Mikaal Zulfiqar has also always been one of the country’s most good-looking and most famous faces. This is more of an objective fact than a personal observation. As could be expected, he started off as a teenage fashion model. Two decades ago, however, Zulfiqar steered off the catwalk, handing over the wheel to his inner actor and immediately became crush-fodder.
He may have honed his craft since those initial days and have a slew of hits to his credit, but the heartthrob status perseveres, and he still gets love letters from fans. Sitting across from Zulfiqar in our first-ever long conversation — we’ve had short phone interviews frequently — I ask him, “So, what’s your beauty secret?”
He laughs. “Fair skin, I suppose. I don’t agree with the obsession for fair complexions, but I can’t deny that a lot of the initial roles that came to me may have been because of my looks. As long as I get work, I don’t mind.”
Zulfiqar’s answer provides me with the perfect opening to volley out a series of questions that I have set aside for this interview, our very first detailed one — the first of many, I hope, given the interesting directions in which his career is moving…
He’s banked his good looks towards a flourishing acting career in Pakistani films, television and even Bollywood. But at 40, Mikaal Zulfiqar is aware that his time on screen may soon be coming to an end and he’s planning accordingly. Don’t think there are no grey cells behind his youthful beauty…
Quantity on TV … versus quality
Doesn’t that mean, though, that he has often been stereotyped into enacting certain kinds of characters? “The roles of the rich boy who returns home after studying abroad are inevitable,” Zulfiqar concedes, “but I’ve never been very finicky. I believe that an actor needs to be visible consistently. The roles may be boring or exciting, but there shouldn’t be a break.
“Also, it’s difficult to gauge what’s good and what’s bad. Sometimes, I’ve enacted a character that I believe will be a huge success and it doesn’t get noticed. At other times, a role that I thought wouldn’t be liked much becomes a huge hit. I just believe in quantity over quality and I’ve been lucky that I’ve got the chance to play so many different roles. No one character defines me.”
To prove his point, he refers to three dramas of his that are currently on-air. In Aur Life’s Yeh Ishq Samajh Na Aaye, he is playing a husband who traps his wife through a fake social media account. It is very likely that he will be the do-gooder who wins Saba Qamar’s heart in ARY Digital’s Fraud. And in Geo Entertainment’s Chauraha — possibly his most talked about role at this point in time — he’s the malevolent kidnapper who entraps girls by befriending them on social media. The diversity of the characters is testament to his acting prowess.
“My role in Chauraha is probably my most physically demanding one, to date,” he says. “It involves not just saying dialogues but saying them while jumping, attacking people, breaking things and running into cars. Also, the action scenes don’t just get shot in one go. A single fist fight will get shot at least 10 times. Sometimes, the fists will fly off in the wrong direction or the boy I am beating up won’t react the right way or a rickshaw will unknowingly drive past in the background!” Zulfiqar laughs.
“We also shot in some very tricky locations, for long hours. While we were shooting in a house in Lahore, the family that owned the place came in to watch us and stayed there for four, five hours. I asked them, ‘It isn’t as glamorous as it looks, is it?’
“I’ve really enjoyed playing this all-out villain. Bura mard tau har dramay mein hota hai [there’s an evil male in every drama], but this particular character is just very aggressive.”
Do random people come up to him and scold him when he’s playing a negative character in a popular drama?
“Aunties love me,” he grins, “but yes, I’ve been scolded plenty of times. There was this drama, Saat Pardon Mein, in which I played a playboy actor who didn’t spare anyone. I was at the airport and this girl came up to me and asked me if I was Ahsan Murad, the name of my character in the drama. For a second, I got confused and then I said that yes, I was. She replied, ‘I hate you’ and stalked off! I was happy though. When a negative character gets negative feedback it means that I have played my role well.”
How much longer does he think that he’ll be playing the hero? “I am already playing more mature characters right now,” he says. “I thought that I’d retire at 40, which is my age right now. I’ll give myself five more years. The day I am asked to play the hero’s father, I’ll leave acting.”
I point out that fatherly roles are often pivotal in the storylines of Pakistani dramas. “Yes,” he agrees, “but I’ve had a great time and I don’t know for how much longer this career will shine. We literally work like labourers. I remember shooting on a road once where some construction workers were also at work. They arrived at eight in the morning and so did we but, while their work wrapped up at five in the evening, we continued to shoot. One of the labourers stood by to watch the shooting once he was done. After some time, he said to me that he had thought that his work was difficult but we had it worse!
“And when I shot the movie Sherdil, I would be in uniform, maintaining a particular posture — stomach in, back straight, chest out — for hours. Try doing that for 30 minutes,” he challenges me.
