Acting careers are like landmine-infested fields. Wahaj Ali is picking his way carefully through his.
The past two years have been professionally invigorating for him, propelled by his enactment of diverse characters that have received both critical and commercial acclaim. From a tempestuous angry lover to a righteous journalist, from a resilient young boy with a troubled childhood to the quintessential chocolate hero, Wahaj has been testing some very varied waters. The fact that all his different avatars have been so well-received is testament to his talent. Now, he wants to be careful about the role he signs on to next.
At one point during our conversation, I ask Wahaj which character he thinks fans connect him with the most at this point? He thinks over it. “To be honest, if I step out of my house three times in a day, I will meet people who will know me through three different names.” That’s pretty amazing.
What is also amazing is how modest Wahaj is, despite the fact that he has spiralled into becoming one of Pakistani TV’s most coveted young actors. At the beginning of our interview, I thank him for taking out the time to talk to me. We are talking late at night, Wahaj having wrapped up the day’s work, and coordination had taken a few days of back and forth. Wahaj laughs self-deprecatingly, “That’s alright. I don’t do that much work!” he says.
With a slew of hits to his name, a diverse acting repertoire and an extensive fan-following, Wahaj Ali has become one of the most in-demand actors on television. Despite this, he retains his humility and his willingness to take critique. Then why has he begun to refuse scripts?
This is not altogether true. The actor is currently working in two different projects that he describes as ‘unconventional’. However, he does space out his work schedule and, lately, has been refusing scripts that he feels are too stereotypical or lacklustre.
Nothing was exciting him, he tells me. To this I point out that, unfortunately, most Pakistani dramas aren’t that exciting and are also repetitive. But refusing scripts can mean sitting at home doing nothing for several months, and can really bring on a financial crunch.
“Yes,” he agrees. “It’s just that, for now, I want to choose scripts carefully. Fans have certain expectations from me right now and I don’t want to disappoint them.”
His upcoming dramas include one for the soon-to-launch Green Channel opposite good friend Maya Ali, and another opposite Hareem Farooq. He is also working on a web-series for the OTT platform Zee5, co-starring Zara Noor Abbas and directed by Haseeb Hassan.
How did these particular projects manage to pass his vigilant screening process? “The stories are unique and, also, I’m working with some great directors,” says Wahaj.
“I realised at a very early stage in my career that a drama’s director is pivotal to how the story gets told. There are very few great storytellers, and I’m lucky to have worked with quite a few of them. An actor develops a certain style, but it is the director’s job to make sure that he doesn’t get repetitive or boring.
“Also, as actors, sometimes we don’t get the time to fully develop a character in our heads before we come on set. The director, however, is already well-researched and has insights on the body language, dialect and general persona that is required. If you ask me, directors are the real heroes of every successful project.”
Making the cut
Wahaj proceeds to recount how a variety of directors have helped him deliver nuanced performances. On the sets of Ishq Jalebi, the extremely popular Ramazan drama that he starred in last year, director Wajahat Hussain would tell him not to act out a Fitoor again. “He had seen my work in Fitoor and he wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t deliver a similar performance,” laughs Wahaj.
At present, working with director Haissam Hussain, Wahaj got a bit tearful while saying a dialogue. The director told him to try to say it again, without crying. “It’s great when you have someone watching over you, making sure that you do your very best,” says Wahaj. “Similarly, while working with Shahid Shafaat, I had been told that certain lines sounded fake and that they needed to be shot again.”
Now that he has proven his acting mettle, does he not mind when he is nagged like this in front of his co-actors and crew? “To the contrary, I even tell my co-actors that if they feel that I’m doing something wrong, they need to tell me!”
Does he also tell his co-actors when they mess up? “Honestly, I’m just too engrossed in enacting my scenes the right way!” he confesses. “But yes, I do think that if something occurs to me, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with pointing it out.”
Wahaj’s easygoing, modest approach came in handy during his fledgling years as an actor, when he debuted on screen in a drama which also starred Naumaan Ejaz. The veteran actor is extraordinarily talented and is known to never mince his words when he doesn’t like someone’s performance. Wahaj tells me that he was initially unnerved when ‘Nomi Bhai’ turned a gimlet eye towards his work.
“I was shooting my very first scene and he was done for the day. He decided to stay around, watching my scene. It made me extremely nervous but he helped out, giving me advice.
“Later, when I shot a scene with him he told me that he would keep asking for retakes until I spoke while looking him in the eye!” he laughs. “Honestly, I have learnt so much from him. He has taught me how to walk and say my lines, and improve my body language.
“In Dil Na-Umeed Tau Nahin, he got adjustments made to the script and improved upon my dialogues. Sometimes, he has gotten my lines increased at the cost of decreasing his own, because he feels that it would benefit the narrative.”
Wahaj’s recollections are refreshingly different, considering that most young actors cite Naumaan Ejaz as intimidating and far too critical. “It’s not like that,” Wahaj insists. “It’s just that when he sees someone sleeping, he gets angry. He says that if I’m still awake and passionate about my work at my age, this young actor needs to wake up!
