He’s one of TV’s favourite patriarchal figures. Sift through the TV channels at prime time on any night and you’re likely to come across Saife Hassan.
He may be the woebegone father besieged by the troubles of the world, or the spineless father-in-law, hopelessly peering from behind his newspaper while the women in the house raise hell. He’ll cry, protest and harrumph with great conviction, but I have often wondered if Saife gets tired of playing the father figure countless times on TV.
This is one of the very first questions that I ask him. He laughs. “I don’t mind. I’m just enjoying being in front of the camera.”
At my prodding, Saife reveals that he also doesn’t mind playing the occasional blink-and-you-miss-it role: the corrupt police officer who wreaks havoc and dies a few scenes later in the currently airing drama Laapata, for instance.
In a world rife with egos and self-trumpetry, actor and director Saife Hassan is one of the humblest stars, who truly loves what he does. How does he remain so laid-back in a competitive profession?
“I do a lot of these roles because the director is my friend or has worked with me in the past and he just wants me on board the project. If all it takes is a few days of work, then I really don’t have any problem with it.”
In fact, as I discover, Saife Hassan doesn’t have a problem with much. He has a career that spans more than 25 years, ricocheting between stage and screen, from the on-screen actor to the omnipotent directorial chair behind the camera. He is an established veteran, holding his own while acting and directing other titans of Pakistani entertainment. At one point, he may be working with powerhouses such as Naumaan Ijaz and Sania Saeed and then, the very next day, he may give a break to new actresses such as Kubra Khan and Amar Khan. Regardless, Saife Hassan doesn’t have a problem.
It could be that he just truly loves what he does. It is also because in a world rife with egos and self-trumpetry, Saife is one of the humblest stars I have ever interviewed. He loves what he does, and that’s why he’s here.
“Times have changed,” he muses. “There was a time when I would spend months rehearsing for a stage play, driving an old car that would break down en route from Nazimabad to DHA. Now I have a better car and I’m working solely on TV. The scale of things, budgets, stories have changed. But the times when we would celebrate a hit stage performance with a samosa-jalebi-chai party were special. Asal maza toh tub tha [The real fun was then].”
Saife reminisces often during the course of our conversation, diving deep into the wealth of memories he has of his thespian days, remembering how he had veritably stumbled into his acting career.
Still, while the past may have its charm, the present wields a power of its own. He has a breakneck schedule, balancing acting trysts while directing a slew of dramas for the Hum TV Network. His recent projects include previous year’s collaboration with the ISPR Ehd-i-Wafa, 2016’s multi-starrer Sang-i-Marmar and the supernatural thriller Belapur Ki Dayan.
I’m conversing with Saife at a juncture when he is in the midst of his next big directorial project: Sang-i-Mah, the sequel to Sang-i-Marmar. It’s the present, then, that we begin with.
Sang-i-Mah, incidentally, has pitted Saife with yet another new actor — a very famous one, at that. Rock star Atif Aslam is all set to make his TV acting debut in the drama. The cast also includes actors Naumaan Ijaz, Sania Saeed, Omair Rana and Kubra Khan who were all part of the first drama, as well as Hania Aamir and — another newcomer — Naumaan’s Ijaz’s son Zaviyar Ejaz.
I’m curious: how has it been like so far working with Atif Aslam? “We wanted to cast someone who hadn’t been seen on TV before for the role,” says Saife, “and Atif really liked the script. I had gotten very excited when Momina Duraid, the drama’s producer, suggested Atif’s name. He’s a huge celebrity and I thought that it would be very interesting to see how he adapts to the character. It’s a very unique character, unlike the usual roles you see on TV.
“It’s early days right now,” he continues. “We will soon be on our way to the mountains where we will be shooting a large chunk of the drama. Right now, we’re waiting to get permission to shoot a few scenes in a gurdwara.” This, evidently, is quite an obstacle, since even the most nominal shoots at places of worship now require permission, ever since Saba Qamar and Bilal Saeed drew flak last year for filming at Lahore’s Wazir Khan Mosque.
