Photography & styling: Raza Jaffri | Grooming: Masarrat Misbah @ Depliex | Coordination: Umer Mushtaq | Special thanks to Catalyst PR
Photography & styling: Raza Jaffri | Grooming: Masarrat Misbah @ Depliex | Coordination: Umer Mushtaq | Special thanks to Catalyst PR

I have known Yasir Hussain for nearly the entire span of his career — reviewing his work from his fledgling years as an excellent theatre artist to his present-day trysts in TV dramas and cinema — and yet, he and I have never really sat down for a full-fledged interview.

He mentions as much to me when we meet, during his promotional rounds for his movie Taxali Gate, which released in cinemas this weekend. It’s surprising, considering the many times that Yasir has provided me quotable quotes that have enlivened a write-up, or delivered on valuable background details related to a movie or a TV drama.

It’s also surprising because Yasir Hussain has a career graph that is entirely deserving of not one, but multiple interviews. He works sparingly but, every time he does, he shines on screen.

Some of his projects may not have been all-out hits — some may have even borne the brunt of scathing X (formerly Twitter) commentaries — but you can’t deny that Yasir played his part very well. He has screen presence, a knack for comic timing, a talent for metamorphosing into the scariest villain, an interest in direction as well as scriptwriting, a penchant for hosting an awards ceremony and drawing impromptu laughs. Yasir knows this — and it has made him decide that he won’t allow his talent to be short-changed.

“I am satisfied with doing limited work,” he tells Icon. “I don’t particularly see any work on TV that makes me jump up and say, ‘I would have loved to do that!’ I only sign on to a script if I truly like it, and if they are willing to pay me the amount that I ask of them. This doesn’t mean that all the work that I have done is amazing, but at least I have fewer regrets!”

The actor gets into the skin of his characters on-screen, shines as a host and has ambitious plans as a writer and director. But despite his undeniable talent, he often fi nds himself shut out of big productions. Is it because he is too honest?

So Taxali Gate had a script that won him over? “Yes, it’s a beautiful story. It’s a crime thriller, revolving around the lives of the less-privileged people living in the Taxali Gate neighbourhood,” he tells me.

And it’s about the red-light district and revolves around the concept of consent, I ask him, based on what I have seen of the movie’s promotions on Instagram.

“There are some characters in the movie who are from the red-light area, but it’s not just about them,” he says. “And yes, consent is one of the issues discussed in the movie, but I don’t know why it’s being pushed forward so much in the movie’s promotions. There are many other issues that are highlighted in the plot. It’s a commercial movie and not an issue-based one.

“Also, people have liked the trailer but there is much more to the movie than what you see in the trailer,” he promises. “It’s a suspenseful story and so, some of the best parts aren’t there in the trailer. You might also have thought that I am playing a negative role in Taxali Gate, but that isn’t true either.”

I had certainly assumed that, I agree.

Of Villains and Heroes

Regardless of his character in Taxali Gate, Yasir has a flair for playing the villain — a case in point is his last movie Javed Iqbal: The Untold Story of A Serial Killer, later renamed Kukri.

Yasir’s enactment of one of the most cold-blooded killers in Pakistan’s history was unnervingly scary. His performance was flawless to the point of being eerie, and would have perhaps particularly been appreciated by horror buffs, had the movie’s cinematic run been smoother.

In reality, very few people ended up seeing the movie. It got censored immediately after its premiere, and then went through further editing and censorship before a newer version was released much later, long after the hype surrounding it had subsided. Did this past unfortunate experience make him apprehensive about Taxali Gate’s fate?

“If I had been apprehensive, do you think that I would have agreed to the topics being discussed in Taxali Gate?” he quips. And then he adds, “Actually, Taxali Gate’s storyline isn’t really that controversial. It has been cleared by the censor board and wherever they have taken offence to certain words that are spoken regularly all around us, they have added beeps,” he shrugs.

“As for Javed Iqbal, to date when I meet people, they ask me how they can see it. What more would any actor want? How many actors are told by people that a certain trailer or scene of theirs has gotten them curious? So many actors lie when they say people like their work. Look at how many TV dramas are airing right now and are any of them good? Barely any!”

