There are good and bad experiences in life and, ultimately, they make us who we are, says Usman Mukhtar
I need to ask Usman Mukhtar questions that he hasn’t been asked before. The thought burdens me as I prepare to meet the actor on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in Karachi. It’s the only day that Usman has off from the shooting schedule of MD Productions and Nina Kashif's currently airing drama Hum Kahaan Ke Sachay Thay (HKKST), where he’s the lynchpin between Mahira Khan and Kubra Khan.
I discover that Usman is coming to meet me after having sat through another interview. He also has an interview scheduled after our meeting. There goes my chance for an exclusive scoop.
I really can’t complain, though. Usman is in Karachi for a short spell, wrapping up the final few episodes of the drama before he goes back home to Islamabad. The initial episodes of HKKST have created enough hype to make people eager to find out more. Usman, as the raison d’etre propelling the lives of the female protagonists, was bound to get thronged for interviews.
I also wonder if Usman would be like the characters that I have seen him enact on TV: serious, deliberating over his answers, urbane. He is, to some extent, although he isn’t always, serious. Usman jokes around often, which makes our interview a very light-hearted one. About an hour later, as we end our conversation, I voice my concerns that my questions may have been repetitive for him. “The other interviews are just short, snappy Q&A sessions for YouTube. You didn’t ask the same questions as them at all,” he assures me.
Usman Mukhtar’s acting career is at an inflection point. He’s playing the lead in the wildly followed drama Hum Kahaan Ke Sachay Thay opposite Mahira Khan and Kubra Khan and he’s going to be in the anticipated Sinf-i-Aahan too. Can he continue to live the simple life?
Maybe he’s telling the truth. But maybe he is just being nice, very convincingly. Usman is an actor, after all.
He is, in fact, a very good actor, albeit an often underrated one, simply because he has maintained a steady, not overly eager, professional pace. Usman has navigated his career by picking and choosing characters that intrigue him, usually gravitating towards different shades of good guys.
In the measured, nonchalant tone that is instantly identifiable with him, Usman tells me that he doesn’t think that an actor needs to ensure visibility by taking on formulaic, uninspiring characters.
“I have always prioritised quality over quantity, although I may have to rethink that now that I’ve gotten married,” he grins. “So far, I’ve had this not-very-practical perspective that I can get by with a certain limited earning by living simply and only doing roles that inspire me creatively. I’m going to try and continue to do that.”
Behind the scenes
So far, so good. He’s one of TV’s most talked-about leading men right now, with HKKST gaining popularity with each successive episode. He may not be, though, the most well-liked, given that as Aswad, he is giving a hard time to the long-suffering heroine Mehreen, played by Mahira Khan.
“People keep messaging me on social media and telling me that I’m wronging Mehreen,” Usman shakes his head.
Does that irritate him? “No, it means that I’m playing the character well. It’s good that people are so invested in HKKST and are connecting with Mehreen. They do also need to know that it’s just a drama and not reality.”
Evidently, every now and then, people are also coming up to him and calling him ‘Aswad’ — thereby, passing the litmus test of a character acted convincingly.
“They also still call me Altamash,” Usman points out, referring to his first ever drama, Anaa. “I find that really sweet. That’s the drama that gave me my big break. We were shooting for HKKST at this outdoor location and these people started pointing out to me and saying, ‘There’s Altamash!’”
Anaa was, of course, a very popular drama. Does he think that HKKST, even while it’s still treading through the initial episodes, is just as hyped up? “Yes, I feel very thankful that people have responded so well to the drama,” he observes.
Does he think that this may be because the drama marks actress Mahira Khan’s return to television after a long sabbatical? “Definitely,” says Usman. “It’s a very well-made drama and everyone has worked hard on it, from the producer Nina Kashif to the director Farooq Rind and the writer Umera Ahmed. But it’s certainly getting a lot of attention because Mahira is in the cast.”
We shift focus towards the ‘infamous’ Mahira Khan. “This was the first time that I have ever worked with Mahira or, in fact, with the whole team,” he says. “Mahira and I had connected once before, when we were supposed to act together in a project which then didn’t pan out. When I got HKKST’s script, I reached out to her because I knew that she was also on board. We discussed the script, what we agreed and disagreed about it and how we could develop the characters.
“On my first day on set, Mahira didn’t have any scenes, but she was supposed to come in for a screen test. Before she came, one of her team members came in. I thought that perhaps that’s how it would be, that she’d be coming in after her team members.
I have always prioritised quality over quantity, although I may have to rethink that now that I’ve gotten married,” he grins. “So far, I’ve had this not-very-practical perspective that I can get by with a certain limited earning by living simply and only doing roles that inspire me creatively. I’m going to try and continue to do that.
“But then Mahira came in and she’s just so very grounded. She works hard — and she loves food!” he laughs. “We’ll be doing this very intense scene where she’ll be crying and then, as soon as ‘Cut’ is called out she’ll ask, ‘Where’s my food?’ or ‘What’s for lunch?’”
