Slowly, steadily, over a career that now spans 18 years, actor Sami Khan has been putting together an extensive repertoire of work.
Avid TV drama watchers will recall him in a slew of memorable roles: the gritty Sabz Pari Laal Kabootar from all the way back in 2012, the emotional rollercoaster Aisi Hai Tanhai in 2017, a pivotal role in the groundbreaking Ishq Zah-i-Naseeb in 2019, 2021’s psychologically harrowing Saraab, and the currently on-air Dil Zaar Zaar. He also delivered a strong performance in the 2019 film Gumm as a distraught father succumbing to a life of crime.
There are also other roles that didn’t quite make a mark — an inevitable reality in every TV drama actor’s life. For every groundbreaking script, there are 10 others, revolving entirely around domestic politics and extra-marital affairs.
I mention this to Sami Khan when I meet him and he replies pragmatically, “It’s important to always be patient. Sometimes you get offered great roles and sometimes you wait for ages but no unique script comes your way. The audience tends to blame actors for taking on run-of-the-mill roles but what they don’t realise is that this is our bread and butter. Ultimately, we have to continue working.
The widely liked Sami Khan is an extremely talented actor, breathing life into even the generic characters that he plays on television or film. But he is also a man with patience — accepting the lows of a mercurial profession with equanimity and willing to wait for the highs that can keep his fire burning
“I feel that every year, I need to do at least one role that keeps the inner actor in me alive. The other roles can help the external actor, the one who needs to pay the bills and run a home.”
It must get frustrating, I comment.
“It does, sometimes, especially because we now have access to OTT platforms and are aware of the kind of work that is being done internationally. Still, it’s important to remember that this is all part of this career,” Sami shrugs.
The acting world in Pakistan may have its pros and cons but, regardless, Sami Khan’s prowess is undeniable. He performs effortlessly, getting into the skin of the character, enacting the good guy quite as smoothly as the manipulative villain, the village bumpkin or the street-smart shoda (rogue). His fan-base extends far and wide, beyond just social media to the bona fide TV-watching audience across the country.
“There is a world beyond social media,” he points out to me, “although sadly, a lot of people now look at social media followings as a benchmark for an actor’s success.”
These people are, of course, corporate sponsors who have the final word in striking lucrative deals with actors.
“Earlier, actors who were good at what they did were taken on board. Now, the ones with large social media followings are often lauded.” He continues, “For me, social media doesn’t hold much charm. I may sometimes become active when it’s required of me to promote a project. But otherwise, I like to stay in my shell and don’t want to constantly put myself out there.”
In front of the camera, the shell fades away fast enough though. How does he prepare for a role?
“When I read a script, I try to feel the character that I’ll be playing. Even before signing on to a role, I discuss the drama with the director so that I can understand the vision behind the story. Then, I start thinking about the character so that, when I’m finally in front of the camera, the dialogues come naturally to me.”
Does this mean that he only takes on one script at a time? “That usually isn’t possible in our industry and the great thing is that, as actors, we learn to adapt,” he says. “We really can’t compare our acting methodologies to those in Bollywood and Hollywood. Those are bigger industries catering to bigger markets and, therefore, they have bigger budgets.
“Actors there can afford to set aside their schedule for a single project. Here, limited finances usually don’t allow us to sign on to a single drama at a time. I make it a point not to shoot scenes of two different dramas in a single day. I also try to shoot in spells of 10 or 15 days so that, for a particular span of time, I’m focusing on just one storyline.”
We really can’t compare our acting methodologies to those in Bollywood and Hollywood. Those are bigger industries catering to bigger markets and, therefore, they have bigger budgets.”
What role of his does he consider his best to date? “There are a few,” he ponders. “One of them is Ghar Ki Khaatir, a PTV play which aired before the social media era and so isn’t very well-known now. It was produced by PTV Quetta Centre and told the story of a nomad who eventually turns into a terrorist. I was awarded the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz for the drama. It tackled a proper social issue and was a far cry from the usual saas-bahu stories.”
He continues, “I also enjoyed working in Aisi Hai Tanhai and in Tau Dil Ka Kya Hua, where I had to walk a very fine line with my character.”
Are these the roles that fans talk to him most about when they bump into him? Sami laughs.
“We live in a world where people have very short attention spans, so usually they just discuss whatever play is airing on TV at the time. Aisi Hai Tanhai gets mentioned a lot. I love getting feedback from fans in person. It’s very genuine, unlike the observations made by social media’s invisible keyboard warriors.
“Once I was at a store and an older lady stopped me and asked me, ‘Beta, Sara ka kya hoga’ [What will happen to Sara]? I thought that she was asking about my sister-in-law Sara, and I got confused. Then she continued, ‘but you divorced her’. That’s when I realised that she was talking about a drama that was airing on TV at the time. Some fans really do watch dramas that seriously!
