I have an idea that Nabeel Zafar must get thronged by fans wherever he goes. As one of the frontmen identified with Bulbulay, the sitcom that has now been on air for 12 years and is inching towards an unprecedented record 600 episodes, Nabeel irrefutably has a huge fan base.
Sitting with the actor in a busy café in Karachi, I witness his popularity firsthand. What is particularly heartening is the way people smile widely when they come up to him. This is a famous face they know, that they see on their TV screens daily, a face they associate with silly muddled up situations and slapstick humour — a face that they consider their own.
Tilted mobile phones are waved about as the actor takes selfies with this enamoured crowd — drivers and valets in the parking lot and little children and adults. It’s pure, unadulterated love. In the course of my career, I have met plenty of famous people but only a few fortunate ones are also so well-loved.
There are actors who complain about online trolling and a disrespectful, judgmental audience. And then there’s Nabeel, who is also the on-screen garrulous, bumbling Nabeel of Bulbulay, who talks about how the masses shower respect and love on him and his co-actors.
The sitcom Bulbulay will soon be celebrating a whopping 600 episodes. It has been running continuously for 12 years. What does actor-producer Nabeel Zafar make of the show’s unprecedented success?
Twelve years ago, when the actor decided to dabble with production and launched Bulbulay —his first ever project — little did he know that it would become his career’s most successful and defining benchmark.
“My team and I have worked very hard. We have also been blessed. When I had started this sitcom, I had asked my mother to pray for me. I think that Bulbulay has become such a colossal success because of her prayers.
“It hasn’t been easy,” he continues, “particularly when it comes to developing content. ARY Digital, the channel that we work with, perpetually airs reruns of Bulbulay. There have been times when I have asked them not to do so. I thought that people would get bored, but credit goes to Jerjees Seja, the channel’s CEO, who always convinced me by showing me the high viewership ratings.
“It helps that there are no ads in between, just before and after the show, and there’s no laughter track which, I feel, allows people to enjoy the jokes in a more natural way. And it doesn’t matter how many times an episode is re-aired, people still watch it.”
That’s amazing, I comment. “Yes, but this means that, over a span of 12 years, we can’t repeat a story,” says Nabeel. “What if we come up with a new episode and, in the morning, the channel has already aired out an earlier episode along the same lines? There are times when the scriptwriter, director and myself, as producer, spend days trying to come up with new content.”
What do you do then? “We twist the story here and there and try to bring something new,” he shrugs.
There was a time, for instance, that the rowdy family of four — including Mehmood Sahib (Mehmood Aslam), Momo (Hina Dilpazeer), Khoobsurat (Ayesha Omer) and Nabeel (Nabeel Zafar) — that had hitherto always been struggling for money, suddenly became rich and moved to a lavish home.
“Yes, the channel had wanted us to do something new, and so we decided to make the Bulbulay family rich. After filming a few episodes, we were nonplussed. The family’s various escapades had always stemmed from a lack of money, which would lead to them double-dealing someone. The rich couldn’t have those problems!” Nabeel laughs.
“We then decided to make them extremely poor and shot about 25 episodes along those lines. The audience, however, kept commenting that they wanted the family to return to their old home, a house that they recognised as ‘Javed Sahib’s house’. It was a place that they associated with madcap adventures. So we moved back.”
The house owned by the fictitious Javed Sahib in the sitcom, a long-suffering landlord who constantly gets swindled out of getting his rent, actually did belong to a ‘Javed Sahib’ in reality.
“He was a very sweet-natured man but he would often get troubled at odd hours by fans wanting to go inside the house and meet the Bulbulay family. He would tell them that we only filmed the drama in the home. Still, sometimes fans would insist on being shown inside and they would take pictures. We worked in that house for nearly 11 years but, then, it got sold off. This year, we moved to a new location.”
Bulbulay may be colossally popular but there is also a contingent that turns up its nose at the sitcom’s slapstick brand of humour. How does Nabeel react to such comments?