One wouldn’t know this given the riveting and emotionally gruelling storyline but, according to Usman, everyone has been having a grand ol’ time on the set of HKKST.
“When Dada’s behind the camera, things can’t stay serious for too long,” Usman refers to his director Farooq Rind. “He’s always joking about.” Also, leading ladies Mahira Khan and Kubra Khan are ‘big foodies’ — although, sadly, Usman has mostly been on a diet.
And then, there’s always the chance of a game of Sequence being played in between breaks. “I’ve won sometimes,” he grins. “We also tried Monopoly, but once I beat Kubra and Haroon Shahid, they no longer wanted to play.”
Sounds like fun. We go back to talking shop. Countless actors from Lahore and Islamabad now live in Karachi simply because it suits them work-wise. Meanwhile, Usman has flown down from his home in Islamabad to wrap up HKKST. Hasn’t he considered moving to Karachi, given that a major chunk of drama productions are shot here?
“I cannot move to Karachi because my mother is unwell and I have to take care of her,” he refers to his mother, film star Nasira from Lollywood’s heydays. “She has dementia and would get really upset if she got uprooted from her home. And I can’t leave her to live alone in Islamabad.
“I have been lucky that the two dramas that I acted in previously, Sabaat and Anaa, were both mostly shot in Islamabad. There have so far been very few times that I have taken up projects that require me to go to a different city for long spans.”
Hasn’t this impacted his career negatively? “Of course, I have lost out on work because of it, but she comes first.”
That’s very inspirational, I comment, but Usman corrects me. “No, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. She is the most important person in my life and it’s just my duty to be there for her and make her comfortable.”
Usman seems to have his feet planted firmly on ground. But how will this work out for him financially in the long-term?
“If things get really tough, I’ll seek out alternate career paths. I can be a director or a producer. It may just be as well — all this dieting for a role can be tough. I sometimes tell Zunaira that I can only give it a few more years,” he quips, referring to his wife.
Usman’s nikaah pictures with Zunaira Inam floated out on social media very recently. He tells me that the date of the rukhsati is a ‘secret’ — they are hoping that Covid-19 is relatively at bay and friends and family from abroad can fly in.
Has marriage changed him, I ask the classic question. “Not really,” he muses. “It’s good to find someone that you can be yourself with and you make each other happy. That, ideally, is what marriage should be about. Sometimes, it can get difficult. Right now, we are in different cities. I’m at work here and she can’t fly down because she has her own work schedule.”
Zunaira, incidentally, is instrumental in helping Usman make career choices. “I’m just really bad at judging scripts and deciding which character would work for me,” he admits. “Zunaira is much better. Anytime I get a script, I just run it by her.”
Did she like the HKKST script? “Yes she did. She also thought that I shouldn’t have played Dr Harris,” he refers to the wishy-washy doctor he played in the drama Sabaat, a character that suffered possibly because it wasn’t developed completely.
Has Usman ever tried to get a script changed if he doesn’t agree with certain nuances? “Yes, if I don’t understand something about a character, I debate over it with the writer and the director and, if possible, get some parts tweaked.
“In the case of Sabaat, I was concerned about the doctor-patient romance and I discussed it at length.” He pauses. “But I never say that ‘change the script otherwise I’ll walk out.’ I just tell the director that there are some things that I’m not comfortable with and if there is a problem, then I can be replaced with someone else. I don’t like throwing my weight around.”
Does he like the Sinf-i-Aahan script, I ask, referring to the other drama that he is currently working on. Usman is playing a military role in the drama, which revolves round the lives of five female cadets, and is directed by Nadeem Baig.
“Yes, it’s an amazing script, but I can’t talk about it at all,” he says. “Ideally, I play one character at a time, because I want to stay in the headspace of a single role. Fortunately, I just have a few more days of filming HKKST left before I resume shooting Sinf-i-Aahan.”
Is he following social media to see the reviews on his performance in HKKST?
“Sometimes video clips get sent to me and I see those,” he admits. “I think this renewed interest in dramas is great. Directors and actors know that they can get caught out if they make mistakes, and that makes us more careful. But I don’t generally follow social media very vigilantly.”
What does he do if there are untrue rumours or controversies about him on the internet? “I’m just generally a very private person,” he says. “If a rumour needs to be addressed then I do so. Otherwise, I just let it run its course and don’t bother.
“There are good and bad experiences in life and, ultimately, they make us who we are,” he summarises philosophically.
Usman has had his share of both. In the course of our conversation, we oscillate between memories of the good and the bad. His early boyhood days in a hostel in Murree is definitely one of the worst recollections of his life. His mother’s ailing condition is another cause for sadness.
Career-wise, though, Usman’s at an inflection point, and he knows it. He’s acting in two prime, much-hyped dramas. He’s the subject of weekly social media reviews. And he’s being besieged for interviews.
With his head in the right place, it’s probably all going to be good, from here on.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, September 19th, 2021