Everyone on Humayun Saeed’s street knows where his house is. And as I wind about the neighbouring alleys, having forgotten the way, a random passerby confidently provides me with directions. I don’t even have to tell him the address — when one of the biggest stars in the country lives in the vicinity, everyone knows the way to his house.
The interiors of Humayun’s house are also famous, in their own way. We sit in the basement, where I have always interviewed him; a spacious, long room dominated by wood, leather and a large projector screen at one end. This room, ensconced away from the hubbub of the rest of the house, is where Humayun works and entertains guests. It features consistently in images of the star-studded gatherings that are frequent in his house, ranging from success parties to launch parties, boisterous post-awards gatherings, birthdays and friendly soirees.
Outside this room, in a sun-dappled atrium, shelves are laden with multitudes of awards. This wall is testament to Humayun’s 24 successful years in the industry, playing chocolate hero, spurned lover, playboy and all the while, striking gold by also producing big hits in the drama industry as well as in film. It is the sort of wall that rivets you, and I don’t think any visiting journalist can resist taking a picture of it. I, at least, always do — I do so now as well.
Does getting awards still excite him after winning so many times? “I love awards,” he says, “and I always want to win more. I’m extremely happy every time I win.”
Perhaps the seismic success of Humayun’s career graph can be assessed by an anecdote he tells me during the course of our interview. “Fawad Khan was once acting in a drama that had been scripted by Samira Fazal, and he joked with me that, in certain parts of the script, he had been instructed to give an ‘expression like Humayun Saeed’. I’ve been acting for so long that many people associate a certain kind of acting with me.”
From being considered a roving Lothario in his younger days to being seen as one of Pakistan’s most astute producers, Humayun Saeed has remained firmly ensconced as a leading man over two decades. How does he do it?
He is particularly associated with the romantic genre — he tells me that a fan recently archived his career graph and it turned out that he had worked in “about 80 to 90 dramas.” Over the years, he has romanced multitudes of actresses on TV and film; from Sadia Imam and Sania Saeed to, recently, Kubra Khan and Ayeza Khan. Leading ladies have come and gone but Humayun has firmly remained entrenched as a hero. As one of the country’s most successful TV and film producers, he is, in fact, often criticised for casting himself as the lead in his own projects. What his critics fail to acknowledge is that these projects are predominantly huge hits which means that, for audiences, he remains ‘hero material’.
Nevertheless, I start off our interview with a hackneyed question he hears often: why does he continue to play hero? “Don’t you think that’s a silly question?” he smirks. “I enjoy playing the hero and people enjoy seeing me as a leading character. Times have changed and heroes no longer have to be of a particular age. It’s not like I take on the role of a college-goer. I’m very careful with characterisation. There will be quips in the script, poking fun at my age: I’ll comment that I’m trying hard to look like a boy or one of my friends in the movie will pull my cheeks and make jokes about Botox.
“Nadeem sometimes points out to me that people only criticise those who are successful, and it’s true that I work very hard on every project, making it a success to the best of my abilities,” he says, referring to his friend, co-producer, director of many of his films and dramas, and longtime working partner, Nadeem Baig. “Perhaps that’s why the complaint about me being a hero continues.”
Is it hard sharing the spotlight with other male leads, as he often tends to do in many of his productions? For instance, in Meray Paas Tum Ho (MPTH), a drama that is currently airing and raking in high ratings, he is playing the befuddled husband while Adnan Siddiqui is the suave ‘other man’. In the colossally successful Jawani Phir Nahin Aani (JPNA) franchise, he shares screen space and a very witty script with an ensemble cast. In fact, in last year’s JPNA 2, a large number of scenes were allotted to another hit hero, Fahad Mustafa, while Ahmed Ali Butt proceeded to get nominated for Best Actor for his work in the same movie. Humayun did not get nominated in the acting category.
“It isn’t hard,” he muses, “because I’m always simultaneously looking at things as a producer. I won’t ruin a project’s integrity just because I want to have more screen space. I don’t have any qualms in allowing opportunities to my peers. I was so happy when Ahmed got nominated. He deserved it.”
I persist. He is a dreary, badly-dressed, badly treated husband in MPTH while Adnan Siddiqui gets to roam about in finely tailored suits. Having almost always played the good-looking, coveted hero in the past, does it feel strange to take on such a drab character? “My character had to be drab. He is poor, burdened with responsibilities and he doesn’t have the time to think about his clothes or his physique,” he points out. “There are people in the audience who have objected to my appearance because they like seeing me as more glamorous. But I don’t mind at all.”
His production house has regularly been releasing a film every year. Did he mind not releasing a movie this year? “Of course, I did. It made me downright sad,” he admits. “I’m just glad that I had this drama to focus on.
“And now we are planning more movies. Hopefully, we will release two movies next year. One is tentatively titled Love Guru Hoja Shuru and the other, London Nahin Jaunga. Then, we have another movie in the works — a more serious movie called Aaj Rang Hai.”
