There are two sides to Ahsan Khan: on the record and off it.
In the former case, he’s the powerhouse actor with a way with words, his eloquence honed over a career that started off in 2000 and since then has drifted from working in a multitude of TV dramas to occasional theatre to now, cinema.
Off the record, he’s more opinionated, not afraid to dish names and scoops. He’s the actor who has stumbled and evolved as he has learnt his way and the husband whose wife prefers to stay away from the scrutiny of the limelight. He’s humble and willing to laugh at himself when his wife tells him that he’s danced at one awards show too many. Self-deprecatingly, he remembers how at his wedding his friends teased him by dancing to an old comical video that he had starred in against his better judgement. He is also the father of three who actively works against child abuse because he worries about the world in which we are raising our children.
Needless to say, off the record Ahsan Khan is regaling company compared to the on the record version. Unfortunately, the latter side to him is ever careful, always declaring ‘off the record’ before launching into an anecdote. “I don’t want to say negative things about others during my interview,” he says, right after revealing certain juicy details.
It was only inevitable that much of my prolonged interview with Ahsan turned out to go off the record. And while the uncensored version would have been the stuff of fireworks, the final cut still sizzles…
Images: The Lux Style Awards nominations just listed you in the Best Actor for Film category and it’s no wonder, for 2017 was a stellar year for you; starting off with critical and commercial acclaim with Udaari, proceeding to your performance in London’s prestigious Sadler’s Wells Theatre and culminating with the success of Chupan Chupai, incidentally one of the very few local films to not have flopped at the box office. And yet, you remain very grounded. Where are your starry airs and graces?
Ahsan: I don’t believe in unnecessary airs and graces. I know how to stand up for myself should I feel that I am being taken for a ride. Actors in Pakistan still have to fight for their rights so that they don’t get underappreciated. Before I begin working on a project, I lay out my terms and conditions and as long as they are fulfilled, I don’t see the point of being difficult.
2017 was great for me but throughout the year I was prepared for the worst. Udaari was a risk. I played a cringe-worthy villainous role. There was a chance that people would turn against me and my family. With Chupan Chupai, I came on board with completely new people because I thought that the script was great. I wasn’t sure that the movie would do well. I truly thought that it wasn’t a good time for Pakistani cinema. So many well-publicised movies with star casts had flopped miserably, not even being able to draw in good collections during the first weekend. But I lucked out.
Images: Lots of filmmakers and their PR people worry that a film's first week earnings may get ruined by negative reviews. What's your take on that?
Ahsan: Luckily, Chupan Chupai didn’t get any negative reviews but as a rule, I do believe that in these early years, Pakistani movie releases should not be preceded by exclusive premieres. Once the movie has released a private screening can be arranged for friends, family and the press. If a movie is good, people will come to see it. There’s no need to over-hype it by inviting in celebrities for a pre-release premiere or by dancing on roads and malls.
Images: So you do think that negative pre-release reviews can hurt a movie’s innings on the first weekend…
Ahsan: To some extent, a review may hurt ticket sales but I think that people rely more on word of mouth when they want to go and watch a movie. A review can cause some damage but it can’t make or break a movie’s box office run.
Images: Moving on to your future projects, you’ve dubbed for the just launched children’s animated movie Tick Tock. You were also recently part of Knorr Boriyat Busters, a game show for children. Have you consciously made an effort to take part in children’s shows?
Ahsan: It wasn’t really a conscious decision. Being a father, I interact with children easily which lead to these projects being offered to me. I also felt that being part of children’s shows would help dilute the negative image that I had created via Udaari.
Boriyat Busters was great fun and Tick Tock is a movie that has an educational aspect with children traversing Pakistan’s history. It’s very interesting and also, much needed. Hardly any programming is created for children. They can’t watch talk shows or dramas. More projects need to be planned out purely for children.
Images: You’ve also got a few other movies in the pipeline. What’s the update on your movie with Ayesha Omar, Rehbra?
Ahsan: I think the movie will release some time later this year. I am very hopeful about it. It’s an urban romantic comedy and it’s shot very well.
Images: How did you find Ayesha Omar as an actor?
Ahsan: She’s going to be surprising a lot of people with her acting in the movie. Ayesha hasn’t had the chance yet to work in diverse roles which is why people tend to associate an ‘it’ image with her. But her acting caliber is quite impressive.
"I can’t really handle jokes being made about me on a public stage. I get slightly defensive and awkward so I find it better to tell the hosts not to jest with me while I am sitting in the audience."
Images: We're also looking forward to the star-studded Aangan, the period drama for MD Productions, featuring you opposite Sonya Hussyn as well as Ahad Raza Mir, Sajal Aly and Urwa Hocane. What was it like working with Sonya Hussyn who is a relative newbie?
Ahsan: Aangan is a very romantic, very interesting story and Sonya is also a very great actress.
Images: Ayesha, Sonya, Neelam … you praise all your actresses! Is there any actress that you haven’t liked working with so far?
Ahsan: (laughs) No! I choose my projects carefully and if I know and trust the people I work with, I usually don’t face any issues.
Images: You’re also known to be quite careful at awards shows. It is common knowledge that you don’t like it when the hosts make jibes at you and were particularly riled when Yasir Hussain made an insensitive remark regarding child abuse at the Hum Awards last year. Wisecracking hosts tend to be a part of every awards ceremony. Why do you have such a problem with them?
Ahsan: I had a problem with Yasir’s quip because there is a certain responsibility attached to a platform as prestigious as the Hum Awards. Certain topics are very sensitive and cannot be joked about. And yes, I can’t really handle jokes being made about me on a public stage. I get slightly defensive and awkward so I just find it better to tell the hosts of a ceremony not to jest with me while I am sitting in the audience.
Speaking of awards shows, you have a penchant for dancing in them. Aren’t you tired of the same song and dance routine over and over again?
Ahsan: (laughs) I actually love it. But yes, even my wife tells me that I should try to do something different now and perhaps I will.
Images: There was so much that you did last year that didn’t get built up extensively. You gave a TED talk on child abuse and had a strong theatrical run with Heer Ranjha in London. Do you think that you need to work on your PR and social media skills so that your diverse body of work gets highlighted in a more impactful way?
Ahsan: I don’t really like promoting myself on social media. On a professional level, I suppose that I should try to create more awareness regarding my work. Otherwise, though, I don’t think that I’ll ever be the person who takes a picture of himself every time he goes on vacation or wears designer clothes.
I have been using my social media platform effectively to help out victims of child abuse. It is my mission to make people more alert to how prevalent child abuse is even in the most normal homes. Through social media, I have raised funds and inspired other actors to invest time and effort into charitable causes. I think that’s quite an achievement. It’s what I want to do.
Images: You also recently spoke on a TV morning show on the topic of #Justice4Zainab, visibly distraught by the heinous crime that took place in Kasur. There are people who believe that celebrities tend to jump on bandwagons in order to stay in the news and that, for you, post-Udaari, the topic of child abuse has been a marketing mechanism of sorts. Do such insinuations make you angry?
Ahsan: No. They’re unnecessary and petty. Wouldn’t it be worse if the people of Pakistan remained quiet when a young girl was abused the way Zainab was? Shall we worry about being criticised at a time when we need to desperately demand justice? I am a father of three and after Udaari, I learnt a lot about child abuse. People would just come to me and tell me about their experiences and it made me sick. I am now even writing a book on the topic. I constantly worry that what if something like this happens to me own children and I feel a consistent need to tell people about it, to become aware of the dangers in our society and to be vigilant with their children. People can say whatever they please.