“It was an honour for me to go on a mission with the Pakistan Air Force while shooting the movie. We were supposed to fly for an hour but, after 40 minutes, I asked them if we could land. I returned to the mess where I was staying and, for two hours, I just lay flat on the bed. I couldn’t move. And then we were shooting again the next day. Acting can be draining, physically and mentally.”
The ‘full plate’
It is with the future in mind that Zulfiqar tells me he has kept his ‘plate full’. Aligning himself with business partners, he has opened up Headlines, a salon in Lahore, and invested into chahiye.com, an e-commerce website. He is also planning to plunge into production full-throttle.
“I have partnered with Abdullah Kadwani and Asad Qureshi of 7th Sky Entertainment and I’ll be producing dramas for them,” he says. “I am very lucky to have their support and, at the same time, I am looking forward to gaining experience and creating something sustainable.
“We worked together back in 2015 and 2016 as well and produced two dramas but, then, we all got distracted with other projects. I enjoy production, looking at a script and putting together teams to work on it. It’s also something I know, having been part of the TV industry for 20 years.”
It’s interesting that his production work will be based in Lahore, I comment. At present, most Pakistani dramas are being produced in Karachi, while a handful have been shot in Islamabad, ever since the Hum TV Network set up an office in the capital. As a result, one sees the same locations in almost every drama — a few homes that are popular shooting sites and the roads of Karachi’s Bahria Town.
“My plan is that the productions will be based in Lahore completely,” says Zulfiqar. “Every city has a different flavour and the change in scenery can really bring in more diversity to a story. There are so many actors and technicians in Lahore who will benefit, especially since I want to expand my work until I am working on 20 productions per year.”
He continues: “It also makes sense, because I can’t come to Karachi and establish a monopoly as a producer. But in Lahore, I can try to do so.”
So there are no plans to shift base to Karachi, like so many of his peers working in TV? “I have shifted to Karachi in the past — three times actually — only to go back to Lahore!” he reveals. “The first time, I shifted for a year-and-a-half, the second time, for a year and then, the last time, it was for six months. The span has gotten shorter every time.
“Work-wise, Karachi is definitely a better place, but I grew up in Lahore and I just like the way my life functions there. My father is ageing now and I want to be living close to him. My children also live in Lahore. Life has to be about more than just work.”
So what is life for him, beyond work? His two daughters frequently feature on his social media feed — eating pizza, celebrating birthdays or simply making funny faces for the camera.
“I am very close to my girls and we do everything together. They’ll call me ‘bro’ and I’ll call them ‘dude’,” he smiles. “They’ve had their fair share of struggles in life, but they are growing up to be intelligent, confident girls, exactly how I want them to be.”
The news of his divorce back in 2017 had created a lot of noise. Has he considered remarrying? “I am still scarred and scared but I am open to the idea. I don’t think about it all the time, though. I am very busy with work and I have my girls…”
Does he think that life can be difficult for someone from outside the industry to be married to an actor? An actor’s line of work can require being away from home for long spans. Also, when an on-screen pair is a hit, often audiences start linking two actors together. Does this lead to insecurities at home?
“Yes, it does and it can place a big burden on the marriage,” says Zulfiqar. “In my marriage, I had certainly felt the pressure to clarify things with my wife. I would feel bad for her. The nature of this work can lead to your spouse making assumptions even if there is no truth to them at all.”
Could this be one of the reasons why he may not get married again?
“It won’t be the only reason but, yes, it could certainly be one of the reasons that would deter me,” he agrees. “It’s not just how I’ll deal with the situation but also how it is going to place a burden on the person that I am married to. I know that I come with my baggage and can be a handful. I don’t know if my partner will be able to deal with it all,” he says lightly.
We shift focus back to work. Zulfiqar has two movies in the pipeline: Huay Tum Ajnabi, a love story with the backdrop of the fall of Dhaka, and the multi-starrer Money Back Guarantee, which he is also co-producing. I recall talking to him about both movies right before the coronavirus pandemic had wreaked havoc.
The movies had been primed for release but, once Covid-19 shut down cinemas, our conversation became pointless and never managed to make it to print. Now that cinemas are functional again, we rehash the topic.
