Photos by Arif Mahmood/White Star
Photos by Arif Mahmood/White Star

Going to interview the British actor of Pakistani descent Art Malik had me thinking of those big brown expressive eyes. What would it be like staring into those deep pools? But the first thing I notice when I finally come face to face with him are his feet. His feet are clad in chappals. Perhaps chappal is not the right word, bathroom slippers conveys the sense better. I am so taken aback I blurt out my shock.

“Err … don’t you have proper shoes? I mean, you are a famous actor, a big star, shouldn’t you be in a suit or something, wearing proper dress shoes!” He looks at me bemused. “You have a problem with my flip-flops?” he asks in his deep baritone. He explains that he has wardrobes full of dress shoes but he also owns two pairs of flip-flops which are “very comfortable” and which he prefers wearing after a long flight — like the one he’d arrived on from London only a few hours earlier.

I can’t resist pointing out that the flip-flops are more like bathroom slippers. “Now, don’t bring the bathroom into this,” I hear the actor murmur in dulcet tones I had otherwise imagined asking me where I had been all his life. So much for him sweeping me off my feet.

We are in a boardroom of the head office of the Layton Rahmatullah Benevolent Trust (LRBT) and Arif Mahmood, who has accompanied me to photograph the visiting actor, doesn’t seem too happy about the green walls (just like my feelings about the footwear), so we decide to head outside before the afternoon light faded. I am in for more surprises, watching Art happily pose for pictures on the edge of the nullah that divides the main road, or inside a rickshaw, in his crumpled white shirt, black slacks and those godawful slippers.

Actor Art Malik, recently visiting Karachi for the LRBT, talks to Icon about his films, his family and his footwear ...

The last time Art Malik, whose real name is Athar ul Haque Malik, visited Pakistan was around 10 years ago. This time he is here for a docudrama about LRBT — well known for its charitable work in eye care — something he feels very passionate about. “I was three when we left Pakistan,” shares the actor, now 64. “My father was an ophthalmologist who worked with LRBT. But I only found out about it recently, after he had passed away,” he says.

“A few years ago, my accountant, who also happens to be a LRBT trustee, asked me to compere at a charity gala. I readily agreed, of course, as it was for a good cause after all. Later, I found out that LRBT was a charity Abba had been associated with. After he retired and came to Pakistan, I used to ask him what he did with his time and he just said he did some charity work and some teaching. I had no idea that he was involved in something so extraordinary,” he says.

“Abba was one of those people who waited for Partition, and then Partition happened. He arrived here from Bihar in 1947 with a young wife who was pregnant and an infant child, who is my eldest brother. He wanted to be an eye surgeon and there was only one way to go with that ambition. He had to proceed to Britain and become a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons,” Art explains, adding that it is a long process that takes several years, not to mention the hard work involved.

Born in 1952 in Bahawalpur, Art, who is one of five brothers and a sister, laughs about his memories of going to Britain via boat. “I was three then and for some strange reason I thought that we were going shopping.”

But his father had left with the understanding that they were always going to come back to Pakistan. After getting his requisite qualification, he worked in Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Pakistan. And after retiring he worked at the LRBT free eye clinics, helped them collect funding from the diaspora, worked with the doctors at the clinics and mentored them as well. Two of the doctors he mentored, met Art this time round. “Now I feel it is my duty to contribute in whatever way I can to make others aware of the charity, which I can do through my work,” he says. “The diaspora is all over the planet and we need to shine a light in their direction and tell them to cough up. It is as simple as that. Just give us the money and we will do the rest,” he says.

Back inside, occupying one side of the long boardroom table for a tete-a-tete and with his feet and flip-flops out of view, gazing into those big brown eyes I think about drowning in them again. Art, realising the effect he is having on this starstruck journalist, smiles and asks what star is spelled backwards. “Rats!” I enthuse.

“Very good! We are basically all ‘star’ spelt backwards. Now get on with your questions,” he says.

Art’s upcoming movie is an Irish-German production named Halal Daddy in which he plays the domineering and manipulative father of a young Muslim South Asian boy who has an Irish girlfriend. He’s very excited about it. “It’s already been released in Ireland but will soon be released globally,” he says. The movie, according to him, is a clash of migrant generations. There is the father who can’t forget his roots and values and the son who couldn’t care less. “They have to meet somewhere halfway on an understanding.” Not too different from what is happening between his generation and his father’s.

Obviously the first question has to be about his name and how he got it. “My parents named me Athar but that is a difficult name for the British to pronounce who started calling my Arthur instead. From there it was somehow shortened to Art. That was where ‘Art’ stopped,” he shrugs.

Next obvious question: how was he bitten by the acting bug? “Well, my father only believed in three things — education, education and education,” he says. “And me not being very good at academia, because I was slightly dyslexic, I became more involved in the school plays, only to realise that it was what I wanted to do. It made me apply to drama school later, and that’s where I went,” he says.

“My father knew nothing about film or acting other than what was coming out of Bollywood. But I wanted to be more involved in storytelling, which I explained to him. Besides I got into drama school on a scholarship which was good,” he adds.

