Photography: Mohammad Ali/White Star
Photography: Mohammad Ali/White Star

After a warm greeting and a dillydallying photo-session through his verandah and gallery, Alyy Khan, I and the photographer retire to his lounge for coffee.

It is nearly mid-day, the weather, balmy at first, is ramping up degrees, and even though I have Alyy sitting on a sofa next to mine, recounting his recent international projects, I can’t shake one particular image of his that has stubbornly wedged itself in my mind for the past few days.

The image isn’t pulled from one of Alyy’s impressive and diverse filmography. Rather, it is of him on a TV show, rolling his eyes with a rankled “I give up” mien, as he snapped back at a question about the state of the Pakistani media industry.

Alyy was a guest on Ahsan Khan’s late-night talk show, and this fragment of genuine, unadulterated reaction caught the host, the other guest and, perhaps, most viewers, off-guard.

Alyy Khan’s list of acting credits do not fit in a page let alone a paragraph, but he is still waiting to ride the big wave. He opens up about his life criss-crossing continents, his latest international projects and why Pakistani productions drive him mad

Alyy may seem livid in the clip, but the more he speaks to Icon, the more one can’t help but agree to the fundamental principles of his contention: he hates when people slack off, especially when they are capable of excelling.

Snapping back to the present interview, sitting next to Alyy, I see him with one leg over the other, and a foot waving away invisible thought bubbles. The harder Alyy aligns his thoughts, the longer the gaps in his speech, and the faster his foot peddles the air.

Alyy Khan plays Inpector Narinder Tulli in the Netflix-BBC film The Serpent
Alyy Khan plays Inpector Narinder Tulli in the Netflix-BBC film The Serpent

It’s a particular, unconscious habit some would wrongly label as uneasiness. By this time both Alyy and I realise we are veering off on a tangent.

A question pops into my head without forethought: why is Alyy Khan so angry?

“Typically, in Pakistan, there is no director worth his salt. It’s zero batta zero [zero divided by zero],” Alyy answers before I even get to the question.

Mere seconds ago, we had been talking about Mogul Mowgli, his latest film produced, co-written by and starring Riz Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Star Wars: Rogue One, Venom).

“It’s all bollocks,” Alyy adds with passion, springing up in his chair. Directors (in Pakistan) are totally beholden to their assistants, he says. “There is no homework. The deal is that you hire a decent director of photography and a decent set of actors, and they take care of the shoot with the assistant. That’s the attitude of work here, ninety percent of the time.”

Khan in an indie American film on mental health called The Valley
Khan in an indie American film on mental health called The Valley

“Kya bolna hai, kaisay bolna hai. Dus minute ka kaam hai… baat khatam hogai, yaar. [What lines you have to deliver, how you deliver them, it’s all spoon-fed to you by the assistant. It’s just 10 minutes of work anyway,” Alyy mimics the director’s pitch.

Having worked all over the world, the Pakistani way of production seems Greek to Alyy.

“In the beginning, people would tell me to get ready at 10, and the car would come at 12. By the time I reached the set at 12.30, I would be boiling mad. If you touched me, I’d explode.”

Paired opposite Jawed Sheikh, Alyy found out that the veteran actor arrived on set at one in the afternoon, spent time giving hugs and greeting those on set, and then walked away for his make-up. An hour-and-a-half later, with his make-up done, the production would take a lunch break before starting their first scene.

There was a lesson to be learned there, and Alyy was a fast learner.

“I went to the assistant and told him that, from that day onwards, I would only come on the set after lunch was over. The day I learned how to do that, I became a very happy man.”

Make that partially happy.

Khan with actor Tahar Rahim in the make-up van
Khan with actor Tahar Rahim in the make-up van

“Our first elementary mistake is that we’re shooting according to convenience. When the actor enters the set, the assistant director has already blocked the scene without the actors’ input. You come on set and the assistant says: ‘Your placement is here, the actress is here and you get up at this line.’ You have no choice but to say: ‘Okay sir, let’s do the take.’”

Is this why Alyy often calls himself a mazdoor [labourer], I ask?

“If this is not mazdoori [labour], then what is? I’m doing full mazdoori,” he says, jolting out of his seat to enact a typical day at his set with theatrical zeal. To and fro he goes, pacing the room soaked in make-believe perspiration because the imaginary air conditioners are all off and fantasy Tungsten lights are cooking his skin off.

