“I don’t like that word — celebrity,” Ahad Raza Mir had told me in my first detailed interview with him some time ago.
This was when he was still basking in the success of his role in the hit drama Yaqeen Ka Safar. Now when we meet, he has several more hits to his credit.
He has won quite a few awards, has a huge fan following, is seen in big budget TV commercials and is acting in two of the most popular dramas that are currently being broadcast on TV — the ISPR-backed Ehd-e-Wafa and Yeh Dil Mera (YDM), a thriller that has taken off with some riveting first few episodes.
He also got engaged to actress Sajal Aly, his co-star in the majority of the TV dramas that he has acted in so far. Ahad and Sajal are so well loved, individually as well as a couple, that there is an entire battalion of fans on social media who are completely dedicated to ‘Sahad’.
The internet goes into a frenzy any time the two make a public appearance together and dramas featuring the two of them happily cash in on the romance by airing out their scenes in the promos. Ahad, irrefutably, is a celebrity and a very successful one.
With two wildly popular serials currently on television, legions of fans and a recent celebrated engagement to one of Pakistan’s other rising stars, it seems Ahad Raza Mir’s time is at hand. But the only pleasure the actor wants to focus on is his work
This doesn’t mean that he has started to like the word. “I don’t have any aspiration to be known as a celebrity. I just want to be known as an actor,” he asserts to me again, as he had in that long-ago interview.
“It’s all I want to do. But I now understand that the acting has to be balanced with being part of show business. I hate that. I feel like I’m at war with the prevalent ways of the industry. Why is there a need to constantly post on social media and have more followers? Why do so many of us feel the urge to float out behind-the-scenes [BTS] glimpses of the projects that we are working on? Why is there this constant need to attend awards shows and win awards?"
"Why are we not taking pleasure in our work?”
Ahad, at war
Ahad continues: “For me, acting is like an obsession. I thrive when I’m working on projects that excite me. I like taking on challenges, building the curve of the character that I’m enacting, figuring out what makes him tick. When I’m on set, I’m in a world of my own. I pace, thinking about the character, focusing solely on him and, then, when the camera rolls I am him. I love that.”
And he paces about the room as he tells me this, allowing me a peek into his grueling life on sets. If I was to compare this Ahad to the one from that interview of yore, I’d say that this one is even more passionate about his craft and knows what he wants.
He’s also wiser. “I have realised that this profession may mean something else for others around me and I can’t change that. It’s better to let go,” he adds.
And so he has. He only posts sporadically on social media, on topics that he feels strongly about or, sometimes, just because he wants to connect with fans. He comes on board very few social media ad campaigns, feeling that he should only endorse brands that are synonymous with his persona. In today’s Insta-world, such honourable behavior is rare.
Ahad shrugs. “I just feel that what I do today will influence where I am five years from now. There is a certain way in which people perceive me and I can’t ruin that just because I’m offered considerable sums to endorse different products. I actually don’t even like it when my ads are aired in between my dramas. One minute, I am this psychopath and the next minute, I’m trying to sell you cold drink. But I know that there’s nothing that I can do about this.”
He continues to be staunchly against the release of BTS images and videos of the projects that he’s working on, long before they are released. Perhaps, this particular belief of his stems from the way his drama from last year Aangan lost much of its intrigue when pictures of it began floating out, many months prior to it being aired on TV.
“I hate BTS,” he says, shaking his head, frowning as he muses over these deplorable creations of the information era. “Half-baked scenes, unveiled before they are properly fine-tuned, just ruin the suspense. And you can’t blame just the actors for releasing sneak peeks. Sometimes, channels insist on it because they want to create hype. But they need to realise that they are ruining the project’s prospects in the long run.”
Learning from the past, Ahad made sure that his current dramas, Ehd-e-Wafa and Yeh Dil Mera were kept completely under wraps until the official teasers came out.
“When the first promotional images of Ehd-e-Wafa were released, it created so much excitement. People wondered where this drama had suddenly surfaced from. My co-actors — Osman Khalid Butt, Wahaj Ali and Ahmed Ali Akbar — and I had made a conscious decision that there would not be any BTS, and it worked!”
He opts for unconventional drama roles but is yet to be seen in a storyline that overtly focuses on a social cause. Considering that such stories are largely prevalent on TV right now, why is this the case?
“I just think that it’s wrong when a story gets labeled. Why not let the audience decide what it’s about?” he says. “Every film and drama has a lesson to give. Yaqeen Ka Safar, for instance, highlighted the strain of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. In that sense, every project that I have worked on has pointed fingers at a social ill. It just hasn’t been spelt out loud.”
He’s also decided that awards may be great boosts but that they do not define his career.
“I think that God did me a favour and gave me awards early in my career. If I hadn’t won those trophies, I may have been dwelling upon them constantly, wanting to win that one time. Now, I can just focus on my work. In retrospect, I think that Yaqeen Ka Safar became a hit and even if I hadn’t won awards for my role, I would have still got work because I had proved my acting merit. The awards are just a recognition of your popularity. That’s it.”
I point out that his motley crew of ‘popularity’ trophies are taking centre-stage against the wall of his living room, where we are sitting. He smiles sheepishly. “My mum put them there. She loves them.”
Turning serious, he continues, “I think that they are the real culprits. The moment you win, you subconsciously begin to think that you’re a master at your craft, that you know what you’re doing. But in reality, an actor doesn’t know anything. He can be extremely sensitive and be able to depict a certain character, but he can’t be sure if it will work. But when he’s winning multiple awards, he runs the risk of losing focus. They’re dangerous.”
