A tousle-haired, gaunt Ahad Raza Mir broods at a skull in his hands.
A far cry from his avatar as TV’s favourite romantic hero, tonight Ahad is Hamlet on a stage in Calgary, far away from Pakistan. His cheeks are sunken, he’s speaking archaic Shakespearean English and as always, he’s deep in thought about the nuances to the character that he is playing.
I remember a conversation from a long time ago when a frowning Ahad had mulled over the shades to Dr Asfandyar, the lovelorn hero that he played in the drama Yaqeen Ka Safar. Now, he’s delving into Hamlet’s psyche. “The more I perform as Hamlet, the more I get to know about him,” he muses.
“With every performance, I feel that I add more to him. And I obsess over whether he truly was crazy or was just pretending to be crazy? After the show, I asked some of the audience the same question and they weren’t sure either. But a performance that leaves you thinking is a good one.”
This is typical Ahad. He relishes throwing himself into a character, dissecting its psyche, carrying it around with him wherever he goes. “It gets exhausting,” he says.
“The shadow of the characters that I play follow me for as long as I am performing the role. I can’t shrug it off. And Hamlet is particularly an exhausting character. There’s so much air that needs to be created around him. I can’t just ease into him during the course of the performance. The first time I am on stage, I am bawling my eyes out and screaming. He laughs, he cries and he’s mentally disturbed and for two hours and 45 minutes, for 35 more shows, I am him.”
“Once the show is over, the cast asks me if I want to hang out and I usually just refuse. I am so drained that all I want to do is sleep.”
“At the same time, there is definitely this high that I get when I am on stage. There’s this sense of control that I can completely hold the audience’s attention. Every day, I can’t wait to get back on stage.
"The first time I am on stage, I am bawling my eyes out and screaming. Hamlet laughs, he cries and he’s mentally disturbed and for two hours and 45 minutes, for 35 more shows, I am him.”
I ask him if he particularly lost weight for the role? “Yes I did. But it was also because of the strenuous rehearsals that I went through while preparing for the play,” he says. “Performing on stage requires a lot of stamina. And to be on stage throughout as Hamlet is quite tiring, especially since I had hitherto been acting in TV and film. With theatre, you can’t take a break in the middle. You’re on stage, in front of a live audience, and you have to give it your all.”
He continues, “My mother came to see me perform and she told me that for the first time, she couldn’t recognise me and actually felt scared of me. I just thought that I must be doing something right if my own mother could think that way!”
Apparently, quite a few other people who have seen the initial shows seem to be bowled over by Ahad’s performance as well. Reviews are sporadically popping up over social media – mostly by Canada-based Pakistanis – who are raving about Ahad. “I was amazed to see that we were performing to packed halls and that a large proportion of the audience was of Pakistani origin!” he confirms.
They came to see you, of course, I tell him, and Ahad predictably hums and haws over my comment. This prompts me to quip at him: when will you stop being so modest and start being all starry and pompous? He laughs. “Never, I hope! And yes, I would like to hope that they came to see me but what I also like is that after they watch the play, they tell me that they’ve enjoyed it. The language is very heightened in the script and there’s a lot of old English that I know that modern-day audiences may have trouble deciphering. But people who have seen Hamlet so far have been telling me that they really understood it.”
“Somehow I keep getting cast opposite Sajal Aly. I get 12 scripts and if there’s one good script amongst them, I get told that the producers are trying to get Sajal to play the female role!”
“It’s been surreal,” he says. “I walked out after the play and there was all this screaming around me and there were people wanting to take selfies with me. I had assumed that the desi audience would be larger had the play been in Toronto, because so many Pakistanis live there. But a lot of the people who met me that day told me that they had especially flown in to see the performance. I felt incredibly blessed.”
How much longer will he be in Canada before he returns to Pakistan and to the world of TV dramas and films that he has now made his own? “End of April, I think,” he says.
Is there a new project that he’ll be starting immediately afterwards? “There is one drama that I have already shot which will come on air soon.”
Is he starring opposite Sajal Aly again in this drama? “Yes,” he laughs. “It’s strange but somehow I keep getting cast opposite her. I get 12 scripts and if there’s one good script amongst them, I get told that the producers are trying to get Sajal to play the female role!”
“I joke with her about this. It’s just uncanny,” says Ahad. “Then again, I don’t know many other actresses who can slip into the skins of complicated, multi-faceted characters with the same ease that Sajal does.”
Perhaps Sajal could play Ophelia to his Hamlet should the play be brought down to Pakistan. Then again, is there any chance that we could see a special performance of Hamlet in Pakistan? “Let’s see,” says Ahad. “We could try, maybe.”
“Come and see it, if you’re chancing by Canada over the next few days,” he tells me. I am not chancing by Canada any time soon, of course. But I do hope to see Ahad Raza Mir live, owning the emotional torment, sarcasm and sheer wickedness of Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most memorable, most complicated characters. Bring it to Pakistan, Ahad!