“I think the movies will be releasing this year,” he says. “Huay Tum Ajnabi has a huge ensemble cast. Sadia Khan and I are in lead roles and the movie also features Ayesha Omar, Alyy Khan, Shamoon Abbasi, Kamran Jillani and Samina Peerzada. The songs are beautiful and, while the romance is in focus, the political scenario of 1971 forms the background.“
And then there’s Money Back Guarantee, boasting a whopping star cast: Zulfiqar, Fawad Khan, Javed Sheikh, Ali Safina, Gohar Rasheed, Wasim Akram, Jan Rambo, Ayesha Omar, Shafaat Ali, Hina Dilpazeer, Mani and Kiran Malik, among others.
“I think it’s Pakistan’s biggest star-cast movie and I am very proud of it,” he smiles. “The performances are amazing, the story is relatable. It’s a political comedy that touches upon some very important issues in a light way. Faisal Qureshi has worked his genius as a director.”
His enthusiasm reminds me of other filmmakers who have extolled their upcoming movies to the skies — only for the actual movies to turn out to be duds. I mention this to Zulfiqar. “No, no, but this one’s actually good!” he professes, laughing.
Before he had devoted himself entirely to Pakistan, Zulfiqar had also ventured into Bollywood and worked in a number of movies. How had the experience been?
“It’s definitely a bigger industry, very professional with extensive budgets, it can be a lot of fun,” he says. “In 2008, I acted in a movie called Shoot on Sight, co-starring Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. It was a major role and, like so many other Pakistani actors, I got carried away. I burnt my boats back home and began contemplating moving my ship across the border. But then, the Mumbai attacks took place and all the Bollywood movies that I had signed suddenly got stalled.
“Afterwards, I continued working in India although I became more cautious, knowing that my work there was very dependent on cross-border politics. I also got married and my focus shifted largely back to my career in Pakistan.”
He continues: “In 2011, I worked in a movie called U R My Jaan, which was a copy of Pretty Woman. It wasn’t the best of movies, but it was a great experience. I got the chance to work in mainstream Bollywood and play a millionaire who would fly about in helicopters.”
Then came 2015’s Baby, a movie that dabbled with anti-Pakistan sentiments without Zulfiqar being told. “I felt cheated,” he says. “They had specifically told me that the movie would have no such storyline. It put me in a very precarious position at home and I think that the only thing that saved me was the sheer quantity of work that I had to my credit. The audiences thankfully accepted me still as one of their own.”
“Baby was the turning point for me. I no longer wanted to work in India. Aside from my own experience, I have seen how other Pakistani artists — Fawad Khan, Mahira Khan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Atif Aslam — were not allowed to grow in Bollywood. Indians will always misuse Pakistanis, stereotyping them into small, insignificant roles, and preventing their success by creating issues.
“Looking back, I now realise that it’s silly for Pakistani actors to imagine that they will be hits in India,” he observes. “I don’t blame them for getting carried away, Bollywood is like that. But at the end of the day, it’s not yours and the sooner you understand that the better.”
Battling the casting couch
There are many more worldly wise stories that Zulfiqar has to share. At one point, we dwell over the early days of his career, when he was an 18-year-old model venturing towards TV. Did he ever encounter the casting couch while modelling, or acting?
“It’s there in both industries,” he confesses. “There have been times when I have been approached very bluntly, in the fashion industry, the TV industry, even in Bollywood.”
And then? “Even at 18, I somehow knew that this was not the way I wanted to build my career,” says Zulfiqar.
“Perhaps it was that I had studied abroad and inherently knew what was right and wrong. Someone with less exposure could easily end up succumbing. I have seen people who have slept their way into gaining a role and, still, their careers are nowhere now. It’s a kind of bribery. I couldn’t be part of it. I think I have done well enough despite that.”
He certainly has. Zulfiqar’s repertoire of work continues to include projects with all the major Pakistani channels. Unlike so many of his peers, he isn’t associated with a single production house or director. He also doesn’t seem to have too many enemies. And he’s always very, very busy — I speak from personal experience, having zigzagged through his schedule several times while coordinating for this interview.
“I have a few enemies, but they don’t matter,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “But yes, I have worked with everyone, sometimes several times. I am lucky that private TV channels in Pakistan started around the same time as my own career. We helped each other grow.”
“To date, when I am on set, I make sure that I deliver. I am willing to work late. My only problem is — and everyone will tell you this — is that I’ll come late on set.” The director must give you an early call time then, to make sure you come on time, I ask. “I don’t get fooled too easily. I have been working for 20 years!” Zulfiqar laughs.
Twenty years and going strong. He’s certainly one of Pakistan’s most famous and also, one of the most good-looking. But there’s so much more to Mikaal Zulfiqar; he knows his craft, knows his strengths and has the foresight to look beyond the snap and flash of show business to plan for the future. That makes him one of the wisest actors I’ve interviewed in a long time.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, July 17th, 2022