Much like vampires that appear ageless, Ali Zafar is growing... young.
That’s the first impression I got of him when I met him for a heart-to-heart about his upcoming film. Time seems be in love with him; he doesn’t look very different from when I first interviewed him almost 11 years ago. Ali admits he’s been on a very strict diet and exercise regimen — all in preparation for his upcoming film, Teefa in Trouble.
The interview took place in a meeting room at a local five-star hotel. We’re occasionally interrupted by members of the staff who, while leaving, ask Ali if they can take a photo with him. After the interview, he promises them.
This isn’t anything new. The first time I interviewed him, back in 2006 right before his second album was coming out, the only time he had available to talk was for a short coffee before, during and right after arriving at the airport to catch a flight. Back then, in public places people would maintain a respectful distance but someone would approach him occasionally and without breaking off in mid-sentence, Ali would simply take the paper they had, give them an autograph and return it to them. It seemed almost routine.
Back then I had written how, ‘When we start talking his eyes develop a sharp focus and he transforms into a serious, focused person, quite unlike the light-headed, fun-loving guy we are used to watching on screen. Ali has an uncanny ability to observe little details and has a knack for making insightful observations that appear ironic most of the time. He is also a lot smarter than he lets on.’
He retains his tendency to become sombre while in conversation. The difference is that there is a marked softness, coming across as thoughtful in his approach now. Perhaps it is a natural by-product of having had more than a decade of experience under his belt, or perhaps from being a father.
“While I was working in India I was very conscious of the fact that this is not my country,” says Ali Zafar as we sit down for a chat. “Pakistan is my country. Things between India and Pakistan are very uncertain. Things can come to a stop anytime. Which is why, contrary to popular perception, I never shifted my base to India.”
It was while he was working on a Bollywood film called Chashme Baddoor (2013) that Ali decided he was going to work on his first Pakistani film. He had an idea for a story. The first thing he did was call the ad film director Ahsan Rahim. “We really get along well,” says Ali, adding that when it came to creative work, they have always been on the same wavelength.
“We worked on that idea for a year and a half and then we discarded it,” he adds. “Then I worked on another idea called Deosai. For 15-20 days, I went to the north to do my research, discover and feel the place now. And I felt it’s a little early to invest so much money into filming action up there — it will be very difficult. So perhaps, for the first film, do something that’s a little more practical.”
“We started off with an idea to make an action comedy, then romance came into play and then the songs…”. And hence Teefa in Trouble was born.
Does Ali think he’s well-suited to play, a regular, excuse-my-use-of-the-word paindu person? "I can because I’m a Punjabi na," he responses, his accent becoming thick and strong. "I come from a mohalla in Lahore. That’s who I am from inside."
Set in androon shehr [inner city] Lahore, the movie centres on a character that keeps finding himself in precarious situations and has to find a way out of them. It also involves a lot of action. Does Ali think he’s well-suited to play, a regular, excuse-my-use-of-the-word paindu person?
“I can because I’m a Punjabi na,” he responses, his accent becoming thick and strong. “I come from a mohalla in Lahore. That’s who I am from inside. With time, you become a little polished, but I know who I am and where I come from. I know the language, the streets, how people talk and their mannerisms.”
The artist underwent a complete physical transformation for the film. There’s a lot of action that finds the character fighting baddies and escaping through the streets of Lahore. According to Ali, physically preparing for the role took almost three months. “I really cut down on everything,” he says, “I was very particular about my diet and exercise. There was a time I was working out twice a day — once to go to the gym, the other for my martial arts training. That really knackers you down.”
“That was hard,” he says referring to learning marital arts. “Gym was a piece of cake compared to that.”
How did his wife feel about all of the time he committed to preparing for this role before filming even began? “She liked it,” he laughs. “What wife doesn’t like a six pack [abs]?”
“That fitness was also required on the set because we were filming 16 hours a day,” he says. “There were days when in the morning I would be required to do my scenes and in the evening, I had to do the action.”
“It was a complete change in lifestyle altogether. I didn’t see a lot of my friends. No parties — just simple, clean focus. It was like how a boxer would start training for a fight.”
They worked with both a local and foreign fight choreographer for the film. “I had so much fun!” he says talking about doing the action sequences. To fight and to dance are pretty much the same things, Ali stresses, as he demonstrates his point by slowly and gracefully moving through a small sequence, counting the numbers of each step as it progresses.