We continue to talk about newcomers. A few other actors had been under consideration for Atif’s role, but things had not worked out. Bilal Ashraf, in fact, had been confirmed for the role but had to opt out because of a change in dates.
Times have changed,” he muses. “There was a time when I would spend months rehearsing for a stage play, driving an old car that would break down en route from Nazimabad to DHA. Now I have a better car and I’m working solely on TV. The scale of things, budgets, stories have changed.”
“A lot of times, in my case, fate just takes matter in her hands. I had originally signed on Armeena Rana Khan for Kubra’s role in Sang-i-Marmar. I hoped that she would be able to carry off the role of a tribal Pathan girl. Then, just a week before shooting was to begin, Armeena backed out because of a sudden clash of dates. Momina suggested Kubra, who had just done a stint in Nabeel Qureshi’s Na Maloom Afraad.
“‘Acting karwa loge?’ [Will you manage to get her to act?] Momina had asked me and I had said yes, I could. I called up Kubra and, within the week, she was part of the cast, and she did an amazing job.
“Every actor chalks his or her own destiny,” he surmises. “Most new actors are talented and are willing to work hard. Also, it helps that I’m a director as well as an actor. If they are having problems with a scene, I can act it out for them. In theatre, we have an exercise called ‘mirroring’ where one person has to mirror the other to the point that both people are moving with exact precision. Just like that, the actor can ‘mirror’ me if a scene is particularly tricky.”
Has he ever had problems with the actors that he’s worked with? “Naumaan Ijaz and I had our differences during the making of Barri Apa, but then he won the Best Actor award for it at the Hum Awards, and he acknowledged my work in his acceptance speech. We’ve worked together since then, in Sang-i-Marmar and now, in Sang-i-Mah.”
From the dark side
We move towards more recent tales from the dark side of the directorial spectrum — namely, the madcap shooting schedule of 2017’s Sammi.
“Sammi’s script was partly written when we began shooting. The drama’s writer, Noor ul Huda Shah, had assured us that she would have the remainder of the script ready before we were done with two spells. But then, she didn’t deliver on time. The script would come to us in pieces, two episodes at a time, and the story swerved frequently from what the plot was originally supposed to be.
“I would rush off to Punjab with the entire cast and crew and shoot two episodes and, then, return and wait for the remainder of the script. The drama got delayed so much that it ended up taking us a year to shoot it. We started off with pleasant weather and, by the time we wrapped up, we were shooting in the baking heat of interior Punjab, at 49 degrees Celsius!”
Ehd-i-Wafa, also, was shot in bits. “That’s just how the drama’s shoot was planned,” reveals Saife. “The ISPR was very involved in the drama’s making, even coining its title, and it was decided that different spells of the drama would be shot in spurts. Four episodes dedicated to the main characters’ college lives were going to be shot in Murree, and then four were filmed at the Pakistan Military Academy and so on.”
There was conjecture that one of the main characters — played by Ahad Raza Mir — was likely to die at the very end, martyred while saving his country. Instead, Ahad came out from a bloody battle alive. Was it always decided that the drama would wrap up with a happy ending?
“There were actually long debates on whether or not Ahad’s character would remain alive,” he says. “Eventually, we decided that we wanted a happy ending because we may plan a sequel someday, starring all four main leads.
“Besides, I like happy endings. Don’t you?”
I absolutely do, I agree — and evidently, so does the audience. Ehd-i-Wafa had been a hugely popular drama and I remember social media being elated by its happy ending.
Why, I ask him, does he usually stay in the shadows when it comes to his directorial projects? He hardly ever posts images of himself on the set, write long social media testimonials dedicated to a drama or a cast member or pose with the many trophies that have come his way.