Despite Javed Iqbal’s limited run in cinemas, the people who saw the movie — like myself — returned home perturbed. What was his process of getting into the skin of a man who was so unapologetically evil?

“If you had difficulty seeing the movie, it was because it was just as difficult for me to play the character,” he says. “In order to be convincing, I had to understand Javed Iqbal’s belief that what he was doing was right. It was a dangerous character to play.

“I remember the first time my wife [actress Iqra Aziz] visited the set and saw me dressed like Javed Iqbal. I was looking a lot like him and I could tell that she was taken aback. There is also this picture of me having returned home from shooting the movie, sleeping with my hands tucked under my cheek. My son Kabir is sleeping right next to me and it looks as if I am Javed Iqbal. It’s scary.”

He continues, “There have only been two times when I have felt that the spirit of my character has truly come inside me. One was when I was enacting Javed Iqbal and the other was when I was enacting Akbar, the character played by the late Salim Nasir, in the stage rendition of Anwar Maqsood’s drama Aangan Terrha.

”There have been other times too when I have had to project the expressions of a villain. In Badshah Begum, my character carelessly runs over a child with his car. When we were shooting the scene, an object was placed in front of my car so that it would jolt as if it were running over a child. I had to maintain an indifferent expression of my face, which was what was expected of my character.

“But I haven’t just played villains,” he points out to me. “If I have played a villain in my last three projects, I played positive roles in the few projects before that. My main aim is to think like the character, in order to be believable. When I was acting in Baandi, I felt that I would start speaking fluent Sindhi at any point. I didn’t do so — I don’t even know Sindhi — but I just felt that way!”

And in the trailer of Taxali Gate, he’s speaking Punjabi in a very Lahori accent. How did he manage to do so? “I am a Kashmiri born in Karachi and Punjabi is not my language. I have learnt it through watching Punjabi movies!” he tells me.

“And then, I always work on the accent of the character that I am enacting. I meet different people, spend time with them and, by the time I come in front of the camera, I have picked up certain aspects of their accent and their various traits. It’s not easy, it requires hard work.”

Truth and lies

Despite the fact that Yasir’s always received rave reviews for his acting, does he feel that his work is not celebrated as much as it should? He muses upon this. “It is my personal choice to not be famous amongst the masses. If I wanted to be popular, I would have agreed to work in multiple TV dramas instead of being picky. Regardless, my work is being seen by the people that I want to show it to. It is reaching them and it makes me happy. The audience that watches everything and follows everyone is just not my audience.”

He continues, “Having said this, being celebrated less in the industry is not my personal choice. I don’t know why this is the case except that, perhaps, people don’t like the fact that I speak the truth.”

For those who may not know — although it’s quite a well-known fact — Yasir’s ‘truth’ has often consisted of making a pointed, honest jibe on social media that may have hurt a few egos. Or crack a joke on his Insta Story which may not exactly be politically correct. There was a time when his online commentaries would spark off a small Internet controversy every second week but, lately, his social media persona has become more subdued. Why?

“I have just understood that people don’t have a sense of humour. I still joke around with my friends and it makes me happy that there are still some people in Pakistan who can take a joke. There are people who won’t mind a joke, because they are secure with who they are, people like Humayun Saeed, Fahad Mustafa, Adnan Siddiqui and Faysal Quraishi. There are many others, though, who are fully aware that I am joking but will still choose to mind.

“It’s really not such a big deal. People joke about me too. Ahmed Ali Butt has often joked about me in shows, and I have never taken offence. In fact, I like it that they are talking about me,” he says.

In the past, his sense of humour would particularly come into play when he would be hosting an awards show. Making impromptu observations, Yasir would have his audience in stitches. I mention this to him and he answers wryly, “And yet, I haven’t hosted an awards show for some years now. The people that you see hosting these days are quite bad at what they do.”

Why hasn’t he been asked to host, I ask.

“Perhaps it’s because people have now created this perception of me that I am controversial,” he ponders. “Any time I am introduced in a show, the host adds the word controversial to my introduction. They have managed to create this image around me, although I feel that I have a strong self-censor and I would never say something that makes the show look bad.

