Published March 26, 2023
Photography: Hussain Piart | Grooming: Basit Ali @ Kennyz Salon & Spa Coordination: Umer Mushtaq
Photography: Hussain Piart | Grooming: Basit Ali @ Kennyz Salon & Spa Coordination: Umer Mushtaq

About two-odd years ago, Muneeb Butt was offered a challenging, unconventional role. He contemplated far too long over whether he should sign the script and, eventually, the role went to another actor. That actor proceeded to win critical acclaim and even an award. And Muneeb learnt that he could not allow fear to dictate him.

“I am confessing this for the first time — I just got scared,” Muneeb tells Icon. “I was worried that if I didn’t perform well, people would make fun of me and there would be a backlash. Unconventional roles can make you a huge success if people like you in them but, if they don’t like you, they can also lead to immense criticism.

“Later, I realised that I couldn’t build my career by allowing myself to get scared. So what if I ended up doing a role and people did not like it? I would fail but, then, I would also be learning from it. I made up my mind that I had to push myself as an actor. I had to place myself in an uncomfortable zone and then try my best to excel.”

Coming back to the present, Muneeb has squarely placed himself in the uncomfortable zone, having just played a character that many others would be apprehensive about. He’s won rave reviews for it, too.

The actor has put in the years of struggle, worked on his craft and figured out how to balance the usual commercial roles with assignments that take him out of his comfort zone and challenge him. What realisations led him to becoming who he is today?

In ARY Digital’s TV series Sar-i-Rah, Muneeb excelled in his enactment of an intersex individual fighting off societal bullying and stereotyping. On the flipside, he’s also in his element in Geo Entertainment’s Qalandar, a drama which navigates the usual storyline of a two-timing husband, evil in-laws and a holier than thou heroine. Peppered with heavy duty emotions, plenty of twists and turns and some good old-fashioned family politics, Qalandar has been hauling in high ratings in Pakistan as well as topping YouTube trends in India.

And then, veering into a completely different direction, Muneeb is starring in Rukh Ma Roshan, Geo Entertainment’s Ramazan drama, scheduled to run through all 30 days of the holy month, aimed towards delivering on entertaining family-centric humour and romance.

In fact, my interview with Muneeb is taking place late in the night, after he has wrapped up his shoot on this particular drama’s set. He tells me that he’s playing the character of a rich boy, which leads me to ask him if he’s in his rich-boy get-up. He’s dressed in jeans and braving the Karachi heat in a jacket — I figure that being rich and having to fulfil certain sartorial requirements can be sweaty business!

Muneeb finds this funny. “No, no, there’s a lot more to styling the character,” he says. “We did start shooting the drama back when the weather was better and, now, for the sake of continuity, I have to keep wearing jackets, even though it’s very hot. We’ll also probably be shooting during Ramazan, so I’ll be wearing them while fasting too!”

Ramazan dramas have, of late, become hugely popular with cult fan followings should they succeed. Does he think that this particular project might take his career into a new direction?

“Naturally, with every project, I pray that it does well. The great thing about this drama is that it isn’t like previous hit Ramazan dramas. It has a storyline of its own and relies largely on situational comedy. The producers, 7th Sky Entertainment, have worked very hard on developing every character, and I think that audiences will particularly love my interactions with my co-star Komal Meer. I have also just worked with her in Qalandar but, while she was always crying in that drama, in this one she’s going to make people cry!”

He continues: “There is, of course, a lot of pressure that comes with acting in a Ramazan special drama. The competition is tough, with other channels also releasing multiple projects that all look great.”

A new ‘rah’

Before he tested his luck with the Ramazan drama juggernaut, Muneeb faced another kind of pressure altogether — of realistically pulling off the character of Sarang, an intersex individual, in the drama Sar-i-Rah. He tells me that he had initially been offered the role of another character but, after he read the script, he insisted that producer Abdullah Seja sign him on for Sarang.

