Photography: Arif Mahmood | Coordination: Faisal Quraishi
Photography: Arif Mahmood | Coordination: Faisal Quraishi

It is now 20 years since Boota from Toba Tek Singh, the television drama that skyrocketed Faysal Qureshi’s career as an actor and made him into a bona fide superstar. And though I have rarely (if ever) sat through an entire television series starring him since, one thing has remained quite fresh at the back of my mind from that stint:he never felt like a television actor. His nuances were too distinctive, and a bit too filmi, for the small screen — not that it hurt his career.

Years ago, a producer friend of mine was contemplating a serial for a high-profile TV network where Qureshi was considered a hot commodity. And although already a headlining star, the role he was being considered for was once again a sitcom. As it was (and still is) the way of the industry, Qureshi had been type-cast — even though the producer accepted that he is an actor of phenomenal range.

Back in the day, he was playing the squeaky-voiced small-town simpleton named Shams in Main Aur Tum. Unlike most single-camera sitcoms of today, that rely on single camera set-ups, reaction shots and editorial patch-ups, Main Aur Tum was a multi-camera sitcom, reminiscent of rehearsed dramas from PTV, that banked on Qureshi’s chemistry with Aijazz Aslam.

I don’t know what happened to my producer friend’s show, but what I do remember is that Qureshi bounced back with a string of serious performances that kept type-casters at bay; this time, his penchant to explore non-stereotypical characters was more pronounced than before. It was almost as if he was subconsciously aware that he was being constrained, and that exploring his own potential would be the only way to dig himself out of an imminent hell-hole.

Dodging typecast-roles and sitcoms to be where he is today, actor Faysal Qureshi’s hard work seems to have finally paid off as he readies himself for his first film and web-series. But he still craves challenges

Waltzing through stereotypes, Qureshi simultaneously played every spectrum to a tee — he was the hero, the villain, the joker — and when live television became the vogue, he turned host.

“It started as a bit of fun — and the pay was good,” Qureshi tells me of his hosting stint, which continues to this day. As we talk, I unstrap my sandals to put up my feet. Barely a foot away from me lies his six-month-old Belgian Shepherd; a lazy puppy who is in love with the room’s air-conditioning.

We’ve already been talking for over two hours; the conversation is a breeze, flowing to-and-fro, free from stilted, routine answers. This is the first time we’re meeting, about which Qureshi is somewhat surprised; I simply didn’t feel the need, I tell him. I was waiting for him to do a film.

That film is Sorry: A Love Story — and as the title self-evidently tells us, it will be a love story. We had been talking about Sorry for a while, and from what I’ve heard, the film — a four-way romance-drama between Qureshi, Aamina Sheikh, Faryal Mehmood and Zahid Ahmed — has the charm of classic cinema. But that’s as much as I’m allowed to say; the remaining story is locked away with an off-the-record stamp.

There is a reason for Qureshi’s secrecy. His film, (also his debut as a film producer) is only 40 percent in the can (a misnomer in these digital times no doubt). “We’ve finished a spell in February, and are aiming at another spell in August and September, because the weather will be nicer,” he tells me. “It would have been far easier for me if I had attempted to do a comedy. [Undertaking] Sorry may be difficult,” Qureshi says.

In his own words: “Sorry is inspired by classic Pakistani films such as Bandish, Aaina, Armaan — films from Nadeem and Waheed sahib. It’s a film from that category. I’ve been a fan of Nadeem sahib and had always wanted to do that type of cinema.”

Given that Pakistani cinema is constantly bombarded by romantic-comedies, would an old-school romance-drama work? The last time we’d seen one was Shaan’s Arth — The Destination (Qureshi was approached for Mohib Mirza’s role). And that didn’t fare that well.

In his own words: “Sorry is inspired by classic Pakistani films such as Bandish, Aaina, Armaan — films from Nadeem and Waheed sahib. It’s a film from that category. I’ve been a fan of Nadeem sahib and had always wanted to do that type of cinema.”

