Ali Rehman Khan easily fits the bill as ‘hero material’. He has the anglicised looks that pander to our post-colonial hangover about good looks: fair-skinned, with light-coloured eyes and a hint of blonde in his hair. Also, he’s a good actor and he’s recently left his job with the UN and shifted base from Vienna to Pakistan in order to ‘act full-time’.
The sum of these factors should naturally lead to Ali acting in multiple roles, taking over a fair bit of the TV screens, as well as cinema. But this isn’t the case. Ali’s acting trysts are less frequent. Apparently, he believes in waiting for the ‘right roles’.
“I would rather stay unemployed for a while than take on roles that don’t excite me,” says Ali. “That’s what I have been doing: slowly, surely building a body of work that is versatile, working hard, trying to reinvent myself every time I get inside the skin of a character. I get offered a lot of roles that I just refuse because they are too formulaic and aren’t challenging enough.”
He says all this while gazing into the distance, frowning slightly, perhaps visualising the future roles that will proceed to define his career. We are sitting in a busy restaurant and I keep noticing the people around us glancing occasionally at Ali, sometimes approaching him for a picture. But Ali, intent on dissecting his career trajectory, is quite oblivious to the attention that he gets.
He’s an Islamabad boy who’s moved from Vienna to Karachi to be closer to work opportunities. He’s the subject of speculation about his regular pairing with a co-star. He fears being misquoted. And he feels he’s unfairly lost out on major projects because of industry politics. But actor Ali Rehman still believes that what is destined will come to him eventually
“I suppose that the audience has warmed up to me a bit,” he allows. “But there is so much more that I want to do, so many more stories that I want to tell.” It is this train of thought that dominates most of our interview.
Ali’s search for diverse roles is appreciable, but why does his career graph keep winding back to actress Hareem Farooq? From Janaan, produced by Hareem, to the drama Diyaar-i-Dil and onwards to his movie Parchi and the upcoming Heer Maan Ja (HMJ), Ali has very frequently been paired with the actress throughout his short career. Doesn’t he fear that audiences will tire of their on-screen couple? “Yes, that fear is there,” he concedes, “and, of course, I am open to working with other actresses. In fact, my TV drama currently on air, Khaas, features me opposite Sanam Baloch.”
He continues, “I accepted Parchi because I had developed a great rapport with the producers back when we were filming Janaan. They had placed their faith in a newcomer and it made sense to keep working with them. HMJ was offered to me while Parchi was wrapping up and once again, I really liked the project.
“These things just happen,” he says. “The roles that I have enacted have somehow mostly featured me opposite Hareem. Other roles have, of course, been offered to me and, sometimes, the ones that I have refused have turned out to become super-hits.”
Weighing his words carefully — he says that he lives in fear of being misquoted in interviews — he adds, “The year 2018 turned out to be an awakening for me, when I lost out on major projects that I thought had been confirmed as mine.”
Invariably, the projects that he does sign on to win him rave reviews, even when the movie or drama itself may be critiqued severely. Given that he says that he is selective about his work, how does it feel when his movies get slammed by critics? “It doesn’t feel good, of course,” he says. “I appreciate constructive criticism and I always try to learn from it. But there have been times when people have come up to me and simply said, ‘Your movie was trash’. That’s just very hurtful and extremely insensitive. I don’t want audiences to applaud substandard work but I do wish that more people were supportive of Pakistani cinema. They could at least measure the good with the bad and give a more balanced analysis rather than simply dismiss an entire team’s hard work so callously. A lot of these spontaneous reviews are made on social media and, sadly, word of mouth on the internet can really hamper a movie’s innings at the box office.”
How does he react when someone puts down his projects to his face? “I have developed a thick skin,” he shrugs. “You have to, in this line of work. But this sort of bullying can be really damaging for an actor when he or she is just starting out.
“Also, because currently very few films are being made in Pakistan, every movie that releases is completely under scrutiny. Its weaknesses and strengths are dissected in great detail. It’s extremely stressful.”
And yet, despite the teething issues currently being endured by Pakistani films, Ali seems to gravitate more towards acting in films as opposed to the lucrative, albeit generic, arena of TV dramas. “I always wanted to be a film actor,” he agrees. “It’s all I wanted to do back when I started out. Now, though, I have realised the importance of television in Pakistan. It reaches the masses and has the power to make you a star. But even while I want to act in TV roles that intrigue me, film acting is my dream. I’m from Islamabad, I’m like that. I like to dream rather than weigh the pros and cons and look at financial viability. There are lots more actors from Islamabad currently working in the industry and you’ll see that they are like me — living their dreams, slowly building them, often at the cost of earning less.”
From Islamabad to Karachi
From his home base in Islamabad, onwards to Vienna where he was working for the UN and now, settled in Karachi, Ali’s been moving round quite a bit. Does it help if an actor is stationed in Karachi, the city from where Pakistan’s major entertainment networks operate? “Absolutely,” he says. “About 95 percent of the work that I do is from here. I may have been working for some time now but earlier I would wrap up a project and then return to Vienna. I was unable to cash in on the hype that follows the release of a movie or a drama. Out of sight, out mind. Now, I’m here, in the middle of everything and it helps.
“Also, while my parents live in Islamabad, I think Karachi resonates better with the person that I am. I like to constantly be moving. Islamabad has a very mellow, content pace while Karachi hustles and bustles. I enjoy it.”
With multiple awards ceremonies scheduled to take place in the latter half of the year, does he also enjoy awards season? “To be honest, they don’t mean a lot to me. There have been times when certain prestigious awards platforms have nominated me in a category but then not bothered to send me an invite to the event. If I win something, I will appreciate it but, at this point in my career, I’m certainly not obsessing over winning awards.”
I comment that having endured our lax awards systems, as well as getting projects snatched from under his nose, it seems that Ali has been a victim of standard industry politics. How does he deal with it? “I just move on,” he states. “It isn’t easy, but what else can be done? Initially, there is regret and pain but then I come to realise that perhaps this is all just part of my journey. What is meant for me will come to me and that may be now or it may be 20 years down the line.”
But would he want to wait for 20 years? “No one wants to wait for 20 years! But it isn’t in my hands, is it? It all boils down to destiny and the way the industry’s power players decide to push certain people upwards and put others down.”
He continues, “This industry really needs to support each other. Yes, we are in competition with each other but we are also part of the same fraternity. And if the industry grows, we will all grow. That’s why I make it a point to attend film premieres. It’s my way of extending support to my peers.”
Has he considered amping up his presence on social media in order to promote his body of work? “I suppose that I should but I haven’t yet. I just think that it is unnecessary for people to know what I’m wearing every day or where I’m going. Why would they want to know that? Also, I am a bit old-school. I feel that my body of work should speak for me rather than my Instagram pictures. There needs to be a distinction between an actor’s private life and professional life.”
What about his private life, though, I probe. Ali may frequently be in the spotlight at red carpet affairs but his private life remains a mystery. I ask him the first question that comes to my mind: is he dating Hareem? “No, I’m not,” he asserts. “I’m just really working hard right now and that’s about it.”
Ali Rehman’s next movie — Heer Maan Ja — is slotted for an Eid-ul-Azha release. He says he’s certainly worked hard for it. Will it reap the results he hopes? He will have to wait another couple of months to find out.
Published in Dawn, ICON, May 19th, 2019