“I planned out how I would play Sarang in great detail from how he would sit and talk to how he would hand over money to someone,” recalls Muneeb. “A lot of those gestures got eliminated when we were shooting and credit for this goes to the drama’s director Ahmed Bhatti. He understood that there was a fine line to playing Sarang and too many gestures would make him look loud when he was, in fact, very restrained and defensive, having been bullied all his life.

“His body language was only slightly feminine. Our director made sure that my acting was never over the top. I had worked with him earlier in Kaisa Hai Naseeban and I knew that he was the kind of director who knows how to extract good work from an actor.”

He must have had waited avidly for the episode in which Sarang’s story is told. Was he disappointed when the episode met backlash with certain factions on social media — designer Maria B. included — feeling that the story was promoting un-Islamic values?

“Yes, it made me sad. When I read the script, I had analysed the role that I would be playing. It was a sensitive topic and even I wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be part of something that went against the spirit of Islam. And now, all these people, including a particular designer, were saying that we had sold ourselves for the sake of an agenda.

“The thing is, we are also Muslims, the writer is also Muslim. There are people who are too quick to declare others as anti-Muslim and decide that they are right while others are wrong. The scene that people took offence to was just a few seconds long and perhaps they didn’t bother to see the rest of the episode and the context in which that scene took place.

“If they had, they would have understood that the father had been trying to explain to his son, who was born intersex, that he may experience certain feelings as he grew older but, at that point, he should be focused entirely on his studies. He had just witnessed his son dancing, forced by his stepmother to do so. The father is supporting his son while everyone else just wants to ridicule him.”

Muneeb continues: “If something had been immoral about the character that I played, my parents would have been the first ones to point it out to me. They pray regularly and I try to pray too. Everyone in my home and my friends told me that, to date, they had never seen me perform the way I did in Sar-i-Rah.

“We work for the masses and it is their right to give us their feedback. But it’s dangerous when someone, on the basis of a small video clip, decides that we are following a secret agenda. Someone could actually decide to physically harm us on the basis of such accusations.”

Tough beginnings

Those who did watch the episode of Sar-i-Rah featuring Muneeb in its entirety applauded his very impressive performance. “Yes, a lot of people were very appreciative,” he admits. Emotionally, he adds, “Sometimes, when I think of where I am now and where I once was, my eyes get watery.”

I am curious: did he have to face very difficult times back when he started out?

“I went through some difficult times but I don’t usually talk about them, because I don’t want people to pity me.” On my insistence, he continues.

“I would sit outside production houses for hours, waiting to just meet the casting director or the producer for five minutes. When you’re struggling, people give you all sorts of advice and some of it turns out to be useless. Someone told me to get my portfolio shot. So I got myself photographed — there was this one picture where I had a guitar in my hand, another in which there is a bouquet of flowers in the background!” He laughs.

“And I’d take those six photographs with me everywhere, hoping to get cast in a role. Once, I did get cast in a drama but, when I arrived on set, I was told that I had been replaced because they didn’t want to try their luck with a new actor.

“The casting director then offered me another role in the same drama. The role that I had earlier been selected for had been the main lead, while this character just had about 12 scenes. I agreed to the role. That’s what I used to do — sign on to the roles that no one else wanted!”

Muneeb’s bitter memories had obviously been triggered. “This one time, I was at a set where all the actors were getting served water. I asked for some water too, and I was told that the water being served was for the actors while I could take my fill from a separate cooler.

“I was also told to vacate my chair because the boss was about to come. To have separate water for the actors and for the others is a bit too much, but that’s just how things work.

“Sometimes I would get so disillusioned that I would decide to quit but, then, a friend or a family elder would encourage me. My father told me many times that this struggle was necessary for eventually getting to where I wanted to be. How would I know the worth of success if I got it instantly?

“The thing is, a lot of times we’re working very hard and fretting that it is getting us nowhere. In actuality, God only gives us what we want when we’re truly ready for it.”

Because of his experiences of struggle, acting has certainly brought out Muneeb’s spiritual side, I think to myself. He’s from a business-centric family — what made him decide to become an actor anyway?