“Also, I’d rather have two people curse at me on the set than have an audience of two crores curse me later,” he quips.
I realised at a very early stage in my career that a drama’s director is pivotal to how the story gets told. There are very few great storytellers, and I’m lucky to have worked with quite a few of them. An actor develops a certain style, but it is the director’s job to make sure that he doesn’t get repetitive or boring.”
Acting in soaps has also been part of Wahaj’s training ground as an actor. “The 7pm to 8pm slot is great for improving upon your acting skills,” he explains. “It helps build stamina and you make mistakes and, then, you can improve upon them while knowing that you may not get caught out, because not that many people are watching.”
Was it initially difficult to make his mark in TV’s churning waters? “In the beginning, it is,” he accepts, “but luck plays a big role in getting you through. Talent is like water. It makes its own path. Sometimes, it may take long. There may be hurdles that have to be sidestepped. But you do make your way eventually.”
The here and now
On that rather philosophical note, I ask Wahaj if his particular path is going to be branching out from TV to cinema screens anytime soon.
“No,” he says, very sure. “I’m really enjoying acting on TV right now. Cinema is an entirely different medium, and it’s at a stage in Pakistan where it’s still quite risky. TV, on the other hand, has the audience in its grips. I’d rather play on my strengths right now rather than delve towards what may turn out to be my weaknesses.”
One of the dramas to thrust him into the limelight two years ago was the Hum Network-ISPR collaborative effort Ehd-i-Wafa. Some people felt that he and co-star Ahmed Ali Akbar had gotten sidelined in the drama, with more scenes set aside for the other actors in the ensemble cast. Did Wahaj also feel this way?
“The drama was just written in a certain way and I felt that my character’s arc in it was very interesting,” he says. “It didn’t matter if one character had more or less scenes than the other. The overall story was meaningful. I think that, to date, one of my most popular dramas has been Ehd-i-Wafa.”
He is now working in another project connected with the ISPR and there has been conjecture that contacts within the military help him gain these roles. Is there any truth to the rumours?
“I actually auditioned for the role that I’m currently playing in my new drama. They had seen my body of work but they still wanted to make sure that I would suit the character. I think that shows that I have been selected on merit,” he points out.
From an actor’s perspective, he has enjoyed pushing himself towards genres that haven’t been in his comfort zone. “Performance-wise, I enjoyed acting in Ishq Jalebi. I hadn’t worked in a romantic comedy before and, also, I had really wanted to work with director Wajahat Hussain.”
Wahaj continues: “Hamza in Fitoor was a character that I knew how to play. For a while there, even in my home, I had started behaving like Hamza, inching towards being rude and arrogant. It was tough on my family!
“Dil Na-Umeed Tau Nahin had a huge ensemble cast but it was my chance to work with Kashif Nisar. I was being offered solo hero projects at the time as well, but I opted to work in Dil… It turned out to be a role that I hold very close to my heart.”
Despite his considerable success, why is he relatively media shy? He rarely makes comments on social media and barely gives interviews. “I just think that TV is the best way for me to connect with the audience,” he muses. “If I start pushing my own persona forward, giving opinions and appearing in interviews, people won’t be able to see me as the characters that I play. They’ll know me for who I am, personally, rather than believe in the story that I’m trying to tell. As an actor, I feel that it would mean that I’m not doing my job right.”
It also means that he remains relatively unscathed on social media’s troll-infested grounds. “Yes, so far so good,” he laughs. “If I’m critiqued, it’s for my acting and I take it in a healthy way and try to improve myself based on it. But no, I’m yet to be trolled.”
One of the reasons for this is that Wahaj is very much the family man. Pictures of him occasionally filter out with his little daughter. Even this Icon interview with him got delayed several times because he was preoccupied with some urgent family responsibilities.
“Yes, maybe, but I don’t like putting my private life out there too much. If today I start sharing images of myself with my daughter, it may help me gain mileage, but I don’t want to operate that way.”
Nevertheless, filial ties and an emotional connection keep him rooted to his home-ground in Lahore, even while most of the entertainment fraternity has flown the coop and resettled in Karachi. “It’s not like I haven’t considered moving to Karachi,” Wahaj admits. “I go there [Karachi] for work and I always consider how easy it would be if I just shifted cities.
“It’s just that I have grown up in Lahore. My mother is here, my daughter is growing up here. When I land back home, I just feel this innate love for this city. I think it actually strengthens me as an actor and helps me perform better.”
This may mean that work involves commuting regularly, since almost all Pakistani private channels have their head offices in Karachi. Most actors have migrated to Karachi for this reason. Being close to the head offices can bring actors more opportunities. Wahaj is willing to take this risk, however. He points out, “A lot of the scenes in my recent dramas have been shot in Lahore, Islamabad or up north and, because I choose my projects carefully, I have been able to space out my shooting schedules easily.
“Besides, you’ve seen my career road map. I want to do good work and improve upon my craft. But I’m in no hurry.”
There is no doubt Wahaj is here to stay. A slew of hits, a diverse acting repertoire and an extensive fan-following makes this pretty obvious.
Published in Dawn, ICON, December 5th, 2021