He mystified us as the baffling Tipu of Tau Dil Ka Kya Hua (TDKKH), he made us yearn for a Romeo like the lovelorn Sunny of Lashkara, he tore at our hearts as the transgender Shammo of Alif Allah Aur Insan (AAAI) and he tickles our hearts as the romantic Azhar in Dil Moam Ka Diya.
But it’s quite likely that that outside of diehard television drama watchers, most will not know who Imran Ashraf is. That may soon be about to change if the actor has his way.
In person, the actor comes across as an all-out entertainer who can unleash an avalanche of emotions and yet retain a touch of eccentricity. He talks nineteen to the dozen, laughs heartily, and suddenly rattles off his lines from plays. His eyes say more than words ever could, which is perhaps what makes him such an intense actor.
After a long journey of hits and misses, he won the Hum Award for Best Supporting Actor for Shammo in AAAI, finally achieving the recognition he had relentlessly strived for. But not one to rest on his laurels, Imran Ashraf continues to woo audiences with one outstanding performance after another, building up an interesting body of work in the past year.
How it started
There was a time people recognised him in plays but didn’t know his name. “I appeared as a child star once, playing Arifa Siddiqui’s son,” he says, his eyes wondering if I knew who he is talking about.
“Then off I went to boarding school. Later, I joined my dad’s business and when it was liquidated, I was lost and didn’t have a clue what I should do next. I came to Karachi in 2010 when Dilawar sahib [a director] called me for Wafa Kaisi Kahan Ka Ishq where I had just one scene and my acting was so bad that the project heads wanted the scene removed.”
Imran feels indebted to some actors for their misbehaviour with him early on.
“This particular actor abused me and asked the director ‘Where have you picked up this so-and-so from?’ I went home and thought that this person hasn’t descended from heaven and if he can act, so can I. I was so uncertain about my work that I used to pray that something would happen and the drama would get canned, or the city would go on strike. I just wanted to run away,” he says, smiling in his pale blue tee that ironically reads ‘Certainty’.
“If I was with another actor, he would be greeted differently and I was treated as though I’m a bad person in real life too,” he says.
Two years went by without any work. “My performance had improved but for another two years, I got no work,” he reminisces.
“My Urdu was pathetic and I would listen to the news and repeat after them or repeat after actors in TV plays in order to improve my delivery. I would watch an editor at work to see what actors do which gets their scenes cut or what scenes don’t end up on the editing room floor. Then I played a mawali [street thug] in Ab Ke Saawan Barse.
"At this point I was about to hit rock-bottom — I had no place to live, I had no money, I was living day-to-day. Two more days and I would have gone back home to Islamabad. My friend Umar who worked as an assistant director called me up to say ‘There is a guy here who was offered a negative lead role but he can’t do it. The director is frustrated. Tu aja [You come and do it]’! And then the director called me.”
With Rs30 in his pocket and an extra T-shirt in his backpack, Imran arrived on the sets and the director asked him to deliver two lines. “I asked him why he was so sure that I could do it. He said because everyone said so. I delivered the two lines and the director asked the make-up guy to puff me up. I had to borrow the DOP’s [Director of Photography’s] sandals and finally did the serial after which a couple more followed.”
Learning the ropes
Imran had started getting work but working with only that particular production house soon posed as a problem. “When work stopped coming from them, no one else would even touch me because they thought I was from a certain ‘group’ and another one-and-a-half year flew by. After Kala Jadoo , I restarted my career, again playing the role of a mawali!”
But by this time, Imran says, he had learnt a valuable lesson. “Whether you have a few scenes or a few lines or no lines, there is a definite margin to perform in every role that you do. It all depends on the actor,” he emphasises.
His struggle which began a little before 2011 continued right up till 2017. “I have done much better work this year than what people saw in 2017, but it got lost in the multitude of dramas being produced. For instance, I played a Sikh in Rangbaaz on Express Entertainment but not many people saw it.”
“I had written about 14 episodes when my luck finally changed and [director and producer] Ahson Talish got a hold of it,” adds Ashraf. “Finally, it went on air in 2018 with Iqra Aziz in the lead and the viewers loved it.”
After playing negative roles in four serials, he became what he terms “a standard villain.” He noticed that people on the street tended to act weirdly around him. “If I was with another actor, he would be greeted differently and I was treated as though I’m a bad person in real life too,” he says.
“People from the industry tell me that an actor is an actor but I don’t agree even to this day. People respond differently to the kind of roles you choose. I was at a mall in Murree and some 50-odd people asked me ‘why are you always a villain’? I thought chhaap lag gayi [I’ve been branded]. I decided not to take on any more negative roles and once again there was no work available for me.”
Finding his place
While waiting for work, he decided to have a go at writing a script — Tabeer — before he hit another low. “Any intellectual would have loved the script but most TV channels rejected it,” he recalls.
“I had written about 14 episodes when my luck finally changed and [director and producer] Ahson Talish got a hold of it. He asked me to complete it as he wanted to direct it. But when he presented it to a production house, it got rejected,” Imran bursts out laughing. “Finally, it went on air in 2018 with Iqra Aziz in the lead and the viewers loved it.”
In 2015, he did Farooq Rind’s Gul-i-Rana, and received a nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role at the Hum Awards. Then came the turning point of his career when Humayun Saeed was making Dil Lagi and Imran got a call from his production house Six Sigma.