“I actually wanted to be a cop,” he says. “Then, one day, a friend of mine took me with him to a set. A drama was being shot and I joined a group of junior actors or ‘extras’ — I hate that word. The casting director told some of us to wear yellow shirts and the rest to wear black. In the scene that I was in, I was playing basketball on a field and ahead of me people were walking and ahead of them, the main actors were saying their lines! I was all the way back there,” he laughs heartily.

“The main cast included Ahmed Ali Akbar, Shahroz Sabzwari and Ainy Jaffri and I saw the respect and protocol they got. On the other hand, I was amongst the extras, 25 boys bunched together waiting for the camera to roll! I decided right there and then that, one day, I would also be in front of the camera.

“This word, extras, though — we need to get rid of it,” he says. “They are junior actors. They have also come from their homes wanting to work in front of the camera. If the main actor is scheduled to arrive at 6pm, why are the junior actors expected to come at 9 in the morning? Why can’t they also be given respect? Even today, on the set of Rukh Ma Roshan, the Assistant Director called out to the extras and I corrected him, asking him to call them junior actors.”

Luckily for Muneeb, he had well-meaning friends who guided him through the initial phase of his career.

“True friends that give you genuine advice really help,” he says. “I have a friend who is also a producer and, one day, he sat me down in his office and gave me a reality check. He pointed out where I was going wrong, how it wasn’t necessary to sign on to every role that came my way.

“That night, I couldn’t sleep. My mind was whirring. The next day, my friend called me to apologise because he thought that he had been too hard on me. I thanked him because he had actually made me realise where I stood and how I needed to go forwards. Good friendships are very important.”

And does he have friends in the industry? “I think I become friends with everyone I meet. The last time I had a proper fight with anyone was probably in my college days. So, yes, I have friends in the industry.”


This gives me the cue to broach a sensitive topic: he may not be inclined towards conflict but, recently, Muneeb filed a lawsuit against actor Feroze Khan when the latter posted a legal notice on social media that included the phone numbers and addresses of numerous celebrities, including Muneeb’s wife Aiman Muneeb.

“I had to take a stand in that case,” Muneeb says. “She is my wife and her respect is a priority for me. She was getting all sorts of threatening and offensive messages and she had no choice but to change her cellphone number. Initially, I actually thought that Feroze had mistakenly leaked out the contact details.

“We are all from the same industry. We have sat together, laughed together. I couldn’t believe that he would do something like this and I waited for 24 hours, expecting him to apologise. But then, when no apology came, I had to take the legal route. I know that it may take a while for the matter to be sorted legally but I will persist with it, if he doesn’t apologise.”

He was also recently in the news when the sewerage lines at his residence blew up in a freak gas explosion that demolished a large part of his home. His wife, Aiman Muneeb and househelp suffered injuries. “It was scary but, thankfully, the renovation is now well on its way to being completed,” he says. “Aiman’s injuries have healed and even our househelp has almost recovered.

“This incident was actually an eye-opener. Everyone from the industry called me, asking me if I needed help. Some of my friends came to my house and stayed there till the evening, until all the rubble had been cleared.”

Industry friends? “No, the ones that came to my house were old friends, not from the industry,” he smiles.

I ask him the routine question: do industry friendships help in landing good acting roles? He muses over this. “In the beginning, yes, when no one knows about you, they could help. But people know my work now.”

So it isn’t necessary to maintain friendships so that you don’t miss out on a major role because some other actor is the producer’s ‘favourite’?

“These things happen, they happen to everyone,” he agrees. “But I don’t fret about them or get angry. What is not meant for me, will not come to me even if the whole world wants me to get it. And what is meant for me, will come to me no matter what.” There’s that introspective spirituality again.

What is meant for Muneeb Butt right now, from my perspective, are some great roles and accolades. He’s bided his time, honed his craft and figured out how to balance commercial hit roles with challenging characters that fulfil him as an actor. He’s weathered tough times and struggled his way up to working with top drama production houses today.

And he’s realised the importance of being fearless. The future looks promising — and exciting.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 26th, 2023



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