The business of showbiz
Does he feel that local cinema is once again on the downslide now that the ban on Bollywood has reduced footfall? “Yes, that’s a fact,” he says. “Before the ban, more screens were getting put up but now, some cinemas have shut down. Others have been halted in the midst of construction. There are certainly no new screens. The ban may continue but, as filmmakers, it means that we have to work much harder. Huge amounts of money are invested into films, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to break even and make a profit. Besides, there are only about five to six major filmmakers at present in Pakistan. How much work can we do?
“And even when we do our very best, there is a chance that the movie will flop and we will incur huge losses.”
Fawad Khan was once acting in a drama that had been scripted by Samira Fazal, and he joked with me that, in certain parts of the script, he had been instructed to give an ‘expression like Humayun Saeed’. I’ve been acting for so long that many people associate a certain kind of acting with me.”
His movies have so far been huge hits. Does he still feel insecure about a movie before its release? “The fear of a movie flopping is always there,” Humayun observes. “At the same time, there is the hope that, since we have worked very hard, audiences will like the movie. Nadeem [Baig] and I spend ages building the framework of a movie. We work with scriptwriters, tweaking scenes every day, brainstorming over every tiny nuance, thinking about it all the time and coming up with new ideas. When a script is in the works, I often run it by my family. I know that they will always be honest with me.”
Why does he think that his movies are hits? “I think I personally like movies that are entertainers and, so, I end up focusing on entertaining movies. Sometimes, a movie may have a great story but it may not be commercially viable. So far, I have been able to sense when a movie will work at the box office and when it won’t.”
His dramas, similarly, do very well. Currently, a spate of dramas from his production house are hauling in high viewership ratings and in fact, MPTH is clashing with another drama, Alif, produced by his wife, airing at the same time on another channel. Both productions boast star casts and strong storylines, and regardless of what channel TV audiences switch to, business ends up booming for Humayun Saeed.
He doesn’t agree. “As a producer, I would want two major dramas to air on different days so that I can take over ratings on two separate days. Here, two very good projects are clashing and taking over each other’s optimum viewership.”
The long haul
I observe that over the past few years, his repute as a major producer has been growing. People at large are beginning to envision him as a savvy businessman. On the contrary, when he was younger, he was often considered a roving Lothario, rumoured to romance every heroine that he worked with.
Humayun frowns, perhaps thinking back to the past. “I have been working as a producer for a long time now but I think it’s just that now, with social media, people are more aware about this side to my career. As for linking me to different heroines, I think this was particularly because I allowed people to ask me intrusive questions. I would laugh when reporters would question me about a scandal and, somehow, they would assume that I was admitting to it! I was once with Sania Saeed and she got angry with me when I laughed. She told the reporter that I had achieved so much, built my career with such hard work and this was all that I was being asked about!
“It made me realise that I needed to be firm and make sure that people focused on my work.”
I observe that even his social media persona is focused more or less on his work. Unlike many other local celebrities, Humayun tends to refrain from commenting on topics that are trending, especially controversial ones. “I don’t really think before writing about something on social media. I won’t post a comment just because a certain topic is trending. But yes, if it’s something that I feel strongly about, or if it is an issue that I have witnessed with my own eyes, I may talk about it. It will never be just in order to make headlines.”
I feel that he is similarly reticent with giving interviews. My own interview with him serves as a prime example — it was rescheduled umpteen times as he ricocheted from awards ceremonies to tours of Pakistan’s northern areas in search for shooting locations to government-organised official trips. “No, I don’t mind getting interviewed. And when one of my movies is about to release, I get interviewed constantly,” he points out.
Will he also, in the near future, stage complete dance routines in malls to promote his movies, like so many others have recently? “I don’t know,” he says. “If someone is able to do it, then that’s great. Personally, I’m not very comfortable dancing, although it really all depends on my mood. The thing is, I have seen movie heroes dancing all over the country and yet, no one has come to see their movie. You don’t win people’s hearts by dancing for them in a mall. You win them over by the content that they see on screens, in cinemas and on TV.”
Spoken like a truly intuitive producer and actor, who won his audience’s hearts decades ago and continues to hold them in the palm of his hands. He works hard, though. “I gained weight for MPTH. It suited the character. Now, we begin shooting our movie in December and I have to lose weight. I’m on a very strict diet. It isn’t easy.”
No, it can’t be easy. But Humayun Saaed has never been afraid to work the long haul in order to make a project successful. Using his experience of more than two decades, he brainstorms over every project that he takes on. He calculates numbers in his head. He stays up all night, in his basement, surfing through channels as he sifts through the nitty gritties. He launches into painful but effective diets. He may not dance for you or create social media waves — but in an old-school, always effective way, he’ll simply deliver the hit of the year.
It isn’t easy. But perhaps, that’s the way he likes it. That’s what makes him Humayun Saeed.
Published in Dawn, ICON, October 27th, 2019