They’ve wrapped up the shoot in Lahore. The second phase of filming is currently taking place in... Poland. “We wanted to have Eastern European architecture in the film — something that hasn’t been seen before,” says Ali. “You put a camera in London and everyone knows its London. I’ve already shot two films in London.”
Does he struggle to adapt between Ali Zafar the singer and the actor? “I think it’s about striking that fine balance,” he responds. There was another script in the works that centred on being a musician but Ali refused to entertain that one. “I don’t want to do that because that will just have me play myself,” he says, “Maybe later. That’s why I also chose Tere Bin Laden as my first film in India, as opposed to another film [I had been offered in] which I would’ve played a musician.”
Eight films (and guest appearances in two others) in, and Ali is tired of playing similar characters. “I’ve had this look of a ‘romantic’ hero or a ‘chocolate’ hero,” he says, seeming slightly embarrassed. “Mein bore ho gaya hun uss image say. Mujhay shave nahin karni [I’m bored of that image. I don’t want to shave]. Teefa is unlike any character that I’ve done before.”
Ali is also producing the film and is quite optimistic about its outcome. “We’ve edited about 50 per cent of the film,” he says. “As far as my instincts go, since the beginning of my career, from what I’ve seen, it’s something that people will get to see for the first time in Pakistani cinema — whether it’s action or the way it’s been shot. I can’t wait for people to see it.”
Ali had been filming for Tere Bin Laden when the 2008 Mumbai Attacks took place. “Luckily, I only had two days of filming left,” he related to me during an interview back then. 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 but on the ground level nothing changed, things were still pretty normal for me,” he had related.
This fallout was completely different from what happened last year after the Uri attacks. Pressured by a right-wing political party in India, Pakistani actors were ‘banned’ from Bollywood. Caught in the middle of all of this were Fawad and Mahira Khan. Did he feel a sense of déjà vu watching how everything unfolded?
"I realized that the difference between now and then — because something much bigger had happened before — was the presence and emergence of social media."
“My own brother Danyal was there,” Ali relates. “He’d been there for two months prepping for a film with Yash Raj. He was being launched by them. He was going to start filming in a week. My film Dear Zindagi was about to come out. Initially when this happened, one didn’t know what to make of it and when it was escalated to that level, I sat back and pondered [over it].”
"I realised that the difference between now and then — because something much bigger had happened before — was the presence and emergence of social media." Social media tends to escalate things.
“But being an optimist, I always see a silver lining,” he stresses. “Things happen at a certain time for a certain reason. There’s no point thinking and wasting your energy in trying to figure out what happened. I always knew this could happen one day. And as I was saying before was that we need to build our own industry. My film was already in preproduction, I was already thinking Pakistan.”
It runs in the family
Ali Zafar has a younger brother and judging by the photos posted on his Instagram (he has a whopping 102,000 followers already) account, good looks run in the family.
“Danyal is 15 years younger than me,” says Ali. “I’ve almost raised him like a son. He just amazes me and makes me feel very proud with the things he can do, the way he thinks and the man that he’s become.”
“People have only seen photos of him, so he does look like me, he can’t change that. But he’s a different individual. So, when ‘that’ Daniyal Zafar comes out. People will see a whole new different side to him."
Baby bro has also worked on the movie with his older brother. “He studied filmmaking from the New York Film Academy,” relates Ali, “He was with us during the script and writing [process] as well. Someday he’s going to be in front of the camera. He needs to go through the grind, and know what these people [the crew] feel like.”
“In terms of music, the older brother says his younger brother has a completely different take than his. “He’s into blues and jazz,” says Zafar. “He’s got a different tonality entirely. He’s a good actor but music is his first thing.”
Danyal grew up watching Ali become the personality that he is. Does he feel Danyal takes inspiration from him? In the photos at least, the resemblance between the two brothers is uncanny. “He has his own distinct style,” stresses Ali. “People have only seen photos of him, so he does look like me, he can’t change that. But he’s a different individual. So, when ‘that’ Daniyal Zafar comes out. People will see a whole new different side to him. I feel that in many ways, he’s more talented than I am.”
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, June 25th, 2017