It is unlikely that a young actor, starting off in his career, would aspire to play a villain. No one probably dreams of enacting the Machiavellian psychopath, the bane of all things good, the nemesis that the audience detests rather than the hero who is widely loved and idolised.
Neither did Hassan Ahmed, who has made a niche for himself on television as the detestable villain. He has, however, come to terms with the roles that tend to come his way.
If producers and directors have pigeonholed him into being the bad guy on TV, then he wants to do a pretty good job of being believably evil, he tells me when I meet him.
“I am glad that you said that this was my niche,” he tells Icon. “I’d like to believe it to be so.”
It is his niche — although there is so much more to him.
Hasan is predominantly frowning, brooding and cooking up evil plans on TV but, in real life, he smiles and laughs frequently, often joking about himself. He is tall and broad and one would assume him to be a frequent option for positive hero-like roles. But even though this usually isn’t the case, he tells me that he enjoys his work now — as opposed to earlier, when he did not.
Television actor Hassan Ahmed once was desperate to play positive characters. But he got pigeonholed as the scowling villain. Could it have been because of his real life anger issues? And is therapy the reason he is now much more comfortable both with his on-screen roles and as the husband to model and actress Sunita Marshall?
His honesty is refreshing as we begin discussing the highs and lows of the Pakistani acting industry and life, in general, and particularly with reference to his marriage to model and actress Sunita Marshall …
New twists, same old villain
“The fame that one gets from playing a negative character is very different from the charm associated with a smiling romantic hero,” he says. “I’ve noticed it on multiple occasions.
“Recently, I was on vacation in Hunza with my family and, initially, people were obviously sceptical of coming up to me. Both my wife and I are acting in the drama Baby Baji and my character, Naseer, is negative in it while she has a positive role.
“At first, I observed that people were only coming up to her and praising the drama. Then, in the next few days, they saw me on vacation, zip-lining and screaming about with my children and perhaps they realised that this man may appear sinister on TV but he’s really just normal.
“At the same time, my character went through a slight change in the drama, where he was seen smiling a bit more, albeit while cheating on his wife. Suddenly, people started coming up to me.
“I just think that our audience generally begins believing in a character so much that they stop differentiating between drama and reality.”
He smiles wryly. “This also means that I played the character well, so I’ll take credit for that!”
He continues: “At the same time, it is amazing how much respect actors get in Pakistan. People are willing to roll out the metaphorical red carpet for you! On the way back from my vacation, I was at Skardu airport and there were young army officers there who came up to me, talked about Baby Baji, offered us tea.
“I actually made a video and sent it across the WhatsApp group which has all the drama’s cast and crew in it and I said that if someone like Naseer could receive so much love, I could only imagine the kind of response the more positive characters must be getting.”
Why does he enjoy his work now? And why did he say that he didn’t enjoy it earlier?
“Maybe about five years ago, I wanted to do characters that were different. There have been times when I have talked to directors and producers that I know well, people like Abdullah Seja, asking them to cast me in a guest appearance rather than a longer role, as long as I play a smiling romantic hero.
“Somehow, in recent times, I still end up playing the villain but, now, I try to play around with the character. Usually, in TV drama scripts, characters are written in the same way and it is up to the director and the actor to find little details that can make a huge difference. I often discuss changes that I want to make to my character with the director. Sometimes, the experiments work and, sometimes, they don’t.”
I’m curious: when don’t they work?
“Sometimes, I may glare in a very exaggerated way and it won’t come out right on TV,” he explains. “In such cases, when Sunita and I will be watching the drama at home, I’ll excuse myself in the middle. She’ll ask me where I am going and I’ll make some excuse about grabbing a bite to eat when, actually, I don’t want to watch the scene.
“The good thing is that I learn from it and know what to do and what not to do next time. I do know that, since people want to keep seeing me as the troublesome husband, I’ll keep trying to reinvent the role in new ways.
“A lot of people have advised me that, perhaps, playing negative roles is my strong point and, if that is the case, I have to make the most of it.”
So he’s no longer thinking too much about playing the good guy? “What I’m really thinking about is playing a character that is interesting,” he tells me. “Whenever I get offered a role, I read the script and make sure that my character has the margin to perform.
“Earlier, I used to be bothered if my character had very few scenes compared to others in the cast but, now, I don’t care if the hero has 50 scenes and I just have 25. My character should have something to do. Also, I want to know who the cast is, who the director is. I want to be paid a certain amount for my role.
“It’s very important to have faith in yourself and your abilities and, then, eventually you get what you want. God opens paths for you when you don’t even expect it and, maybe, while doing these negative characters, a new door will open up for me.”
