Fifty-two serials in eight years. That’s quite a benchmark. It’s one that actor Ali Abbas is very happy to have had reached.
His fan following speaks for itself. I see it firsthand. I meet Ali for an interview and I see young men in the vicinity grin. Some come to shake his hand. Ali doesn’t exude arrogance which is probably why they find it easy to approach him. He’s the veritable son o’ the soil, the affable actor to the core. He jokes around with some of them.
I have always believed that an actor’s popularity cannot be measured by the dodgy social media followers litmus test. A much more genuine indication is when people in the real world flock around him or her. Ali Abbas thrives in the physical world and doesn’t care much about the virtual one. As he states during the course of our conversation, “Instagram followers are often purchased. They’re fake and cannot represent an actor’s work.” Don’t we all know that!
From starting off his career and being coined as Waseem Abbas’ son to today, where he has cemented an identity of his own, Ali has come a long way. “Everyone comes into the industry thinking that he’ll be playing the hero. But over the years, I have identified my strengths and weaknesses. I can’t compete with Fawad Khan in terms of looks but I can compete with anyone in terms of acting,” he observes.
Ali Abbas may be underrated as an actor, but he has strong roots in showbiz and isn’t afraid to point out favouritism when all the good roles go to the industry’s blue-eyed boys, or when he gets treated unfairly during awards season
“When I was fixated with playing the hero, I remained out of work for more than two years. I was angry and I blamed the people around me. Then I realised that perhaps I was doing something wrong. Now I try to take even the simplest characters and develop them so that they become memorable. All these years, I’ve worked like a donkey but thought like a horse.”
Ali speaks intensely, his eyes focused. It’s riveting how similar Ali’s way of speaking is to that of his father, veteran actor Waseem Abbas. We reach a consensus right in the beginning of our interview that we won’t be broaching the usual trite questions related to his father too often. Ali has been subjected to that sort of interview far too many times. Anyone who wants to know how his father didn’t initially want him to become an actor — or how he can’t act in front of his father — can simply find out through a basic Google search.
“If we ever do act with each other, my father and I don’t look directly at each other. That’s our trick,” Ali grins. “I can’t act naturally with him.”
Is he inspired by his father? “That’s inevitable,” he points out. “I’m inspired by so many people. Naumaan Ijaz was brilliant in Mera Saaein and more recently in Raqeeb Se. Zahid Ahmed, Bilal Abbas and Imran Ashraf are such exceptional actors. I even pick up on the expressions of the actresses that I’m working with.”
An actor’s life
I change tacks: is he inspired by the roles that he plays and the storylines that they follow, predominated by domestic politics? He reiterates, “I try to make my character special regardless of the story. I used to hate the typical storylines where a boy would be thrown about like a ping-pong ball between the women, but I get it now. It’s all about business and what sells. Maybe one or two projects surface every year that are different; dramas such as Raqeeb Se, Parizaad, Alif and Alif, Allah aur Insaan. Only a very small percentage of actors get the chance to act in these dramas. Also, such dramas seldom bring in high ratings, which is why channels aren’t very keen to invest in them.
“This is one of the reasons why I enjoy playing one of the characters rather than the main lead. The main lead usually doesn’t have much to do. The boy is torn between the women in his life and the girl has to know how to cry. If you notice, the best actresses are the ones that cry really well and just cry differently from the others!” He names some of these actresses but then asks me not to name them. Evidently, some of them are his friends.
I have come to the conclusion that the LSA drama jury just doesn’t know that I’m an actor. That’s actually alright. It’s their private awards event, they can recognise whomsoever they like but why do they call it ‘awards’ then? They should just rename it ‘Lux Awards Show’ so that people like me don’t get their hopes up.”
He adds — and his eyes twinkle when he says this, “It’s probably good for actors that our stories are so limited. The blue-eyed boys are the ones that will always get cast in the main roles, and then their lack of talent will be exposed when they can’t act.”
A blue-eyed boy world
These blue-eyed boys are evidently a consistent source of irritation. They get mentioned quite often in our interview, particularly when we turn to the contentious topic of awards. “There is just no growth here because the industry is so fixated with a few ‘chosen ones’,” Ali stresses. “They are the ones that get offered prime projects. And come awards season, it’s declared that whatever acting this stone of an actor has done, he needs to get nominated. Eventually a time will come when actors will get disillusioned and stop working hard because the recognition will keep going to only a select few.”
