About two years or so ago, actor Imran Ashraf Awan took a decision. He would no longer sign on to nominal, uninteresting roles in dramas.
He felt he owed more to his craft, which he had been honing so diligently over the years, and which had just been showcased brilliantly in the form of the mentally impaired Bhola, the infamous character that he played in the drama Ranjha Ranjha Kardi (RRK).
At an awards show that took place around the same time, I remember huge throngs of people crowding around him, calling him “Bhola” and wanting to take selfies with him. The audience loved him and, somehow, while enacting a mumbling, bumbling man, he had become their hero.
At that particular juncture of his career, Imran told me that he had just backed out of an uninspiring side-role offered to him by a major producer. “I’ve done the right thing,” he had reflected to me at the time. “It’s a risk, but I have to aim for much more at this point.”
Meeting Imran now, it seems the risk has clearly worked in his favour. He’s just won the Best Actor — Popular Choice trophy at the Lux Style Awards for RRK, and is playing the male lead in two hit dramas currently airing on TV, MD Productions’ Mushk and Wajahat Rauf’s Raqs-e-Bismil.
One of the finest actors on television at present, Imran Ashraf has taken immense risks to be where he is today. When he doesn’t find roles worthy of his talent, he simply writes them himself
Mushk has also placed the spotlight on Imran’s prowess as a scriptwriter. The drama, with its many twists and turns and poetic discourse, is his brainchild, and he tells me that production houses have been approaching him of late, asking him to write scripts for them.
“There’s still a long way to go. I had written scripts before, but Mushk has managed to establish me as a writer. And it has helped me slip out of Bhola and become Adam,” he says, referring to his character in Mushk. “And then, just when people were becoming familiar with Adam, they began perceiving me as Moosa as well,” he refers to his character in Raqs-e-Bismil.
He begins musing out loud over the two characters that are his current claim to fame — how Adam is silent, emotes with his eyes and sticks by his morals while Moosa is tempestuous and vocal. Now and again, he breaks out into dialogue, his eyes transforming his persona. This is how Imran has always been — there was a time when he would analyse Bhola just as animatedly.
He loves immersing himself in the characters that he plays, which is probably what makes him one of TV’s finest actors at present. I tell him this, to which he comments, “Imagine, if I get lost in my characters with such passion, how lost I must get in the travails of life.”
This, also, is quintessentially Imran: making deep, introspective comments, as poetic in real life as he is scripting Mushk …
Two sides to the coin
I prompt him, that he couldn’t possibly be feeling lost right now, having just won a prestigious LSA for his acting, and with two dramas on air. “I am extremely happy,” he agrees. “Winning the LSA was like a dream come true for me and both the dramas have been very well-received. Mushk has gotten so much critical acclaim and Raqs-e-Bismil trends on Twitter despite only being a few episodes old.”
Does trending on Twitter matter? “Of course it does. Reading people’s comments about my drama is similar to going out and bumping into random strangers, who tell me that they have been watching me on TV. It’s acknowledgement of my hard work and of everyone else involved in the projects with me.”
Have offers been flooding in, given his current career highs? To my surprise, his reply is to the contrary. “I’m at home these days, not working, and it’s because no good script has come my way,” he says. “I may have won an award and the audience may love me, but perhaps that isn’t good enough for certain drama-makers. Maybe I’ll have to do better in order to get their attention.”
But you proved your mettle with Bhola, I persist. “And yet, right after Ranjha Ranjha Kardi, a major production house offered me a role that wasn’t even the second lead. It was perhaps the eighth lead who barely had anything to do. I refused the role. At that point, I refused many roles that were placing me completely into the background. Those producers haven’t come back to me with other offers since then. It isn’t important to me to play the main lead but I owe it to myself to enact characters that are interesting, that have something to do in the story other than merely serve as props.”
The drama that he did sign on to following RRK was a convoluted sob-story called Kahien Deep Jalay (KDJ) which yawned on endlessly but somehow drew in very high ratings. Didn’t he think that his role in the drama, of a jealous, insecure man, was a sorry follow-up to the unforgettable Bhola? “Yes, but on the upside I earned very well from KDJ,” he reasons. “I got offered a lot of dramas that had similar storylines but this was the only one that I agreed to do. I had to do something. I couldn’t stay out of work.”
Imran continues, “I have never in my life asked for work, until recently when, after winning the Best Actor award at the LSAs, I came across a script that really riveted me. I asked the producers to cast me in the drama but they refused.” He shrugs, “It doesn’t matter. There will be other roles.
“God has always been by my side,” he says, proceeding to remind me of a story that he has told me before, of how he had landed a major role in Nadeem Baig’s drama Dillagi, which also starred Humayun Saeed and Mehwish Hayat. The actor originally cast for the role had walked out after three days of shooting, and Nadeem and Humayun were quickly considering other choices. They did not know Imran back then but three different people on the set recommended his name to them.