Is this why he didn’t attend the recent Hum Awards that took place in Houston? “I was shooting at the time, so couldn’t go,” he says. “I may go next year.”
His absence at the event was particularly noticeable because Ahad’s work so far has been entirely with the Hum TV Network. He has, in fact, often been touted as a ‘channel favourite’. How could he simply skip out one of the channel’s biggest annual events? “I had no choice to skip out because of work. Also, I don’t work just for this channel,” he points out.
“It’s a popular misconception that I work for the Hum TV Network but that’s not true. It’s just that, so far, the most interesting scripts that I had been offered were from this one particular network and I have a great working relationship with them. But I am now working on my next drama with another channel.”
Ahad has also treaded his own ground in his relationship with Sajal Aly very carefully. In an era where celebrity couples are open in their affections — sometimes, they may just even propose at a major awards show — ‘Sahad’ are quite low-profile.
“I think Sajal and I are naturally very private individuals,” he observes. “She knows me from when I had just started my career, which is why I feel that she really understands who I am. I don’t think anyone else can. And she keeps me focused.”
When’s the wedding, I ask, and being ‘naturally private’ as he professes to be, I am told, “Soon.”
I ask a less intrusive question: what are the two of them like when they are on set together? Ahad laughs. “We’re really tough on each other. People would assume that we’re all lovey-dovey but, in fact, we’re just constantly on edge, critiquing each other. After a scene is shot, I’ll say, ‘Sajal, that wasn’t quite right, I think you should do it again’, or she’ll point out that my pronunciation wasn’t right. Maza aata hai [It’s a lot of fun].
“Most of my acting projects have been with Sajal and I think that’s because no other actress can take on such truly challenging roles. Somehow, we have often found ourselves to be cast together. But when we are approached for a role, we never consider whether we will be acting together. We think as independent actors and see if the story interests us.”
Even as he talks, it seems to me that Ahad is itching to change the subject — his relationship with Sajal is very obviously not something he talks about often. At another point in our conversation, though, he discusses how he had contracted dengue fever recently and Sajal was his ‘saviour’.
“I wouldn’t wish dengue on even my worst enemy. I thought that I would die,” he says. “There I was, in the hospital, barely able to walk and she really helped, fending people away from my room and taking care of me.”
Does the couple reply regularly to the large contingent of ‘Sahad’ fans spread out all over the internet? “I try to respond to fans and so does she, but it’s amazing how much love they send our way,” he says.
“After every episode of our dramas, they make collages and write long reviews. On my birthday, I got a call from my office that I needed to come in because so many people had sent me gifts there — little fake trees with my pictures dangling off the branches and cupcakes with my photograph on them. It’s overwhelming and I wish I could do more for them. I mean, these are the people that we need to invite to our wedding,” he laughs.
He has just turned 26. Does he feel that he’s too young to get married? “When it’s time, it’s time,” he tells me.
Onwards and upwards
Does he also feel that this is his ‘time’ and in a few years from now, newer actors may be taking over the roles that are being offered to him right now? “Of course, and I know that,” he says, “and I don’t mind, at all. I think new people should constantly be coming in. That’s the only way the industry will grow. By then, it will be my time to do something else.”
Other than last year’s Hum Films’ project, Parwaaz Hai Junoon, his work has all been with television. Does he plan to sign on to a movie soon? “I’m considering a few scripts and I might,” says Ahad.
“It should just be something that is unique and exciting, regardless of whether it’s for TV or cinema. We should also be focusing more on digital. I feel that, in the coming years, filmmakers and TV channels are going to lose out on profits because people are preferring to watch shows at their convenience on YouTube. We need to cash in on this by creating platforms on the internet from where people can stream our productions.”
He continues, “This is something that I’m looking into. Sometime in the future, I want to create projects that put Pakistan on the map, internationally. Baba [his father, yesteryear heartthrob Asif Raza Mir] is going to be seen in a major HBO series next year, called Gangs of London. I hope to, maybe, someday, work on something like that. I have also become unafraid of failing. I sign on to a project that interests me, give it my all, and then stop worrying over whether it’s going to be a success or a flop.
“And I definitely plan to continue to work in theatre once a year.”
This year, he took on the titular role of Hamlet for the Vertigo Theatre’s version of the Shakespearean play, staged in Calgary. “I love theatre,” Ahad enthuses. “On TV, an actor can just give his 10 percent because the space given to him is limited. On stage, when you’re live, the scale is much bigger. I am able to give my 110 percent. For those few months that I was preparing and performing Hamlet, I was in this emotionally drained phase. I would get angry at little things. People around me would ask me what was wrong with me but I suppose the character would stay with me even after I would be done for the day,” he smiles wryly.
In the coming year, Ahad will again be enacting Hamlet, this time in Toronto. “Calgary has a very small desi population. They all came to see the play and the theatre company tells me that so many Pakistanis come to them now, wanting to audition. I love that I have been able to draw people to the theatre. But the theatre in Calgary was a small one, with seating for 200 people. In Toronto, we’ll be performing for two weeks in a huge auditorium with 1,000 seats. The desi population there is massive. I’m really looking forward to it.”
And on this optimistic note, we wrap up. I can tell that Ahad is drained — I have grilled him for long enough although there is much more that I want to ask him, particularly on the ‘Sahad’ topic, which intrigues the romantic in me. “Next time,” he promises me. I will hold you to that, Ahad.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, December 15th, 2019