Has there been a time when he has been completely out of work, waiting for the right script to come his way?
“Yes, I think right before the coronavirus pandemic, there were eight, nine months when I was completely without work. Ironically, I wasn’t just waiting for the right script but, in fact, scripts weren’t coming my way at all.”
He continues: “I would be sitting at home, wondering if I should explore some other career. At the same time, my wife who worked in the same industry, would be going off to work every day. It kind of pinches you and anyone who says that it doesn’t, is lying. Thankfully, that phase is over now.”
What does he think was the reason behind him being without work? Hassan muses, “I think that it might have to do a lot with the fact that I was not approachable. I was stern, firm and, maybe, not very polite. I would have all these emotions bottled up inside me and they would lead me to being rude. I was just very angry.”
Angry at unfair practices in the industry? “Partially, yes and also, the feelings were in some part hereditary. There are other people in my family who are strongly emotional. Fortunately, I realised that my problems couldn’t be solved through anger and that one needs to be emotionally intelligent.
“Life taught me, the lack of work taught me, my wife’s attitude taught me. Sunita is a very good wife, mother and daughter-in-law. There were times when she would tell me that the ways in which I was behaving were not right.
“Once I knew that I had to change, I began correcting myself. I visited a therapist regularly and she told me that bad things would happen now and then but I needed to forgive and let go. I regret that I didn’t go for therapy earlier. Perhaps if I had gone six years earlier, I would have got better earlier.
“I always give people around me the advice that, if they sense a problem in themselves, they should get therapy as soon as possible. Now, my workplace is like a home to me, my work doesn’t feel like a burden and I feel at ease with my colleagues.”
So he no longer gets angry when he sees nepotism run rampant in the industry that he works in? Or when one actor gets replaced by another because of favouritism?
“I feel that nepotism cannot really be held against an actor,” he says. “If someone’s father or uncle is a senior in the industry, why wouldn’t he want to benefit from his help? Favouritism, on the other hand, is morally wrong. I used to suffer from it a lot in the beginning of my career, but not anymore.
“It makes me wonder if new actors tend to experience it more. Regardless, it can be very demoralising. I remember when it would happen to me, I would keep asking myself why. And then, there are times that you find out that you have been suddenly replaced and you end up calling the director or the producer and things get ugly. That person may not want to pick your phone the next time around. I am beyond it all now, but it is wrong.”
I ponder whether his anger could have led him to being cast more frequently as a villain. “It’s very possible, yes,” he agrees with me. “Maybe the people I worked with didn’t like me enough to want to cast me in a positive role.”
He continues: “I am glad that I am happier now. I see other actors’ success and I am happy for them. For instance, Wahaj Ali is doing very well, and so I decided to see some of the scenes in which he acted recently.
“There is a young actor, Fazal Hussain, in Baby Baji and sometimes I shoot a scene with him and tell him that he has been brilliant. I actually secretly learn from all these people, so that the next time I get the chance, I can do something similar. I am happy for other people’s success and also accepting of the fact that what is meant for me will come to me.”
In a similar vein, he describes attending an awards ceremony in Dubai organised by Hum TV — but not being invited by the network to attend similar events in successive years.
“I was nominated in the ‘Best Actor in a Soap’ category when I attended the awards in Dubai,” he remembers. “I didn’t win, but I enjoyed myself and met a lot of industry people who I usually don’t get to meet because everyone is so busy with their work.
“I felt that Hum TV organised a really great event but I didn’t mind when they didn’t invite me the next time round. It was understandable. I hadn’t done any work with them in that year, so there was no point in inviting me. At the same time, I felt happy for those who did get to go.”
The work-life balance
Is he also a happier person at home now? “Definitely,” he smiles. “I felt so proud when, recently, fans in Hunza asked Sunita what I was like at home and she replied that I was a great husband, great father.”
He had mentioned feeling agitated when he would be without work and his wife’s career was thriving — is it difficult for two actors to be married?
“Yes, it can be difficult,” he accepts. “Marriage in all cases is a compromise, but some compromises are good and they make you a better person. For perhaps the first six or seven years of our marriage, Sunita and I dealt with many issues. She had her problems and I had mine, like anger management or being unable to understand certain things.
“Being from the same industry made things more complicated. Jealousy tends to settle in when one gets a call from a major producer and the other is work-less, or one is being surrounded by fans and the other is not. It was particularly difficult for me because, when I married Sunita, she was already an established actress and model, while I had been working in an agency and only just starting out.”
And now? “Now, I feel proud of her achievements. She is my wife, my friend, my advisory council in all the life decisions that I take.”
