By sticking to staid formats and characters, local cinema and TV is relegating so many great actors into the sidelines.
The Pakistani hero is stuck in a rut. He should ideally be fair, slim and tall. He doesn’t need to be a good actor – recent cinematic releases and TV productions are testament to this – but he should at least be able to act lovestruck.
If he’s a TV hero, he needs to know how to shed a few tears over the domestic turmoil that inevitably engulfs his household. For the cinema, he needs to know how to dance. That’s it.
The world at large may be veering towards alternative, character-driven narratives, making space for unconventional but remarkably talented actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan. But the Pakistani hero is simply spun off a well-used cookie-cutter.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with a well-told, old-fashioned, feel-good love story. But there are so many more stories to tell. By sticking to staid formats and characters, local cinema and TV is relegating so many great actors into the sidelines.
They end up being slotted as supporting characters that are barely developed and usually their performance is limited to just making a few inane wisecracks while the hero takes over the screen.
Dramas, at least, are more ostensibly diversifying into different genres – although far too many remain fascinated by saas-bahu battles. Additionally, TV dramas have a predilection for female-centric storylines and thereby can offer more creative and lucrative benefits to actresses.
Mundane – often unnecessary – roles are particularly a dilemma faced by male actors, more so in film than on TV.
With their penchant for hackneyed love affairs, it is high time that Pakistani films begin working on weaving cohesive stories with nuanced characters. And focus needs to be not just on the protagonists but on the supporting cast. A long spate of local flops indicates that purely hero-and-heroine dominated stories tend to be unrealistic and, worse, uninteresting.
But will local directors, producers and storytellers step out of their comfort zones and write stories that are different and work long and hard on building characters rather than merely heroes, heroines and villains? Some of the best amongst acting’s new generation hope that they do…
“I think that our filmmakers need to realize that when they have actors at their disposal who are talented and willing to work hard then it works to their advantage to use them to their fullest potential,” observes actor Ahmed Ali Butt.
“A lot of our movies don’t really pay much attention to developing the characters of the supporting cast. What they don’t realize is that the entire project suffers when they do this.”
The Jawani Phir Nahi Ani montage proved to be an exception where the entire supporting cast, which included Ahmed, were imperative to the storyline. In fact, in JPNA2, he dressed in drag as the coquettish ‘Maina’ and completely took over the spotlight. The role won him a nomination for ‘Best Actor’ at this year’s Lux Style Awards.
“The movie worked because every character had shades and a balanced role. As an artist, I enjoyed it because it allowed me space to perform. But generally, roles are limited. The hero’s friend rarely has any personality. He’s merely a cliché, just there to say a few lines.”
He then adds, “Nevertheless, the beauty of cinema is that even a small powerful performance can manage to gain the audience’s attention.”
But why make do with a small role at all when you can prove your mettle with a better one? “Sometimes, an actor signs on to a project simply because it is being produced by a major banner and has a stellar team working on it. He may agree to the role even though it may not be a significant one,” he points out.
“Nevertheless, I am currently working on my own movie. I have a story to tell and I want to make it in a way that every character makes sense to the overall plot.”
Similarly, Ahmed Ali Akbar may have won rave reviews for his performance in the gritty, fast-paced Laal Kabootar but he has, time and again, been stuck with playing forgettable side characters. Has playing the lead in Laal Kabootar turned things around for him, with more meaty roles being offered to him now?
“I think I became more picky post-Laal Kabootar,” Ahmed muses. “Even before the movie’s release, I had actually become more hesitant about signing on to just any project. In the beginning, a lot of actors, including myself, take on roles simply to ensure visibility and to earn our bread and butter. TV dramas particularly work well as consistent sources of income. Also, some great scripts are written for TV, as well as really bad ones. So TV, at least, offers more diverse options.”
One such option is Ehd-e-Wafa, the multi-starrer HUM TV drama by Momina Duraid Productions which features Ahmed as well as Osman Khalid Butt, Ahad Raza Mir and Wahaj Ali, among others.
However, past experiences have taught Ahmed that in projects with ensemble castes, sometimes one character gets edited out frequently. One hopes that does not end up being the case with Ehd-e-Wafa.
“In Parchi, I was originally supposed to be a major part of the ensemble cast, but the movie inevitably ended up revolving just around the hero and heroine,” recalls Ahmed.
“In TV I have so far played lead roles but cinematic storylines can get frustrating. There have been times when I have been offered roles that have absolutely nothing to them and I have to give my 120% in order to make them somewhat plausible. In the movie Karachi se Lahore, I played the hero’s friend and I had to improvise with the character so that he seemed plausible.”
‘But this is not really an individualistic problem. It is more of a collective issue currently bringing local cinema down. We don’t know how to write good stories yet. Forget the supporting cast, even the main characters are not well-developed. It’s something that we really need to work on.”
“The problem with Pakistan’s TV and film industry is that it likes to typecast,” says actor Gohar Rasheed. “If I played a villain well, it meant that for the longest time I was just being offered similar roles. There is no vision and no one is willing to listen to constructive criticism. Filmmakers will keep creating rom-coms – many of which are really bad – but refuse to acknowledge that they may be doing something wrong.”
