While working in India I was very conscious that it's not my country: Ali Zafar

While working in India I was very conscious that it's not my country: Ali Zafar

Ali Zafar opens up about merging movies with martial arts, working in India and his new-found mellowness
Updated 03 Jul, 2017

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.”

Ali says he's been on a very strict diet and exercise regimen — all in preparation for his upcoming film, Teefa in Trouble.
Ali says he's been on a very strict diet and exercise regimen — all in preparation for his upcoming film, Teefa in Trouble.

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.”

On Bollywood

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


BRR Jun 30, 2017 08:41am
Right, please stay in your own country, and make a living there - nobody forced you to go to India, or try to make money there. Stay in pakistan and be happy. We will all be happy then.
ga Jun 30, 2017 08:55am
These Indo-Pak ups and downs will happen. The general public gets along well overseas so it's obvious the issue is because of leadership and not the people. Having said that Pak actors should focus on Pak market of 200 million people. it's not a small country and with hard work, no one would need Bollywood in Pakistan.
Insaafian Jun 30, 2017 09:08am
@BRR i think that is what he said - do all indians have such thin skin?
Muhammad Faheem Jun 30, 2017 09:17am
@BRR Wow somebody is triggered
Sultan Alvi Jun 30, 2017 09:32am
Good article on Ali Zafar. Wishing Ali the best of luck with his first Pakistani movie.
Zak Jun 30, 2017 09:32am
Eager to see this great person's movie. He is a true Pakistani building talent and industry for Pakistan
balakorea Jun 30, 2017 09:38am
@BRR fantastic, i think political level normalcy between India and Pakistan is not possible
kalpa Jun 30, 2017 09:47am
Right. any foreign country is dangerous. out of all these, India is better.
D.K. PAMNANI Jun 30, 2017 10:04am
Is anyone forcing you to work in India from Indian side. Earn in Pakistan, stay in Pakistan.
Ahmed Jun 30, 2017 10:04am
@BRR Bhai it was his job. He did his job and came back. He never took an oath of allegiance to India!? Why do you guys think if you hire somebody they have to or they become Indian? He provided his services and got paid for it! End of story! If you hire a Hollywood actor would you also imagine them defending India's foreign policy? Too much jingoism and poison fed by the likes of Goswami and Amir Liaqat here.
saleem Jun 30, 2017 10:08am
Bollywood Made him Famous.
Fair opinions Jun 30, 2017 10:12am
He doesn't seems thankful to Bollywood,rather some arrogance in his spells. The close viewers who understand the Indian films well,says that Ali Zafar needs to learn more from friends and well wishers at Bollywood. Even his brother Daniyal can clear great film making in India, no matter whatever he learn in NY . There is plenty of talents in India, you guys better understand you are not indispensable. Try to speak like Ghulam Ali and Rahat.
Albela Jun 30, 2017 10:15am
With CPEC,lots of Pakistanis can look for work in China .
Khwarizmi Jun 30, 2017 10:16am
@ga Also, there are millions of Pakistanis in Arabia, Europe and America and these could be a highend market for the Pakistani film industry.
Pakistani Jun 30, 2017 10:16am
@BRR yeah how ironic that it must have been a Indian company who ended up paying for his performances and made money for it self as well!! Set your house in order first. Pathetic.
Aamer Jun 30, 2017 10:34am
@BRR India wanted him so they offered him movies, because they cant find good looking actors in India.
Aamer Jun 30, 2017 10:35am
@saleem He was always famous, he had a hit song Chanu ki Ankh main ek nasha hai.
Cricket-one Jun 30, 2017 10:45am
A very conscientious person, indeed !!! Why did he go to India in the first place ? Just to make some quick bucks. And now this statement ? Sure grapes are sour.
Akbar Jun 30, 2017 11:23am
@BRR Excuse my curiosity,why so narrow minded?
Ash20 Jun 30, 2017 11:34am
Please do not consider India your country and please work in your country or any other country but not in India. Good luck to you but do not work in India. You are welcome to visit if you wish but no work here.
irfan Jun 30, 2017 11:40am
The best of all the overrated actors. The close second is Ranbir Kapoor.
Ahmed Jun 30, 2017 11:42am
@Cricket-one What statement? He said Pakistan is my home, so what? Pakistan is indeed his home. Does working in a country for a few months make you a citizen of that country? It was a job contract, not an oath of allegiance!
nam Jun 30, 2017 11:46am
It is very important for all pakistanis to stay and work in their country, else we would nee d to follow somebody elses culture, which is not the same thing as our culture
VS Jun 30, 2017 11:48am
@BRT-why so much negativity. He hasn't criticised India.Respect others and you will get respect. Politics will always happen. Take care and have a nice day ahead from another Indian
Khalifa Jun 30, 2017 11:58am