I wonder out loud if Hassan also succumbed to some typical male ego issues, such as minding having to take care of the children because he was available at home while his wife was busy with work?
“Maybe one or two times, but then I realised that it was wrong and now I love it,” he answers honestly. “Our eldest son used to get indigestion very frequently and I would often be taking him to the doctor on my own.
“Also, back when Sunita was modelling a lot, she would be out of the city for an entire week sometimes, attending a fashion week. During that time, my kids would be with me at home and we would have the day’s activities lined up, with where we would eat and what we would do afterwards. I make their milk for them, wash the dishes and I don’t feel any agitation in doing so.”
Of course, ultimately the work that he and Sunita do allows them both to earn more for the family. Does he think that having a dual income is very important in the current day and age?
“It’s very important,” he says. “For one, it allows the woman to have a certain amount of independence and confidence in herself. She has her own life and her own dreams and her husband can’t come in her way. Also, it helps us afford certain things that we could have only dreamed of before.
“We can go on vacation more often, wear what we like and make future plans for our children, for when they get older and perhaps aren’t living with us anymore.”
I point out that perhaps the financial support has also helped him in building his career the way he wants to, waiting for good characters and scripts rather than resorting to mediocre work as much as he can.
“Agreed,” he nods, “If it wasn’t for Sunita and my father’s support, perhaps I would have had to lower the standards that I had set for myself as an actor.”
He adds: “Still, I would advise all actors that, if they see a certain capability in themselves, then they have to have faith, try to maintain a certain standard of work and, eventually, work will come to them. They shouldn’t agree to do just anything, at any pay.”
The social media juggernaut
Hassan’s life at home appears to be hunky dory now — especially based on the beautiful pictures from their vacation that both he and Sunita have posted recently on Instagram — and yet, there have been times when possible fissures in their marriage have been laid bare.
For instance, last year, Hassan had taken offence to an interview that Sunita had given, in which she had talked about the struggling phase of his career. He promptly posted a video on Instagram, declaring that it was not Sunita’s place to have discussed these aspects of his life. Couldn’t he have just gone to the other room and told her personally, instead of creating a hullabaloo on social media?
“I could have, and so many people have asked me the same thing,” he says. “But I don’t think that I did anything wrong. There have been times when I have had issues with Sunita, or vice versa, and we have waited to come home and then discuss them with each other. Still, since this interview had taken place on a public platform, I wanted to criticise it on a public platform too.”
He continues: “Sometimes, things just get a bit too much. There had been far too many interviews of Sunita’s where lengthy discussions had ended up revolving around ‘Hassan’. I am more than just her husband.
“I have achievements of my own that I would like to talk about myself. When people interview her, I think that they should ask her questions related to her career and celebrate all the brilliant work that she has been doing.”
Perhaps the scrutiny is inevitable, since they are a celebrity couple, I suggest. “Yes, it is, but some things should remain private. Not everything is open to discussion.”
I’m curious: what does he do when he lands himself in the middle of a social media controversy and becomes the topic of the day? Does he switch off his phone and go off the grid for a while?
“There are some controversies that we create ourselves and there are others that tend to follow us about just because Sunita and I are married,” he says. “I don’t go off the internet anymore and I even read the comments. The thing is, if someone disagrees with me respectfully, I don’t mind at all. But if someone crosses the line and gets insulting, I get very angry.”
He addresses the one point of conjecture that is always linked to his marriage: “People often comment that I am married to a non-Muslim — it even led to a controversy recently when an interviewer asked Sunita if she had converted in a podcast interview.
“Sometimes the comments on this topic are very insulting. Recently, someone on Instagram cursed at me that I had been unable to convert my wife to Islam. Who was this person to play God? It is, in fact, my genuine desire that Sunita converts one day, but I think that there will be a time for it. Changing your religion is something that has to be done from the heart and with conviction.
“Also, I am a practising Muslim but I feel that I need to set a good example with my deeds for her to feel convinced by the tenets taught in my religion.”
Has the social media hype led him to measure his words more carefully during interviews? “It depends on who is taking the interview. I haven’t measured my words in this interview at least!” he grins at me.
I’m glad that he didn’t, allowing me an insight into the man and the actor behind the malevolent frowns and crazed behaviour that is him on TV. All characters — heroes and villains — are flawed, and so is Hassan Ahmed. What is special, though, is the sincerity with which he accepts these flaws and the genuine passion that he has for his work.
I quip to him, maybe people will be slotting you as one of TV’s best villains 10 years from now. He grins, “I wouldn’t mind that at all!”
Published in Dawn, ICON, July 30th, 2023