Photography: Fayyaz Ahmed | Styling: Kevin @ Ilyas Salon | Coordination: Ghazanah @ Alchemists
Photography: Fayyaz Ahmed | Styling: Kevin @ Ilyas Salon | Coordination: Ghazanah @ Alchemists

I half expected to see the remorseless brat Wajih Taseer from the hit TV serial Cheekh, with ruffled hair, a heavy stubble and venom dripping from his eyes. But Bilal Abbas Khan surprises me as he enters the room. His eyes are shy, his expression innocent and he looks like a clean-shaven 20-year-old, with an air of uncertainty about him.

Cheekh star Bilal Abbas Khan is a blockbuster breakout and presently shaking up the drama industry. His acting debut in Saaya-i-Deewar Bhi Nahin may have gone unnoticed but he caught my eye when he played the submissive Qasim in O Rangreza. Following soon after was the patient Taimoor in Balaa, for which he won the Social Media Award for Best Actor, and also received a nomination for Best TV Actor at the Lux Style Awards.

But as Wajih Taseer in Cheekh, he really took us by storm. Three years after his debut in 2016, this 27-year-old Napa dropout is at the top of his game.

Icon met up with him recently in between shoots for his next project with Hum TV after O Rangreza. “I wanted to do something light after Cheekh and this is a light-hearted, character-driven story directed by Farooq Rind. I play the lead against Yumna Zaidi. I’m not playing the regular chocolate hero but, at the same time, it’s a character that I haven’t done so far. Yumna’s role is also equally complicated and it’s a cute, romantic and funny story.”

Bilal Abbas Khan’s turn as the villain in Cheekh has really made him a household name. So why did he almost not take on the role? And if he enjoys acting so much, why did he drop out of acting class?

Bilal Abbas was surprised at the feedback he got for the role of Wajih. “When Wajih was bad, they hated him but, in the last episode, when they found out why Wajih was the way he was, people told me they were in tears for him,” he says. “Previously, when I went out, I could hear hushed whispers of ‘Qasim!’, the character I played in O Rangreza, but now people know me as Wajih bhai!”

Ironically, initially, Bilal didn’t want to do a negative character so early on in his career. “I wasn’t sure whether I would be accepted by viewers in the role, as negative characters can backfire too,” he says. “Also, I don’t want to be stuck in just one genre, as I want to be an actor with range.

“Since a negative character doesn’t even suit my looks, my biggest challenge was to make it look credible. Until now, I had only been recognised for characters that walk away with the audience’s sympathy. But Badar Mehmood, the director of Cheekh, managed to convince me by telling me that I would have the margin to do it my way.”

What experiences did he draw upon to play Wajih? “I had no specific inspiration to do Wajih, but I do watch a lot of films and TV, and have been doing so for years,” he says and adds, “I’m probably a child who has never watched cartoons but has seen films since being born.”

After landing himself the negative role of Wajih in Cheekh, Bilal spent a good amount of time preparing for it. “I wanted to keep dark humour in it,” he says. “I wanted to keep it realistic and not do it like the typical villain where you make big eyes, pull ugly faces and guffaw. I had an understanding with the director and once it took off, the role just kept on rolling.”

Bilal reminisces how he was lost in the character of Wajih. “There is a scene in the fifth episode of Cheekh, when Mannat [Saba Qamar] confronts Wajih who confesses to her that he has murdered [her friend] Nayab [Ushna Shah],” recalls Bilal. “I was nervous about the scene as this was the first scene to reveal to the viewers that Wajih is the murderer. I knew that this had to be a powerful scene because, before that, Wajih seemed like a sweet boy who was not a murder suspect. The revelation had to be strong and I wanted the viewers to get jolted out of their seats.

“And boy, were they jolted! We were shooting with three cameras and there was a lot of movement in the scene. Saba’s character slaps me in the face in that scene. Now, it wasn’t part of the script but it was a reaction from her and I went along with it. And my reaction to the slap ke mujhe kyun maara [why was I slapped] was also not part of the plan but it was included because it made a powerful scene. I like to own my scenes and I usually read and rehearse my scenes and try to bring in some variation, then rehearse with other actors, and discuss my tone and expression with the director. I was pleased with the outcome for this scene as was Badar and after this take he didn’t want to do any more takes.”

Did he eat, live and breathe Wajih while doing Cheekh? “I don’t take my characters home,” says Bilal. “After a 12-hour shoot, I like to chill with my family and friends as Bilal and not Wajih or Taimoor or Qasim. Acting is my escape route from everything else. But being Wajih was pretty heavy-duty and, towards the end of a serial, I was anxious to wrap up the extensive shoots and not prolong them unnecessarily. Oddly, it was beginning to irritate me.”