@BRR We are living in a market economy situation. Those who hired this actor did so to maximize their profits. All is well that sells well. Who knows of this, better than the Indians?
Shahryar shirazi Jun 30, 2017 12:11pm
@Cricket-one "A very conscientious person, indeed !!! Why did he go to India in the first place ? Just to make some quick bucks. And now this statement ? Sure grapes are sour." I dont see any thig wrong in what he said . Whats bothering you ? Perhaps I did comprehend the interview a bit differently due to inferior language skills.
pawan Jun 30, 2017 12:12pm
Right, please stay in your own country, and make a living there - nobody forced you to go to India, or try to make money there. Stay in pakistan and be happy. We will all be happy then.
fareed Jun 30, 2017 12:28pm
all we hear you from India was that you enjoyed there. Now what to balace? Shan is the only dignified Actor who always said that he will not leave his country for the money. All others, well they have run across the border for chance and bucks despite of the humiliation they face there
leoman Jun 30, 2017 12:55pm
We are never sure about ourselves. We express something and act something else. Like USA visa, how many of us would refuse a chance and on the other hand we will speak against that country. same is with India, we follow a lot of their customs, trends and we take advantage of opportunities for earning money and fame but on the other hand we will like to give statements contrary to our actions
Akhand Bharat Jun 30, 2017 01:06pm
My issue with this guy and that Fawad guy is, they being brilliant actors are supposed to be selective about the work they do in Bollywood. Instead they end up picking anything and everything coming their way. Kind of making quick money and getting out. Happy with Saba Qamar's performance though. Hope she continues to do quality stuff.
Bob Jun 30, 2017 01:23pm
Must respect each other differences and do not interfere in each other houses.
Sri Jun 30, 2017 01:24pm
@Cricket-one - yeah. one day you have to speak at back about your first offer.
Najma Hisham Jun 30, 2017 01:26pm
If you are Punjabi then you are both Indian and Pakistani.
karmicgal Jun 30, 2017 01:26pm
Good, now pakistan film industry will be benefited as actors will stay put in pakistan instead of going to lucrative bollywood.
khabboo Jun 30, 2017 01:27pm
@saleem - Bollywood didn't make him famous at all. He was doing fine before going to Bollywood
Raheel Jun 30, 2017 01:42pm
At least have some respect for the place you made your name & fame. Your comments will shut the door for any next opportunity. Yours is a great example Indians will use and refuse entry to any newcomer from Pakistan.
Akram Jun 30, 2017 01:45pm
@Albela "With CPEC,lots of Pakistanis can look for work in China ." Thank you. No news item about Pakistan is complete without some jealous Indian's rant about CPEC. It really has you guys transfixed.
Sir Ram Das Jun 30, 2017 01:53pm
@saleem correction he was already a well known actor & singer....
Xyz Jun 30, 2017 02:03pm
@Cricket-one I don't think there is anything wrong in what he said. How many Indians go to Europe or US and say we are Indians first.... India is the true home.
Omer Jun 30, 2017 02:22pm
Indian mentality is stooping low at all times. They really think Pakistani artist won't get food if they don't work in India, they are ignorant to the fact we are vibrant people with full of energy and raw talent, Indian industry equally needs our artist if our artist needs them for extra bucks, Why not produce Nusrat Fateh Ali, Rahat Fateh Ali, Atif Aslam from with in India ? Grow out of your arrogance or you will die death within it.
Muna Jun 30, 2017 02:32pm
He is a talented guy. What these stars need is promotion and publicity through Pakistani media.Art deserves to get recognized otherwise it has no meaning
israr Jun 30, 2017 03:03pm
bored of same roles ok that's what aamir khan does all his movies are different so that's what u should do, concentrate on new scripts, love story, comedy is actually ur thing since the days of college jeans, however there is this action in u that will come, ok one movie u can think along the line I mean not remake but the inspiration can be take from good story is dewane tere piyar ke... the boy loves girl girl loves boy issues in their life they cannot meet, there is nothing else in their live but love hahaha strong characters of mum and dad of the girl, humble parents of boy the problems he faces and finally either they meet or they die simple solid music like jugnoon se bhar de anchal type and it will be hit, not too many stars and after teefa in trouble if you can run the show u will become a crowd puller in movies as well, get ur old mates faisal and where is Ibrahim? find him get him back into acting hahaha
Fried Chillies Jun 30, 2017 03:32pm
Did you realize that before 2010 or after 2016?
madonna Jun 30, 2017 03:37pm
Ali is a great artist. love his acting and his singing. all the best!
Enkay Jun 30, 2017 04:17pm