“I find it embarrassing,” he half chuckles, “and it’s also unimportant. My kids sometimes force me to put up a few pictures, but I don’t even like that. Right now, my brother has tagged me in the nominations for Best TV Director at this year’s Lux Style Awards, and I’m trying to figure out how to undo it.
“Also, most of the dramas I have directed, with the exception of Ehd-i-Wafa, have not been huge commercial hits. I don’t think Sang-i-Marmar topped TV ratings, although a lot of people did appreciate it. Initially, in fact, the channel was skeptical about a male-centric, tribal storyline but Momina trusted me with Sang-i-Marmar’s script. Similarly, when I wanted to direct Belapur Ki Daayan, I was told that people wouldn’t want to watch a horror thriller, but Momina gave me the go-ahead. She’s always had a lot of faith in me.
“I have also been lucky to have worked on my best projects with Mustafa Afridi. He wrote Sang-i-Marmar, Ehd-i-Wafa and has also penned Sang-i-Mah. I honestly think that he’s the best screenplay writer that I have ever worked with.”
We turn towards the past: long before Saife turned to TV, he was treading water in theatrical circles. As a consistent member of Sheema Kermani’s Tehreek-i-Niswan theatrical troupe, his days and nights were spent in musty auditoriums, transitioning from pancake to curtain calls.
Theatre was hard work but he loved it. He reminisces about a tour de force titled Ek Hazaar Ek Thi Raatein, helmed by Bengali director Rashid Ahmed Bengali, which was rehearsed for nearly a year before it came on stage. “The beauty of theatre was that I got to work with directors and casts from around the world,” he says.
He also fondly remembers collaborating with artists from the theatre group Katha — Sania Saeed, Shahid Shafaat and Saleem Mairaj among them. “Saleem later joined Tehreek-i-Niswan and began working with us,” says Saife.
His professional prowess diversified with the aid of an endeavour taken on by the Pakistan Television Academy in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). A group of thespians were selected to receive training in filmmaking by some of PTV’s most illustrious pioneers.
“The course was designed by Aslam Azhar, PTV’s first chairman. We were taught how to handle the camera by Nisar Mirza, PTV’s first cameraman, filmmaking by Shireen Pasha and playwriting by Munnu Bhai. All the very best!” Saife points out.
“The course brought different thespian troupes together. Myself and Ehteshamuddin, among others, from Tehreek-i-Niswan worked with Ayesha Saqib, Sania Saeed and Shahid Shafaat from Katha and, after the course, both troupes started collaborating. This is where we met Saleem Mairaj.”
Even after the course, Saife remained committed to theatre, only dabbling with TV. But then strained relations with Tehreek-i-Niswan’s Sheema Kermani led to a decisive point in his departure from stage.
“Some of us — myself, Asma Mandrawala and Mahvash Faruqi — had started doing dramatic readings under the name of a group called Zambeel Readings. Tehreek-i-Niswan had never delved towards readings and we thought that Sheema would not have a problem with this. However, she really took offence, which led to my departure from the group.”
He continues, “Also, we were all getting older, inching towards 50. We now had families that we needed to support. Theatre took up a lot of time but didn’t pay enough.”
As a director at Hum Network, he began to exclusively create content for the channel. “I told Sultana Siddiqui, president of the network, that I was going to direct for her but I won’t stop from acting with everyone. To date, I act in dramas from different channels,” he laughs.
Given how much he loves the profession, does the director in him cringe when a drama in which he is acting gets dragged extensively for the sake of ratings? “I leave the director in me at home when I’m acting,” he says. “And I don’t get involved in anything other than what I’m supposed to do there.
“I’m just an ordinary man who was teaching mathematics and general science to ninth graders in a school, who struck luck and stumbled into this wonderful profession,” he says. “Who am I to judge others?”
There’s that humility again. Saife Hassan may profess to be ordinary but he certainly isn’t. He talks mildly and self-deprecatingly, and doesn’t believe in unnecessary braggadocio.
Deep down, though, he must also know how extraordinary he is.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, September 12th, 2021