Qureshi is no fool, though. He’s terribly aware of his audience: females between 30-50. The same audience that made Bin Roye a hit. “Men love a good love story too,” he pitches, as if I’m to review the film this week. “Also, I wouldn’t call it old-school per se. People still like romantic dramas. And there is a hell of a difference between television and films. Sometimes, one may feel it is the same because, most of the times, films are being written by [the same] drama writers. But the essence of film is different, with its songs and the fast pacing,” Qureshi asserts. “Also, cinema cannot prosper if everyone ends up making the same type of comedies.

“People have their own ideas of making films, and sometimes we get imposed upon about what we should be making,” he continues. “One of the bigger problems we have is that every filmmaker thinks that they know all too well what they should be doing, that they know everything. And if you say anything, they get offended.

“I was offered a project where I wanted certain changes to the script,” he recalls. “The producers didn’t listen to what I had to say. We parted ways and when the film came out, it turned out to be a shot-to-shot remake of a regional Indian film — and it was then that I realised that the reason they couldn’t change the film was that it was supposed to be a shot-to-shot remake.”

The film Qureshi is referring to is Chhuppan Chhuppai — and the fiasco was duly uncovered in Icon by this writer at the time of its release.

But doesn’t playing the same type of roles over and over again lull his interests? “Even if an actor works for a 100 years, he may not feel that he has seen it all and done it all,” he disagrees. But then, “I try to avoid similar characters,” he says, later. “When I get something different — even if it’s simple — I try to agree to play the character. But one has to be selective. When you’ve worked for so long, the audience’s expectations from you grow. Youngsters don’t get that criticism. People who have been working for a long time get criticised for their get-ups, looks, wardrobe and performance. One has to work on a lot of aspects.

And indeed, Qureshi does; he’s infamous for delving into the character. “It’s not like I get a script and immediately go to set,” he says. “It takes five, maybe six months — sometimes as little as three months — discussing the script and getting into the role, to change my get-up, find the character’s depth, find his pain and happiness.”

Qureshi is currently taking Ramazan off, catching up on serials from Netflix and sifting through roles. Out of the 10 he’s offered, he’ll take one, maybe two, and a maximum of three projects this year. Most of the money he saves from these projects will fund Sorry, where, so far, he is the only producer.

But he’s in no hurry. He’ll use the time to further fine-tune the narrative, which he believes, will be air-tight (the film already has a storyboard in place). “Things, of course, change — but only for the better,” he tells me. “As an actor, I can throw an idea, and the writer and the director can see if it works within the confines of the story. It has rarely happened that writers or directors disagree with my suggestions. At most, it may have happened five percent of the time in my career.”

Qureshi is aware that this may mark him as a overly fussy actor so he is at pains to point out that his resistance is only limited to the pre-production stage. “After I go on set, I surrender myself completely to the director.

And what of other projects? “I’m also quite excited about Badshah Begum,” he says, of his upcoming production that has yet to go on the floors. Produced by Rafay Rashdi (producer and director of Thora Jee Lay, and, until recently, a key executive at Moomal Productions), the project has created a buzz for its choice of platform. Badshah Begum is not slated for television — Rashdi has announced that it will be a web-series. The series, though, has yet to find a streaming platform such as Netflix, Amazon or YouTube.

Being in an even more nascent phase than Sorry, Badshah Begum’s story is being kept under tight wraps — the only thing I’m told is that it is a battle between two families. “My character is quite brutal in the series. People will hate me like anything — and I want them to hate me,” Qureshi happily declares. The series, so far, also stars Iman Ali and Mohsin Abbas Haider in key roles. Given the platform, the payday, though, may not be as high.

“There are some things that you don’t do for money — and this might be that one,” he tells me.

But there is an upside as well. “We are creatively restricted in television dramas these days. With web-series, new-blood filmmakers can try out newer, riskier themes,” Qureshi emphasises. “India just proved that this can happen, and we’re lagging behind. Today, the world talks about Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Penny Dreadful, Jack Ryan, Stranger Things, or German series such as Dark, or Spanish dramas such as Money Heist.” He continues on why emerging filmmakers need to take narrative risks in Pakistan. If anything, exploring radical ideas would give Faysal Qureshi the challenge he craves.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 2nd, 2019