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THE ICON INTERVIEW: OUT OF THE SHADOWS

April 07, 2019

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Photography: Arif Mahmood
Photography: Arif Mahmood

He is not the lead character in the recently released film Lal Kabootar. But most reviewers and cinephiles who watched the film cannot stop talking about his character and his acting. It would be fair to say that Rashid Farooqui stole the show with his portrayal of corrupt police inspector Ibrahim, a sleazy, unethical character easy to dislike but who the audience is rooting for by the end of the film.

The climactic scene in the film remains embedded in people’s memories long after the film ends, an orgy of cinematic violence in which Rashid exacts revenge while dolled up in a little girl’s make-up. To understand why, you would have to see the film.

“This is where I begin,” he says to me when I meet him in between a shoot for an upcoming drama serial, a meaningful smile on his face. “It is actually my fifth film [he has previously done supporting roles in Maalik, Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai and Mah-i-Meer as well] but I feel like this is my first film.

Rashid Farooqui has been around — on stage, television and film — for over two decades, quietly accumulating critical acclaim. But after Lal Kabootar he may be ready to explode into real stardom

“Yeh film hamari shanaakht hai [This film is our identity],” he continues. “The people who made it and are acting in it are pure Pakistani and the art coming out of them is pure Pakistani. Not one person in the team was unqualified. The director, director of photography, sound director, all of them were very well-qualified. It took [director] Kamal Khan 10 years to get everything together. I have been in the field for the past 24 years or so and I have never seen a more well-planned shoot in my entire career. Mera dil chahta tha ye shoot kabhi khatm na ho, main roz iskay shoot pe jaoon [I wanted the shoot to never end and be there for the shoot everyday]!”

Rashid is still riding high on the accolades he is receiving for his work on the film. In person, he has a twinkle in his eye and a face that easily breaks into an infectious grin, a pleasant surprise for those used to seeing him in hard-boiled, grungy characters. For someone who used to be shy and quiet, a back-bencher child at school, people from his childhood are stunned to know him now as one of the most critically acclaimed actors in the country.

But he has certainly paid his dues. Twenty-something years ago, theatre was completely new stuff for Rashid Farooqui who worked in a government department. “Mera funoon-i-lateefa se koi taaluq nahin tha [I knew nothing about fine arts]. Benazir was the prime minister of Pakistan at the time and theatre was mostly being done by political activists to send out political messages. I was offered a stereotyped moulvi’s role who was a negative character in a play called Jin Pe Takya Tha. I enjoyed acting so much I formed a Karachi-based theatre group called Baang with Mussadiq Sanwal as the director and Mohammed Hanif wrote plays for us.”

In 1995, Baang staged its most acclaimed play Marnay Ke Baad Kya Hoga (MKBKH). Rashid played a hit man called Javed Tappa who had been killed in a staged police encounter and who rises from the grave to demand his life back. “On the way home from rehearsal one day, I got arrested and the next day the theatre group spent the day trying to get me out of the police lock-up,” he recalls laughing. “When they did get me released, it was time for the play to go up on stage and I went up straight to act.”

MKBKH allowed Rashid to get his foot in the door in television. With director and producer Ghazanfar Ali basing a TV play on the stage play, Rashid did 92 episodes for the fledgling private channel NTM. “It gave me a lot of confidence,” he says, “I began to be acknowledged on the streets and I realised acting was all I wanted to do. Even though friends advised me to have a job alongside, I decided to leave my government job. But to this day, I have never regretted it. I know that I can only be a thorough actor if I have all the time to build and present myself as an actor, and not have a responsibility somewhere else. So acting is my livelihood and it is sufficient for me and my family.”

The beauty of Rashid’s role in the film is that he has different relationships with different characters
The beauty of Rashid’s role in the film is that he has different relationships with different characters

Since it was being done purely as a hobby, Baang soon fizzled out, says Rashid. But he had tasted blood and, discovering that he loved to act, he continued theatre with Sheema Kermani’s troupe Tehrik-e-Niswan. As more TV projects came up, Rashid felt that in order to move up and ahead in acting, he needed to mature as a person first. “So I got married, but I fully knew that acting is all I wanted to pursue.”

For me, work takes commitment and devotion similar to worship,” he says. “Whenever I’m doing a role, my aspirations for future work depend on that effort. I believe that if people appreciate what I’m doing presently, it will bring me my next project and this, so far, has been the story of my life.”

After three or four plays with Ghazanfar’s Indus TV, work started coming in from other production houses as well. “For me, work takes commitment and devotion similar to worship,” he says. “Whenever I’m doing a role, my aspirations for future work depend on that effort. I believe that if people appreciate what I’m doing presently, it will bring me my next project and this, so far, has been the story of my life.”

TV audiences know all about Rashid’s extraordinary acting prowess as he has spent nearly half his 43 years doing a plethora of diverse characters in television plays. He may not be given lead roles but he has consistently delivered strong performances, which he credits to what he has picked up from creative people throughout his career.

“Ghazanfar Ali would instruct me when I was preparing for an authoritative role,” he says. “He would tell me ‘Presence honi chahiye aadmi ki [A person should have presence]’. As I struggled to look stern, he told me to clench my fists tight before the dialogue which would tense up my face. And sure enough, when I did that, it worked. When you work to develop your character, it changes you. If you start becoming angry every single day for a week, your face will become angry in a week’s time. Likewise, if you soften up, your personality will change in a few days.”

