Television’s charismatic chameleon

March 29, 2020

Working within an incredible range, Faysal Quraishi has mastered the art of performance. Talking of 27 years and countless characters behind him, he speaks about the TV industry and its evolution.

Faysal is currently playing the influential Sardar Saif ur Rehman, a Cambridge read Sindhi feudal, in drama serial Muqaddar; it’s the latest in a series of strong characters he has delivered in the past two years.

Days before the city went into strict lockdown to combat the deadly coronavirus, one had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Faysal Quraishi, undoubtedly one of the most talented actors in the entertainment industry today. These days he’s playing the influential Sardar Saif ur Rehman, a Cambridge read Sindhi feudal, in drama serial Muqaddar; it’s the latest in a series of strong characters he has delivered in the past two years. Working with an incredible range for performance, Faysal portrayed two ends of the heroic-to-villainous, with drama serials Haiwaan and Baba Jani. As different as chalk and cheese, both characters and the ease with which he rendered the pedophile and then the angelic family man, reinforced his strength as an actor.

We met at our office, Faysal walking in wearing a Givenchy jacket and all-black look, very different from his onscreen avatar these days. His Man Friday accompanied him, a personal assistant who carried his ‘protective gear’ which included his mask, hand sanitizer, bottled water and anything he may need when stepping out of the house. It was allowed to step out of the house back then; one never thought the time would come when urban beings were under house arrest, against an invisible threat to mankind. Faysal’s precautionary measures were an impressive acknowledgement of the bizarre lockdown we’re living through.

We sat down and began the conversation with work in the wake of the virus…

“Some people may still be silently shooting but I most certainly am not,” he began. “If the government has asked people to stay home and observe social distancing then we must think about the reason behind this request. China has managed to flatten the curve because they put a halt to everything, all possible activity. There are around forty people on our set, on average, and by being out to work we are putting everyone at risk. And even if we are trying to improve the hygiene conditions at work, we will never have the kind of facilities to sterilize areas. We don’t have the kind of sprays that are being done at airports. So we need to stop. I even requested the UPA (United Producers Association) to halt all productions officially.”

With Haroon Shahid, Madiha Imam and other members from the cast and crew of Muqaddar.

The government ordered a complete lockdown a day or two later, but luckily we had managed to speak about Faysal’s current projects, the film he has apparently shelved and where the TV industry stood today. Muqaddar, he shared, had been completed in December so its airtime would not be disturbed. That would be a relief for his fans, who were all praise for his performance as Sardar Saif ur Rehman. Muqaddar was apparently about power play and dominance but Faysal unveiled some unknown facts about the story.

“Sardar isn’t a completely bad man,” he smiled. “If he wanted, he could do a lot, but he hasn’t and doesn’t. This serial is serial written and directed by women. There is always a thin line between what is acceptable and what isn’t, but they know what to do. The director Shehrezad, for example, clearly said that no woman would get slapped in this story. There are certain topics that are handled better by women so I’m happy with Muqaddar. Another script came to me and the story was difficult; I suggested that a woman write the story so that it can have balance. I think that Muqaddar has been treated well.” He added that it would evolve into a love story.

You’ve played a pedophile in Haiwan and now there is Saif ur Rehman, another proverbial bad boy. Why do you think audiences find negative characters or bad boys so interesting?

“I am surprised too,” he confessed with honesty. “When I did Haiwan, I was getting messages that nothing should happen to Hameed, who was a child molester and deserved to be punished. I was shocked and wrote back, asking people to change the way they think. He deserved the hardest punishment. I don’t know what’s wrong with these people. But Haiwan was outright dark. Muqaddar’s Saif ur Rehman is a grey character. He may have an entitled attitude and aggressive side but he is also good and caring. He’s not outright bad so there is room for change.”

Do you, as a veteran actor, influence the way a character is written?

