Consider some of the funniest Pakistani TV dramas and films that you’ve seen in recent times. The ones that have made you guffaw loudly and left you with memorable characters that make you smile when you think of them. A quick search through the closing credits of these entertainers is likely to have Vasay Chaudhry’s name pop out at you at some point.
In a career that rounds off two decades this year, Vasay has built his repertoire as an acting-hosting-writing juggernaut. He tells me that writing is the most difficult of all, that it “stews in the head for ages before becoming a story.”
The fruition of these labours is a slew of entertaining and riveting stories: the eternally popular Dolly Ki Aayegi Baraat series, the riotous two Jawani Phir Nahin Aanis and the much more serious, heavily nuanced Jackson Heights.
In the course of our conversation, Vasay muses, “I haven’t ever won any major awards because my work is predominantly related to the comic genre that many don’t take too seriously. But I derive immense satisfaction from little anecdotes that reach me every now and then. Back when the Baraat series was airing, a friend’s aunt was undergoing treatment for cancer in London, and I was told that she would be chuckling in between chemotherapy sessions while watching the drama on her phone. What could be more special than that?”
It’s personal messages like these and comments from random strangers that he bumps into that Vasay finds fulfilling — as opposed to the numerical ‘YouTube views’ data and Instagram popularity that is all the rage in present-day celebrity culture. He doesn’t hold much store, he tells me repeatedly, in social media.
He’s an actor, a TV talk show host and a screenwriter. But there’s no trumpetry or brash braggadocio about him, no glamorous red carpet posing or images from ‘it’ celebrity parties. Instead, Vasay Chaudhry offers something cerebral
Social media, in contrast, has lately been quite fixated with him. Every few days, a clip from an interview that he has conducted as a host ends up going viral, becoming fodder for memes and online gossip pages. Half-smiling, raising his eyebrows quizzically, the clips show Vasay questioning a celebrity guest, who proceeds to make a sizzling, headline-grabbing declaration.
His recent spate of TV interviews — in the celebrity talk show airing on ARY Digital’s Ghabrana Mana Hai — have been so contentious that it makes me approach my own interview with Vasay with some trepidation. How does one grill a writer, an actor and talk show host known for being extremely glib and very accustomed to controversy? As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Vasay answers questions quite as easily — and refreshingly honestly — as he asks them on TV…
Interviewing the interviewer
“I never set out to make an interview controversial,” he says, “but my interviewee may have come with the intention of creating a stir. In retrospect, the interviews I conduct in the show Mazaaq Raat have far more shock value than the Ghabrana Mana Hai (GMH) celebrity interviews. It’s just that people don’t always pay attention to what politicians have to say, while celebrity news gets picked up very quickly.
“It is not my call if Iman Aly, Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar or Yasir Hussain come to my show and say something which becomes a scandal. The fact that they are saying it, on record, in front of TV cameras, means that they are comfortable with the consequences that may follow. Unless a guest says something that is extremely abusive, we won’t be editing it out from the final version.”
He gives an example, recalling a particularly viral interview clip, where he had asked actor Yasir Hussain if anyone had come to his wedding uninvited, and Yasir had gone on to name actress Nausheen Shah.
Nausheen and Yasir subsequently proceeded to rant it out on Instagram, with Yasir complaining that Vasay and Nadeem Baig, the director of GMH, shouldn’t have asked him such a leading, potentially volatile question in the first place. Sometime later, in a special Eid talk show, Nadeem had confessed to host Nida Yasir that Yasir Hussain had himself asked for this question to be posed to him.
“Nadeem was telling the absolute truth,” recounts Vasay. “A lot of times, our interviewees specify certain questions that they want to be asked, and Yasir had done the same. I assumed that he just wanted to crack a joke. I had no idea that he would name a fellow actress. Later, I tried to close off the conversation by making a joke, but the onus was on him, for wanting to say what he said.
“Inevitably, it did lead to controversy on social media, but Yasir could have waited it out and stayed quiet. Instead, he just played things out really badly, pretending to be naïve and placing the blame on us.
“We stayed quiet, until Nadeem decided to clarify what had actually happened. Yasir has to realise that if he can talk, so can everyone else, and he can’t just throw stones without expecting any retaliation.”
What was the point, though, of offering the clarification several weeks after the controversy had died down? “Nadeem and I don’t really believe in paying attention to such gimmickry,” he says. “Nadeem was on air, so he spoke out, otherwise perhaps both of us would have stayed silent on the topic.
“I’ll give you an example from cricket: there’s Umar Akmal and then there’s Misbah-ul-Haq. I want to be Misbah. He started out slow but went on to set records. I’m not here just to get instant fame or be in the public eye. I’m here for the long run.”
A lot of times, our interviewees specify certain questions that they want to be asked, and Yasir had done the same. I assumed that he just wanted to crack a joke. I had no idea that he would name a fellow actress.”
The long run
He’s certainly there for the long haul when it comes to hosting. Actors frequently dabble with TV hosting in talk shows that fade out after a single season, but Vasay’s stint in Mazaaq Raat now spans six years.
He has also just wrapped up hosting the second season of GMH. His modus operandi relies primarily on basic Q&A formats — he tells me that he can’t get himself to manage physical games in a show. Considering that he’s on air three times a week for Mazaaq Raat and, then, once more for GMH, how has he kept things interesting?
