Grey areas attract me, says Osman Khalid Butt on playing flawed characters

Published 31 May, 2021 11:28am

Maliha Rehman

The multi-hyphenated star discusses Chupke Chupke and separating the art from the artist.

Design by Saad Arifi, Photo: Faraz Sheikh
Design by Saad Arifi, Photo: Faraz Sheikh

Osman Khalid Butt has just returned from a protest march on the day that I interview him. There are images of him on social media, holding placards and chanting “Azaadi”. He has also been airing his views very regularly, tweeting and Instagramming about the need to speak out for justice. This, of course, is how Osman has always been.

He’s the versatile actor, with a diverse repertoire of roles to his credit. He’s also infamous as one of the industry’s most ‘woke’ young men, speaking out unabashedly on causes that are dear to him, sometimes even at the cost of spurning egos in the fraternity that he belongs to — although, as he tells me, this is never his intention.

I have had intense discussions with Osman in the past about issues that are on his mind. At other times, he has discussed an acting project just as animatedly. He is, in essence, ruled by his passions, and it is my belief that it is this that brings a certain sincerity to the roles that he enacts.

His latest acting tryst, for instance, has been in Chupke Chupke, a romantic comedy that aired all through Ramazan on the Hum TV network and became a huge hit. As the drama’s male lead, Osman played Faaz, a young man trying hard to keep his sanity intact while navigating through a madcap, ridiculous family circus.

Writer, choreographer and versatile actor, Osman Khalid Butt is a multi-hyphenated artist. He’s also infamous as one of the industry’s most ‘woke’ young men. How does he manage all his personas? And does he ever feel conflicted between them?

Osman could have simply slipped into the skin of a stereotypical hero but, instead, he enhanced Faaz’s persona, from a domineering ‘Ustaad’ to a man falling in love, a brother torn between his sisters and propelled by his ego to downslide towards regressive misogyny.

Photo: Jaffer Hasan
Photo: Jaffer Hasan

Emotions flitted over his face effortlessly, his body language and tone changing palpably. Chupke Chupke had been in a different league from the usual Ramazan dramas, a sum of the many parts that encompass it: Saima Akram Chaudhry’s hilarious script, Danish Nawaz’s intuitive direction and the motley crew of talented actors that were a part of the cast. Faaz was a very significant lynchpin.

But now that I’m talking to Osman, hoping to have a lengthy discussion on Chupke Chupke, among other things. I wonder if he’s too tired following the protest he’s attended. He’s not, he tells me. Also, is he tired of discussing Faaz, having already given interviews about him and dissecting him at length with fans on Twitter?

“Not really,” says Osman. “I love to analyse the roles that I play, so I’m not bored.”

Our conversation, consequently, turns out to be anything but boring. For one, Osman has always been very prolific, giving examples, sharing anecdotes and speaking so sincerely that you know that he’s speaking from the heart. Also, zeroing in on Chupke’s Chupke’s infamous Faaz, there’s plenty to sift through within his metamorphoses from romantic hero to quite the anti-hero towards the end of the drama.

A lot of actors don’t want their characters to have negative shades, lest the audience blurs the lines between fact and fiction, taking to social media to slander the actor, instead of the character that he’s playing. Did this worry Osman?

“On the contrary, I have said ad nauseam that I would love to play an out-and-out negative character. When I read a script, I’m drawn towards a character that propels the narrative forward. I wouldn’t want to play a stoic, reserved, alpha male who doesn’t contribute to the story, even if he has a lot of screen time.

“As humans, we are flawed by design and the grey areas attract me, the mistakes made by the character and then how he picks himself up and moves forward.”

The Pakistani audience, however, doesn’t always take kindly to a hero’s flaws. Did he have to weather comments on social media, berating him when Faaz was cruel to Meenu, Chupke Chupke’s hugely popular female lead played by Ayeza Khan?

People did write long essays to me,” Osman admits, “but the moments where Faaz regresses, gets angry or shows hints of patriarchy, were meant to be seen in a negative light. Those moments were supposed to be jarring, because in no way did I or the makers of Chupke Chupke want to trivialise abuse, both emotional as well as the hints of domestic abuse in the story.”

“People did write long essays to me,” Osman admits, “but the moments where Faaz regresses, gets angry or shows hints of patriarchy, were meant to be seen in a negative light. Those moments were supposed to be jarring, because in no way did I or the makers of Chupke Chupke want to trivialise abuse, both emotional as well as the hints of domestic abuse in the story.

“As Osman Khalid Butt, yes, it was difficult for me to say some of the lines where Faaz inches towards abuse. I would never condone such behaviour. But would Faaz, a character that was intensely flawed and a product of his circumstances, says those lines in those particular circumstances? Yes.”

Did he find the criticism upsetting?

“I agreed with fans when they hated Faaz, but there are times when people are unable to distinguish between the art and the artist, and that’s what I find upsetting. I’m not defined by the characters I play — although on principle, I’d never agree to a story where negativity is glorified.

“Still, every character I play can’t be a paragon of feminism. Some characters, such as Faaz, do slip up, which is why it is very important that he realise his mistake and apologise in the end.

“One of the most hurtful things that I read on the internet was a comment that everything I stood for personally was just tokenism, and a way of gaining likes and retweets. I have certainly never taken up a cause to build my own profile and, had I been in any other profession, I would have still spoken out on issues that matter to me. In fact, in the industry that I work in, I would be much better served if I pandered to the conservative right, rather than to the liberal left.”

I recall a past conversation where he had taken on certain tone-deaf industry power-players and it makes me wonder if he has ever lost out on work because of his strong opinions?

