The more we talk, the more animated Bilal Ashraf becomes. Constantly moving in his chair, as if the seat can’t contain him, he says he is out of energy. He even says that he’s thinking of not doing anything for at least another year.
The subterfuge isn’t working, because grand plans are afoot. Plans he neither accepts nor denies.
Bilal, I can tell you, has no career in politics. Unless, that is, he becomes a better actor and learns to lie better. The question then is: does he even want to lie, or is he just superstitious?
Bilal’s smile is masked by a thick beard. It’s growing out of aloofness, he says (though, I suspect otherwise). The twinkling in his eyes says that he is still overawed by the success of Superstar, and that he is cautious of not tripping over.
For a person who has nothing to say, he is sure telling me a lot.
Bilal Ashraf has seen lows in his career that beat the stuffing out of him. But the career-defining success of Superstar has transformed him, he says. Now he’s all about the neeyat.
Sitting by a large window at a coffee shop in DHA, Karachi, I ask Bilal a question whose answer I already know: what does an actor do when he’s not doing films?
“Chill,” he answers. “Try to take a break, travel — which has been long overdue.” Even after Superstar, he hasn’t given much time to his family, and he has definitely ignored his father’s building and construction business. “[I] need a break desperately,” he says.
Bilal belongs to a well-to-do family, but chooses to be happy-go-lucky and unencumbered by responsibilities. He tells me he orders his guards to stay put at home as he drives himself to work, meetings and just about everything else. He just wants to be an everyday man. An everyday man, who is, incidentally, a well-known actor.
He’s cool. But then again, he’s always been cool, even when he was pulling himself together after the tragedy named Rangreza.
To quote my review which appeared in Icon back then ‘[Bilal was] all dimples and heavy monotonic voice’.
Today, I can’t see his dimples (they’re somewhere behind his jungle of a beard), and his voice isn’t a monotone.
I remember things being quite different when meeting Bilal for the first time at another coffee shop in DHA, nearly two years back. Back then he was just about to sign (or maybe had already signed) Superstar. Tehmina Khaled, a mutual friend, had been singing praises of his work ethic, saying that he has the tendency to go above and beyond the call of duty, both during and after production.
When we met, he had told me that he’s had enough of his own tendency to over-involve himself in projects. Rangreza, and then Yalghaar (especially Yalghaar), had beaten the stuffing out of him. One could see the toll from a mile away.
Things changed dramatically the next time I saw him. His face was leaner and his body overtaxed. Bilal had, quite apparently, done it again, overly involving himself in his role. He told me that pushing his body to craft a lean physique at the age of 40 was killing him.
Exhausted, he said that if he didn’t do anything after Superstar, he would still be content for life. A moment later, he added that he would like to shut up the critics who panned him when Rangreza came out.
What really did go wrong in Yalghaar, I ask. It was, after all, a film that should have shot him to the big league. “What went wrong can be only answered by the producer, director, writer, editor, DoP — [an] all-in-one [man] — I think you can find all the answers there.
Coming back to the present, Bilal stills stands by what he had said back then. “Well, I think I put everything in this one film, and I did it as if it were my last. It actually came to this one point that iss ke baad main film na bhi karoon tau mujhay farq nahi parrta [if I don’t do another film after Superstar, it won’t bother me in the least].
“So, when you go with all the guns blazing, you need to rest and recover,” he says.
Seeing the slump was very important, he continues. “It’s the failure that teaches you about life more than anything, not success.”
Talking about his depression earlier, Bilal says that he “just slipped.” “Sometimes we take things too seriously, which we shouldn’t. As a friend of mine once said: ‘it’s not going to last, so enjoy it’. Look back and emerge from it.
“I’ll be honest, the amount of time I gave Yalghaar — three-and-a-half years — was the most I’d given to any project. It’s important for the project to have the right neeyat [intention], the people behind it didn’t have the right neeyat. Without the right neeyat in life, whether it is for a film or anything else, the project will not fly.” Bilal is big on intentions now.
What really did go wrong in Yalghaar, I ask. It was, after all, a film that should have shot him to the big league.
“What went wrong can be only answered by the producer, director, writer, editor, DoP — [an] all-in-one [man] — I think you can find all the answers there.
“Again”, he sighs, “it was a learning experience. You can take the positives out of anything.
“I don’t want to compete with anyone but myself,” he adds as an after-thought, his mannerisms calming down after reminiscing about the past.
“Superstar has changed me. It changed my approach towards life, it changed my approach towards work, it changed my approach towards people. It changed me. Permanently.
“I think I’ve stopped worrying about stuff after the film hit cinemas. I don’t worry about anything now. I don’t worry about it being a hit or a miss. If you get caught up in that, then you’ll never be able to work. I think one should just focus on working and following your heart.”
I finally nudge him enough that he reveals what he is doing.
“There are certain scripts I’m not entertaining. At all. And then there are certain scripts which my friends have advised me to read. So, yes, I’m reading some good scripts. If it were completely up to me, I wouldn’t touch a film script for five more years.”
