In 1993, a young Ashir Azeem rose to stardom as the star and writer of PTV Quetta centre’s first action-drama Dhuaan, and captured the imagination of the entire nation.
The content was so strong that it did not require the traditional star-studded cast or the staple ‘happily ever after’ ending. The leading cast was killed off in the final episode; something that still bothers those who followed it with all their heart. The question remains: why?
“First of all, the guys weren’t supposed to die in the original script; I had to kill them off because had I not done so, Dhuaan would have become the story of individuals and not the story of the system,” the cool and calm Ashir Azeem discloses.
"I was also under pressure to continue Dhuaan and keep adding stories to it. If something is successful we should know the right time to make an exit."
“But then, I also believe that Dhuaan had a happy ending since another young ASP replaces my screen character of Azher and continues the good work."
"I was also under pressure to continue Dhuaan and keep adding stories to it. If something is successful we should know the right time to make an exit. Commercial success tends to blind us, we try to stretch that success till people get sick of the concept and force us to quit. It is better to leave in dignity than be forced out in disgrace. That timely exit is one of the factors that made Dhuaan so popular.”
Ashir Azeem's exit
Much like ASP Azher, Ashir Azeem left the scene soon after giving the public something they could cheer for. While Nazli Nasr, Nabeel and Asal Din Khan continued with their showbiz careers, Ashir disappeared only to return 22 years later.
Out of sight but not out of mind, Ashir Azeem is back at what he does best!
Who is this man who turned his back on fame? “By temperament I am not a media person. I went in front of the screen because I had something to say; having said it I had no desire to linger on. I wanted to go back to being an ordinary guy and being with my friends and family.”
But is it really possible to go back being ordinary after capturing the fancy of millions? “No it’s not, Dhuaan changed me forever. In a sense I became quieter, contemplative, I matured, became humble. The tremendous affection that I received from the people weighed down on me, and I realised that people looked up to me and I felt obligated to live up to their standards. The carefree callous me, who occasionally ran through a red traffic light, would stop at a signal even in the middle of the night because somehow it felt like betraying the millions that praised me so much.”
From Dhuaan to Maalik
The upcoming feature film Maalik sees Ashir return as actor, writer and director.
“I was inspired by reality back then and even now. When I joined Civil Service Academy, I became friends with a lot of police officers who were idealists like me. We got a wake-up call when we came into active duty; practical life was different from our thoughts. I deduced that the problem was not with individuals but with the environment that pressures the individual to accept a particular mould."
"Dhuaan spoke against that environment; it suggested that if you want to have an effective police force you have to re-organise it along modern lines, do away with traditional jurisdiction-bound thana culture. It suggested that without intelligence, modern investigation techniques, computers and updated databases, fighting crime can’t be possible and so forth. Even today the thana and kutcheri remain archaic and acquisition of justice is one of the biggest problems for the common man."
“A country is not the trees or rivers or rocks — it is the people. Patriotism is not love for the wind or water or land; it’s about standing up for each other, your family, friends and caring about the future of your children.”
“Maalik, on the other hand, is a reply to those who blame the country rather than blaming themselves,” Ashir changes gears when he talks about his upcoming movie. “A country is not the trees or rivers or rocks — it is the people. Patriotism is not love for the wind or water or land; it’s about standing up for each other, your family, friends and caring about the future of your children. Whatever is happening to our country is our own doing but rather than do something about it, we wait for someone to come and fix everything. We have to realise that nobody is coming, we are the owners, we and only we are the Maalik of our present and our future.”
Not many know that while Ashir is wearing many hats in the project, the woman who plays the love of his life in the movie is his real-life wife, Bushra. Doesn’t he feel that being too close to the project might ruin it rather than improve it?
“My entire team and I live and breathe our film. Nothing is possible without a good team and I’m glad that I got to work with the best professionals who like me take up just one project at a time. As a writer and director I restrict myself to my roles and give complete freedom to other professionals to express their creativity. Imran Ali is an excellent DoP, beyond my role as a director I never interfered in his work. Similarly, Sahir Ali Bagga is a seasoned name in film music, he has composed the songs while Rahat Fateh Ali Khan has sung them. If you let the professionals do their work, your own work as a director becomes easy.”
Ashir Azeem, back in the spotlight
Maalik is all set for an April 8 release, after the conclusion of the World T20. The film doesn’t have a major film star — only veteran TV actors Sajid Hasan, Farhan Ali Agha and Ehtisham Uddin in pivotal roles.
When asked about his tendency to go for new faces, Ashir pointed out that most of the actors in Dhuaan were also newcomers.
“A film doesn’t have actors — only characters. I always look for actors that would fit the character the best and when you do that, major and minor names don’t matter. Besides, having fresh faces adds to believability of the role. I think that the director doesn’t do casting, the story does and that’s what we tried to do with Maalik.”
Ashir is part of not one but two big-budget film productions set to be released in 2016 — besides playing the lead in Maalik, he is making a cameo appearance in Dr. Hassan Waqas Rana’s Yalghaar. “Working in Yalghaar is my affection for my decade-old friend, Doc. It was Dr. Rana’s Waar in 2013 that convinced me to go for the big screen with Maalik — we have been friends for a long time; while he keeps on saying that Dhuaan inspired him to writing, I tell him that Waar inspired me to do Maalik.”
If Maalik becomes a hit, will Ashir stick to films or make a comeback on TV? “Maybe both, maybe neither. I don’t know I just follow my heart.” The bombastic one-liners of Maalik have already grabbed the audience’s attention — 'Maalik mulazim ko dhamki nahi, notice deta hai' and 'Main Pakistan ka shehri, Pakistan ka Maalik hoon.'
“When you write from the heart, your words have conviction,” the real-life officer of the law concludes with yet another touching one-liner.
Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 13th, 2016