“That's never going to happen,” shot back the friend. “Bollywood has never cast a Pakistani in a lead role before. It simply hasn't happened yet.”
“Yes, but there's always a possibility,” retorted Ali.
Fast-forward six years and it has finally happened. Ali Zafar has been cast as a lead actor in a Bollywood production titled Teray Bin Laden (TBL). A comedy film, he plays an ambitious Pakistani journalist who concocts a fake video of Osama bin Laden in order to further his career and move to America. The film is lined up for release this summer, but what is interesting to note is that Ali had been working on the film for the past two years, and during this time he kept it a well-guarded secret until the release date was confirmed.
So how did Ali land the role? “The director had seen my music videos and decided that I would fit the role,” he said. Ali also mentioned that the producer, Manmohan Shetty, had read somewhere that he had refused a role opposite Amitabh Bachchan. He clarified that he had been misquoted and that he had been offered a role in Teen Patti which stars Big B and Ben Kingsley, but he couldn't take up the offer because it required six months of extensive preparations. “I told them I can't be in Mumbai for that long and that's why I couldn't do the film. But they (the Indian press) put it as though I refused to act opposite Amitabh Bachchan which was not the case,” he added.
His acting in music videos aside, Ali still had to go through a screen test, “Shekhar Kapoor, who was also working in that office, was passing by and saw the test and told the producer that 'this is the guy you should be working with', and that's how it happened.”
But the producer wanting him for the film was just one aspect of how TBL came together. “I needed to be sure whether it was something I would want to be a part of. Although a lot of people over here would jump at the opportunity, for me it was different.” Ali said he asked the producer to acquaint him with the script that he found comical and entertaining, but what caught his fancy was that “an Indian was making a film about Pakistan, a Pakistani and most importantly a Pakistani journalist.”
“I want to do intelligent cinema that I like — a bit unconventional. The only thing I feet strongly about is that I don't want to offend anyone's ideology,” he said, adding, “the original title of the film was also different from the present Teray Bin Laden. I suggested that they change it to what it is now.”
Ali has also sung on the film's soundtrack but is quick to point out that TBL is not a song-and-dance feature. It has a score that runs throughout the film and a song will be released separately along with a video, as in the case of A.R. Rehman's Jai Ho for the film Slumdog Millionaire. For the title song Ali has sung a duet with Shankar Mahadevan, whereas the music is by Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa.
Ali remembers the terrorist attacks of November 2008 when he was still in Mumbai, “Luckily, I only had two days of filming left.” Quite a few media professionals working in India at that time had to come back to Pakistan. What about him? “The Indian media instantly started thrashing Pakistan since one of the attackers was reportedly a Pakistani living in India. But on the ground level nothing changed, things were still pretty normal for me.”
“Amongst the people there is no animosity,” he recollected. “It feels like you're sitting with someone from over here. People over there don't seem to have a problem with us; and we don't have a problem with them so I don't know where the problem lies.”
TBL was shot in 45 days. The actors had previously worked in theatre and preceding the actual filming, everyone including Ali had to attend a 10-day workshop to train them for their roles, “Before going on the set we had developed a chemistry, rehearsed lines, everything was done very scientifically with characters, emotion graphs and all that.”
Ali had to be very patient and organised because he was living alone in Mumbai during film-making. “I had to go back to a hotel room, and I don't like hotel rooms. Living there alone was hard but,” he says strongly, “a film... any film is made out of passion.”
Has he seen the final product? “I haven't. I've seen clips of it and I think it's going to be alright. I don't want to speak prematurely.”
So is he toying with the idea of becoming a full-time film actor? “I wouldn't mind, although music is my thing. I love acting. I enjoy it a lot and I've done it before I released my first album. Mein apni acting ki tharak apni videos mein nikaal leta hoon.” Case in point his music video of Aag Jaisi Hai Jawani.
Coming back to home turf, was Ali offered the role of Sarmad Ghafoor in Shoaib Mansoor's Khuda Kay Liye which he turned down? “Yeah,” he affirmed. Is it also true that he had major apprehensions about the script? “No, I have great respect for Shoaib Mansoor as a director. It's just that at the time it was extremely difficult for me to continue with the project. There was so much happening in terms of concerts and other projects that to take out time for KKL was getting increasingly difficult.” Rather than back out later, Ali chose to do it during the initial phase of production. “I did act in it for two hours though,” he said.
Furthermore, he mentioned that he also did the final scene in which Sarmad dies in the courtroom. In the version that came out, however, Fawad's Sarmad does not die.
The next thing Ali wants to do is films, “Not just Bollywood films but also work on establishing our local cinema. I want to do joint productions over here. I was going to take a lot of talent from here to India but then the Mumbai blasts happened and things got delayed. If our generation doesn't do it, who will?”
During the course of the interview Ali got a phone call from an Indian director interested in casting him in a film. He asked that the script be emailed to him and that he would get back as soon as he could. Finally, what seemed impossible six years ago is very much a reality now.
Next up on Ali's agenda is releasing his third album, Jhoom, which he plans to release independently without the support of a record label. He gave us a peek into it by performing the title track at the recently held fashion week in Lahore, and if that's anything to go by we can expect a more mature side of Ali Zafar in Jhoom.
To listen to excerpts from the interview log on to www.dawn.com