“I knew that I wouldn’t be considered very frequently for roles if I lived somewhere else. Production houses find it more opportune and economical to cast an actor who is living in the city where the main shoot is taking place. I didn’t give them the opportunity to look beyond me. I packed my bags and moved to Karachi.”

So says actor Ahmed Ali Akbar. Seven years ago, he left his home in Islamabad and shifted base to Karachi.

Following the quintessential path of a struggling actor, he rented out a small apartment and slummed it out while he navigated the choppy road to acting stardom. He played small roles, cameos and the inevitable clichéd husband embroiled in domestic turmoil until better, more interesting, characters started coming his way.

“It’s still a struggle,” says Ahmed, “and living in Karachi continues to be very important. All the main production houses and private channels have their head offices here, and there’s a lot of competition. You may be a good actor but production houses will still be wary of signing you up if they have to pay for your travel expenses and stay. More often than not, they will end up signing on someone else who is more ‘convenient’.”

Veteran actor Mehmood Aslam endured similar qualms. “I was an established actor and yet, living in Lahore, I was jobless for six months. It made me realise that I couldn’t possibly run my home without moving to Karachi. That’s where the work was.”

Making the big move

Scattered all across Pakistan’s so-called ‘City of Lights’ — Karachi — are young actors such as Ahmed, vying to become Pakistani TV drama stars, having left their hometowns in order to achieve this elusive goal. Some are young and single, while others are men and women with families, who either move lock, stock and barrel with their families in tow, or resort to living the single life in a new city.

Some are even respected senior professionals such as Mehmood Aslam. Even they fear being replaced, should they not make the all-important move to the port city.

Illustration by Samiah Bilal
Illustration by Samiah Bilal

It’s not an easy transition, but moving to Karachi is currently a requirement for any Pakistani actor. “The actors have to be where the industry is,” succinctly points out actor and producer Fahad Mustafa. And this is hardly an anomaly.

Mumbai is the city of dreams for actors wanting to make it in Bollywood, Hollywood the destination for aspiring actors in the US. Similarly, over the past two decades, Karachi has metamorphosed into a city laden with opportunities for aspiring actors.

The main private channels, most production houses, advertisers, scriptwriters and technicians are all here. Here’s where new actors come for auditions and learn the ropes, where they network and meet industry wheeler-dealers, where they land their first few roles as the brother, sister or bestie on the sidelines, where they collaborate with the big brands and here’s where, having worked their way to the very brink of stardom, they may ultimately fly high.

Right place, right time

Back in the early 2000s, a young actor called Ali Kazmi became one of entertainment’s favourite blue-eyed boys. He was the face of major brands and hosted the first-of-its-kind-in-Pakistan battle of music bands. He had all the makings of the next big hero — except that, right then, Ali chose to move westwards, hoping to prove his acting mettle in the US and Canada, before returning to Pakistan.

“In the meantime, the industry and private channels expanded, private production houses opened and political alliances were formed,” says Ali. “When I returned to Pakistani entertainment some years later, via a successful acting stint in director Mehreen Jabbar’s drama Jackson Heights, I got rave reviews.

But commercial success was now being gauged by who an actor was friends with, and how many followers he/she had on Instagram. The offers that come my way have become limited. It doesn’t make me bitter but I wish that there was a greater appreciation for talent and that producers just didn’t go about hiring their friends or whoever is available in the city.”

A few decades ago, Lahore, with its film industry was the Mecca for Pakistani actors. But over the past two decades, Karachi, with its bustling TV and advertising business, has taken over the title of the city of dreams for them. And while it may not be an easy transition, moving to the port city is often the only option for many Pakistani artists, young and old alike

“Out of sight, out of mind,” states actor Gohar Rasheed. “There have been times when I’ve been sitting with a TV drama director, having signed on for a project with him, and he’s trying to figure out who to cast in the side roles. Suddenly, a new actor may walk into the office to submit a portfolio, and the director will start considering him/ her. It’s all about being at the right place, at the right time.”

Gohar himself moved from Lahore to Karachi several years ago.