So did he never really like Bollywood? “I can’t really say that,” Art answers. “My all-time two favourite movies happen to be Pakeezah and Mary Poppins. Therefore I can’t trash Bollywood or Hollywood,” he says. “I am over 60 and I still watch Mary Poppins whenever I get the chance. And Pakeezah, what a story, what music … makes me cry every time I watch.”

Coming to his own two Bollywood adventures, he says that both are also great movies. “There is Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the true story of Olympic sprinter Milkha Singh where I play Milkha’s father and Mirzya, which is based on the great Punjabi folk legend of Mirza-Sahiban,” he says. “I loved doing Mirzya though it has received some bad press in India, probably because it doesn’t have an item number,” he adds and smiles. “Item numbers seem like science-fiction to me. I don’t do science-fiction either,” he continues.

So then what about stereotyped roles? “What about them?” Art asks. He goes on then about his playing Hari Kumar in the British serial which was his first big break. “During those days of the making of The Jewel in the Crown in the early 1980s it was more like apologising for what had happened during the British Raj,” he says.

But I remind him about his also playing Arab terrorists in True Lies and Path to Paradise. “We are actors and not in the position of telling the story,” he responds. “As far as True Lies is concerned it was a melodrama and pre-9/11. And after 9/11, we never did a True Lies 2. Playing Ramzi Yousef in Path to Paradise, too, happened much before 9/11. Besides, there I was playing the role of a bozo who didn’t even bring the towers down.

“Dealing with the situation that we have today in the world after 9/11, I’ve turned down many films because I thought them to be exploitative,” he explains. “I grew up watching cowboys and ‘red Indian’ movies. I always thought that the cowboys were the good guys but we didn’t know much about the Indians.”

How have things changed for Asian immigrants in the UK since Art first arrived there? Art says his father’s generation was the first generation, who went there for education. “But they were not exactly migrants as they had no intention for staying longer than needed. I think they were damaged after some 100 years of imperial rule. I think their self-esteem was damaged. But they had children, the second generation who, not having been born under the Raj, didn’t mind staying on. At age 10, I was sent back to Pakistan so that I didn’t lose sight of where I was from. Extraordinary as it sounds I was sent from England to an English public school in Quetta. My Baray Abba, my father’s older brother, was headmaster of that school, which went in their favour as they also had someone to keep an eye on me and my brothers. But then back in England, my mother wanted her boys back because she missed us so I was 11 when I went back, and still live there,” he says. “Now there are my two children who have an English mother and they know England as their home,” he adds with a smile.

The stigma of living in England went away slowly like that, according to Art. Literature about it also helped. “Much after Independence there was a growth of stories about what happened by people within the subcontinent, and others by people outside who wanted to apologise for what happened, which kind of met each other halfway.

“And now there is a situation where 70 years after Independence you have an understanding of the fact that we don’t know what those [hundreds of] years of global exploitation was. And we need to find out. Sadly, the first generation is getting older and their stories have not been recorded. But if there was a European holocaust, there was also a sub-continental holocaust but we don’t have all those stories,” he sighs. “And the migration has been going on without a care about the past,” he adds.

Art’s upcoming movie is an Irish-German production named Halal Daddy in which he plays the domineering and manipulative father of a young Muslim South Asian boy who has an Irish girlfriend. He’s very excited about it. “It’s already been released in Ireland but will soon be released globally,” he says. The movie, according to him, is a clash of migrant generations. There is the father who can’t forget his roots and values and the son who couldn’t care less. “They have to meet somewhere halfway on an understanding.” Not too different from what is happening between his generation and his father’s.

Art himself has been married for 37 years to English actress Gina Rowe and has two daughters. The elder daughter is a producer while the younger one is an actor and a documentary filmmaker. Art has also produced a prison drama called Ghosted. “I did that around 2010 and 2011 when there was a crash in the market and no one was working. I thought it a good idea to get them to work, with the understanding ‘we have no money’,” he laughs.

And is he himself expensive to hire as an actor? “I can’t believe you are asking me this? I am very expensive. Very, very expensive indeed!” he says looking me straight in the eye.

Art speaks good Urdu. “That’s because I listen to my mother, who has to deal with my replying in English,” he says. But that means he can also work in Urdu films in Pakistan, right? “I told you I was very expensive to hire, didn’t I. You can’t possibly afford me,” he laughs, those eyes twinkling. Getting serious then, he reminds me that he is here to work on the LRBT docudrama after all. He also brings up Stolen, a series he did about a father who brings his children back to Pakistan to bring them up here after catching his English wife having an affair in England. “That’s my experience so far with shooting in Pakistan. I can’t say what the future would bring,” he says.

These days, however, Art says he is mostly content playing in his garden shed with his model trains with his three-and-a-half-year-old grandson. “I wanted a model train when I was 11, which didn’t happen,” he shares. “So when I was turning 60 I had a birthday party and I told people that they didn’t have to get me any presents. Still, if they really wanted to they should think about getting me double-o gauge trains. Then everybody bought me trains and I have a shed full of them now,” he smiles.

The smile makes me forget completely about his footwear.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, October 22nd, 2017