“Was the shot okay?” he turns to me as if I’m the assistant. Flashing a thumbs-up, he nicks two ends of his drenched, clingy shirt away from his body in a pinch, and walks away to loosen up for the next take.

If Alyy gets free from being typecast — he played an egotistical news anchor in Actor In Law, and an egotistical morning show producer in Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai, or generally plays a rich, educated, egotistical man in serials — he could play the role of a mazdoor-actor brilliantly; he has the range.

Surprisingly — or unsurprisingly, given his near-aristocratic posture — he calls himself an elitist, who thinks in English and can’t read Urdu. His parts, and not the entire script, he says, are transcribed in Roman (he has no idea what the other characters say, because he only gets his dialogues). When he is offered a role, his wife reads him the script.

Born in Pakistan, Alyy migrated to London and then India at a very young age. By 12, a teacher scouting talented younglings fostered the acting bug in him. Alyy would travel miles during the weekend to do theatre. As the years rolled by, their small troupe was nurtured, and he gained a fellowship at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, UK) and eventually performed in front of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Alyy went to London after studying commerce in India — for a degree in film and media — before returning to India to work for UTV, which was, at the time, a small outfit of eight personnel, producing corporate work and ad films (today, UTV is one of the biggest media companies in India, owned by Disney). This was roughly towards the end of the ’80s.

Despite production work, Alyy took time out for theatre. In 1993, the satellite boom happened, and Alyy became an in-demand commodity overnight. A torrent of series on Doordarshan, Zee and Star followed, as did international work for Channel 4, Sky One, Fremantle, Syfy. Acclaim led to a string of motion pictures, including Sharpe’s Challenge (starring Sean Bean), A Mighty Heart (Angelina Jolie), Traitor (Don Chedale) and Don 2 (Shah Rukh Khan).

Alyy’s list of credits do not fit in a page let alone a paragraph (even IMDB and Wikipedia do not cover most of his work), but he is humble about it, telling me time and again that, if you are destined for something by the will of the Almighty, then no power in the world can take that away from you.

When you look at it, that is another aspect of being a mazdoor; a mazdoor trains himself to have a never-say-die attitude, despite obstacles.

Alyy needn’t tell me that the Indian media industry is ruthless. He was swiftly kicked off K. Street Pali Hill — a Balaji production — for honouring a prior commitment that clashed with last-minute production schedule changes.

Life didn’t stop.

Travelling between India and London, Alyy came to Pakistan with Jagjit Singh for a show at the Mohatta Palace, Karachi. The very next day, at artist and sculptor Amin Gulgee’s, he met his future wife, fell in love and they got married.

Living in London, he kept going back to Mumbai to work — his international career had taken off by that point — but got bored with the excessively stylistic, improbable world of saas-bahu dramas. The family soon shifted to Karachi, because of his wife’s parents… not to mention the fact that India was literally an hour-and-a-half away by plane.

Money is good in India — and let’s not forget, the film industry is quite mature business-wise — so why shift to Pakistan, I question Alyy.

“Yeah, but the kids are not over there with you. And I prefer living here. Life is better with family. What are you making the money for otherwise?” he counter-questions.

“Also, the feedback I’ve received from Pakistan is super-phenomenal — people love me. They love the way I speak, or how I come across on-screen.

“Given the circumstances of how we produce dramas, I’m not mocking the work. Actors here are truly exceptional,” he says, returning to the gist of our conversation.

“What I’m saying is that [on the whole] we can offer the audiences so much more. We just need to find brave, independent voices, and not get cowered by crap that the channels keep demanding. Expose our audiences to more intellectual content. India sells fantasy. Akshay Kumar, for example, steps out of the bathroom, straight into Switzerland. We sell mazloomiyat [helplessness]. Because the general populace’s circumstances are already bad, the moment you show them something worse happening to someone else, they start feeling better about themselves.”

Alyy’s expression and voice take on a low whisper of a lower-middle class woman watching a television show: “Bechari, kitna zulm seh rahi hai! Allah ka shukar [Poor girl, she’s suffering so much! Thank God] we’re much better off.”

An audible, ribcage-expanding sigh later, Alyy turns to me.

“Is it just you and me who have a problem with it, because I don’t see anyone else complaining? If so, then maybe it’s the right formula, boss, and you and I are wrong — we’re looking at it the wrong way. There are always two sides to a coin.”

Alyy’s international work gives him a much-deserved breather, I gather.