The 20th Lux Style Awards (LSAs) — which were yet to take place at the time of this interview — were obviously on Ali’s mind. “All the heroines that acted opposite me got nominated but I didn’t. I got so many private messages from fans when the nominations got announced. There have been at least six to seven times in my career when I have been sure that I would get nominated, only to be ignored.”
He continues, referring to his impressive performance as a homegrown Karachi dweller in the drama Ghisi Piti Mohabbat. “I was so sure that I would get nominated but it turned out that the LSAs had some issues going on with the channel, ARY Digital. What is the actor’s fault in that?” He pauses. “People often tell me not to speak out against the awards system, that there is no point. But what can I do? Every time awards season comes along, I feel that they have been unfair.”
“I have come to the conclusion that the LSA drama jury just doesn’t know that I’m an actor. That’s actually alright. I have rehearsed and re-rehearsed my winning speech in front of the mirror far too many times now, and I’m at the point where I’m eliminating some people and adding in others. It’s their private awards event, they can recognise whomsoever they like but why do they call it ‘awards’ then? They should just rename it ‘Lux Awards Show’ so that people like me don’t get their hopes up.”
The ‘hit’ formula
Beyond awards, Ali’s accolades come from the high ratings that his dramas tend to haul in. He works in about three to four dramas per year and at least one or two tend to become big hits. Most of these dramas have aired on Geo Entertainment and are helmed by 7th Sky Productions, a production house that has topped TV ratings charts consistently for several years now. What trick has the production house mastered?
“There’s no trick or magic to it. Abdullah Kadwani and Asad Qureshi of 7th Sky are just very involved in every project, be it scheduled for the 7pm slot or for the 8pm or 9pm,” says Ali. “I vividly remember how Geo Entertainment was struggling to survive more than two years ago and 7th Sky bravely took over. They produced Khaali Haath, starring Aiman Khan, Shahzad Sheikh, Kiran Haq and myself, and it became one of the highest rated plays of the year. They just work very hard. There have been times when we have shot a project for a week and if they have felt that a certain character isn’t working, they just get it reshot. Also, every actor has the space to go up to them if there is an issue, or if certain parts of the script are difficult to understand. Not many production houses allow so much leeway.
“They also haven’t shifted focus to film and I believe that even if they do in the future, they will always maintain their stronghold over TV,” he continues. “Some people say that 7th Sky projects have repetitive content but whatever it is, it’s working out immensely well for the channel.”
What kind of content particularly excites Ali as an actor? “I’m loving Ahmed Ali Akbar in the titular role in Parizaad. Ahmed is such an exceptional actor but he is underrated. Even in a big project like Ehd-i-Wafa he was placed on the back foot and there was a lot of hue and cry about that. I’m so happy that he is now shining in Parizaad. It’s like a ray of hope for an actor such as myself, that one day I will also get to play such a role.”
Since much of our conversation is delving towards how actors with a low profile go unnoticed, I ask him why he hasn’t considered a bit of self-promotion? “I don’t believe in it,” he frowns. “That’s just how I am. I think if something is meant to come to me, it will sooner or later. I never thought that I would be able to survive as an actor. I thought that I would end up as a cranky TV producer loading up on junk food. It’s unbelievable for me to be where I am right now.
“I have a limited social media following on Instagram compared to many of my peers but the people that follow me are actually real. I get the same number of comments and ‘likes’ as an actor with millions of followers. I must be doing something right.”
A lot of actors have now developed Instagram as an alternate revenue stream, where they frequently collaborate in endorsements. Does Ali also do this? “Occasionally, yes. I got very excited at first when requests for Instagram endorsements started coming to me. All I had to do was speak about a product, and I do speak very well. But then I collaborated with a really bad product and got trolled for it. I have been careful ever since!” he laughs.
Turning serious, he adds, “It’s just that whatever I say in an interview or put out on social media, it will eventually become part of my legacy. My children will be able to search my name on the internet and see it. I know if they will probably want to become actors but if and when they do, I want them to proudly take my name forward, just like I have always taken pride on my grandfather and father’s legacy.”
On that note, we wrap up. The precedents set by Waseem Abbas and Ali’s grandfather, the late Inayat Hussain Bhatti, are formidable ones. Ali is now following in their footsteps but chalking a path of his own. It’s a path, I believe, that is slowly but surely spiraling upwards.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, October 24th, 2021