Osman Khalid Butt arrived at the Masala! Awards at Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, looking nothing less than utterly dapper.
In a slightly oversized sequined coat, a turtleneck shirt and matching tinted specs, Butt looked straight out of That 70s Show, channeling Hyde from his clothing and Kelso from his build. Butt doesn’t look half as good on screen as he does when you sit next to him – and I wonder if it is partly because the screen itself is not tailored and aligned to the kind of persona and ideology Butt has.
Fans come up to him and ask to take pictures with him; he happily obliges. Some of them recognise him from his vlogs, some of them gush at how they’ve been following his work for years.
“Someone even recognised me from my theatre work!” he tells me later. He smiles, talks softly yet not quietly. There is a certain boom in his voice that can only come from years of doing live performances and theatre. Though what surprises me the most about him is that he is a man of few words, generally. There is restraint and poise which makes me think about how his alter-ego emerged as the funny, sarcastic, larger than life vlogger as he rose to fame in his Humsafar parody. His vlog series 'The Living Picture' is pretty much dead but Osman’s career is alive and since then Osman has done a lot more than just make funny videos.
Butt famously starred in Aunn Zara, where he played a spoilt young man, somewhat of a victim of arrested development and later as the handsome hero, Wali Suhaib in Diyaar e Dil. Butt also played Haarib in Sanam, Balu in Balu Mahi, Sheheryaar in the drama serial Baaghi that was based on the life and times of Qandeel Baloch, wrote Janaan, choreographed for Parchi and will soon be seen next to Meera and Amna Ilyas in the upcoming Saqib Malik film Baaji.
Butt is honored at Masala Awards as an “Agent of Social Change” because of his outspoken stances on the #MeToo movement in Pakistan and when we sit down to talk in detail about his career, his position on feminism and fear of blowback – there’s a lot of ground to cover.
“Even before this [feminism] became the woke thing to do,” Butt explains, “if you look at my vlogs back in 2011-2012, I talked about all this in a humorous satirical way. For example, the whole rishta aunty scenario and how it objectifies women. Ever since I was a child, I saw that with my sister and it made me think a lot about it. The dichotomy of what a ‘good’ woman is and what a ‘bad woman’ is. These boxes that we were slotting these women into whereas men could do whatever they wanted, under the garb of boys will be boys and men will be men. They could get away with anything but women wouldn’t, at all. It all struck me as very odd.”
Butt had dissected the hit television serial, Humsafar in his vlogs where he took down the good-girl bad-girl divide vis a vis Khirad (Mahira Khan) and Sara (Navin Waqar).
“I started talking about this in a humourous way, in my own way. When I stepped into the industry, and the kind of work that was being offered – I saw that all of it had that very patriarchal stamp. What was even more interesting to me was that most of this was written by women so there was a lot of internalised misogyny going on. We’ve made it sort of the norm.”
“And I am not just criticising our society but also the influence of let’s say old school Bollywood, the cinema we’ve grown up with. It has always showed stalking is sexy. The woman will eventually fold. All you have to do is exert some pressure, all you have to do is exert some manliness. Get physical, get violent – it was all seen as very normal. We never used to see these things as problematic. So that’s what I wanted to change. I wanted to force people to look at things from a bird’s eye perspective. I don’t want to be a killjoy – I don’t want to say that hey now you can’t enjoy desi music or Bollywood music oh that’s objectification so I can’t enjoy this – but we have to be cognisant.”
It’s very interesting to me that Butt asks us to be cognisant but also believes in enjoying Bollywood – where is the line? How do we define those lines and how do we keep that balance?
“We are privileged,” he answers. “We have a certain level of education – and more than that, we have a certain level of exposure. When we hear a song, we take it with a pinch of salt. And we would never act upon the lyrics that are written. But that’s not the norm.” Butt possibly refers to the cross section of the diaspora that has access to education, is well-aware of political correctness and the section of society that doesn’t respond as fiercely to heteronormative rules and has more of a laissez faire approach to the gender divide.
“When I was doing vlogs, when I had no idea what television was like,” he explains, “It is such a mass medium. Back when I was doing theatre, gender was never really a red flag. I would kind of treat men and women equally. When I look back I now think of how many ways it played its part.”
How so, I ask. “You’ve always been aware. And the vlog you did where you dissected Humsafar, you made all those points about the gender divide. And it was an eye opener for a lot of drama watchers and a lot of non-drama watchers as to what was happening in Pakistani dramas,” I point out.
“I’ll use the word privilege again,” Osman answers. “Because what Humsafar and Meri Zaat Zarra e Benishaan did was open my eyes to what was happening in the dramas. I was so closed off, I had my tight group of my theatre fraternity people, I used to only work with them, hang out with them, direct with them – and while I was aware distantly and I knew via Bollywood what was happening gender divide wise, it was all still in my periphery. I didn’t realise the magnitude.”