Mr. Ali Zafar : You are right while working in India were very conscious that it is not your country. This is but natural. I worked in Karachi for a few weeks and most definitely felt that i was not only conscious that Pakistan was not my country as well as I felt that one was not really welcome and as such did not extend my contract.
venkob Jun 30, 2017 08:15pm
Ignoring the highlight of the article (written in bold), he is just trying to sell his film and his brother which is natural
chenaB chandel Jun 30, 2017 08:22pm
The header for this article is misleading. Ali is so balanced and thoughtful with wisdom beyond his years that I cannot imagine him making any insensitive and sensational comment. India has given him much love , recognition and experience, besides his film debut and he has always been so gracious about it. I admire his need to stay rooted and give his time and talent to the Pakistani film enterprise. It is truly unfortunate that the ranting in the right wing political arena has been a set back to the artistic collaborations between India and Pakistan- culture however does not bow to borders so while the high profile Ali, Fawad and Mahira projects were targeted we see a steady flow of opportunities coming through unobtrusively for Saba, Sajal, Madiha and Adnan- each one leaving a distinct mark. The Pakistani singers voices too continue to consistently resound in the background score of Indian lives. People of this subcontinent will I believe eventually overcome the synthetic boundaries that constrain the higher calling of the arts and the soul soothing call of culture - valour will then lie in valuing and espousing what resonates with us and unites us.
harry sharma Jun 30, 2017 08:34pm
Hollywood hires indians for indian market and Bollywood hires pakistani actors for pakistani market . It's simple business . Not talent or something like that . The roles Ali has played were not so great that nobody in india could have played so. It's business for businessmen .
nachiketa Jun 30, 2017 08:49pm
@nam yes we are totally alien to arbi culture.
IRFAN uk Jun 30, 2017 09:16pm
@BRR And what about the millions of Indians coming here to the UK and all over the world for work? Do they need to all go back too to make you happy? Get a life bro and try to spread love not hatred.
NoName Jun 30, 2017 09:22pm
@Omer Bollywood is not the only Indian film industry. It is only for the Hindi/Urdu wallas.
fara Jun 30, 2017 10:26pm
You are not always ambitions to make more money abroad. Stay in Pak make good movies. You can also make money here too. Just get together all the Pak actors and discuss on this most important matter,
Truth Serum Jun 30, 2017 10:59pm
Expected. After all he is now he is without job post India banned Pakistani artists in Bollywood post terror attacks. Grapes are surely sour when one get banned. ;)
Masood Jun 30, 2017 11:26pm
@BRR : Looks like somebody stepped on your tail. You must be the runt of the family, that is why such hostility. It is not his fault, if you were born ugly. Learn to live with this fact.
Pichai Jun 30, 2017 11:38pm
@Ahmed :India hired him and Paid him for his services. Is there a equivalent opportunity for Indians in Pakistan?
h l Jun 30, 2017 11:51pm
This looks like self-marketing more than an interview.
Javed Jul 01, 2017 03:15am
Even if you were not conscious... they would have reminded you.
Lala Jul 01, 2017 05:56am
We were also conscious that just were Pakistani.
GT Jul 01, 2017 06:51am
@Aamer I think you are aware that people in pakistan are crazy for the indian movies. If you dont like this then you should push your government regarding the ban on the indians films and channels. But the problem is your entertainment revenue will goes Dow . And we all know most of the actors and singers are working in india just because of money and quality work.
indian Jul 01, 2017 08:09am
@D.K. PAMNANI well said.
indian Jul 01, 2017 08:11am
@Ahmed and he is not even wanted here as citizen or otherwise.
kk Jul 01, 2017 08:54am
Very good now that you have earned some money stay put in your country and help your film industry recover. Sour grapes
SSS Jul 01, 2017 11:17am
Even Indians we're also aware of the same nothing new
zakhta Jul 02, 2017 02:15pm
@D.K. PAMNANI well just like indians working abroad, he also got an offer to work and made money. Who are you to hold him accountable or advice upon staying anywhere?
Amit C Jul 03, 2017 06:46am
Ali Zafar is a great multifaceted talent and I hope he is able to get back to India to do more projects. Ali Zafar, India is also your country. We are brothers and sisters.
Sheharyar Jul 04, 2017 10:34am
Always wondered that how on every article whenever someone from India makes useless comments he gets the most likes. Seems like a lot of Indians visit Pakistani websites.
k k tiwari Jul 04, 2017 02:49pm
Ask Saba qamar for her experience about Indian film goers . Her film Hindi Medium still pulling crowds after successful running for 8 weeks . She has become a darling here
ahmed kashif saeed Jul 08, 2017 07:31pm
I hate Indian movies but there is no need of such statement by Ali Zafar.