“I was about to enter a TV shoot that I was doing that day and my hand was on the door when I got a phone call that Humayun Saeed wanted to meet me. I turned on my heel and rushed out, changed clothes at a petrol pump that was on the way and went to meet Humayun Bhai. It was destiny,” Imran smiles.
Writing his destiny
But while destiny may be by his side, Imran’s admissions hint at the politics that run rampant in Pakistani entertainment. It is unfathomable that, despite being extremely popular and having won a major award, he is at home because of a lack of good scripts.
“For two-and-a-half years, I waited for a good script to come my way, but nothing did. When Shazia Wajahat narrated the story of Raqs-e-Bismil to me, I was very happy. Finally, an interesting story had come my way. I agreed to the role within minutes.”
Was it disheartening for him when his cinematic debut, in Adnan Siddiqui’s cinematic production Dum Mastam, couldn’t release last year as scheduled, because of the coronavirus? “I didn’t take it to heart because Dum Mastam wasn’t the only movie that had suffered. Cinema all around the world has been suffering. And it’s my belief that the movie will release at a time when I will need it the most,” he says.
He also has Mushk, of course, a drama that may not boast sky-high ratings but which has been praised constantly for its unique storytelling. With Mushk, Imran created a good script all on his own when none were coming his way. Unlike the usual slate of TV dramas, the story meanders into unpredictable directions, laced with beautiful dialogues and bolstered by a diverse crew of well-rounded, distinctive characters.
“Back when I was cast in side-roles, I would often fret over how I had nothing to do in the story,” says Imran. “I would try and devise ways to make my character more interesting. With my own script, I made sure that even the most fleeting role had an essence to it.”
He ponders, “If I had the finances, I could have produced my own projects but maybe God doesn’t want me to do that yet. Maybe He wants me to push myself a bit more. And instead of financial clout, He gave me a pen, so that I could write!”
Back when Mushk’s shooting was about to begin, a few actors walked out of the project. Was it because they suspected that Imran, as scriptwriter, would place far too much attention on his own role?
“Yes, probably,” he says. “Maybe they are willing to play second-fiddle if they are acting with a superstar but don’t want to risk the same while working with me. In all honesty, I have been very sincere in the way that I have written Mushk. My own character only begins to surface after the first few episodes. I wanted every role to stand out.”
A lot more obstacles came along while Mushk’s shooting was still underway — one of them being the dreaded coronavirus pandemic. Actors were unwilling to come on set and certain locations had to get wrapped up because they were considered health hazards. Even certain scenes had to be cut out from the script altogether when some of the cast simply stopped coming, or threw tantrums. What has he learnt from the experience?
His smile is bittersweet. “I have become more sympathetic towards the people working behind the scenes. Now, when a director asks me to stay a bit longer on set, I don’t protest or ask why. I’m more willing to go the extra mile.”
Despite its considerable audience, Mushk is still not as popular as other dramas on air, never quite topping the ratings chart. Why? “Yes, because it isn’t that kind of a drama,” muses Imran. “From the very onset, I had introduced Mushk as a story that relies on multiple layers and content. There’s nothing typical about it. I’m glad that MD Productions placed their faith in it.”
Will Imran be writing again soon? He gets poetic again: “Yes, the thirsty do have to drift towards water. I worry about what I’ll be doing next, and I may just end up writing again.”
Long ago, Imran’s first writing tryst was also borne out of necessity. He was acting in small roles in Angeline Malik’s Kitni Girhain Baaqi Hain, a series based on short stories, and the opportunity arose to act as a lead in one of the episodes. “Angeline had told me that she wanted to cast me opposite Ayeza Khan, and had asked me to get a friend to write the episode’s script for me. I was very excited. At that point in my career, I wasn’t even ever cast as the lead opposite Ayeza’s sister’s character — I would be the guy that swindles them for money!
“A scriptwriter friend promised to write for me and then disappeared. I was very worried. Angeline was calling me and the script was due in two days. At that point, I told a friend that I was more upset about breaking my commitment rather than losing the role. He suggested that I just write a random script myself. It would get rejected and I would be able to save face. I just sat down and began writing and, somehow, the script was accepted. Hum Network, in fact, asked who had written the script and if more similar stories could be written!”
Destiny plays a hand again. I’m reminded of yet another comment Imran made to me recently. He had been sleeping when the LSA results had been announced, and he had awoken to the news that he had won Best Actor. “Main so raha tha lekin meri qismat jaag rahi thi [I’d been asleep but my destiny was awake],” he had quipped to me.
But quips aside, the stars really do seem to be revolving in Imran’s favour. According to him, this has a lot to do with the Divine. “Allah is my producer,” he says multiple times during the interview. But the key to Imran’s success also lies in his sheer acting talent and resilience, giving life to every character he plays, small or big, consummately poring over scripts and writing his own stories when good ones don’t come his way, paving his own way.
If anything, he’s a good paver.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, January 24th, 2021