“Did you realise the magnitude when it hit you and your vlogs? The views and the hits and comments? The amount of traction it gained because you had dissected a popular drama?”
“Definitely. What was interesting was that a lot of people who resonated with my vlog also had issues with the drama yet it did very well. Like I said, television is such a mass medium. We might criticise or satirise but it is very detrimental when we create stark lines as to what a woman is supposed to do and not supposed to do. We’re almost enforcing decades old, almost mythological ideas about what a woman can or cannot do. How a woman cannot be shown as a breadwinner without sacrificing her personal life – this is the normalisation that I am against. That is why I started talking about it.
“It started off reactionary. I would see a picture of a female celebrity and if I liked that picture I would see comments on that photo. We do love to be the thaikaydaars of Islam and religion – I remember a few things that Imran Abbas had listed which I really liked. He talked about all of the number of things when our ‘ghairat’ isn’t stirred when all of those things happen, but it is immediately activated as soon as we see a woman wearing shortd or fewer clothes. I started responding to people, the haters and the trolls. If you shut one up, there would be 10 more. But this is the lack of education, this is the lack of exposure.”
I ask him to explain more about the blowback from his own fraternity. You’re in the belly of the beast now, I tell him. It’s quite a patriarchal status quo, yet he is anti said status quo. “Maybe you’re doing a scene and you read something that is just not to your taste. What do you do? How do you deal with that?” I inquire.
“I used to be afraid to challenge the dialogues or the scenes,” Osman confesses. “Gradually, I recognised, you have to be faithful to who you are. Let’s say I’m doing a negative role – and obviously I will not always play heroes or do roles that subscribe to the exact same philosophies as I do personally or the way of thinking that I have – so if I am playing a role that is negative or has a stark contrast to what I am then the repercussions of the story and of the character have to matter. The comeuppance, the life lessons learnt have to be better. It can’t be that in 24 episodes I’m super evil and suddenly I’ve reformed in the 25th episode. There has to be a journey.”
It is refreshing to see a star of his caliber so acutely aware of his privilege. “I’ve been privileged to have worked in very feminist plays,” he accepts graciously.
“Aunn Zara was an unabashedly feminist play and Faiza Iftikhar is a feminist writer, whether or not she subscribes to that label. Now, however, I do question the roles I’m offered, and very often, I refuse. I’ve also started to read the scripts from start to finish. I discuss the story with the director, with the writer. And now my reputation precedes itself. I don’t get offers of the kind of stuff I’ve been rejecting.”
I’m not trying toot my own horn but now I think there is a norm of where actors have become demanding and want to have discussions with the writer about the story and the character before I get signed on. Or if I have a problem that I want to discuss. During Diyaar e Dil I had a 45-minute discussion about Sanam Saeed’s character with Haseeb Hassan. The sheer negativity of Sanam’s character and the bitterness of that character was what I had talked to him about. Is this something we want to portray? So he said no, we will treat it.”
Not so recently Osman starred as Haarib, a young man who falls in love with Ayla (Hareem Farooq) and Ayla, who is suffering from bipolar disorder, starts having mildly psychotic episodes soon after their marriage. Haarib is distraught and has no idea what to do and ends up falling in love with another girl, Aan (Maya Ali). Though the play had started out well, it eventually turned into a dramatic mess in the middle and Haarib and Aan’s romance became somewhat of a weak rehash of Aunn Zara and Diyaar e Dil. Osman sheds light on how the character was written and how he attempted to make it align more with his sensibilities.
“I had a problem with Sanam. It came right at the heels of Diyaar e Dil. Less than a month later that Diyaar e Dil ended, we started Sanam. Scenes would come to me and go and I kept asking myself, can I do this, can I do that? In the last episode, I sort of guest-wrote. And my character, Haarib, apologises to Ayla, for being a bad husband. While this cannot whitewash or atone for everything, but it is a start.”
I thought he never believed her even though he knew she was suffering from a mental illness but he did jack about it. It became this drama about how this girl was a very crazy, mad woman – I wanted people to recognise that no, because the husband was busy acting the victim. I made it a point to write exactly in my monologue what I’m saying right now. And it made an impact, it was well-received. For the first time, under the YouTube comments, the same people who were abusing and saying horrible things about Ayla were like, oh wow, we hadn’t thought of it that way.”
At the Masala! Awards Osman thanked the women who had spoken up against sexual harassment despite receiving a lot of abuse. He also thanked the male allies who had supported the women and was perhaps one of the few celebrities who had taken a popular and public platform to address this.
