With the revival of Pakistan’s cinema industry has come the revival of profiling "the star." "Where did you grow up?" and "Was acting always your passion?" open up the questioning from writers for both the established and the rising stars, the former question on where these screen presences grew up can often be met with hubs of the industry, Karachi or Lahore, but there is just as solid a thriving population of talent growing out of Pakistan’s oft dismissed twin cities.
Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the sister cities bordering (and juxtaposing) one another in the nation’s capital, have produced more than a handful of some of the biggest names in film and television today: The Hocane sisters, Mawra and Urwa? Islamabad. Hamza Ali Abbasi of screens and Twitter? Islamabad. The brilliant and dreamy Adnan Malik? You guessed it, Islamabad! The extremely talented and critically acclaimed Zahid Ahmed (Visaal, Ishq Zahe Naseeb) and Jibran Khan (Chup Raho)? Both from Rawalpindi. Yes, Pindi boys.
Just take a glance at the Eid ul Azha releases for more convincing clarity.
Heer Maan Ja, the latest from IRK Films (bonus Islamabadi: producer Imran Ali Kazmi) stars his actors of choice and fellow Capital dwellers Ali Rehman Khan and Hareem Farooq (also a producer on the film) both from Islamabad. Also in the film is another Rawalpindi native, Ahmed Ali Akbar (hot off his critically acclaimed role in this year’s Laal Kabootar). That’s just one film.
Mahira Khan and Bilal Ashraf’s new film Superstar features several surprise cameos we can expect to gasp at on the big screen, including Islamabad’s top man Osman Khalid Butt, whose current starrer Baaji continues to dominate the box office as well as one of the most in demand talents of the industry, actor Hania Amir (Janaan, Visaal and these days, Ana). There’s more.
Parey Hut Love, the Sheheryar Munawar (Ho Maan Jahan) and Maya Ali (Mann Mayal, Teefa in Trouble) romantic comedy directed by Asim Raza features a supporting role by Shahbaz Shigri, a native of Islamabad whose career is steeped in entertainment with a number of directorial credits under his belt, including music videos (for which he has been nominated for a Lux Style Award). Shahbaz also served as an assistant director on the Mahira Khan starrer Verna, some of which was shot in Islamabad. Faheem Azam, a stand-up comic from Islamabad is also in the film.
Like Shigri and Azam there are many rising stars, who have studied their craft in Islamabad or Pindi and are worth keeping an eye on. One who has been on the rise for the last few years and is a force to reckon with on the small screen is Mariyam Nafees. Active since 2015, the actor has amassed 12 credits to her name including the adored Diyar-e-Dil with fellow Islamabadi Osman Khalid Butt.
More recently, she appeared in Dil Kya Karey, a Mehreen Jabbar directorial in which Mariyam plays the emancipated sister of protagonist, Feroze Khan.
And then there’s rising star Usman Mukhtar, who starred in IRK Films’ (really a hub of Islamabad and Pindi talent enthusiasm) Janaan in 2016 and Parchi in 2018, and just recently, made his drama serial debut in Ana; Usman is a native of Rawalpindi. With acting in his blood (his mom is screen legend Nasira) Mukhtar like many (and we mean MANY) from the sleepy cities got his start in theatre as recently as July, where he played Imran Khan in Anwar Maqsood’s stage play Naach na Jaanay in Islamabad.
Hareem Farooq, Osman Khalid Butt, Ali Rehman Khan and Mariam Saleem (Vasl-e-Yaar, Khuda Mera Bhi Hai) are definitely names to watch out for; they all started their careers on the stage in Islamabad’s strong theatre scene in the early 2000s. Theatre is actually something that other budding actors from Islamabad say plays a strong role in answering why so many actors come from the city.
"It was a very good time for plays here, there was variety, quality, dedication and talent," actor Salman Shaukat told Instep. "The skills learnt on stage in those early years lit a fire in these people and carried through I think, influencing others as well. Shaukat is another young actor from Islamabad who has played smaller roles in 2015’s Jalaibee, Verna and Parchi, and whose next small role is in perhaps the most highly anticipated upcoming film releasing out of Pakistan: The Legend of Maula Jatt.
"Theatre is very much alive in these cities. PNCA, Rawalpindi Arts Council and many private groups are active," Safeer Ullah Khan, a director and teacher at the Islamabad theatre house company, Theatre Wallay, shared with Instep. "People with experience of theatre performances always have an edge over other actors. Hence, this could be a reason."
Theatre Wallay not only brings productions to life but also helps actors hone in on their craft and sharpen their skillset with acting classes, improv trainings and study. That comic we mentioned before, Faheem Azam, who plays a supporting role in Parey Hut Love, has acted and studied with Theatre Wallay. Other culture initiatives like Kuch Khaas have played influential roles on the thespian scene.
"It’s a very interesting question - ‘Why do actors seem to come from Islamabad and Pindi in disproportionate number?’ - but there isn’t a clear answer," says Khan. "These are deprived cities in terms of TV and film productions, and maybe it is a reaction to this deprivation that people from these cities are eager to get into this profession."
"I know innate talent plays a huge part as well," Mustafa Ali Khan, another budding actor from the theatre scene who played a supporting role in 2017’s Balu Mahi, told Instep. "A lot of us Islamabad and Rawalpindi kids have to rely more on our imagination and make-belief. It being the cliched dead city and all."
One cannot write an article about Islamabad or Pindi without at least one jab to the obvious: the cities are (at times unfairly) stamped "boring." Compared to their edgier cooler siblings Lahore and Karachi, Islamabad and especially Rawalpindi (we love you) lack in a few departments. Where we excel in greenery, clean air and understated approaches, we lack in culinary expansion, entertainment and nightlife.
Khan told Instep about the often overseen bonus of being in Islamabad; it is where a lot of the TV channels made homes for their head quarters.
"A major reason so many come from here could also be the kind of exposure we got growing up. Most of the really good actors started out doing theatre, especially back when there was a lot of it going on in Islamabad. And some of those actors come from households that have creative genes passed down to them, or have interacted with a lot of creative people. Islamabad being the HQ for PTV, Radio and PNCA meant that a lot of artists made this city their home. And growing up, seeing these artists, interacting with them, being exposed to their work much closely, certainly had an impact."
Whether it is the influence of theatre or the presence of veteran actors settling down in the city; the need to get clever when tackling boredom or the motivation that stemmed from the lack of access to an industry that seemed far away? Maybe it is the need for development and self-preservation by creating avenues where there are none too readily available. Whatever it is, it’s working and there is an undeniable surge of talent from the nation’s capital making its way to our screens.