“Women inbox me for advice on how to slim down their daughters with natural foods and remedies before marriage.”

For some reason, this bizarre revelation from Aijazz Aslam stuck with me. I had heard stories about his peculiar, all-natural eating habits a few times already.

Stranger than this was the question echoing in my head: is that all women want to ask Aijazz Aslam?

Possibly not, but the gist of this enigma leads to a series of interconnected revelations.

“This has happened lots of times,” Aijazz tells me after 40 minutes of conversation that had nothing to do with this interview.

“When I was a kid, I was very fat. I was quite active, but still I was unbelievably huge, until I was in the tenth grade. Then self-realisation hit me. I realised I had to look after myself and my health,” Aijazz tells me as I gulp down my neglected, nearly cold cup of green tea.

“When I began shedding off weight, people started appreciating me, and that brought about change, and gave me confidence.”

Aijazz was a very shy kid before his physical transformation gradually helped alter his persona, he tells me. His leaner, meaner, new look led to an interest in modelling. Like all newbies, he had a portfolio of images shot by a photo studio that he passed along to the agencies.

His first big break came out of nowhere, late one night, through a phone call. An agency wanted him to audition as a last-minute replacement for the lead in a shaving cream commercial.

Among other things, former fashion model-turned-producer, Aijazz Aslam has delved in the business of fashion as well. But what really fires him up and gives him literal goosebumps is talking about acting jobs that challenged his limits

Clad in a leather jacket, riding a bike, this clean-shaved hunk’s advertisement had a strong and immediate impact. “People don’t often recognise models from commercials, but with me they did,” he says.

That recognition bolstered his sense of conviction. “It’s a new high, when you get the taste of attracting attention to yourself,” he muses. “The advertisement made me an overnight star. My landline began ringing off the hook, and I was getting offers from films and television.”

While his father was keen on his newfound career, his mother wasn’t budging from a ‘no’. “At that time [late ’80s, early ’90s], you couldn’t make a career out of [modeling],” he says. Also, he wasn’t that sure of his acting ability; the shy kid was still in him, he rationalises.

He let go of the starring role in the TV serial Uroosa and refused film offers — primarily because he didn’t see himself as a “film actor” at the time — but modelling, he was sure of.

The press labeled him the “Catwalk Panther”, he tells me, citing news articles, including those from Dawn.

“When I walked on the ramp, I had a different energy. I loved the live interaction. Designers would come over and tell me that it was a treat to see me on the ramp. The moment I entered with the music, I don’t know what changed in me. The energy I get is magical, and it is still there to this day when I’m invited as a showstopper.

“I was one of the highest paid models at that time … which was 15,000 rupees,” he adds with a knowing smile, very much aware of the value of the currency back in the day.

A realist, Aijazz launched his clothing brand five years into his career, in 1995. “When you’re young, you go with the flow,” he says of his early jump into the business side of things.

Business was one of the key pitches for the interview, I was told a week or so before meeting Aijazz. The actor, now also a successful producer, is diligently working on new prospects, one of which is ready to come out in the next two months. He, however, thinks it’s too early to delve into details at this moment.

“Whenever I hear the word ‘business’, I get excited. I start getting unique ideas … but only about things that I’m passionate about,” Aijazz tells me, continuing his train of thought.

“It’s the universe’s rule. My belief has always been that, what you want, the universe lines it up for you. When you think negatively, you attract negative energy. If you don’t think at all, then it won’t happen for you. Acting, production, I live for these things. It’s like a lifeline for me. If you ask me to start a business selling carpets, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

“I research a lot,” he explains. “And it’s not just limited to businesses. I enjoy researching, even if I buy something small.”

Despite Aijazz’s level-headedness, his clothing brand went belly-up years ago. To sustain quality, he was doing everything — from manufacturing the cloth to delivering the final product — it was too much, he sighs.

“I have failed miserably many, many times. I used to be shy and I trusted people, and they took advantage of me. My clothing brand failed because I trusted the wrong people. But I’ve realised that your mistakes are your greatest teachers. You make mistakes, you fall, you learn, you rise,” he adds half-a-second later.

“So, what have you learned?” I inquire.

“I’ve learned to put limits,” he answers cryptically. “The grass always looks greener on the other side. It’s only when you get there that you realise that the grass you saw was mostly patches of green.”

He wanted — still wants — Aijazz Aslam “to be recognised as a brand of quality. I’m reworking the clothing brand,” he adds nonchalantly — although, it’s not the business he’s coming out with in the next two months.

By this time, I’m wondering if I’m talking to the actor or the businessman. In hindsight, I think it’s difficult to constrict him to one or the other.

Aijazz has been producing a string of serials of late through his Ice Media Entertainment shingle. The name fits his personality — he is quite cool, but like most things about him, you realise these nuances late in the conversation, only when you look for them.

As if illuminated by a spotlight, everything is quite apparent now. Aijazz’s voice is soft but not low, polite yet not meek, and he listens with unstinting enthusiasm to what the other person has to say, no matter how long their point-of-view is.

It’s surprising, then, that a man this genteel craves the chance to play villains. “Playing a bad guy gives you an opportunity to have fun with the character,” he enlightens me.

