I didn't want to be a celebrity. I just wanted to be an actor: Ali Rehman Khan
Ali Rehman Khan, the actor with the gorgeous eyes and solid performances, isn’t a stranger to the screen - big or small.
He’s been seen on TV in Rishtey Kuch Adhoorey Se, Mohabbat Abb Nahi Hogi and last year’s blockbuster Diyar-e-Dil. And after independent film Slackistan and some short films, he is now poised to make his leap into super-stardom with the upcoming movie Janaan.
Images caught up with him for a tête-à-tête. Find out more about what makes Ali Rehman Khan tick (and talk!)
A childhood dream...come true
For Ali Rehman Khan, being seen on screen was a dream he's cherished for a very long time: since he was eight years old, to be exact.
“I didn’t want to be a star or a superstar, I didn’t want to be famous, I didn’t want to be a celebrity, I just wanted to be an actor,” he recalls.
Even at that young age, he picked up on self-censorship even as he picked a favourite genre.
“I watched a lot of science fiction like Blade Runner and Terminator, but I remember I was always told to leave the room when some sort of ‘scene’ would come on or I used to close my eyes, but otherwise I watched the whole film,” he laughs.
Later, films by Scorsese, and those featuring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins impressed upon him how powerful performances can shape a film. That inspired him to take up theatre, which he describes as a life-changing experience, and not only because it honed his craft. “It also changes you in small ways that you barely notice but makes a larger impact on your life. It made me a better person,” he muses.
As a shy and introverted child, he would hide away or sit in a corner but theatre gave him confidence to come out of his shell. In fact, his very first play gave him a break on the emerging film circuit as well.
Hammad Khan, the director of Slackistan offered him a film role after watching his performance. Slackistan, though banned in Pakistan, played at many international film festivals and showed a lighter side of Pakistan: helping to change its image abroad. While Khan believes the ban worked in their favour, he also admits, “It broke my heart when Slackistan was banned. I got 10,000 rupees for that role and I did it for the love of film.”
Slackistan also led to him to act in a few short films - Chai and Black Coffee – do we see a theme here? He laughingly admits that he was a complete chai-oholic and the desire to do more films that led to his signing on to these experimental films.
Did his mostly western perspective on film-making make it a challenge to work in the drama industry?
Drama, drama, drama
“You grow up watching some really, really good dramas like Alpha Bravo Charlie, Sunehray Din, Tanhaiyaan and Fifty-Fifty and then suddenly the drama industry declines,” he recalls. Working in advertising early in his career, he saw an unsavoury side to the industry where actors especially girls, were taken advantage of or would have to make distasteful compromises to get roles.
“The quality of work itself was really horrible and everyone from my social group looked down on dramas. I remember specifically never wanting to do dramas – I only wanted to do film, film and more film,” he says.
Khan has pretty much stuck to that position, given that we have only seen him in three dramas on the small screen. Despite being picky about the characters he plays, he concedes that each of those dramas was a learning experience.
Even though he was playing stereotypical male leads in Rishtey Kuch Adhoorey Se and Mohabbat Abb Nahi Hogi, his realistic performances as Arsal and Aazar did get him noticed.
After his stint as everyone’s favourite, the sweet Suhaib, in last year’s blockbuster Diyar-e-Dil, his star profile went sky high, something that did not escape the notice of producers or audiences. Khan played Suhaib, the younger brother caught between the old and the new, but held back by his love for his family, with subtlety and conviction. “Diyar-e-Dil was a special drama, I remember it very fondly,” he recollects.
We agree and quiz him about why they had to kill off Suhaib so abruptly? Khan was unable commit to the entire shoot due to unavoidable circumstances.
“Time restrictions were a big issue. They made me read the script and I really liked Suhaib’s character. Between Suhaib and Behroze, I just thought Suhaib was the better brother. Unfortunately, I had to leave earlier than I thought, so they had cut my character off earlier,” he admits. “There were a few integral scenes planned and I really wanted to shoot them but I had some flights to catch, and I couldn’t get out of it so that was all on me.”