“To be honest, no one makes those comments to my face,” Nabeel says. “The thing is, you can’t please everyone and, when something becomes this big, there are bound to be some people who don’t like it.
“What is far more special to me is how, at a random marketplace, a little child looks at me and smiles. The child only knows me as Bulbulay’s Nabeel — not as the serious actor in Dhuaan, not as a producer. That kind of appreciation is special and it reaches out far and wide, beyond Pakistan, wherever Urdu is spoken and understood.”
He recounts a few anecdotes. “I was once in the UK and a Pakistani man there introduced me to his British wife and told me that she was a huge fan. I asked him how she managed to understand the show, to which he replied that she was currently learning Urdu and watching the show was helping her.
“I joked with him that he needed to show her dramas where better Urdu was spoken! Similarly, Pakistani families based abroad have told me that their children have a better grip over Urdu because they watch Bulbulay!
“There are grandmothers who confide in me that they watch the show regularly with their grandchildren. We get videos of children with special needs who respond to the programme. Every now and then, children from the Make A Wish Foundation visit us because some of them have wished to meet the Bulbulay team. It’s emotionally gruelling for us, because some of the children only have a few months to live but, still, this love that we get is the biggest award for us.”
Life beyond Bulbulay
Unlike actual awards, I put forward the eternally contentious comment.
“Awards should always be there. Appreciation is important,” he ponders, “but in Pakistan, awards are faarigh — useless — and are created just to cater to a certain group of actors. Friends of the organisers are awarded or, at internationally staged events, whoever turns up is handed a trophy. That’s just not how it’s done.”
I observe that I have never seen him at an awards ceremony. “I don’t want to attend them,” he confirms. “I attended one ceremony and realised that the organisers had no respect for seniors. I don’t mind sitting behind veterans such as Mehmood Aslam, Sajid Hassan or Waseem Abbas. But I do take offence to being seated several rows behind young artists who have only emerged over the last four or five years.
“I have worked very hard and earned my seniority. Back in 1991, when I started out, I was confused for about four to five years as to whether I should just switch to some other career. The drama Dhuaan had been a hit [in 1994] but fans would come to me, praise my work but then ask me what I did for a living.
“Acting was yet to be recognised as a proper profession. I stayed committed and worked constantly. I moved to Karachi when I felt that the private sector was about to take off and diversified towards production. If awards organisers don’t respect my contributions, then I don’t want to attend their events just to get humiliated.”
He continues, “Even the government’s Pride of Performance awards don’t make sense. There are so many illustrious careers in the entertainment industry that are yet to be recognised by the government, while there are some recipients of the trophy who just don’t fit in. An award such as the Pride of Performance is ideally like a medal, recognising your hard work and talent over the years. It’s sad that certain recipients end up fending off criticism and avoiding people after getting the award,” he laughs.
Has he ever considered cross-border collaborations considering how avidly Bulbulay is watched in India? “No. A lot of my fellow artists say that art has no borders but, if I’m a lion in my own jungle, why would I want to go off and play the role of a geedarr [jackal] on someone else’s turf?”
Maybe because the jackal may end up earning a lot more than the lion in our fluctuating economy, I point out. “Yes, maybe,” he agrees, “but money is not everything.”
Is the money rolling in though, I ask, considering that Bulbulay is a brand on its own, raking in consistent ratings for the channel? “It’s good,” says Nabeel, “but you know our economy. If I had released a sitcom like this abroad, running into so many episodes, I would have earned a lot more, enough to feed my generations. Here, our earnings are limited.”
But Nabeel Zafar and his Bulbulay entourage earn a lot in terms of fan worship. Their popularity is far removed from the fake trends and trappings of social media. It is tangible, clearly visible, in the people that smile when they see them and who tune into reruns of episodes that they have seen many times before.
At some point in the course of our conversation, Nabeel ruminates, “It’s sad that we are a nation that honours its heroes only when they die. We do not celebrate them while they are living.”
To the contrary, I do think that Pakistan celebrates Bulbulay — with love, as one of its own.
Originally published in Dawn ICON, December 19, 2021