“When you have a platform,” Butt says referring to his speech, “and when you still stay silent – then that’s a problem. That’s a disservice. When you have come to a point when you have a respectable amount of influence, you have to use it very responsibly. I couldn’t care less about the blowback within the industry. Honestly. It has never affected my work. There have been times when people have said, ‘Oh he’s said that? His career is over.’ And if I had a penny for every time someone has said that, oh no one’s gonna touch you with a ten foot pole,” he laughs.
I assume he has heard that a lot. “Well. You know. Fine. Maybe those people didn’t. But other people did come to me. So it’s okay. Work comes. I’m still learning and evolving. I’m still learning my craft and learning how to be a good male ally. I don’t have the illusion that I’m a saviour or a superior person and I don’t like mansplaining and I’m reading more and trying to make myself more aware and speak out at the right channels. But of course there will be moments where I won’t be able to reach up to my own expectations or expectations of other people. But at least what I’m proud of is that I’m trying. But that is something I will unabashedly say. I have evolved as a human being as well. Professionally, I’m more aware of the kind of projects I’ve chosen.”
Overall television is mostly relying on comfortable tropes and stereotypes about women and the aforementioned ‘good’ or ‘bad’ woman that is acceptable. There is rarely any grey or hardly any content for all kinds of audiences – the business of television is mostly limited to targeting and appealing a portion of society that has accepted and is not ready to challenge these stereotypes.
“How do we diversify?” I want to know from Osman. “We keep watching but we keep ignoring the issues, Osman. How do we create content that is not typical? Right now all we see is women crying in the morning and women crying in the evening and everything revolves around them being domestic goddesses.”
“I do believe there is beauty in misery,” Osman says. “There is a certain catharsis in misery. I’m a very emotional person,” Osman admits and shrugs. “When I watch something, if it touches me, I will emote. Which is another thing lacking,” he laughs, “Men emoting and not being afraid to cry or express themselves. But coming back to your question, there is a difference in showing misery that shows some kind of catharsis and peddling misery. Those lines have been blurred. Now it’s like let’s show violence here, here, here, this will be a great freeze moment for the episode! Subtlety is lost. You keep honing in this message, it will be brainwashed. Back in the age of PTV, ghairailu masail were in the background of the main story.”
I agree vehemently with him. Now ‘can I make tea for you, my loving husband’ is the ultimate idea for romance. Being a domestic goddess, a non-career-oriented woman is peak female achievement. In PTV’s classic Tanhaiyaan there is a scene where Zara and Sania and Ani (Shehnaz Sheikh, Marina Khan and Badar Khalil) attempt to make parathas and fail miserably. The scene is both adorable and hilarious. None of that would possibly be acceptable today.
“Aunn Zara got fantastic ratings,” Osman says. “People loved it. It ran on Zee Zindagi as their opening. Why did it take another seven years to come up with youth oriented fun drama light comedy like Suno Chanda? We are not investing in good comedies.”
Referring to Tanhaiyan, Osman adds, “When the sisters find out that their parents have died, she sort of collapses into her sister’s arms. The next episode airs two weeks later. Can you imagine something like this happening in today’s landscape? In today’s landscape you will have seventeen thousand mayyatain.”
It is impossible not to laugh at that. Osman continues to paint a pretty accurate picture of what would happen to a storyline like that in today’s drama scenario. “In two weeks post their death, you would also have agarbattiyaan, you will have alaaps.” Osman starts singing melodramatically and I burst out laughing. “Meri zindagi narg ban gayee!” and it oddly reminds me of a popular – nay, ANY popular drama that is capitalising on the roti dhoti aurat. “Yes, she’s going through sh!t, but you can’t make it all about that,” Osman says.
So what does he plan to do in all this madness? What’s a guy like him doing in a business like this?
“The project that I’m doing right now, Surkh Chandni, is very high intense,” Osman answers. “But it’s got a beautiful message and it’s a message that I talk about all the time. Why are we so quick to diminish a woman’s voice? Why is it that it is so easy to blame the woman, to blame the victim. We have to change that mindset. A lot of dramas show this message as an afterthought. What I’m trying to do as an actor, I had conversations with Sana Shahnawaz and Shahid Shafaat and my costars. We tend to get closed off when we think we don’t have like-minded people around us.”
I want to write more projects. Like in Janaan, it had a light-heartedness to it. Which I enjoyed watching as well. While writing, I was aware that I did not fall into those traditional tropes. The first step is awareness. I think we are all aware of what needs to be done but what we need now is that push and turning that awareness into action. The digital age is upon us now. Lot of people are now gravitating towards digital content, so the landscape is going to change.”