“No one has come up to me and said that we won’t give you work because of this or that. Have I felt it? Perhaps, but I have never let it stop me. When I speak out about something, I never pause to worry over whether it may be a boon or a boost to my career. What I do try to do is be appropriately educated on a topic when I address it, so that I can speak with reason and logic, and not just emotion.”

He also doesn’t pay much heed to favouritism. “There is favouritism everywhere, in every industry,” he says. “My way of navigating through it is by focusing on my own work. I like to count my blessings. This is what the coronavirus pandemic has taught us.

“It’s far too easy to spiral down the proverbial rabbit hole and see yourself as a constant victim. I refuse to let myself get affected by negativity. Besides, I have had the good fortune to play some amazing characters throughout my career, and I continue to do so, whether it’s Sheheryar from Baaghi or Aun from Aun Zara, Aman from Surkh Chandni, Shahzain from Ehd-e-Wafa to now, Faaz,” he recounts some of his best-loved roles.

It helps that he’s a multi-hyphenated artist. “When there are lulls, I shift to my writing or to choreography. I just utilise the time to pursue my other passions,” he agrees.

But is there a lull now? I would imagine that following Chupke Chupke’s success, he must be flooded with acting offers.

“A lull can be for whatever reason. There have been times when I have rejected characters because they don’t signify growth to me and it has never been my modus operandi to be on screen all the time, regardless of the project that I’m working in,” Osman asserts.

“It’s very peculiar though, because when you wrap up a blockbuster project, there is an inadvertent expectation that the floodgates are going to open now, and you’ll be able to have your pick of the kind of roles that you’ve been waiting for. Surprisingly, that hasn’t happened.”

His chemistry with Ayeza Khan in the drama was the stuff of fireworks. The hashtag ‘#Feenu’, merging the names of Osman and Ayeza’s on-screen characters, went viral on social media, even sometimes overshadowing the other hashtag that has long been associated with Osman, ‘#Omaya’.

Osman and actress Maya Ali had acted together in a slew of hit TV dramas some years ago and, ever since, fans had been connecting the two together in the hopes of a real-life romance. Is he, perhaps, about to work again with Ayeza or even, rekindling the on-screen romance with Maya?

“Ayeza, I believe, is working on a new drama now. Of course, I would love to work with her again. I could write an essay on Ayeza’s professionalism and how she manoeuvred through the role. She became part of the cast a little later than the rest of us and, by that time, the rest of us had understood the dynamics of our roles. But she was so prepared and had a complete grip on her character.”

There was also a definite on-screen chemistry between Faaz and Meenu. Osman agrees. “Around the second week of shooting with Ayeza, we all felt that there was a certain magic in the air. Such chemistry is rare and, yes, for a while it did overshadow the perpetual ‘Omaya’-ship names!”

He continues: “It’s interesting that there was a time when Maya and I had worked in a spate of projects together, and I could understand that producers felt that our pair was now saturated. But even now, it’s not like I’m being offered a role opposite Maya. It’s so strange, because people still remember our pairings on TV so fondly, but producers don’t want to cash in on it.”

Perhaps it’s just that he manages to look good opposite most of his lead actresses. His chemistry with Saba Qamar in Baaghi was memorable as was his role as Sohai Ali Abro’s upstanding, supportive husband in the heartbreakingly poignant Surkh Chandni. Does the furore over Faaz surprise him, considering that he’s done many more equally — if not more — impactful roles in the past?

“Of course, I wish that people would have celebrated some of my other roles quite as avidly. Aman from Surkh Chandni, for instance, was a man who stood by his wife through thick and thin. He was a non-niche character in a mainstream drama. But I also appreciate how people have gravitated towards Faaz and Chupke Chupke. It was a light-hearted drama aired every day during Ramazan, with a great director, writer and cast.”

What was it like working with Danish Nawaz? “I consider him a chameleon,” Osman responds immediately. “Before Chupke Chupke, he directed Khaas and Kashf, both serious plays with heavy subtext. And then, he moved on to this romantic comedy with a huge cast and a wide variety of colourful personas. He knew the script and every character inside-out, knowing how to place the limelight on each and every one. There are directors who may be known for their prowess with a certain genre of storytelling, but Danish bhai is in the league that can try different themes and make them his own.

“In my case, he knew exactly what kind of body language and cadence Faaz should have in certain scenes. There was this one scene where I was perhaps acting too romantic and Danish bhai stopped me and said that he needed me to act a bit more reserved, based on my character’s past history with the female lead. For him to be handling this extensive project and still understand every character’s philosophy and psychology was great for me, as an actor.”

Osman adds: “He’s also someone who takes his craft seriously, but not himself. Shoots can be stressful, extending from nine in the morning till 11 in the night, and it is important to have a director who’ll just have a chat with you sometimes.

“Danish bhai and I initially had very different visions of Faaz, his anger issues and his general evolution as a character. We had lengthy discussions about him until we were able to set certain parameters for the role. He told me that he enjoys it when his actors are willing to explore their roles.”

I’m reminded of an interview that I had with Osman about two years ago. Back then, Saqib Malik’s directorial debut Baaji was about to release, and Osman had told me how he had been very excited about the subtleties that defined the character that he was playing. “I would send Saqib long text messages in the middle of the night when a certain angle occurred to me,” he had said at the time.

Evidently, he still analyses the characters that he plays with the same intensity. Don’t you, also, take your craft seriously but perhaps not yourself, I ask him.

Osman grins. “I think, yes, and maybe that’s how Danish bhai and I are kindred spirits. I do take my craft seriously, too seriously sometimes. But my own personal ego has always been kept at bay. I’d rather just focus on my work and enjoy myself.”

The enjoyment translates to screen through a growing line-up of nuanced, multi-dimensional characters. It’s quite a joyride — for Osman as well as his audience.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, May 30th, 2021

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