From this point onwards, “character” becomes the keyword for the night.

“I want to do characters — any type of characters — where I have to change myself, where I don’t look like Aijazz Aslam. I want to look like you, or him,” Aijazz says, pointing to me and another silent gentleman in the room.

Then, does he like what he’s doing on television, I ask. As an actor, he says “yes”. As a producer, though, he’s less than enthusiastic, but only because he’s an actor first.

“These days, men seldom get good roles. Even actresses get bored playing the same role after the third or fourth time. For men, it’s worse. You either get to play the cruel husband or the nice guy. But Pakistan mein utna hi hai [In Pakistan, there’s all there is]. Not just for me, but for everyone,” he adds. “The most we can do is change the look. Dye our beards white, shave our heads or wear spectacles.”

Who is imposing these limits? The networks?

“The networks have a fixed line, and we don’t get to experiment in subjects or stories. There’s always a fear factor of a subject misfiring and, as long as the networks play it safe, we’ll keep going like this.”

There is a time-tested answer to any arguments a producer might put up, Aijazz explains.

“If the networks go for experiments, and the ratings come for conventional dramas, then they will say that they tried and failed, because the audience and the advertisers responded to the stories we routinely produce.”

Aijazz, however, believes that today, with the steady growth of Netflix in Pakistan, and independent producers mustering up the courage to produce and showcase their work on YouTube, people now have exposure to diverse subjects, genres and show formats.

“If we don’t change, then someone will come from out of Pakistan, launch a portal like Zee5 or Netflix, and win the game. People want crisper, faster-paced dramas with limited episodes. We don’t work on mysteries, horror or action….”

The moment he says “action”, he suddenly swings off on a tangent. “I want to do action. My structure, my physique, main poora chalta phirta action hoon! [I’m a walking, talking man of action]”, he says. One look at him, and you’d believe it too.

“Unfortunately, at times you get typecast,” he lets out. “I’ve done some particular hardcore comedy series that became larger than life,” he says answering my question of him being preferred for comedic lead roles time and again.

“When I started Main Aur Tum, I was very stiff, which made Faysal [Quraishi, one of his closest friends in the industry] go bonkers at times.”

Initially, network executives didn’t trust him, but then Main Aur Tum became an untameable success, and Aijazz kept on hitting one benchmark after the other, with Kis Din Mera Viyah Howay Ga and Dolly Darling. Right now, he can do anything, be it good or bad. In fact, as he points out, in Uraan and Nand, two of his recently aired series, he plays both a bad and a good guy, respectively.

Aijazz tells me of a particularly harrowing role he has just completed for a feature film titled Kailasha. The film is written and directed by Farrukh Turk, who also serves as a producer with Asif and Ahad Raza Mir. The storyline, while being kept confidential for the time being, is Aijazz’s second feature film (he made his debut in Sahir Lodhi’s Raasta), but the role is quite unique. Set in the Kailash Valley, Aijazz plays a tour guide who struggles through a series of harrowing, heart-wrenching difficulties.

Reading the screenplay by the first-time director was all it took for Aijazz to get on board the project. He still gets teary-eyed thinking about it. In fact, he gets emotional about most of his acting jobs that challenge his limits.

“I can still feel the current surging through my body when I get inside the skin of my characters,” Aijazz tells me of his recent role from Cheekh. In the series, his character, Yawar, is a man of immense power, until he is paralysed.

“Imagining the shift of power, of losing out on one’s mobility, gives me goosebumps,” he says. “I would do scenes for so long, my eyes would get teary and saliva would start spilling from the edge of my mouth,” Aijazz tells me — and then, to my utter astonishment, he starts taking deep breaths before stepping into the character. In less than a minute, Aijazz becomes Yawar. He stops just before saliva can spill from his mouth. By the time Aijazz returns to normal, one can see visible goosebumps beneath the thick hair on his arms.

Aijazz, begins detailing the roles that have stuck with him, one of which is from Shehzad Nawaz’s Botal Gali where he played a paan-eating, mascara-eyed, bootlegger who hardly blinks.

“They used to rub boot polish on my face. It would take longer to take the polish off than it took to smear it. I had messed up hair tied in a small ponytail. I had to eat paan in every scene. I hate paan,” he says. “It’s just not who I am. But I’ll fake it for a role. If I have to smoke, I’ll smoke as well. I’ll do it to do the role justice. If I don’t do it, I’ll get uncomfortable. It won’t connect for me,” he says, leading on to another eccentric revelation.

Aijazz says he also needs to be in proper attire to connect with the role. He will not wear chappals (flip flops) with a suit because his mind won’t find it plausible. “If I’m wearing pants, I’ll wear shoes. Even if the shoes don’t show up in the shot.”

That’s quite something, I tell Aijazz, glancing at the clock. It’s nearly 11pm and his eyes are nearly red (he tells me he had just pulled an all-nighter for a short film’s shoot, and didn’t get much sleep at all).

Aren’t you tired in the least, I ask?

“I love it when I start speaking my mind. I can keep talking all night long, as long as I’m talking about things that ignite my passion,” Aijazz says. Unfortunately for me, I had to get back home. Aijazz, I gather, was still thinking of new challenges to overcome, late into the night.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 8th, 2020