“And recently, I was in interior Sindh and these young boys on set kept mentioning my character in Dil Zaar Zaar which is airing right now. They kept talking about how he behaves and talks. This is the real drama audience which watches TV religiously.”
Shobi, the character he enacts in Dil Zaar Zaar, really does catch attention. Kohl-eyed, smirking, he is the man that the female lead dislikes but ends up having to marry. Sami muses, “Shobi is actually a simple character. With a character like that, it’s important to add little details, such as mannerisms, a certain way of talking or walking, in order to make it memorable.
“It’s actually really strange. Whenever I have worked on a drama that is different, it doesn’t do well. When I sign on to a more run-of-the-mill script, it’s always a hit!” he laughs.
Such are the mysterious ways of TV viewership ratings in Pakistan. Even when he takes on a typical commercially viable script, does he take a stand when it comes to certain aspects of the script, such as the portrayal of domestic violence?
“I’m careful, yes,” he says. “I have a daughter of my own and I try to opt for storylines that empower women. Still, it’s important to take into account what a slap in a drama is trying to depict. Sometimes, it acts as a mirror to society.
“I was once shooting a scene in a house in DHA in Karachi, where the groom slaps the bride on their wedding night. I had my reservations and I had argued with the director that this doesn’t happen in reality. However, the owner of the house started crying while we were shooting, confessing that the same had happened to her.”
What about enacting roles that rely on bawdy humour, such as in Wrong No. 2, his movie which was a commercial hit but featured plenty of suggestive, racy jokes?
“Cinema is a completely different medium,” he points out. “People have the option to go and buy a ticket and see a movie [or not] and they have some idea about the kind of movie it will be, based on the trailer. Wrong No. 2 was a movie for the masses, and it did extremely well at the box office.
“I saw it with my family and we laughed while seeing it, just like we do when we see a similar kind of Bollywood or Hollywood movie. What I found strange was that we easily accept such international movies and they even do well in our cinemas but, as soon as a Pakistani movie is made along the same lines, we take offence. Having said this, we always knew that we couldn’t cross certain lines with the movie, and we didn’t.”
I change tack to ask him about another movie of his: Kaaf Kangana, which got torn apart by critics and bombed badly at the box office. There was a time when Sami had had high hopes for the movie and had talked about how he had set aside a large chunk of dates for it. Unfortunately, the movie went through multiple cast changes, reshoots and delays and the final version ended up being a strange mish-mash.
“There were problems with Kaaf Kangana but I learnt a lot from it,” he says. “Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar is a great writer. Perhaps, if the script had been in the hands of a better director [Qamar was also the director], it could have been a much better movie. Yes, the songs and screenplay could also have been improved.”
The female lead of the movie was changed multiple times. Did he, as the male lead, face issues of his own with Qamar, the movie’s writer, director, producer, song-writer extraordinaire?
“I keep to myself and I think that helps avoid conflict,” Sami observes. “I remember I dubbed for the movie and then left without checking it. Khalil sahib called me and asked me to come and check it. When I did, there was a lot that I could improve upon. For me, it was a learning experience.”
And then, when the movie didn’t do well, how did he feel? He says, “I had done my work and there was nothing that I could do at that point. I let it be.”
The mercurial ways of the cinema box office haven’t dissuaded Sami from acting in movies. His film Yaara Vey is scheduled to release on June 17 this year. Another film, Lafangay, is slotted for an Eid-ul-Azha release. He has also acted in The Window, which also stars Faran Tahir and is the first Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG)-approved script to be shot in Pakistan.
Then, he also has a procession of television dramas in the works: Grey directed by Sohail Javaid, Mera Pyar Deewangi directed by Aabis Raza and Mohabbat Ki Aakhri Kahani directed by Mohsin Ali.
Eighteen years into his career, Sami still has a youthful appearance and easily epitomises the chocolate hero. What’s his secret?
“I’m lucky,” he admits. “Bollywood director Subhash Ghai once told me that, during casting, an actor’s screen age is considered rather than the actual age, i.e., how old he or she looks on screen. I suppose I have a young screen age.”
There have been times, though, when Sami has had to bear criticism related to his looks. He recalls acting in the drama Inkaar in 2019, at a time when he was suffering a spate of bad health. “People started commenting on social media that I looked strange and it was very hurtful at the time,” he says.
But even social media bullies don’t make it a habit of trolling Sami Khan. Within the industry, he enjoys goodwill amongst his peers, working consistently with a varied range of actors, directors and channels. He steers clear of controversy and, in fact, his Instagram profile features his little daughter quite often — desi social media does love a family man!
More than anything else, Sami Khan is an extremely talented actor, breathing life into every character that he plays. “I don’t make any tall claims about the work that I do,” he says, “but I try to do good, distinctive work whenever I can.”
And even when he’s stuck in a generic role, he makes it look good. That’s exceptional.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, April 17th, 2022