Photo courtesy Faran Tahir
Photo courtesy Faran Tahir

Faran Tahir has already seen the heady heights of Hollywood hits. But the actor is now also climbing the treacherous inclines of Pakistani entertainment. In a world where he consistently encounters misconceptions about his homeland and his faith, Faran proudly proclaims himself to be a Muslim Pakistani-American. There is a large number who try to hide their identity when operating outside of Pakistan, in order to avoid prejudice. But Faran is an anomaly amongst them — and, as I discover, such a welcome one.

I meet the actor at the recent Hum Style Awards in Karachi, where he is presenting an award, and he easily stands out as one of the most stylish men at the event. Faran dresses well but there is also a confidence about him — undoubtedly bolstered by his impressive repertoire of work in Hollywood, his trysts with Shakespearean theatre and, more than anything else, his strong sense of self-worth.

During the course of our conversation he tells me, “My faith and my nationality make me who I am. I don’t look at them as my weaknesses but rather, my ‘uniquenesses’. They make me different from everyone else. A lot of times this has worked in my favour.”

His work history is testament to this. Faran has been part of a wide range of projects, including huge commercial hits such as Iron Man, Star Trek, Grey’s Anatomy and Prison Break. I ask him a question that he is asked very often: internationally, TV and film are often gravitating towards stories that are anti-Pakistan or anti-Muslim. Does he encounter such scripts often and how does he respond to them?

“It is well within my right to refuse a project, and I have done so when I feel that a story is slanted towards a narrative that goes against the core of who I am. Even if it’s a big role in a major movie, it doesn’t matter. However, often these stories are written simply because the West is not aware of who we truly are. When I see people misrepresenting Pakistan, I feel that it is my moral and personal duty to try to correct them. There are times when I have engaged in dialogues with directors in order to explain my point of view to them.”

His self-assurance makes him an anomaly, standing out in a niche of his very own. Despite tasting Hollywood success, Faran Tahir has never compromised on his identity. And now he’s trying to project that identity internationally...

He continues, “When I was offered Iron Man, I noticed that, in some of the scenes, there were allusions to my faith. I felt that in a fantasy-based Marvel movie, there was no need to inject religious insinuations at all. Instead of a faith-based soldier, the villain that I was playing could be a soldier of fortune, a mercenary who would do anything to gain power. I discussed this with the director, and he changed the script accordingly.

“In Grey’s Anatomy, I play a man who is about to go into surgery that he may or may not survive. The director asked me what I thought the man should do before his surgery and I felt that there was nothing more natural than for me to raise my hands in du’a [prayer]. Scenes like these allow me to give glimpses of my beliefs to the audience.”

Faran Tahir, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan
Faran Tahir, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan

And yet, doesn’t he also risk getting typecast into certain roles because of his ethnicity? “That risk was particularly there when I first started out in my career,” he says. “The roles that I got offered at the time were usually those of the Pakistani shopkeeper, taxi driver or restaurant owner. And yes, there are a lot of Pakistanis abroad who have these professions, but if I took on too many of these roles, I would only help solidify this stereotype. Instead, I opted to do a lot of theatrical work. I acted in plays by Shakespeare and Chekhov and, slowly, as I proved my diversity, the ‘nos’ turned into ‘yesses’ and I started getting offered more diverse roles.”

These roles were often of the malevolent bad guy — did this, again, try to pigeonhole him into a certain kind of character? “It could have. From a business point-of-view, I understand filmmakers’ perspective when they start offering me the same kind of roles. If something is clicking well with the audience they will, of course, want to cash in on it. But I’m stubborn when it comes to the roles that I will do, regardless of how impressive an offer comes my way. My principle is that, if I play two or three characters that are similar, I will have to do something different the next time, even if it’s a kick to my wallet. I can’t let myself get stereotyped. I’m my career’s best guardian — and my best critic!

A poster from when Faran Tahir performed Shakespeare on stage
A poster from when Faran Tahir performed Shakespeare on stage

But I’m stubborn when it comes to the roles that I will do, regardless of how impressive an offer comes my way. My principle is that, if I play two or three characters that are similar, I will have to do something different the next time, even if it’s a kick to my wallet. I can’t let myself get stereotyped. I’m my career’s best guardian — and my best critic!”

“In fact, if you look at my body of work, I have played about as many good guys as I have bad ones. It’s just that the bad guys have often been more memorable because they basically go about doing whatever they please!”

His international work continues but Faran is now also turning towards Pakistani entertainment. He tells me, “My schedule often hasn’t allowed me to work at length in Pakistan but now I’m working on a few projects that are close to my heart.”

One of these projects is a movie that he is producing and acting in, titled The Window. The story will be focusing on the injustices that women in rural regions suffer from, and also stars Suhaee Abro, Faysal Quraishi, Sami Khan, Hameed Sheikh, Rubya Chaudhry and Angeline Malik. While filmed in English, the movie will also be dubbed in Urdu and Faran hopes to see it released in commercial cinemas in Pakistan and internationally, particularly in regions that have a high Pakistani immigrant demographic.

