When Ahsan Khan walked into the café that was hosting the meet-and-greet of his upcoming film Rehbara, he was hardly 10 minutes late. Ayesha Omar, his co-lead in the film, however, had been waiting in the car for the past 15 minutes.

“Ayesha is very punctual,” he tells me, as the heroine of the film enters the café with her mother who, up until this very moment, hadn’t met Ahsan before.

It turns out to be quite a pleasant surprise. Ahsan and Ayesha go way back, but curiously had never acted together in television or film before. How oddly astonishing, they both thought out aloud. If they didn’t work together before Rehbara, which was shot before Covid-19, how are they this comfortable, they mused. As it turns out, the two had hosted together.

“Ahh,” Ahsan goes, his eyes widening. Suddenly it all makes sense.

Summer release Rehbara is the first time that Ahsan Khan and Ayesha Omar have been paired up on the big screen and revolves around finding soulmates. Can it resonate with audiences?

Ahsan is in the midst of a mad rush, one realises, while the two actors talk. He has hosting duties for his Ramazan broadcast from morning to evening, followed by a series of PR junkets for his murder-thriller film Chakkar set to release this Eid-ul-Fitr.

Dog-tired he may be — I would later learn he hardly gets a few hours of sleep these days — but the actor looks fresh, well-groomed and handsome. Given the frequency of similar compliments I’ve seen him get over the years, this would be old news to the actor.

Ahsan had especially set up a time for Icon’s exclusive on Rehbara before anyone else from the media junket was due to arrive. The film is directed by Amin Iqbal (whose serial Ishq-i-Laa runs on Hum TV these days), and produced by New York-based Saira Afzal, who I’m told just landed a day or two before this interview.

As Ayesha, her mum, Ahsan and I sit down on a table for four, about to begin discussing the whats, the whos and the wheres of Rehbara, we’re joined by Amin and Saira, who also just walked into the café.

Our table in the corner suddenly becomes very cramped. Rather than a one-on-one conversation, we’re in the middle of a group chat.

I guess it’s for the better. Not counting their recent dubbing sessions, it had been a while since the actors shot Rehbara (the film started well before Chakkar), and since this is the start of the film’s PR rounds — and perhaps the first major interview for the film — boundaries of how much should be divulged to the press were tested.

“Ab main kitna reveal karoon [How much should I reveal], Amin sahib?” Ayesha gives up, immediately as we begin.

Amin, a much-experienced producer from television debuting in film, is all too happy to interject Ayesha, correcting facts, explaining details and stopping what would have been spoilers of the film from wiggling themselves out during our almost free-flowing conversation.

So far, this is what Icon has learned during Ayesha’s turn: “Bubbly [Ayesha’s character] is a Punjabi girl from a middle class or upper-middle class family, who’s a little feisty, spoiled — “I wouldn’t say, she is spoiled though,” she backtracks.

.

“She is someone who has always gotten her way. She is strong-willed, opinionated, bold, blunt, and chulbuli [lively] and bubbly — but chalaak nahin hai [she isn’t cunning]. She is miss know-it-all but, at the same time, doesn’t know it all. She follows her heart, she’s impulsive and she learns thokrain khaa ke [about life the hard way].”

“So what does she learn?” I ask. “For that you’d have to see Rehbara,” she says. This writer was not letting go of that thread.

“Well, it is a journey,” Ayesha starts again. “If you want to put it into genres, so it’s a rom-com, action, and there is a lot of travelling — the film takes you across the country,” she says, getting intermittent prompts from Amin.

“So, again, how is this different from what you’ve done before,” I ask, pointing out the similarities from her previous roles.

“I haven’t done anything like that. You can say that Khoobsoorat (from the sitcom Bulbullay) is a feisty character, but she’s not Punjabi and my character in Kaaf Kangana didn’t have much screen time.”

“And you have done a road trip film in Karachi Se Lahore,” I remind her.

“But that journey was a group trip,” she counter-argues.

“Rehbara is a journey of finding soulmates,” Amin takes over. “An accidental meeting that brings soulmates together.”

“It’s got emotions, comedy, learning curves for the character — and then there is the ‘burger’ attitude,” Ayesha takes over, pointing to Ahsan’s character.

“So that makes you the ‘bun kabab’?” I enquire.

“I would call her chana chaat with a sweet sauce,” Amin replies.

“So, you’re the ‘burger’?” I ask Ahsan. “A burger, who lives here and there,” Ahsan laughs, referencing his own old clip that has gone viral on social media and for which he has been mocked.

“A producer and director’s priority is to entertain people,” Ahsan begins explaining what could be a familiar essence of the film. “You don’t end up making stuff out-of-the-box, per se — actually, most films that fall under romance, comedy, drama have similar elements you may have seen time and again in other films. How you go about refining those familiar story choices in the presentation — whether it’s through Amin saheb’s direction, Ayesha and my acting — is what makes Rehbara take its individual identity.”

The two characters live on opposite ends of the spectrum. Ayesha’s character is fun and Ahsan’s character, Danish — as the name suggests — is intelligent and serious, and who takes a moment to think before reaching conclusions.

“It’s not just a journey of travelling, it’s a journey of feeling that develops over time,” Ahsan says, perfectly encapsulating the gist of the story. “During that development, romance, action, emotions, separation, etc fall into the story — whatever you can imagine in a romantic film.”

The short teaser that came out also had action, I recall. “Rehbara has multiple action sequences,” Ahsan says.

“Also, let me say that I love the music of the film,” he promptly adds. Having recently seen the edit of the picturisation of the songs, he loves how they are filmed, he tells me. Rehbara, as I’ve witnessed from the trailer, looks cinematic.

“It would sound ajeeb [strange] if I say I’ve not played a character like this. On television, I have been deliberately choosing characters who don’t fall under the romantic archetype. But here, I like the intense romance and the larger-than-life persona of the hero.”

Seeing himself in the teaser, Ahsan feels that the larger-than-life essence of Danish should be the feeling one expects from films.

“As actors we’re very self-critical, nitpicking on miniscule things that others probably never notice,” Ahsan adds.

The production was wrongly believed to be a victim of long reschedules, mostly because of the coronavirus pandemic (indeed, what other possible reason could there be in these times, one wonders).

In what was my first interview of Ahsan back in 2018, I remember him mentioning that he had just signed a film called Rehbara. A few months later, a cover story featuring Ahsan and Ayesha in a magazine ignited the rumours that the shooting for the film was already done.

The film, Amin tells me, was shot in three short spells since December 2018.

“I think this is better timing for Rehbara’s release,” Ahsan says. “How it ultimately fares is not our job to speculate. The important thing for us is that we’ve made a film that, we think, captures the pulse of the audience.”

The film is gearing up for release by Mandviwalla Entertainment during the summer holidays.

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 24th, 2022

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