Mogul Mowgli, the topic we started out with, is a BBC co-production. Originally set for a Sundance release (the deadline was missed, he says), the film premiered to critical acclaim at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival in February, only to have its momentum shot down by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“What’s interesting about the film is that it’s a brown [South Asian] film made with white [American/ European] money. That, in itself, is a feat,” he says.

The film is Karachi-born, New York-settled filmmaker Bassam Tariq’s narrative feature debut. Bassam’s career, before Mogul Mowgli, had been limited to documentaries such as Ghosts of Sugarland (2019; Netflix), These Birds Walk (2013, funded by Sundance) and 11/8/16 (2017, Cinetic Media, The Orchard).

Alyy plays Bashir, the staunch, old-school-minded father to Riz Ahmed’s Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper who develops an autoimmune disease when his career is finally taking flight.

“The genre is fairly catchy, it’s a rap-musical, but it’s not Eminem’s 8 Mile, nor is it Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy.” There are few films that authentically tell these stories from a British-Pakistani perspective, he says.

Alyy’s character is as straightforward as it is complex. At its core, his character calls attention to a common dilemma of immigrants who, even after moving to the UK for a better life, unwittingly take a big part of Pakistan with them.

“You have gone but you haven’t escaped, because you’ve recreated your past life in a better place,” Alyy explains. “It’s about how regressive peoples’ thoughts are when they are still caught in Pakistan. They don’t want to come to terms with the modernity of [their new life abroad]. They are still living in a version of their old lives, which is why the television we produce from Pakistan gets eyeballs abroad.”

Making a film along those lines on a strict 21-day schedule was a hard undertaking, it seems.

“I think it was a serious case of the director being way out of his depth, because he had never directed a feature film or actors before.” There is a reason why filmmaking is considered a collaborative medium, Alyy explains.

Riz, a spontaneous actor who doesn’t rehearse his scenes, is a wunderkind according to Alyy. As the co-writer with Bassam, Riz knew exactly when to give talent their space. The script, despite its unsympathetic schedule, gave actors room to improvise dialogues.

“The script had to take a life of its own. It was that type of a project. It takes a lot of maturity and courage for a director to be able to trust his cast and let them lead the dialogue. You can’t force words in anyone’s mouth.”

Mogul Mowgli has yet to make its festival rounds before (or rather, if) the award season kicks in, and distribution finalises.

Alyy, meanwhile, is waiting for schedules to line-up for his next international production: The Serpent — a Netflix-BBC co-production on mass-murdering conman Charles Sobraj (played by French actor Tahar Rahim of A Prophet and The Past fame). In the series, Alyy plays Inspector Narinder Tulli, a policeman from New Delhi who chases Sobraj across countries.

The eight-part series, directed by Tom Shankland (House of Cards, Punisher, Luke Cage, Iron Fist), written by Tom Finlay and Richard Warlow (Peaky Blinders, Dorian Gray, Ripper Street) was two weeks in production before the Covid-19 pandemic forced production to reschedule.

Reschedules aside, Alyy is happy as long as he has space to perform.

“All that work I was doing a few years back, I don’t know if I ever identified with it. I don’t know if I ever approached it with an actors’ passion. But you have to realise that you have to save yourself for that once-in-a-lifetime project. You can’t exhaust yourself, so that you can perform where it matters.”

How many times has it really mattered, I ask.

“In hindsight, it has always mattered,” he says, slightly bypassing the question. But this writer isn’t letting it go.

“I always say ke kinaray pay hum bhi kharray hain, kabhi na kabhi to lehr aayegi [Standing by the shore, I believe one day, eventually, I’ll get that big wave].”

Has it ever come? I press on.

“Once or twice. But they were small ripples. Still, I have no regrets about my little career here and abroad,” he says, as the three of us walk out of the house. It is nearly lunch time, stomachs are rumbling and the weather is hot and humid.

It’s like he tells his children, he says: “You can’t swindle at work. That’s why I’m giving my 100 percent. That’s why I tell my children, I don’t care if you want to be sweepers, just make sure that you’re the best sweeper around. If you get a C-grade, and you’ve tried your best, I’m happy — but if you’ve gotten 85 percent and haven’t tried your best, I would say that you could’ve reached for 90 percent. That’s the type of person I am.”

As I climb into the car, I realise that that’s the type of person Alyy wants everyone to be.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 19th, 2020