In his struggle to not get stereotyped, Gohar says that he has had to refuse a large number of roles. “But how many roles can an actor refuse? I dabbled with theatre for an entire year and while it was very creatively satisfying, it couldn’t pay my bills. Eventually, an actor has to turn towards film and television where sadly, all he may be offered are forgettable bit parts or tweaked versions of roles that he has done before.”
“An actor like Imran Ashraf is just an exception amongst hundreds. One person may get lucky while many other deserving actors will suffer,” he points out. “And I am not just speaking for myself. No one seems to acknowledge that some of the actors constantly getting stuck with mundane side roles still manage to outshine the glamorous leads. It’s frustrating."
The always blunt Yasir Hussain points out a way in which actors can avoid getting relegated to playing boring side roles: they can refuse the roles altogether.
“This is why there have been long spans throughout my career when I have had no work,” he admits. “I refuse to be typecast as the hero’s sidekick who doesn’t have anything to say. I have waited until an interesting role is offered to me.”
“With the movies Karachi Se Lahore and Lahore Se Aagay, I played a man who stuttered and kept making quips. Suddenly, I was being offered so many similar roles. I could have taken them up and earned some money on the side. But I waited, acted on stage in a play written by Anwar Maqsood and played a villain in Baandi. Then, I started getting offered more villainous roles and I stepped back once again.”
“It’s a tough choice to make – but I feel that it is something that actors need to do in order to take on the roles that they want.”
Does he feel the cinema and TV are concentrating simply on feel-good hero-driven movies that don’t have anything new to say?
“I think TV has different storylines but most of them revolve around female leads. Male actors have smaller or less significant roles. But yes, most local movies are telling the same story over and over again. Filmmakers want their hero to have a certain look. Very few are willing to experiment.”
It’s possible, however, for the side characters to sometimes outshine their contemporaries playing lead roles. Ali Kazmi, who likes to look at the bright side of things, points out, “There are actors like Imran Ashraf who started off with side characters but was so good at what he did that now he is playing interesting lead characters. Similarly, I know that I can get the audience’s attention even when I am cast in the smallest of roles.”
“There has been a positive change in the storylines being pursued by TV dramas. I think TV channels have realized the importance of characters and are breaking out into different genres,” he observes.
“There was a time, four to five years ago, when our dramas were stuck in a rut. There was a perpetual race for ratings and the easiest solution was to narrate stories of domestic abuse, where a woman gets slapped around and tortured before she finally emerges strong. Thankfully, that time is over.”
“But now I feel that cinema is stuck in a similar situation. There is so much focus on gaining box office profits that stories are constructed on commercial formats. It is only once in a while that a ‘Laal Kabootar’ comes along and breaks this trend.”
Why does he then sign on to these commercial, repetitive stories, especially for a side role that often has no purpose? “I believe that an actor needs to keep acting so that he doesn’t get rusty,” says Ali.
“Also, when a good project comes along, you want to be part of it even if you’re not the hero. But I would like to urge filmmakers to now take a leap and work on stories that have more substance. I understand that they are under pressure but they need to believe in the stories that they are telling. Otherwise, actors like myself will just one day have to produce our own movies,” he quips.
Frustrating though it may be, Imran Ashraf Awan points out that sacrifices need to be made in order to make a mark.
Like Yasir Hussain, Imran recalls a dry period in his career where he stayed unemployed for eight long months. “I had gotten typecast as a young villain. Those were the only roles that I was being offered. I desperately needed money at the time but still, it was too painful for me to do the same role over and over again."
"And so, I stayed at home and began writing a script. If I had not been writing, I would have gotten a job but I refused to take on a role just for money. Actors need to know that they have a right to refuse a role and they need to do so when they feel that it is hurting their career.”
“My focus has never really been on playing a lead role. I just want to play a substantial character. No role is small. An actor needs to understand how to connect with the audience, how to manipulate content and make the role his own."
"Also, I have never concentrated on building my own role; with every gesture and dialog, I want to build the drama and the story. If the project stands out, I will stand out automatically. In the drama Dillagi, I played Humayun Saeed’s sidekick but I didn’t mind – I just made sure that I made the audience want to watch my character.”
“At another point, I was simultaneously offered two projects: one on a smaller channel as a hero and another, as the heroine’s brother in a drama helmed by a very accomplished director. I accepted the latter role and I got my first awards nomination for my role in that drama, Gul-e-Rana. And when I won an award, it was for the drama Alif Allah aur Insaan. It had a total of 42 episodes in which I only had a total of 34 scenes. I still managed to get attention for my performance.”
“You need to know your craft and you need to know what works with viewers and you need to work very hard. You also need to know when to say no to insignificant roles – even if the offers comes from the most prestigious production houses. If you are meant to be successful, then God will grant you success. You can’t be afraid of people and sacrifice your craft.”
Wise words from someone who knows the drill and has managed to challenge norms. Imran, however, has also managed to succeed because he has built his repertoire in dramas. Film, meanwhile, needs to develop depth in order to add strength to its characters.
But then, is an insignificant role in a major movie worth the effort made by an actor whose prowess is well-known? Shouldn’t he wait until the right roles come along?
Is it a task worth easier said than done? And are our films ever going to emerge from their beautiful, rom-com bubbles to offer meaty, substantial roles to actors?