Ahmed Ali Butt’s presence is ubiquitous at major award ceremonies. It is something that has occasionally been critiqued.
For the longest time, he has been the most popular choice for host, taking to stage in a cool tuxedo, making wisecracks here and there, belting out a funny rap number and proceeding to wind his way through the audience. Then again, does anybody quip better than him?
A few recent cringe-worthy experiences have highlighted how live comedy isn’t exactly everyone’s ball game. Ahmed may fumble every now and then, and he may stir a controversy or two, but he does it all with a confident smile. Entertaining is his ball game, and he knows it. His fans know it too.
I meet Ahmed during one of his trips to Karachi. He’s flown in from his home in Lahore to shoot for a movie. While we talk, fans come up to him, shaking his hand or taking a selfie. He is not your quintessential hero but people feel that they know him, that they can approach him and crack a joke or two. They feel a sense of ownership towards the entertainer and that isn’t something that every celebrity is able to achieve.
And yet, Ahmed Ali Butt — for all the hits that he has acted in, the umpteen high-flying events that he’s hosted and the fan base that he’s built — is enchantingly modest.
“Change is good every now and then,” he says. “If I keep hosting shows for 10 years, I am bound to make mistakes and some people are bound to get tired of me. It’s important to understand that, to accept the critique, to take a break and to try out things differently.”
Ahmed Ali Butt is the grandson of the iconic singer Noor Jehan. But that’s not his claim to fame. He has carved a niche for himself in the cut-throat world of showbiz as an actor, a comic maverick and as a formidable host of award shows. We find out what grounds him.
I tell him that he is something of an anomaly, a star with the capacity to accept critique and easily shrug it off. He points out that being Madam Noor Jehan’s grandson means that he was born surrounded by glitz and glamour. “I don’t get dazzled by it all because I understand show business. I know that when you give respect, you eventually get respect. I have seen the good and the bad, and it keeps me grounded in reality.”
Touching upon the good, the bad and occasionally the ugly, we strike up an interesting conversation. Excerpts follow:
Icon: You’ve got a flair for hosting and impromptu comedy, but you also make blunders. There was a dwarf controversy at a previous Lux Style Awards (LSAs) and this time you were criticised for calling stars into the spotlight and getting the audience to cheer for whoever they thought was best dressed. Some of the stars were clearly uncomfortable during the segment. Don’t you think you should think things through when on stage?
Ahmed Ali Butt: I always do think them through and my intentions are never bad. In live shows, there will always be instances when some jokes won’t go down well with people. I learn from it and move on. The best-dressed segment in this year’s LSAs may not have been liked by everybody but it trended on Twitter.
Every year, the LSAs give out awards to the best dressed celebrity on the red carpet, so this time I decided to put it down to an audience vote. It was all in good fun and it won’t be aired on TV because it was basically done in order to kill time while the stage was being set up for Sahir Ali Bagga and Ali Azmat’s live performance. And not everybody minded the segment. Some of the girls that I slotted in as nominees may have felt a bit conscious, but the boys had a great laugh.
Abrar-ul-Haq, who eventually won Best Dressed, called me up later and told me that he had never won an LSA before, and now thanks to me he had a golden statuette.
The LSAs really need to pull their socks up and work towards putting up a better show. They need to create new, out-of-the-box content.
You’re also quite adept at ribbing celebrities in the audience. Given how stars’ egos get easily hurt, don’t you end up offending people?
Butt: Of course, certain people get offended and then I don’t poke fun at them the next time. What people don’t realise is that when I tease them, I am actually paying them a compliment. I wouldn’t be singling them out if they weren’t big stars. It’s why I almost always pick on Humayun Saeed. He’s a huge star and he knows how to take a joke.
Quite a few stars were missing from the LSAs this year…
It’s because the LSAs really need to pull their socks up and work towards putting up a better show. There was a time when it ruled the roost as the only awards ceremony in Pakistan, but now there are other shows offering stiff competition.
The LSAs need to up their game and create new, out-of-the-box content. Also, one of the main reasons why people watch any award show is because they want to see film stars in the audience. Despite this, the film industry is represented by only five categories at the LSAs. Fashion, meanwhile, has 12. It doesn’t make sense. There also needs to be greater focus on more logical award results.
You’re currently working in a movie that is being touted as the next big hit — the sequel to Jawani Phir Nahi Ani (JPNA). You’ve co-written the script with Vasay Chaudhry and the two of you are also acting in it. Is there a lot of pressure to make the sequel as funny as the first part?
Butt: There is pressure to not be repetitive, but having said this, JPNA2 is going to be even crazier than the first one. The key to writing a funny script is to come up with funny situations rather than simply cash in on a funny person. And the plot is quite hilarious.
The sequel features Fahad Mustafa as the new addition to the JPNA troupe. You’ve worked extensively with the other actors in the movie, Humayun Saeed and Vasay Chaudhry. How is your rapport with Fahad?
Butt: He’s very committed to his work and doesn’t take it for granted. There was this one time when we were shooting in a narrow alley surrounded by apartment buildings and people were leaning out of the windows shouting Fahad’s name. Finally, I raised my arms up to them and quipped, ‘Thank you, thank you!’ He’s extremely popular.
You’re comfortable working in multi-starrers with popular heroes. You didn’t even mind that your scenes in Punjab Nahi Jaungi (PNJ) were clearly cut out in order to make the movie shorter. Don’t you get insecure?
Butt: I always knew that my role in PNJ was going to be a short one, but I still took it on because I knew that it was going to be a good movie. The film was always going to focus on Humayun and Mehwish Hayat. But no, I don’t get insecure about working in a multi-starrer. If I did, it would ruin the movie. Humayun Saeed, for instance, never gets insecure about his roles. In JPNA, a movie that he has produced and acted in, he enters the storyline about 30 minutes into the film. He also lets many of his co-actors get away with some of the best punchlines. The focus should always be on putting together a good movie.
In the drama Mr Shamim, you played the title role. Don’t you want to make the same transition in movies?
Butt: Yes, but it has to be done in the right way. There are certain storylines that I have in mind, scripts that I am working on. Cinema is now driven by characters rather than classic heroes and I have some very interesting characters under consideration.
I don’t get insecure about working in a multi-starrer. I always knew that my role in PNJ was going to be a short one. The film was always going to focus on Humayun and Mehwish Hayat.
Time and again, actors working in film and TV complain about non-payment from major production houses. Have you ever faced this problem?
Butt: Back when I started out, payments were more or less nonexistent. Jutt and Bond was for the love of craft more than anything else. Yes, problems do occur but, fortunately for me, shows form the major part of my income.
What kind of shows?
Butt: Corporate shows. I love them. They treat you with respect, look forward to your work and pay on time.
What’s your take on the current obsession of showbiz celebs with social media?
Butt: It’s all part of the game. There will always be one-hit wonders and flavours-of-the-month and social media can certainly be fun. But only solid work and talent can make you last the long haul.
You come off as someone who is very comfortable with the way his career is moving forward. You’re also quite upfront about your family life, often being seen in images with your family. As an actor, do you not feel the need to portray yourself as glamorous and eligible rather than as a grounded family man?
Butt: I think this predicament is primarily faced by actresses who somehow feel that it is necessary for them to project glamorous images of themselves. On the other hand, most successful male actors are happy projecting themselves as family men, grounded, reserved. You could say that their allure lies in the fact that they are unattainable, forbidden fruits! [Laughs] Seriously, though, I am very involved with my family. My wife is my support system, pushing me forward in my career and handling all the nitty-gritties. And I am enjoying being part of my son’s life as he grows up. Why would I want to hide that from the world?
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, April 1st, 2018