“The rights of women are very close to my heart and the directors, writer and I have basically looked at newspaper headlines and taken inspiration from them in order to construct a story. It’s a work of fiction but it is reality-based.”

Faran Tahir playing the antagonist Raza in Iron Man
Faran Tahir playing the antagonist Raza in Iron Man

With such a heavy duty storyline, does he feel that The Window will fare well in Pakistan, where audiences have a penchant for highly commercial, lighthearted productions? Does he not feel that this movie will be more likely to be successful at film festivals? And given the current state of the local industry, is he not worried that he may lose considerable money? “I hope that I don’t. I hope that Pakistanis, the world over as well the ones living in Pakistan, gravitate towards The Window. Besides, money is not everything. If we don’t bring in new genres, how will we know whether or not they will work? How can we hope for an energetic, growing industry if we don’t expand the menu? I do want to eventually take The Window to film festivals but I don’t want it to become purely a festival movie. I want its story to be experienced by mass audiences.”

His heart may be in the right place but The Window will be pinpointing atrocities endured by women in Pakistan. Has he considered that local audiences may not appreciate that he is showcasing Pakistan in a negative light to the world at large? “It is a hard-hitting subject,” he accepts, “but if people object to it, I will welcome the dialogue. My intention is not to demonise Pakistan or to aggrandise it. I just want to humanise it for the world.

“As a Pakistani-American, I often feel that the world is misinformed about Pakistan. With my work, I want to celebrate the positive points of Pakistan and also analyse the weaker points, and to tell the world that we are dealing with them. I don’t want someone from outside to analyse us. I don’t want to wait for Hollywood or any other industry to show us in a positive light. We know our stories best and we need to start controlling our own narratives, to put up a mirror that depicts our beauty as well our ugliness. It gives out a message to the world that we are aware of our faults and we’re not going to be sweeping them under the rug. At the same time, we are celebrating all that is beautiful in our land.”

Over the next two years, Faran will be working on other projects that will depict other sides to Pakistan. In his upcoming movie with director Iram Parveen Bilal, I’ll Meet You There, he will be enacting an undercover FBI agent who is raising his teenage daughter, mending ties with his estranged father, and hates that he has to report on Muslims in his job. In the movie The Martial Artist, scheduled to begin shooting this April, he will be playing a Pakistani-American MMA fighter.

“The Martial Artist will be shot up in the mountains of Pakistan and will bring focus upon our scenic landscapes,” Faran describes. “It’s certainly not my mission to show Pakistan in any particular light. I’m a storyteller and I just want to tell good stories, true ones, about my country. I’m also writing an adaptation of Anarkali, the play written by my grandfather Imtiaz Ali Taj, for cinema.”

Last year, he worked in Pakistani theatre, in a play titled Bhai Bhai. What has inclined him towards Pakistan, especially after having reaped the fame and fortune that comes with a Hollywood career? “It’s home,” he shrugs. “My life in the US has given me a lot and it’s a part of me. At the same time, there’s another part of me that never listens to Western music, who listens to ghazals and qawwalis. I am who I am. This is my motherland. And I look forward to my work here.”

How was his experience working as a thespian in Pakistan? “I enjoyed it. Acting on stage always enriches my soul. There is an intimacy created with the audience and you are performing exclusively just for them, for that night. Bhai Bhai belonged to a genre that wasn’t common to Pakistan but it went well.”

My queries shift back to his life in Hollywood, a topic that intrigues me endlessly. He’s worked alongside some of the industry’s biggest stars and yet, he seems to miss out on photo-ops with them. Celebrities all over the world now build their Instagram and Twitter profiles with behind-the-scenes imagery but Faran’s social media existence is more old-school, with sparsely scattered images of himself. Why so? “It’s something that I need to work on, I suppose,” he laughs. “It’s just that, when at work, we are all equals. My mind just doesn’t go there.”

He also tells me about how he prays when he is on set in Hollywood. “It just takes five minutes. There are people there who take out time to do yoga — and I take out the time to pray. It’s not something that I have to announce — although a lot of times, in between shoots, I do have to tell them that I need a five-minute break to pray. It’s important to me, that is part of my life and that I feel enriches my personally. I don’t have to hide it or avoid it.”

And it is this self-assurance that makes Faran an anomaly, standing out in a niche of his very own. Slowly, surely, over a career that started out with him “sleeping in his car” and has spiraled up towards Hollywood blockbusters, Faran has retained his own identity. For Pakistanis all over the world — and for anyone struggling to make it big while remaining true to his or her roots — he is inspiring. Not only in the work that he has done, but for who he truly is.

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 9th, 2020