Shaan Shahid hardly ever gives interviews. The actor admits as much when, by some stroke of luck, I meet him for an exclusive one-on-one. “It was my New Year’s resolution that I would avoid speaking my mind and getting misquoted,” he says, with a wry smile.
And yet, here he is, taking a break while shooting for his upcoming action venture Zarrar, eyebrows furrowed as he winds his way through my long questionnaire. He answers with characteristic candour — he wouldn’t be Shaan if he wouldn’t be forthright and refreshingly politically incorrect — but I can tell that he is at ease.
Here, in the middle of the night, when it is brighter than daytime at Jehan Studios in Raiwind, Shaan is doing what he loves. He is the director, scriptwriter and lead actor in Zarrar and with intense concentration, he beats up a gun-wielding Taliban army, splatters ketchup-coloured ‘blood’ on the walls and comes to fisticuffs with a bearded Maulana played by Shafqat Cheema.
Scuttling from on-camera to off, he is completely in his element, discussing nuances with producer Adnan Butt and his UK-based Director of Photography Timothy Hallam Wood. Beyond the make-believe war zone, there are wires strewn about and a fancy camera that Wood tells me is extremely precise and operates via remote control.
It is only much later into the night that Shaan settles down for dinner coupled with an interview. “Films need to be entertaining and have a good script backing them up,” he says. “Zarrar, I feel, will define an action genre that our audience is now ready to see. We live in the real world and we all know who our enemies are, and, based on this, we have told our story.”
On this rather optimistic note, we proceed to an interview replete with observations, revelations and plenty of candid comments.
You may now be involved in multiple projects, but you have conspicuously been absent from the celluloid scene over the past two years. Considering that film offers must have been coming your way, why did you retreat into the shadows?
Shaan: It was important for me to take some time out because while the movies I was offered were good, they lacked a certain entertainment value that is imperative to filmmaking. We have to understand that cinema has changed now. It is no longer a medium dedicated solely to the entertainment of the lower classes. It is now watched by everyone and the core clients are from the upper and upper-middle classes. To keep this audience entertained and rooted to its seats for two hours, a movie needs to have an interesting storyline and the power to entertain.
A lot of our filmmakers haven’t realised that creating a film is very different from directing a TV drama or a commercial. It’s like the difference that divides a Test match from a T20. They’re two versions of the game of cricket, but a Test match goes on and on, as do our dramas. A film, like T20, has to be interesting over a shorter span. It has to grip and be punchy.
After O21, I just sat and wrote scripts that I felt would appeal to the audience. Zarrar is one of them and there are more to follow. I have also been conducting workshops with aspiring writers and guiding them so that by the end of the year, we’ll be churning out some very interesting scripts.
Why did you choose Kiran Malik, a relatively unknown name, as your leading lady in the film? Is it because Zarrar requires the focus to be on the male protagonist while the female has a relatively nominal role?
Shaan: We deliberately wanted to cast a new face in the role. We didn’t want to have a girl-next-door who has already cried her way through multiple TV dramas. We didn’t want an actress who the audience already associates with a certain image and is unable to accept in her film avatar. Having said this, Kiran is very talented and has a lot of confidence and energy. Why shouldn’t we have had opted for a new face? We need to create new stars and help them tune themselves to the camera.
Kiran has a very interesting role in Zarrar. She plays a journalist and there are a lot of layers to her character. [My character] Zarrar is, of course, a war machine and together they both face the truths that they have been running away from.
"Cinema owners need to think long-term. If Junaid Jamshed has a retail outlet, he doesn’t go and buy clothes from somewhere else and sell them at his outlet. He manufactures the clothes and then sells them. Similarly, cinema is a retail outlet and cinema owners need to become producers. They need to help generate local content so that they don’t remain dependent on Bollywood."
You tend to opt more for action movies. Why not delve into other genres?
Shaan: As long as the script is good, I’m open to any idea. This year, I’m also acting in Arth 2 and in it I play a vocalist and I’m doing all the things that a vocalist does.
Social media has become quite important for promoting upcoming movies. Will you be following a similar route with Zarrar?
Shaan: Yes, we plan to. The world is evolving and social media has become part of it. It’s important that we adapt to these new formats.
And yet, unlike many of your fellow actors, you’re not very active on social media.
Shaan: I think that people who obsess over promoting themselves on social media are afraid that they will be forgotten if they don’t do so. Someday, I might get someone to manage my social media profile too but personally I prefer interacting with humans. I don’t want to ruin my life by capturing every moment of my life for the world to see. I’d rather enjoy those moments.
My parents are my teachers and they always believed that the power of the film actor lay in being less exposed. As an actor, you play so many different characters, but there is just one character that you don’t want to sell. I refuse to sell my character in the quest to become a social media sensation.
It can’t be denied, though, that we live in a world where social media has become all-important. Even Shah Rukh Khan is active on Instagram and Twitter. How can you choose to avoid it altogether?
Shaan: You have to remember that Shah Rukh Khan is a 52-year-old millionaire who is desperate to grasp at whatever fame he gets. When I’m at work, I can interact with the media, but in my private life, I simply can’t go about showing the world that these are my friends, this is where I’m eating, here’s where I’m vacationing. I can’t swing about and be part of Boomerangs. I can’t take selfies with fans where floral wreaths and dog’s ears suddenly pop over my head. I’d rather focus on what’s real.
You’ve always been very reticent when it comes to giving interviews. Have you had a change of heart, because you have several movies in the pipeline and it’s important to create pre-release hype?