Khan’s excellent screen chemistry with Hareem Farooq was also a highlight of the drama. “Though we already knew each other, we really bonded on the sets and she was a great support. We spent a lot of time rehearsing and it shone through in our characters,” he remembers.
Actors have to have an intelligence about how they perceive their roles but a good hands-on director really has to have a vision to guide his actors, he claims.
Was that the reason he was able to showcase the nuances of his role such as speaking with a Pashtun accent?
“I was really stubborn about it. I think people notice these small things and it becomes a problem of defining where this role is. During the whole play there is nothing about them being Pashtun, or from the North, it’s so bland,” he says.
Janaan - defying stereotypes
Does Janaan take that sense of discovery a step further, perhaps even coming full circle? Just as Slackistan tried to show a lighter side to Pakistan, Janaan attempts to show a different side of Pashtun culture.
Khan gets animated talking not only the film but his role as well. “It’s based on Pashtun culture, which is fantastic because finally there is some other culture being represented in a Pakistani film that doesn’t associate it with Talibanisation or terrorism,” he says.
The film will go a long way to break the stereotypes of Pashtuns and presenting them as normal people. “In Pakistani films you only see Pashtuns as either the Taliban or 'akhrots'. You know ‘Khawacha hum ko idhar ley jaao’ or you see them as gay. It's really disturbing that that’s what you think of a culture. Being Pashtun shouldn’t boil down to that. It’s insulting!” he claims.
He is careful to point out though that the film doesn’t represent the entire Pashtun culture. It portrays a slice of life of upper class Pashtun society, “… where there is a conservative side but there is also a liberal side. It has a mesh of the old Pashtun thinking verses the new, modern Pashtun kids,” he says.
On being Daniyal
As for his role, the hilarious teasers show Ali Rehman Khan as Daniyal, ‘Islamabad ka shoda’, who seems to have all the good lines against mota, nalayk, kharoos Asfandyar, played by Bilal Ashraf, as they compete for the attentions of the beautiful Armeena Rana Khan.
Daniyal, Khan reveals, is a young, vibrant guy, “I think a lot of people will relate to him. People will enjoy watching him; people will enjoy some of the jokes. He’s a really funny character. When I was reading it, I was laughing out loud,” he enthuses.
Billed as the comic relief, does he fear that he appears as the second fiddle? “I don’t see it as a negative thing that my character is the comic relief. Unfortunately in our industry as with Bollywood, they take the comedian as the anti-hero and he can be stereotyped as second fiddle,” he states.
Khan admits that he prefers challenging roles and picking them over the lead is an intentional choice. “It’s the danger of being an actor over a superstar. When you are an actor and you are passionate about the characters you play,” he elucidates.
Janaan is all set to release simultaneously in 15 different countries, a miraculous feat for a film made by such a fresh, young team in a still emerging film industry.
Directed by Azfar Jafri and written by Osman Khalid Butt (OKB), Janaan is a romantic comedy that promises to make your Eid a lot more fun.
Elucidating on the film, he says, “Another really important part of this film which I really compliment OKB for writing is a strong central female lead. It’s a very fresh take on Pakistani cinema. Apart from new faces on screen there is a lot of new energy behind the screen."
Not only is Janaan poised to defy stereotypes but within the commercial trappings of romance, comedy, drama and music, it also addresses a very serious social issue and has a strong social message. Though he remains tightlipped about what that social issue is, he encourages us to watch the film to find out!
Racing his way through an exhausting promotional schedule before the film's international premiere on the 13th of September, Khan still maintains his excitement, “We are all operating on four hours of sleep but it’s fun. It's a huge responsibility because we never expected this film to be so huge but this is something we love to do. And this has been my dream for a very long time,” he reminds us.
Well, some dreams do come true after all. In 20 years to be exact.
Sadaf Haider and Sadaf Siddique are pearls of a pod, fellow freelance writers and drama buffs. Find more at sadafsays.com