“I think it’s mainly because I refuse to let celebrity friendships get in the way of the questions that I ask,” he observes. “We may not admit it but we have all watched Koffee with Karan, hosted by Bollywood personality Karan Johar, many, many times. The reason why his show worked was that he wasn’t afraid to hurt a few egos by asking tricky questions. I don’t bother either. If my guest decides to make snide comments about a fellow celebrity, who also happens to be my friend, I won’t worry that now my friend will stop talking to me. That’s just not how it works.
“Also, actors are accustomed to being in the spotlight, which makes it difficult for many of them to let the focus shift on the guest that they are interviewing. They are programmed to answer questions and aren’t necessarily as proficient in asking them. As a writer, I’m very used to getting sidelined. If I create a serious drama, the actors take the bow for it. If I write a comedy, the actors take even more credit for it! I’m used to letting the project shine rather than take all the accolades.”
Is he happy with where he is right now? “I never thought that I’d be here,” confesses Vasay. “I used to think that maybe one day, a movie of mine will run in the cinema and people will enjoy watching it.”
He grins, “I love cinema. My grandfather was in the cinema business and I’ve always associated a certain magic with watching movies. Nothing has better recall value than a good movie. It’s difficult watching a whole drama serial because it’s too long, but a movie lasts for just about two-and-a-half hours. If people love it, they watch it again and again.”
If Covid-19 had not brought the movie business to a halt, Vasay would have been seen on the silver screen in at least two movies by now: London Nahin Jaunga (LNJ), co-starring Humayun Saeed, Mehwish Hayat and Kubra Khan, and Naram Garam (NG), a movie that has also been written by him and which was supposed to begin shooting earlier this year. LNJ is currently in limbo, mid-shooting, because of the Covid-19-induced restrictions while NG never even started.
“Naram Garam’s shooting got postponed because, with cinemas closed, it didn’t make sense for the producers to invest in a new movie,” confirms Vasay. “I do hope that we shoot it one day. I think that it’s the kind of movie that people will enjoy watching.”
In a world that is increasingly ‘woke’ regarding social issues, does he take care that he remains politically correct when he writes and also, hosts? “I take a stand against matters that go against my personal belief system. There’s a lot of Punjabi humour in Mazaaq Raat which, innately, tilts towards jugats [making jokes] regarding khusras [transgenders] and body-shaming. It has taken time, but I insisted that certain jokes could not be made in the show. For the past four years, the word khusra hasn’t been used on the Mazaaq Raat stage. And anytime such a joke would be cracked, we would edit it out and fine 500 rupees for it [to the one making it]. These boundaries, I felt, needed to be created.
“At the same time, a content creator cannot pay too much attention to social media critics. If we start modulating all our work according to what social media considers correct, there would be no comic humour and no stories to tell.”
Our conversation flits, once again, to social media. Vasay isn’t very active on it, doesn’t believe too much in its power and isn’t very fond of it. “TV is a much bigger spectrum and I’d rather invest my energy into it,” he says. “Every individual only has a certain amount of energy and time, and I would rather invest mine into writing a great script, enacting an exciting character or hosting a show. I can’t waste it on trying to constantly being talked about online. These cheap tactics are beyond me.”
What are some of these cheap tactics?
“I hate it when actors ask their followers on social media what they thought of that day’s episode. If they are acting in a drama, why do they feel the need to beg for praise after the end of every episode? Even if they put up a picture from the episode, their fans will comment their views. Why do they have to fish for compliments? Once the entire drama wraps up, it still makes sense, but the need to get praised every week doesn’t appeal to me.
“Once, when the drama Meray Paas Tum Ho was airing, Humayun Saeed posted a ‘Kaisa laga episode?’ [How was the episode?] caption on Instagram. I called him up and started arguing that he didn’t need to ask people for their opinions. It turned out that someone from his team had uploaded the post, and Humayun hadn’t even known about it!
“Personally, I feel very embarrassed even re-tweeting what people have said in my praise. It seems like such a petty thing to do. Actors say that they do it because they want to show their appreciation to fans, but they could do that by simply liking the post or sending a private message. The self-promotion is distasteful.”
Vasay continues, “Also, who are our celebrities kidding when they pay Instagram pages to post ‘spotted’ images of them? No one gets ‘papped’ in Pakistan and we all know it. The celebrity knows very well that the picture is being taken and there’s nothing wrong with it. Why the pretence?”
There’s more. “I’m not inclined towards especially networking with journalists, awards jury members and power players just to be part of an ‘it’ crowd. And I’m extremely uncomfortable taking selfies! Fame came to me late and, even though I enjoy it, sometimes I find it hard to manage. Fans today want to take selfies rather than autographs and it can be very tricky for me.
“Personally, I just enjoy it when people watch my work and appreciate it,” Vasay reiterates. “I wouldn’t mock a character that I play or belittle a show that I’m a part of by over-promoting it.”
He cites an explosive example. “Imran Ashraf Awan played a mentally impaired man in the drama Ranjha Rajha Kardi and people loved the character. But, then, Imran went on to the stage of the Hum Awards in Houston and mimicked the character and drew laughs. How could he mock his character like that? How must people with mentally impaired relatives have felt? Everything doesn’t need to be pushed constantly into the limelight.”
I tell him that he’s an anomaly in a world rife with self-promotion. On his Instagram page, a recently uploaded video shows him on the set of Mazaaq Raat, interviewing a guest who doesn’t even know his name!
This, in essence, is how Vasay is. There’s no trumpetry or brash braggadocio, no glamorous red carpet posing or images from ‘it’ celebrity parties. Instead, there is something so much more cerebral and substantial that Vasay Chaudhry has to offer: a consistent deluge of engaging, memorable work.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, June 27th, 2021