“Also, awards shows get edited before they run on TV.” I interject here to say that weeks before the TV versions get aired, on-stage blunders have already done the rounds, thanks to social media. But Yasir continues: “I have sat through so many live shows in the course of my career — two years on Aag TV and six months on the K2 channel. It was well-known on these channels that, whenever a long live show had to be aired, they could trust me with it.

“There’s another reason,” he adds. “All these people that you see hosting shows frequently, they are willing to take less money for the job, as long as they get given an award. If the show is taking place outside of Pakistan, they will happily accept economy class tickets for the trip, they’ll even dance for free! I would never sell myself for less. I’d never fly economy class.”

I have to interrupt him: why not economy class?

“I don’t even fly economy on my own expense,” he tells me. “I’ll take a shorter trip but I’ll fly business class. I have worked too hard for an event organiser to try and buy me out for less. All actors should remember this: there is no point in wearing a rented suit and sitting in the third or fourth row of an awards show for free. These are all branded shows. They should pay actors for attending.”

So do you attend an awards show only when you’re paid for it, I ask him. “If I am hosting [and am therefore getting paid for it], I’ll attend,” he says. “Also, I attended last year’s Lux Style Awards because I was nominated in two categories, as an actor as well as a director. My wife convinced me that it was an honour to be nominated for my direction of a six-episode drama — Aik Thi Laila on Express Entertainment — when many directors worked for years and their work was still not recognised. I just fell for her arguments.”

Has direction allowed him the space to work with more unusual storylines as opposed to the more typical roles generally offered to actors? “TV’s just a really bad medium right now,” he says. “Aik Thi Laila had a beautiful story. I want to work on such projects and see such projects on TV. But even as a director, I get offered such bad scripts that I refuse.

“When has a 26-episode-long drama not been stretched out to 40 episodes [through drags and repeated flashbacks] just so the production house manages to earn more money?”

He grins. “Now I won’t name the production houses, otherwise they will become even more resolute about not offering me scripts. Do you know, I have never been offered a script by any of the major TV production houses in Pakistan? I mean, look at my acting, the work that I have done. People here have such big egos and small hearts that they don’t want to give me work just because I speak the truth.”

He isn’t smiling anymore — it is obviously no smiling matter.

The path ahead

In contrast, his wife Iqra Aziz is a popular female lead in major TV drama productions. Does he watch Iqra’s dramas — and he does offer critique on them? “I watch a few of them,” he says, “but I’ll only advise her if she asks me for it. Otherwise, she does her work and I do mine.”

There is a common notion that marriages between two people working in the entertainment industry don’t tend to work out. What are his thoughts on this?

“Two actors can certainly be happily married but two stars perhaps cannot. Two stars find it difficult to survive together even on a film or drama set, let alone under one roof!” he jokes.

“There is just one star in my marriage and that’s my wife. I am very happy about this. She is doing so well and works in Pakistani entertainment’s most popular medium, TV dramas. I, on the other hand, don’t like much that is offered to me and refuse so much work. I think there are very few chances of me becoming a star and I prefer it that way.”

Is he able to refuse more work easily because his is a dual-income family? “Perhaps mentally I am at peace, because I know that Iqra is earning her own money and can buy whatever she likes for herself,” he tells me. “But otherwise, from the age of 20, when I started earning, to now, I have run my house on my own income.”

Yasir walks a path less trodden — where does he see himself professionally five years from now?

“I don’t think that far ahead, but I do want to help in making the Pakistani film industry a place that is so profitable that people invest in it knowing that they will get returns. This year, I want to release my own movie. It is going to be a low-budget one — movies right now need to have manageable budgets, so that the producer doesn’t go completely into loss! — but a commercial one. If it does well, I’ll make more movies.”

He continues, “I am also about to work with a theatre group, along with Umer Aalam. The play is scheduled to be staged after Eid-ul-Fitr. And eventually, I want to come up with a play that stars Iqra and me. Let’s see.”

He has some very ambitious plans. Is he happy with where he is right now? “Yes, I am happy with myself, with the work that I choose to do,” he smiles.

In a perfect world, Yasir Hussain would have so much more to be happy about. Ideally, he should have had the chance to do much more work that was to his liking. But even in an imperfect world, Yasir Hussain’s talent is irrefutable. And notwithstanding box office hits and misses and social media controversies, he’s here for the long haul.

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 18th, 2024

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