“I was in between shots [when I got the call],” he says, his eyes twinkling. “If I had opened the door and stepped on to the set, I wouldn’t have received the call. When I found out that Humayun Saeed wanted to meet me for a role in Dil Lagi, I marched off to see him straightaway.”
Once Dil Lagi went on air, everything else became irrelevant and good roles finally started coming his way “It was then that I realised how much people own actors in Pakistan,” he says, grinning.
For Imran, the director is the god of any TV play. “I will work with anyone magar usko kaam aata ho [he should know his craft]. If the director is good then the script, the casting, the DOP and all areas of the play will be good. Nothing will lack anywhere. Ahson Talish, Kashif Nisar, Farooq Rind, Shahid Shafaat are an academy for actors.”
Remarking on his chemistry with Hira Mani in Dil Moam Ka Diya, he says “My connection is not with my heroine, but with my director. I could be flirting with a wall for all I care. For the last five years I have worked with walls.”
Imran Ashraf can now afford to be choosy about his projects and drops a lot of roles. “I feel I’m still not getting the kind of roles I really want to do,” he says. “Big-time producers tell me categorically that they know that if they give me lead roles their plays will become super-hits but then where will they get support actors from? When AAAI was offered, I had no choice but to play Shammo. It was risky but risk tau lena hi tha [I had to take a chance]! When they told me that the role of Shammo was that of a transgender person who loves a girl, I told them to draw the contract right there and then before I could change my mind.”
Shammo was a game-changer but a role where it was easy to go overboard. “I didn’t know AAAI would become so huge,” he says. “I thought if I played Shammo loud, which is how transgenders are portrayed all over the subcontinent, it would be nothing different. So I toned it down and Shammo had a soft touch, he was humane, he had a soul. So I started believing mein Shammo hoon [that I am Shammo]. There is a scene where I kiss the feet of the transgender guru who is supposed to be a maternal figure for me. In Canada, when I won the Hum Award for Shammo, the applause was so overwhelming, it was scary!”
His favourite role so far, however, is Tipu in Tau Dil Ka Kya Hua. “It was a very difficult role but it had so much mystery, the audience didn’t know if Tipu loved Maya or her sister. I had 30 scenes and I knew that I had to give it my best if I wanted to be noticed because Sami Khan and Zahid Ahmed [who were also in the play] are both amazing actors. It wasn’t a big role but from the 15th scene onwards, it became huge mostly because of my performance.”
So who is his competition? “Casting directors,” he quips and explodes into laughter.
He adds, “My connection is not with my heroine, but with my director. I could be flirting with a wall for all I care. For the last five years I have worked with walls.”
Talking about his role in Lashkara, he suddenly throws open his arms and reels off his lines from a scene where Sunny, a lover to the core, sits on the roof in front of a crackling fire declaring how he loves Bubbly unconditionally, despite having lost her to someone else.
“Hun naeen urrne Sunny kolon kabutar, hun naeen lagneeyan awazaan, hun naeen wajneeyaan seetiyaan [No more will pigeons fly for Sunny, or someone call out for him nor will whistles sound]...” He exhibits voice control at its best.
He goes on to explain, “When I saw the fire lit in the scene, I caught the mellow mood and said my lines. The character is from androon [inner city] Lahore where the houses are packed tightly together. Love on these chaubaras [verandas] and chhats [roofs] is very loud. Seena thhok ke kehtay hain ke haan bhai, mohabbat hai tau hai [they openly declare their love],” he says, punching his chest.
“They make so much noise so that the inner innocent person stays hidden. According to the script, Sunny’s is a negative role. But the way I have done it, I have the audience’s sympathy, so much so that they want Sunny to get Bubbly instead of Feeka, the protagonist.”
So what's next?
Currently busy with Ranjha Ranjha Kardi written by Faiza Iftikhar and directed by Kashif Nisar, Imran claims to be doing the most difficult role of his life. “It is an intense love story where I play the role of a person who is mentally no older than a seven-year-old, and he is in love with a girl essayed by Iqra Aziz, a kamal ki [amazing] actress.”
Imran loves working with Humayun Saeed, Wasim Abbas and Ushna Shah with whom he has done AAAI and Lashkara. “Although on screen it may appear as if we have a great rapport, Ushna and I actually have a personality clash. But I still consider her a marvellous actress.”
What about films? “I’m not ready for films yet. I’m used to mini-screen frames and films demands body language. I will probably assist someone for a year before I decide to do a film.”
Imran claims to have watched only 17 films till now. “I learn from people in real life. Observing actors can be limiting. Techniques you could learn from actors, but I feel you learn more from real-life people. For instance, I know at least seven real-life Sunnys. Actor tau meri tarha hain, apni tarha ke logon se kya seekhoon [actors are like me, so what more can I possibly learn from them]? People often tell me your acting style is like that of Shahid Kapoor or Shah Rukh Khan or Dilip Kumar, but I have never seen a single Dilip Kumar film. Mera tau koi acting style he nahin hai [I don’t have a style of acting]!”
Neither does he compare himself to other actors. “What is the point, my goal is to establish myself as Imran Ashraf, in a league of my own. I have been walking this path since day one, I’ve been fighting to give Imran Ashraf an identity. Jin ka koi maibaap nahin hota [those without a mentor], God blesses them. Today I’m at a point where people love me and I have a vote bank,” he chuckles. “Imran Ashraf will write his own destiny.”
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, October 28th, 2018