which happened to me too with Baby,” he continues, referring to his 2015 Bollywood endeavour alongside Akshay Kumar, which painted Pakistan as a terrorist nation. “When I signed on to Baby, I had specifically asked the filmmakers whether it had anything against my country, and I was told otherwise. I still have emails from the makers reading that and I was wronged. It was very hurtful for me to be a part of that.

India has always been very aggressive when it comes to Pakistan in its language, which is foul, and what it wants to show. There are also a lot of stereotypes. As an artist, I’ve worked across the border on several occasions and I commend Pakistani artists who have spoken for peace. We have always been the ones to extend our hands for friendship and build bridges through cultural exchanges.”

“So Sherdil basically says that we [Pakistan] are, we will remain and it’s about time that is accepted. If you try to change that, we are capable of defending ourselves and we will, and that’s what happened recently. It’s a film that will provoke, but it will also surprise,” he hints as a coy smile lights up his face.

Mikaal Zulfiqar and Hassan Niazi | ARY Films
Mikaal Zulfiqar and Hassan Niazi | ARY Films

One cannot help but agree. While the patriotic narrative has been deeply embedded in local cinema over the years through Waar and Yalghaar to last year’s Parwaaz Hai Junoon (PHJ), the timing couldn’t have been more apt. As an actor who’s extensively worked on television for over a decade now and, ironically, was one of the pioneers for the trade of talent with India before the Mumbai attacks of 2008 forced him to return immediately — giving up on films he had signed on till then — Mikaal’s all praise for the resurgence (of sorts) of cinema with Sherdil.

“All of us, as young boys, dreamt of either flying a plane or becoming a fighter pilot. Unfortunately, I was never able to come through with that, but Sherdil gave me the opportunity of living that dream. First of all, I’m honoured that the producers and the PAF found me worthy of playing the character,” he earnestly states. “To be fair, it’s really a dream role for any actor and Sherdil’s got all the elements that we look for in a film — emotional drama, terrific songs, action sequences and, in the end, my character ends up saving the day.”

To be able to get into the skin of his all-alpha character, Flight Lieutenant Haris, Mikaal turned to the Stanislavski school of experiential acting by adapting himself according to the lives and times of the forces’ officers. “There was a lot of research that I did, Squadron Leader Hasaan Jalal, a JF-17 Thunder pilot, worked with me very thoroughly,” he revealed. “But it wasn’t just him, since we shot at several PAF air bases and got a chance to meet with fighter pilots, new cadets, soldiers — I picked something up from everyone. I had to be very particular with the body language, the style of speech and the overall code of conduct. I think all of these facets amalgamated are what makes a fighter pilot.”

And to get it right, Mikaal points out, he willingly put in the extra effort, from being early on set to marching behind the jawaans [soldiers] he would see striding, even on days that he was given off. In the process, one discovers, he incurred injuries, too. Nevertheless, to him, the fact that Sherdil is a one-of-its-kind film to have come his way, with a crew of professionals brought together from, quite literally, all over the world — British cinematographer Riki Butland (previously associated with the Fast and Furious franchise) and visual effects’ artist Scott Newman from Cape Town — Mikaal wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Even though Sherdil centers on Mikaal’s character and his struggles of making it to the PAF, and so on and so forth, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for him on celluloid. He signed on to four local features in the past three years, all of which had their share of highs and lows.

“I think once you have an idea of what the final outcome is going to be like, you put in more effort and it gives you a push to go the extra mile,” he says. “Every day was a new challenge. There would always be some kind of physical exertion. I would get injured from pulling a muscle or injuring my knee, to almost getting knocked out in the fight sequence and flying a fighter jet, after which I was completely incapacitated for a good two hours because of the immense force that your body has to sustain — something pilots are trained to handle but we, as civilians, aren’t. And then to find it in me to do it all the next day. My passion, my heart and soul were there, it didn’t feel as difficult as it was.”

Even though Sherdil centers on Mikaal’s character and his struggles of making it to the PAF, and so on and so forth, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for him on celluloid. He signed on to four local features in the past three years, all of which had their share of highs and lows. He appeared in a short yet impactful cameo in last year’s official submission to the Oscars, Cake, but on the flip side, his first as the male lead in Pakistan not only failed to impress critics, but was also deemed a commercial fiasco. Na Band Na Baraati (NBNB), the romantic-comedy, wasn’t the vehicle that Mikaal had sought to make his foray into the domestic scene.

“I think with cinema, you’re never too sure. It’s been evolving and I, for a long time, was trying to look for that perfect film or role. A lot of actors from my fraternity had already moved to the movies and been successful, so it was important for me to come up with something of the sort as well,” he says trying to justify his sudden plunge into cinema by taking on more than one film at a time. “Although it’s still too early, it looks like Sherdil will be very well-received, and it’s important for my own career for that to happen. But even with Sherdil, when we’d begun shooting, we had planned to release it last year. But of course, PHJ came out and we wanted that gap because two PAF films released back-to-back wouldn’t have made much sense.”

NBNB, Mikaal admits, was fraught with a lot of problems, a lot of which could be imputed to the “unfortunate circumstances” it was made under. From the very initial stages, the director and the producers jostled with each other, asidefrom Mikaal himself, and the cast comprised of inexperienced and rather underwhelming actors. There were also logistical issues, considering it was being shot in Canada and, to top it all off, the distributors decided to release it on Eidul Fitr last year, two weeks before schedule, limiting the shows it was given.

“It was my first Pakistani film that came out. But thankfully, my body of work is such that NBNB wasn’t the first time people saw me. I have fan support and assistance from within the industry where people believe in me,” he says with great assurance. “I’ve been in projects that haven’t worked before, but luckily I’ve always managed to sail through. It’s a growing industry at the end of the day, there’s all kinds of work that’s being done. I really hope that Sherdil does wonders at the box office and is able to set records. I might star in another film tomorrow that doesn’t work, such is the business.”

With a pragmatic view, he concludes our tête-tête on how there’s more to the madness than what meets the eye. “It has to be a bit of the good and the bad, it’s very hard to be selective and only try doing roles that appeal to you. I think what people need to understand is that this is my bread and butter. I need to be able to put food on the table because I have mouths to feed and so it’s not always that I look at my work very critically or creatively. Sometimes, it’s just a job for me. Some are, however, passion projects out of which Sherdil is one,” he asserts.

As he’s called by his team to proceed to the next promotional activity, a gruelling meet-and-greet at a public mall, Mikaal Zulfiqar is living his dream. The trailer of his next movie, The Trial, a period piece set on the fall of Dhaka in 1971, is slated for next month while he currently shoots for his next TV serial. In the meanwhile, he’s also looking at a Hollywood production for next year, which he claims is “truly an international project.” At 37, Mikaal is soaring high — 55,000 feet to be precise. He can only hope that he can stay airborne.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 24th, 2019