Getting totally candid with Pakistan’s star in Bollywood, Ali Zafar.
According to Ali Zafar, “People on both sides of the Pak-India border often have false perceptions about each other but there are also an increasing number of people that are looking past the stereotypes,” says Ali Zafar whose new new film, Total Siyappa, is an attempt to bring to light this very phenomenon: “It’s about people evolving and looking past the clichés,” he says. And while casting the sole bankable Pakistani in Bollywood is a no-brainer in an Indo-Pak film, according to the man who might as well be Pakistan’s biggest star, the film is more about crossing hurdles than simply being a typical cross-border love affair.
I spoke to Ali before the premiere show of his film in Karachi, and in between working out his itinerary and booking tickets, we talked about Total Siyapaa, his critics, his successes as a Pakistani actor in India and being the ‘sexiest man in Asia’.
IoS: A love story between a Pakistani Muslim boy and an Indian Hindu girl is bound to get people talking. How do you think audiences will react to the film?
AZ: I think when people in Pakistan see the film they will feel very proud that the writer, producer and director have not built a story based on preconceived notions. To tell you the truth, the very fact that the Pakistani is the male lead as opposed to being the heroine - as had been typical in the past - is proof of a hurdle being crossed. So the film is a very fresh take on the entire Indo-Pak affair.
IoS: Do you ever feel like a culture ambassador, like you have to be at your best behaviour, especially in India of all countries?
AZ: I think it’s about being in a situation where being in a peaceful zone and trying your best is more important than anything. I was thinking about this just yesterday, that I am becoming increasingly aware of the fact that I am from Pakistan and I must represent myself in the best of my manners, and I have to make a very good impression over there. That’s what Total Siyapaa is talking about, impressions and perceptions - in the film Aman has to make a good impression because of the perception Asha’s mother has of Pakistanis. It’s something we Pakistanis need to work on, to change the perception, and that can only happen once you sit down and talk to each other and understand each other. Being positive, staying positive and remembering this, I think, is the best way to be because only when you respect somebody do you get respect in return.
IoS: That’s interesting because the film managed to upset Shahid Afridi with a dialogue in the trailer.
AZ: No, no. That wasn’t the objective and I don’t mean to upset anyone or anything like that. When you watch that scene and take it into context you’ll understand the reason behind it. It’s also a take on the fact that whenever our cricket team performs well we go yaaayy! and when they can’t, we are all cursing them. It’s a line that will bring people closer and not push people away when they watch the entire film.
IoS: During times when Pakistan plays India, like in the Asia Cup, do you get to be vocal about your support for Pakistan?
AZ: Well, at the end of the day I’ve come from Pakistan. I am a Pakistani and Pakistan’s cricket team is my team so it’s obvious where my loyalties lie. But at the same time I would like watch the match as a game and nothing more.
IoS: You’ve had three hits in four movies and won India’s Dadasaheb Phalke award last year - it’s the kind of run that the Khans enjoyed when they too were first breaking out. Do you ever feel like you’re living in a dream, like you have to pinch yourself to see if it’s real?
AZ: (Laughing) There are moments. Once when I was packing up in a location where there was a lake. After I had packed, I stood there and thought I’d take the moment to meditate and thank God and show my gratitude - and all of a sudden I had this feeling that here I was, shooting for a film, a hero in a Yash Raj film, in India, coming from Pakistan, with three box office hits, and I was the recipient of so much love and respect. It was incredible. And that is what matters to me more than anything else, the respect that you earn both from people in India and the people back home through your work.
IoS: Ali do you ever wink at yourself in the mirror, or strut around in the bathroom? Do you ever feel like “yeah I’m awesome”?
AZ: No, I don’t do that. There is a saying: “Jitna darkaht ooncha hota jata hai, tou utna jhukna chahiye.”
IoS: So you’ve never felt like: ‘Wow, I am the sexiest man in Asia’!
AZ: I have actually never felt like I was the sexiest man in Asia (laughing). I don’t know. There are many other people better looking and more talented than me. I don’t know what people find sexy.
IoS: How does your wife react to the recognition?
AZ: I think she’s thinking that the world finally knows now. The reason she is my wife and the reason I love her so much is that she is different from other women. She is very secure, evolved, she understands my job, is very proud of my work, and she has been a big support in my career in every way possible and without her I couldn’t manage.
IoS: So she’s never given you a hard time for taking your shirt off in London, Paris, New York (LPNY)?
IoS: Despite the awards and accolades, a few naysayers are of the opinion that being a Pakistani Muslim won’t let you get very far in India, and how you’re biggest role so far has been Mere Brother ki Dulhan. How would you respond?
AZ: People used to tell me that I could never be a film star in India. And then my first film Tere Bin Laden was a huge hit at the box office. So they said it was a small film and that I couldn’t get a big film. Then Mere Brother ki Dulhan came with Katrina Kaif. Then when LPNY came with Aditi Rao Hydari and David Dhawan’s Chashme Badoor, they said you know the girl is always Pakistani and the guy is Indian. Now I’m playing the male lead, as a Pakistani. So basically the moment you think it can’t happen, it won’t happen, it’s as simple is that. More than through words I am proving the critics wrong with my work. People just need to stop misguiding everyone else from dreaming big because of their own insecurities.
IoS: Haters are gonna hate, especially on internet forums.
AZ: Yeah, well I’ve heard them in person in conversation with other big actors here. Basically, we offer hypocrisy. Andar se they are desperate to work in India but they’ll try to say we are so cool, we don’t sell ourselves short. In Pakistan, sometimes when you see people doing well, instead of supporting them — some people, I am not talking about all of them - will try bring him down. There is a saying, “Jissay khuda rakhe ussay kaun chakhay. Hum to nahin ja rahe, tumhein kaisay jaanay dain.”
IoS: Last question. Do you ever get nervous?
IoS: Do you ever get anxious in the middle of the night, when you can’t go to sleep? Obviously that’s personal but are you always a super human or do you too ever wish for strength?
AZ. Yes, I have ... not nervous but ... you know I’m very lucky. I have great friends and family. If I ever think I need support or help, I talk to them, we sort it out. I have great faith in God, and so you know ... I have my ways.
IoS: What’s next?
AZ: My next film is another Yash Raj film with Parineeti Chopra and Govinda. I play a hero in it. No rest for the weary!