Shaan: I suppose I’m adapting to the new ways, but it will probably just vary from film to film. After Zarrar, I’ll probably retreat from the spotlight again for a bit. I need that time for myself. I’m a film actor and I have grown up with the belief that people should want to know more about you rather than be able to poke through every nook and corner of your house a la Ek Din Geo Ke Saath. In fact, the anchor of that show, when he wrapped it up, said that there was only person who had refused to come on board his show, and that was me. It’s just that my house is not a zoo and certain parts of my life are just not for the general public.
Regardless, you really don’t need to launch self-promotional campaigns since you veritably remain one of Pakistan’s most well-loved heroes …
Shaan: It’s because you have to be a Pakistani first for Pakistanis to love you. You have to sacrifice, give and never stop believing in this country. I have been in the business for 25 years and I have seen it grow, come down and then blossom again. But I didn’t go anywhere else.
You didn’t go to India, you mean?
Shaan: My stance has always been that we need to build our industry here. I look around and there are people who have so much to say and we need to provide them with a medium that tells them their stories, speaks their voice. We live in reality and we know who our enemies are. We see Pakistan being touted as the root of all evil in popular shows such as Homeland and in G.I. Joe. Why aren’t we trying to tell our side to the story? Why aren’t we standing by our nation?
Instead, a lot of us simply go to India and allow ourselves to be relegated to playing insubstantial side roles. There are people who consider it extremely important to party with Salman Khan and take a selfie with SRK. There are people who pull contacts and ask for favours until they get invited to a Bollywood awards ceremony. But why bother? Why go through that when you can be well-loved and appreciated by your own people?
Somehow, I have always been misinterpreted when I have spoken about India. I’m asked about why I didn’t try my luck in Bollywood and while I talk about my own choices, it is misconstrued to mean that I am finger-pointing at others.
"SRK is a 52-year-old millionaire who is desperate to grasp at whatever fame he gets. When I’m at work, I can interact with the media, but in my private life, I simply can’t go about showing the world that these are my friends, this is where I’m eating, here’s where I’m vacationing. I can’t take selfies with fans where floral wreaths and dog’s ears suddenly pop over my head. I’d rather focus on what’s real.”
Perhaps many other actors feel the need to go for Bollywood because it offers far more lucrative opportunities compared to Pakistani cinema?
Shaan: At what cost, though? Is it worth selling their self-respect? I feel that in another five years, Pakistan could do for Bollywood what China does for the US. The cost of home productions in India is extremely high and we will be their solution for cost-cutting. We just need to join forces and work hard on building our industry.
Given your antipathy towards India, do you continue to believe that Bollywood movies should not be screened in Pakistan?
Shaan: No, if cinema owners believe that it is necessary for their business, they should go ahead and show Bollywood movies. But they also need to think long-term. India cannot be relied on in the long-term. If Junaid Jamshed has a retail outlet, he doesn’t go and buy clothes from somewhere else and sell them at his outlet. He manufactures the clothes and then sells them. Similarly, cinema is a retail outlet and cinema owners need to become producers. They need to help generate local content so that they don’t remain dependent on Bollywood.
You also didn’t opt to act in TV dramas during cinema’s low phase.
Shaan: With all due respect to the medium, I just don’t think I am cut out for TV. I don’t want to be a jack of all trades. I’d rather pick one medium and be good at it. I have always been content working in the film industry, and I don’t have any regrets.
Some of your critics say that you are now too old to be a hero. Does that irk you?
Shaan: I come from a family that has seen plenty of ups and downs. I’m aware that careers come to an end and that eventually you have to change roles and switch gears. Every student needs to become a teacher one day, and I think that it’s a great transition. I’d love to just direct, produce or write scripts one day. If I had a passion for acting, I’d be posing right now on every red carpet and being part of fashion shows. But I thrive on a passion for cinema.
You talk about supporting the industry and joining forces to nurture it further and yet you refused this year to be part of the film jury for the Lux Style Awards. Don’t you think that awards help set benchmarks for the industry and help it grow?
Shaan: I don’t think a film needs to win awards — it needs to entertain and it needs to bring in profits. This time round, I was busy with shooting Zarrar and simply wasn’t available for jury duty.
So it had nothing to do with your earlier issues with the LSAs?
Shaan: At award shows, things sometimes happen. Some people have been part of the LSA management for a very long time and they play their cards in ways in which they shouldn’t. All I can do is let them be in their zone, and I can continue to be in mine.
Who, amongst the younger lot of actors, do you think has promise?
Shaan: Kiran Malik is very talented. Mahira Khan is doing good work and I think Fahad Mustafa has a lot of potential. He is a host on TV and it has made him very comfortable with the public. He is a bit overexposed, though.
An actor in Pakistan needs to realise the immense possibilities that are available to him. We have about five mainstream actors, 11 cricketers, 11 legendary cricketers and about four singers and together, this motley crew of 31 people caters to a population of 22 crores. Wherever there is a Pakistani anywhere in the world, he or she relates to them.
With sincerity and effort, the entire fraternity can do so much more and gain so much more from their country.
That’s a very patriotic view.
Shaan: Yes, it’s because I am patriotic. Here, we often view patriotism as ‘fundo’ or ‘hate speech’ but you have to realise, whatever I say stems from the love that I have for my country. I am patriotic. That’s it.
Published in Dawn, ICON, May 14th, 2017