Television plays Moorat and Shanakht remain the fondest milestones of his television career. “I played a eunuch in Moorat, although it wasn’t the main role,” he recalls. “Kashif Mehmood played the younger one and I was his friend, and we both had to do the naach party. Later, I played a eunuch again in Shanakht, a play from Mehreen Jabbar’s series called Kahaniyaan. This time, my co-actors were Humayun Saeed, Saleem Mairaj and Yasir Nawaz. Salim Mairaj and I played eunuchs who bring up this kid and we keep telling him that he is a man. He is unaccepted by society and is in unrequited love with the character played by Humayun Saeed. This role was an amazing experience. In Moorat, I presented my own sketch of a eunuch but, in Shanakht, we spent time at the shrine of Zinda Pir and Mehreen put us in the middle of Empress Market in full get-up for some shots that she needed. Some Pathan fellows actually started beating us up and we had to flee for our lives,” he chuckles.

But he was beginning to get noticed. In 2005, a 60-min telefilm Shah Rukh Khan Ki Maut in which Rashid played a pivotal role won an award at the 5th KaraFilm Festival. He also won a special jury award at the festival in 2009 for Jabbar’s debut feature Ramchand Pakistani (RP). In 2011 he won a Best Actor award from Hum TV for a telefim titled Gullu Ustad. And in 2012 at the SAARC Film Awards he won the best actor award for RP.

Ramchand Pakistani, Farooqui’s first feature film, was a turning point for him. “Suddenly, I came into the limelight,” he says, his eyes lit up with happiness. But after RP, people assumed that Rashid had become a ‘film star’ and no work came to him for the next six months. “Since TV was my bread and butter, after Ramchand I had no offers even from television until I decided to approach people myself for work,” he admits.

“Sometimes I feel that my work is getting monotonous and that I’m not getting the margin to perform but, since it is my livelihood, I rarely drop a role,” he says.

How does he prepare for a role?

“As I begin to read the script, through my experiences and observations, a sketch of my character starts to develop in my head,” he says. “That is when I really decide if I want to go ahead with the role. For instance, a father’s role mostly has the same kind of margin [of performance] but then I look at who’s directing and how good the script is. Recently, I played a father in both Khaani and in Ishq Bepanah, but I did them both differently. I have done my most artistic work with Mazhar Moin directing Fasih Bari’s scripts. Directors such as Mazhar give a lot of input for the role while the majority of directors in the industry are only focused on lead characters. Since I play support or a character, I usually have to work out the margin myself. If I do a role that doesn’t appeal to me but I’m doing it for the money, I keep fretting about it inside.”

Despite labelling it his bread and butter, Rashid readily admits that television has its limitations. “The directors are focused on the lead roles and with 125 scenes in 25 days, one master frame, then close-ups, it’s a procedure, like a factory-produced meal. A good film director, on the other hand, like a chef, can create an individual taste in every meal.”

This is why Lal Kabootar is so close to his heart. “The beauty of [my] role is that with his wife he speaks Punjabi, he has a different relationship with his daughter, a different one at work and a different one with criminals,” he says. “This is how it happens in real life, where one knows a hundred people and you respond to each one differently, you are not the same with everyone.

“Kamal was very supportive and the more he rehearsed with me, the better I felt about my role, as it prepared me to give my 100 percent. Rehearsal is everything, the result will automatically be beautiful. I rehearsed with every character that I had scenes with. Most of my co-actors were old colleagues. I have worked numerous times with Faiza Gilani who plays my wife, Mohammed Ahmed is an old friend as well, Ishtiaq Rasool, who played my ASI in the film, is a NAPA graduate. He, I feel, is a talent bomb. I have worked with him on TV as well. I was so impressed by his acting that I told Kamal ‘Why didn’t you give me the ASI’s role’?” he says, laughing.

The climactic scene in the film sees Rashid exact revenge while dolled up in a little girl’s make-up
The climactic scene in the film sees Rashid exact revenge while dolled up in a little girl’s make-up

“To make a film like this you don’t need a huge lot of money but skills,” he says. “These people will make an even better film next time. After Partition, the industry that came to our side made good films but gradually died because it could not be sustained. We didn’t have academies, we didn’t want to send our children to learn filmmaking or acting, but now is the time. There is a lot of talent available and there is now a market for that talent.”

Rashid feels very positive about upcoming young actors. “I have recently worked with NAPA graduates and I cannot even begin to explain to you how talented these young people are,” he says with excitement. “They have a fire in them and they will change everything. Someone like me works for seven or eight years to reach a certain level but these people are already there when they graduate. I am 110 percent convinced that the future of film in Pakistan is incredibly bright.”

Aside from the young talent only now emerging, who are his inspirations from the older lot of actors, I ask him. “I must have watched every film of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. Sanjeev Kumar is another favourite. Then of course Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins. Once I was doing a drama series and I had to play a lech. I was looking for a certain expression and, as I researched, I watched an Anthony Hopkins’ film where his eyes speak before he does, so I tried to pick that up. I used the look on Nighat Chaudhary who was working with me and she shuddered. Ghazanfar sahib gave me the thumbs up for it but after 50 episodes, he asked me to go easy on it, as it was being censored,” he chuckles.

For an actor who believes so much in research and getting into character, it comes as a surprise to me when I find out later that Rashid watches Charlie Chaplin clips on his phone in between shots. As a last question I ask him why. “Because it refreshes me,” he replies. “Aik besaakhtagi hai Chaplin mein [There is a spontaneity in Chaplin].”

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 7th, 2019