“Actors in Pakistan don’t have agents. We have to network, forge our own connections, and find work for ourselves,” says Gohar. “And Karachi means business. Work is cut-throat here and everybody functions at a very fast pace. Even during the initial panic that ensued when the coronavirus pandemic began to spread through Pakistan, I got a call from a director offering me a film called 'Lockdown', opposite Sonya Hussyn. Within a week, I had been signed on and had started shooting. If I wasn’t living in this city, this sudden offer to work, even during the lockdown, wouldn’t have come my way.”

Zahid Ahmed, also one of the many, many actors to have migrated to Karachi, observes that it would have been “careless” of him had he not made the move. “An actor has to struggle during the initial years of his or her career, before managing to gain a foothold in the industry,” observes Zahid.

“It becomes necessary to constantly travel to Karachi if you live in some other city. A lot of times this will end up being at your own expense because, at that nascent stage of your career, producers will not want to spend too much of their budgets on you. I was lucky. As soon as I started acting for television, I got so much work that it became impossible for me to go back to Islamabad. I just ended up moving my family to Karachi.”

“So many people moved to Lahore at the time: Nadeem Baig, Ghulam Mohiuddin, Abid Ali, Firdous Jamal, Ismail Shah, Izhar Qazi, Javed Sheikh and Omer Sharif among them. But then, Pakistan’s film industry went into decline and decay and, by the year 2000, private channels began establishing themselves in Karachi. In Lahore, my home city, I had aspired to become a film hero. But my focus shifted to TV and I, consequently, shifted to Karachi,” says Faysal Quraishi

Dur-e-Fishan Saleem, a young actress who has just started her career with a role in Hum Network’s Dilruba, recounts how she ended up making Karachi her home: “I’m Lahore-based and, last year, I came to Karachi and auditioned for several roles. Some of those roles were offered to me but when the production houses found out that I lived in Lahore, they became reluctant. Sometimes I wonder how I would have fared career-wise had I moved to Karachi right there and then!”

She continues, “While shooting for Dilruba, I lived in Karachi sporadically. First, I was put up at a guest house but I found it uncomfortable and kept trying out other places: an army mess and as a paying guest. There were month-long gaps in between shooting when I would return to Lahore, but I realised how difficult it was. Sometimes, producers require the artists to be on call, suddenly to shoot a sequence. This can only be accommodated if we are located in the same city as them. Ultimately, I sought out a studio apartment and moved!”

Actor Omair Rana, meanwhile, resisted Karachi’s lure for as long as he could — until he finally switched base last year, while his family continues to live in Lahore. “Coming and going again and again just wasn’t good enough,” explains Omair. “Unless I wasn’t physically there, all the time, I risked losing out on opportunities. It’s important to rub shoulders with the right people.”

Actress Shermeen Ali, who has been slowly building her career with side roles in a multitude of mainstream dramas, acknowledges that living in Karachi is particularly imperative for a young, struggling actor. “I have always been based in Karachi, but many of my peers have moved here because that’s the only way their careers can grow. When you’re new, production houses aren’t going to want to shoulder the burden of your travel and stay expenses. You’re easily replaceable.”

In contrast, more established actors can still opt to stay in their city of choice. Saba Qamar and Nauman Ijaz are two mainstream actors who haven’t made a permanent move to Karachi. Both actors are exceptionally skilled and experienced, and it’s likely that production houses are willing to make budgetary allotments when taking them on board.

Mikaal Zulfiqar moved to Karachi and, having established a name for himself, is back to living in his hometown Lahore.

Islamabad-based actors have the chance to try their luck while living at home, now that the Hum Network has set up an office in their city. But with only one channel established in Islamabad, their choices are limited.

Emmad Irfani stands out as an exception, working as a popular mainstream hero while remaining rooted in Lahore. “It helps that I want to be very careful about the work that I do. If I wanted to do as much work as I could, the move would have been necessary for me,” says Irfani.

