Zahid Ahmed’s face was split in two halves; one, fully made up with women’s make-up and the other, male.

This powerful initial glimpse from the 2019 drama Ishq Zah-e-Naseeb was followed by an equally impactful teaser, where Zahid was seen applying lipstick. The drama that followed won critical acclaim for shedding light on the plight of individuals suffering from dissociative identity disorder and for the performances of its cast.

Shining the most was Zahid Ahmed, effortlessly, as he balanced the two sharply contrasting sides to the character that he was playing.

It was an extraordinarily difficult role that he enacted extraordinarily well. And while Zahid had been recognised for past performances as well, this drama was particularly noticed because of its unconventional storyline.

This was an actor to watch out for. What was he going to do next? Apparently, a drama opposite Sonya Hussyn — also his leading lady in Ishq Zah-e-Naseeb — was in the works and he was about to make his cinematic debut in Ghabrana Nahin Hai, co-starring actress Saba Qamar.

But the shooting for the movie couldn’t begin due to the Covid-19 lockdown and, instead, Zahid began to get noticed for his YouTube channel.

‘You’ve met the actor … Now meet the person behind the many masks…’ read an Instagram post from February this year.

In a succession of videos, Zahid put forward short talks, on topics related to religion — even one where he discussed the ‘mistake’ he made in getting a nose job which went terribly wrong.

In the video, he puts forward the notion that perhaps he had gone against the wishes of God when he opted for cosmetic surgery, which is why he had to endure its consequences. Evidently, this ‘person’ behind the ‘masks’ has strong theological inclinations.

Zahid Ahmed has come a long way from a career in telecommunications to acting in theatre as a hobby. But the in-demand actor is also out to break facades and put the real himself out there

My conversation with the actor begins with a discussion around these inclinations. Zahid is hardly the first celebrity to recently declare his closeness to religion, but he also maintains that he is not out to be a ‘preacher’.

“I don’t want to preach. But over the past few years, I have come close to God, and there are certain things that have worked for me. In my late 20s, I began to feel very restless. I felt that there had to be more to life than just running after physical milestones: from progressing from a TV actor to a cinema actor, from buying one house to hoping to buy two more.

Once I submitted to religion, the restlessness went away. I want to stay true to the straight path, while working in a profession where we can fall victim to just feeding our egos. And if I can help others also benefit from the lessons that I have learnt, then there would be some meaning to all the fame and love that I have earned.”

Zahid continues, “The YouTube channel has only been active for the past three or four months now but I created it with this single track purpose that this is the content that I want to be talking about. For one, I know now that passing on the message of God is a requirement that every Muslim has to fulfill.

Also, I don’t want to use my social media following to just show people my pictures. I have to utilise this popularity to achieve a better purpose, because that is what God would want me to do. This is how I secure my success as a Muslim.”

Does this turn towards religion mean that, like fellow actors Hamza Ali Abbasi and Feroze Khan, he is considering leaving acting or working only in projects that have spiritual roots?

“I have never made any such announcements,” he points out.

In fact, it would be safe to say that Zahid has no plans of quitting his profession. For him, acting is ‘the dream’.

“I burnt all my boats when I came into this profession. I had a career in telecommunications while working in theatre as a hobby. The first time I saw a theatrical play, back in 2006, I was blown away. I felt that these people on stage were my people, that the need to perform was running in my blood. But I didn’t quit my conventional job.

I never auditioned for TV. I don’t have any friends who are out there promoting my work, landing me into special projects. I just acted in Anwar Maqsood’s plays for the stage, and it became my gateway into this career. People from television started reaching out to me and suddenly, I was on TV.”

It has been six years since his television debut and his career graph is dotted with some exceptional performances — and some inevitably dubious ones. He counts Ishq Zah-e-Naseeb as his most challenging and exciting role to date, but he also warns me that he has hated some of the dramas that he has worked in.

“Never watch those dramas!” he laughs. “If it didn’t mean that I would end up hurting people, I would name them. Thing is, I shouldn’t have signed some of those scripts but often, in television, we are just told a basic plotline while the script is still a work in progress. Then, when you’re acting in the project, and the arc that you agreed on completely shifts, there is nothing that you can do.”

Actors also can’t do anything when dramas that they have worked hard on get diminished because the producer decides to drag them on endlessly, in an effort to generate higher ratings and more money.

“It can be heart-wrenching,” says Zahid. “Timing and pacing is everything and, as actors, we invest so much energy into saying a dialogue in a certain way. When the structure of the story itself gets stretched, it just kills the impact. I’m lucky that not a lot of my plays have dragged, but some have, of course.”

His repertoire features work particularly with certain actresses; namely, Saba Qamar, Sonya Hussyn and Yumna Zaidi. Why is this the case?

“If not these people, then who?” he ponders out loud. “I do get to have a say on which actors I’d want to be featured with, but I don’t really intervene. Somehow, these are the people that productions have always paired me with and it’s worked out well.”

I observe that he’s obviously very coveted by TV producers — but does this also mean that he doesn’t suffer the payment issues that so many of his peers endure? Actors often complain of TV producers paying them late, or cutting off their remunerations without prior notice.

“I don’t have any payment issues but I do know that others around me do,” says Zahid. “It’s important to put your foot down and then you will be paid on time. I did that once. When payments started getting delayed, I just didn’t turn up on set. The problem got sorted out very promptly after that.”

Of course, his acting mettle has a lot to do with his lack of payment problems. Zahid, in his short acting career, has proven that his work is exceptional and production houses pay for it willingly.

“I love what I do, to the extent that, even if a co-actor turns up late and ends up extending my 10-hour shift to several more hours, I don’t mind it. I don’t let my ego intervene.”

Beyond acting, though, he’s also invested in breaking facades.

“I don’t know why actors are so careful about being politically correct. I want to shake that tree a little bit and put the truth out there, at least in my own case. This is why I talk about religion, something that is very important to me, or address the elephant in the room, when I speak about my nose job. A lot of people consider actors to be role models but, often, we are the last people to be given that accolade! In order to inspire others, there needs to be more to us than just glamour.”

There is certainly much more to Zahid Ahmed, from his prolific acting skills to the unique path that he is treading on social media. He’s breaking quite a few glass ceilings as he does things his way — perhaps that’s the secret to his success.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 24th, 2020