Naturally, a lot of negative roles were offered to Bilal post-Cheekh. “I was wondering if people would accept me in a positive role again, because Wajih is still fresh in people’s minds. For the role I’m currently doing, I have completely changed my look. I’m wearing glasses and I shaved my beard off because I want to get away from Wajih.”

What was it like working with Saba Qamar? “Saba is phenomenal and amazing to work with,” he says. “She is a senior and so experienced and, strangely enough, I had always wanted to work with her. I knew it couldn’t be a romantic pairing but when I found out that my role as Wajih was against Saba’s one-on-one, I was thrilled that my dream had finally come true, despite my doing a negative character opposite her.

When Wajih was bad, they hated him but, in the last episode, when they found out why Wajih was the way he was, people told me they were in tears for him,” he says. “Previously, when I went out, I could hear hushed whispers of ‘Qasim!’, the character I played in O Rangreza, but now people know me as Wajih bhai!”

“If your co-actor is good, half your work is done. Like, for instance, even now when I’m working with Yumna Zaidi, my character is difficult because I have not done a character like this previously. But her reaction to my acting is so good, it’s as though she is bowling and I’m hitting shots all over the field.”

Money, Bilal insists, is not a priority for him and he follows his gut feelings when choosing a role. “I love doing characters which have a journey, or an arc of performance. I pick a role if it touches my heart. It should take me out of my skin and right out of my comfort zone. Giving 12 hours to a shoot can only be possible for me if the role excites me.

“I usually have a gut feeling that this role is for me, and it was my gut feeling that I said yes to Cheekh, Balaa and O Rangreza, even though I knew some actors had turned down the role of Qasim in O Rangreza because they thought Qasim was a sissy being bullied by the girl Sassi. I’m not being modest, but sometimes I even surprise myself, pulling off a character. That, perhaps, is my biggest joy of being an actor. I love acting and that is why I have left everything [else] to continue acting.”

It was playing the multi-layered Qasim in O Rangreza, which made Bilal decide that he didn’t want to do one-dimensional characters anymore. “Before O Rangreza, I was not in a position to choose roles or to reject scripts. Now I want to do a whole range of different characters,” he explains.

Bilal found Qasim’s role a challenging one. “He started as a submissive person who, out of his love for Sassi, would even pick up garbage for her when she ordered him around, and she would hit him too. But later on, Qasim’s role takes a turn when he rebels against Sassi, telling her in not so many words that after she had destroyed him, he’s done with her and married. So what did Sassi want from him now?

“Likewise in Balaa, Taimoor is a family man but, later, he becomes vengeful towards his wife Nigar in response to what she does to his family. I feel that times have changed, the definition of an actor has changed, people’s expectations have changed, and the definition of romance has changed. Hence content has changed too and performances are on a different scale. A hero is not someone who only does good. There is more reality in characters now with more grey areas. Also, viewers have a lot of exposure. Now it is more about understanding the various layers of a character.”

Bilal has done leads with three hugely talented actors in three consecutive blockbusters — Sajal Aly, Ushna Shah and then Saba Qamar. “I have learnt a lot from them. Ushna and I had great on-screen chemistry in Balaa, although not off the camera because we are both reserved people. When I was working with Sajal in Rangreza, I really didn’t know much about acting as I was new and I learnt a great deal from the way Sajal works.”

Bilal did Dumpukht with Kashif Nisar in 2016, followed by O Rangreza with him in 2017, and he credits the veteran director for actually catapulting him to stardom. “I was being auditioned for a number of soaps when the audition for Dumpukht came along,” he says. “They were looking for a new boy who could play the third person in a love triangle between an older man, a young man and his girlfriend. Being my mentor after Dumpukht, Kashif bhai gave me O Rangreza. He has offered me more work but nothing has clicked with me yet and he jokes with me these days, telling me that now I have an attitude. I want to work with him again definitely but I’m just waiting for the right kind of role.”

So, given his penchant for acting, why did Bilal Abbas become a dropout from the National Academy of the Performing Arts (Napa)? “I was doing my BBA in the evening and afternoons I would be at Napa where I was doing a three-year diploma,” he explains half-sheepishly. “Meanwhile, I was also auditioning for various TV projects. I started off with soaps as a third lead and I did a film Thora Jee Le [2017] but, while I was still at Napa, I landed a serial Saya-i-Deewar Bhi Naheen and my attendance suffered badly. So Napa threw me out. From then on, I have continued to work in TV plays.”

Bilal has been offered films, but he feels he is not ready for them yet. “Our films are improving, content and music is becoming so much better but I’m not mentally prepared for a movie yet. Also, I don’t undermine TV dramas at all. Drama is big and my viewers love me, so for the time being I’ll stick with TV.”

For what it’s worth, Bilal has a strong belief in destiny. “There is our own plan and then there is God’s plan. The latter you can’t stop. So, as long as exciting work keeps coming my way, acting is what I’ll always do, because that is all I know.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 13th, 2019