“For the longest time I was living out of a suitcase, visiting Karachi for long spells for work,” says Maria Wasti. “Finally I decided that living here was just more convenient and cost-effective. I could follow up on payments in a more timely way, and be able to adjust if a shooting went through a sudden change in dates or scenes.”

Lahore, Lahore aye!

And yet, there was a time, some decades ago, when the transition worked in reverse. The Pakistani film industry offered a goldmine of opportunity for actors and its epicentre was in Lahore. Back then, the entertainment industry migrated, en masse, to Lahore.

Actor Faysal Quraishi recalls, “So many people moved to Lahore at the time: Nadeem Baig, Ghulam Mohiuddin, Abid Ali, Firdous Jamal, Ismail Shah, Izhar Qazi, Javed Sheikh and Omer Sharif among them. But then, Pakistan’s film industry went into decline and decay and, by the year 2000, private channels began establishing themselves in Karachi. In Lahore, my home city, I had aspired to become a film hero. But my focus shifted to TV and I, consequently, shifted to Karachi.”

Ahsan Khan recalls how Pakistan’s first private channel — NTM — had its head office in Lahore. “As an up-and-coming actor back in the ’90s, I would frequent the NTM office for auditions. It was only much later that private channels in Karachi gained momentum. The major advertisers also had their head offices in Karachi. In their capacity as sponsors, they were instrumental in spurring on the growth of private channels.”

“PTV going into decline played a major role in this logistical transition to Karachi,” observes actor Adnan Siddiqui. “In PTV’s heyday, an actor belonging to a certain city could not work in a drama produced by another station. And if you worked in a drama, you could not immediately work in another one. There was no need to move to another city because everyone got the chance to work, and there was scope for provincial actors.”

The underlying cracks

But was this shift in the media landscape simply due to the fact that several businessmen decided to invest in private channel productions? Or were there underlying cracks running through Lahore’s TV industry, which led to its decline?

“For a while, I was running the Hum Network’s fashion-based channel Style360,” says actress and ex-model Vaneeza Ahmed. “I was living in Karachi and I remember wrapping up 100 episodes in a week. In Lahore, it would have been a feat just to shoot one episode. The culture there is just a lot more laid back. The technicians working with TV channels in Lahore usually hail from a film background. They are accustomed to last-minute adjustments according to the script. In Karachi, in my experience, everything is pre-planned. And if one technician doesn’t deliver on time, there are several others that can replace him, right there and then!”

Gohar Rasheed points out wryly, “Just getting a hard copy of a script in Lahore can take a week. In Karachi, it gets done in seconds! Payments, similarly, come in more quickly. As actors, we appreciate how our career moves at a much more efficient pace in Karachi.”

Actor Mehmood Aslam observes that corruption runs deep within Lahore’s entertainment industry. “There are good and bad people everywhere but there was a time when Lahore’s TV industry boasted some great veteran names. But just like the city’s film industry, TV also fell victim to corruption. Educated, experienced directors were replaced by men who had once merely been spot boys. They were now directors, supported by investors who brought black money into the industry. The quality of production died.

“When TV actors and directors weren’t paid on time and talented people weren’t given opportunities, a decline was inevitable. And now, I’m distressed to see that corruption is also rearing its head in Karachi. TV may be running strong through Karachi right now, but if it continues to fall victim to favouritism and commercial, distasteful scripts, in a few more years it will stagnate completely. How can any industry remain alive when so many people working in it don’t get paid, sometimes for years? There are so many examples around me. It distresses me.”

And yet, for now, for a bustling crowd of actors and technicians, Karachi is the city of dreams. These dreams may bite the dust every now and then. The quest for fame and wealth may sometimes embroil them in nightmares.

They may weather sleepless nights, waiting for a single paycheque, until the day they reach the top. It may be painful, leaving their homes and families for months, while trying to make it big in a new city. But the lure of superstardom induces many to forsake it all. All for that erstwhile pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, for that chance to be seen on billboards across the country, to win awards and showcase them, side by side, on mantle-pieces, to live the high life, the celebrity life.

It’s all there, waiting for them, should they choose to chase the dream. It’s all there, in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 26th, 2020