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THE ICON INTERVIEW: OUR MAN FROM QUETTA

Updated April 28, 2019

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Hameed Sheikh earned critical acclaim for his role in Moor
Hameed Sheikh earned critical acclaim for his role in Moor

It is not easy keeping up with Hameed Sheikh. The man moves through the streets of Saddar in Karachi like greased lightning. Navigating nooks and crannies, picking on bystanders with ferocious wit, he looks nothing like his character in Pakistan’s 2016 film nomination for the Oscars, Moor — a tired old man who hardly speaks and limps across snow-embraced mountains.

This man, walking right in front of me in Gul Plaza, is built like a tank (he seems to be working out a lot), who talks to one shopkeeper in Pushto and another in Punjabi, and buys items from markets I never even knew existed — and I thought I knew Saddar like the back of my hand.

Clearly I didn’t know enough, about the area and Sheikh.

There’s more to actor Hameed Sheikh than meets the eye, a restless citizen of the world with his feet firmly anchored to his roots

Sheikh, who is fluent in Urdu, Hindi, Brahui, Sindhi, Punjabi, Dari, Farsi, Seraiki, Balochi and Hindko, lives in Quetta with his wife and a newborn child (his other two children live in Canada). However, he visits Karachi often, and the shopkeepers know him quite well.

Two stops and a rickshaw ride later, we are in the mobile market end of Electronics Market, ticking off a laundry list. “I can’t stand sitting still, so I move — a lot,” he tells me.

In the past few years, Sheikh has been representing Moor in international film festivals for its production company Azad Film. When not working above and beyond the call of duty, Sheikh is out and about in the world.

As an agent in O21
As an agent in O21

He recently came back from Canada, had a stopover in Pakistan before visiting Egypt, the UAE, and then returning back to Pakistan. His frequent flyer credit must be quite high, I guess.

Sheikh tells me that his kinship with Karachi dates back to his youth in the mid-eighties. His family owned many businesses, but he had cut his teeth in sales at Regal. “The experience taught me a lot about the ways of the world,” he says.

People we pass in the Electronics Market do a double-take of a tall man who just slipped through a packed alley without touching anyone. They seem to recognise him, yet they don’t.

“It’s a blessing,” Sheikh says. “People know me, but they don’t recognise me immediately. They would, if I stay long enough.”

He is right.

Back in Gul Plaza, a scout from a popular online store had found the guts to say that he looked familiar. “I have seen you on television, haven’t I?” he said, recognising Sheikh from his works at PTV, Moor and O21. Surprisingly, the scout hadn’t seen either film.

Such is the dilemma with Sheikh. The films he acts in are ignored by the masses.

“You’re a national asset,” the scout tells Sheikh as we bump into each other again half-an-hour later. Sheikh and I look at each other with raised eyebrows. Recognising national talent and spending money to watch them perform are two very different things.

“I am no Humayun Saeed — and I don’t want to be one, either,” he says.

I feel that people out of Pakistan recognise my talents more,” he says. Moor, O21, Abdullah: The Final Witness — his last three Pakistani movies, which came out one after another within a span of a year in 2014 and 2015, were well-received internationally, yet they failed at the domestic box-office.

Why doesn’t Sheikh act on television again, I ask?

In real life, Sheikh looks very different
In real life, Sheikh looks very different

“I don’t like what it has become. It’s an endless parade of done-to-death concepts. Almost every show you look at feels the same. As if productions are only made to appeal to brands and corporate clients.”

It’s a difficult industry to haggle through, I suppose — even for an experienced salesman such as Sheikh. But then again, he doesn’t want to sell cheap.

“I feel that people out of Pakistan recognise my talents more,” he says. Moor, O21, Abdullah: The Final Witness — his last three Pakistani movies, which came out one after another within a span of a year in 2014 and 2015, were well-received internationally, yet they failed at the domestic box-office.

“All three are on Netflix, so anyone with an account can watch them there,” he points out.

It has been three years since his last film credit. His latest film is the international co-production The Man from Kathmandu, where he plays a Hindu pundit. The film also stars yesteryear Bollywood villain Gulshan Grover.

Why the dearth of roles, I ask him. Wasn’t the industry interested in utilising Sheikh’s talents? “It’s not like I wasn’t getting roles,” he corrects me. “I just wasn’t interested in the ones I was getting. It was either the lack of intelligence in scripts or, if the script were good enough, the director, I felt, didn’t have the talent to execute it properly. It doesn’t take long for one to realise how a film may turn out.”

As I find out later, Sheikh has a fine understanding of how a film should be. And, having seen his showmanship, I wonder why he hasn’t stepped into the director’s seat, or written a role for himself that would exploit his acting talents. “I’m working on a script with my son. It’s about underprivileged children who pick garbage from the streets. It’s a very humane story that’s quite different from the norm.

Moor
Moor

“I won’t be acting in it though,” he continues after a brief moment of contemplation, as if he is visualising the film. Sheikh, who trained under celebrated acting coach Margie Haber (she trained Brad Pitt, Halle Berry and Vince Vaughn), has other plans for himself.

The following morning, Sheikh meets with Amjad Rasheed, the owner of the Distribution Club (DC) — a prominent film distribution and production company. DC had distributed O21 and Abdullah. Rasheed, who I had met a day before, is an admirer of Sheikh’s talents.

In the meeting, Sheikh pitches a historical epic he is working on, about nomadic tribes and the drug trade in the Northern trenches of Pakistan. The project is conceptualised as an international co-production.

“I have pulled off similar productions before,” he tells me.

Sheikh was hired as an actor and producer in the Hollywood action film Kandahar Break (2009). He tells me that he had contributed in the screenplay and helped bring down the production cost of the film.

“We can do a lot in Quetta. And we can do it cheaper,” he says. “There is a wealth of resources that we can use, if we get support from Pakistan’s film industry and the government.”

This, in fact, has been his mission of late. Sheikh, a key member of prominent domestic and international platforms such as The Actor’s Collective Trust (ACT), Focus PK and the Federation of Motion Picture Producers in Asia (who also organise the Asia-Pacific Film Festival), wants to highlight Quetta’s potential, globally.

“We don’t even have an arts council in Quetta, let alone any infrastructure. How can we get anything done? We need recognition and incentives, so that emerging filmmakers can at least start telling good, original stories,” he says. “Quetta is as much a part of Pakistan as Karachi, so why are we still lagging behind, simply content with watching PTV,” he contests, in a brief moment of angst.

“Then why don’t you start this war cry from Karachi,” I suggest.

Sheikh, though, is adamant about his stance. “It has to be from Quetta,” he says. “Otherwise, what good will it do?”

Sheikh feels that running the campaign from Karachi would defeat its purpose. He doesn’t want to be a part of the norm — but then, those who get to know him, are well aware of that.

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 28th, 2019