Isn’t that going against everything he had said before — of not doing films, but doing them nonetheless, I remind him.
“That is why I said, if it were up to me. Hey, at least I can say it [even if I’m not able to do it],” he says, laughing out loud.
Let’s imagine if he did take five years off and returned. What type of roles does he think he would get then, I ask.
“I wouldn’t [get any],” he says quite candidly. “I would create my own scripts.”
Would he be directing them?
“No, I would produce.”
But wasn’t he keen on doing that … since forever?
“I feel like I’m still not getting the things I want to do — which is action. Especially the type of action I want to do.
Is it the Akshay Kumar Simmba-type cop action, I ask while knowing full well that he is inclined towards that idea.
“It’s more Bourne and Kingsmen type,” Bilal answers.
Now, don’t go off about doing things the Hollywood way, I interject. Bilal had, in the past, turned down the idea of doing films that had a Hollywood-ish feel to them.
“Uss formula mein hi tau desi daalna hai [One has to add that local feel to the Hollywood formula],” he quips back, laughing.
I ask him what else he would like to do.
“I would love to do a thriller,” he says in a snap.
He had specifically told me ‘NO’ to thrillers as well two years back, I remind him.
“Well, now I’m saying ‘YES’ to all,” he says, the zest just oozing out of him.
I wasn’t aware that audience turnout had gone up, I enquire with some sarcasm.
“No, it’s came down. But there has been a shift in the past two years,” he says. “Teefa in Trouble is nothing without action. The comedy worked because of its action. It’s a masala action movie.”
“People ask me why I work with new directors,” Bilal adds by himself. “It’s because I was new once, and it’s only fair to give someone new a chance. You can pick a great director and a great cast, and the film may still tank. And you may pick a new director and still deliver a hit. Films are a gamble, they will always be a gamble. You can never guarantee box office success. You can minimise the risk with a good script. Good content will speak for itself."
Isn’t that what we’re making most of the times anyways — masala, comedy, actioners, I counter-argue. I know the answer, of course; these are safe investments. A bang-for-the-buck combo of action and comedy. Incidentally, it’s the same genre you may see Bilal in next year.
One of the scripts that has caught Bilal’s fancy is a comedy-actioner written by Mohsin Ali, the screenwriter who wrote 2015’s Wrong No. and who also wrote and directed Chhupan Chhupai (2017), and is being produced by Hassan Zia (Wrong No., its sequel, Mehrunnisa V Lub U).
The film may be directed by a first-time filmmaker, but that’s okay as far as Bilal is concerned.
“People ask me why I work with new directors,” Bilal adds by himself. “It’s because I was new once, and it’s only fair to give someone new a chance."
“You can pick a great director and a great cast, and the film may still tank. And you may pick a new director and still deliver a hit. Films are a gamble, they will always be a gamble. You can never guarantee box office success. You can minimise the risk with a good script. Good content will speak for itself, if it is made with the right neeyat.”
There’s that spiel about neeyat again. Bilal is all about good intentions these days. But he thinks he is better prepared to try out more challenging genres now.
“There were certain things missing in my arsenal. In the past year, I’ve learned the value of doing theatre rehearsals,” he says. It will now be a firm part of any film he does, he says.
Irrespective of who the director is? I ask, knowing full well the theatre bug was nurtured by the experience Bilal had with his last director, Muhammad Ehteshamuddin who has a theatre background.
“I don’t care who the director is,” he explains. He feels that, even though the director is on set, preparing oneself beforehand in a theatre-like environment, or doing a workshop specifically for the role, helps him with his performance.
“[Irrespective of who the director will be], I would work on myself. I have my lines rehearsed, I have my emotions set for scenes. Aap khul jaatay ho [you open up]. You’re more fluid. You’re more comfortable in your character. A 15-20 day workshop really helps. So it helps me and if it helps me, it helps the director as well. That’s what I will do, regardless of who the director is.”
Jumping from stories, screenplays and directors, we naturally progress to leading ladies. I know there are a few Bilal wouldn’t even dream of working with. Then there is Mahira Khan.
“If you do not share that energy with your co-star, then it’s nothing. I even told Mahira that she spoiled me,” he says.
“There are some good actresses I would like to work with,” he adds. “There is Mehwish [Hayat], Saba [Qamar], Kubra [Khan].”
As we get up to leave, I shoot one last question at Bilal.
With a career of highs and lows, he knows the value of delivering a hit and riding the wave. But what happens after that? What are the things he is scared of? Is there a subconscious fear of the past repeating itself?”
“No,” Bilal answers. “Darr ka kya karna? Darr kay rahogay to kya karogay [What should one be afraid of? If one is scared, one will not be able to do anything],” he responds.
As he drives away in his big white 4x4 vehicle, I can see the transition in Bilal Ashraf. He’s a ‘Superstar’ whose entire world has turned upside down by one career-defining film. It made him fall in love with the film world again, as if it were the first time. Now, he just wants to take one cautious step at a time, growing, maturing with Pakistan’s film industry. That’s his neeyat anyway.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, December 22nd, 2019