“Yes, often. Men like Saif ur Rehman do exist and there are reasons for why they are the way they are. All our lives we thought of Joker as the villain; now we see him as a tragic hero. We understand his pain. It’s all about perspective. Why is Saif ur Rehman the way he is? It’s a feudal mentality and it doesn’t change. Even if men like Saif ur Rehman are educated and progressive on one side, they have the feudal mentality when they are with their families and likeminded people.”

On his method of preparing for the role, Faisal spoke about working on his accent and even though he doesn’t speak Sindhi, he managed to pick up certain phrases that he would communicate with his staff.

“Shehrezad wanted me to have a mild accent, not an overwhelming one,” he gave credit to the director. “Saif ur Rehman doesn’t speak Sindhi with his wife or daughter but with his staff. Shehrezad was very particular about details; she wanted a certain look for my character: kurtas with puckered sleeves, heavy shalwars etc. A lot of attention was paid to detail.”

Muqaddar’s actual story takes off after Saif ur Rehman and Raima, the leading lady (played by Madiha Imam) get married, he revealed.

Meanwhile, one was interested to know the future of a film he announced more than a year ago. Sorry: A Love Story was positioned as his first film production, directed by Sohail Javed and starring Faysal himself, Zahid Khan, Faryal Mehmood and Aaminah Sheikh in lead roles. Sometime later, allegations of sexual abuse rose against Sohail Javed and production of the film stopped.

“I stopped the project,” Faysal shared. “And I have to give credit that he (Sohail) agreed that we couldn’t let the film suffer. So the issue had to be addressed. There were allegations and one case is still in the court. But on a personal level, as a Muslim, I felt that if someone was swearing upon the Quran then I could not doubt that person. Sohail said that if it’s ever proven that I’ve lied then you can shoot me because I’ll be damaging you as well as my children. So I stopped and shelved things for a while. We have a mutual understanding that if the court rules against him then we’ll replace him in the movie and will get a new director.”

We know that the judicial system can be unfair and people also swear falsely on the Quran, I pointed out.

“Yes I agree, but we have to go with what the court decides. I also have to say that I know this person for the last 20 years and fooling around is one thing but I don’t think this person would have the guts to do something this grave. I’m not taking his side but just sharing what I feel. There were 30-35 women who had spoken against Sohail and they’ve all apologized on Facebook, admitting that they were wrong. But look, nothing concrete has emerged yet; the courts are still processing this and I am waiting. I am hopeful that the truth will come to the limelight. Both parties in this case are my friends and I am caught between them. I am waiting.”

Having worked in the industry for 27 years, how strong do you feel is its moral fibre and what needs to change? There were things acceptable 15 years ago that are no longer acceptable now.

“Things keep evolving and times change,” he replied. “We have a different strata of actors now; the perception of the kind of girls and boys coming into show business has changed. What is acceptable and what is unacceptable has changed. If you watch films from the 80s, you’ll see heroes and heroines slapping each other around. There was a predominant chauvinism in films in the past; even superhero films were very chauvinist and male dominated but that has changed now. We see women having much more meaningful roles. I do feel we’re on the right track.”

I’m also referring to off-screen work ethics. Do you mean to say there’s no harassment in the industry? There’s no casting couch?

“Who’s your country’s biggest superstar? Mahira Khan. She’s never experienced anything. A lot depends on the girl. There are so many girls who have pride and courage and no one would dare cross the line they have drawn around themselves. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that women are not getting harassed; I am not victim blaming. They are and so are men, it applies to both. But there are all sorts of people and some opt to make the wrong choices. They are willing to bend the rules for work and certain privileges. So what if you’re not getting work, I say?

“There are all sorts of people in every profession and we have to deal with them,” he continued. “There are directors who make actors and actresses do strange things, although none of that is ever shown on television. There are casting agencies that keep an unfair cut of whatever a new artist is making; that has to be addressed. There is all sorts of exploitation. There are problems and we need to make a system in which we address and solve these problems. As a producer, I want to know if there is ever any kind of abuse on my set…there would be no tolerance for it. Therefore no one crosses the line. That said, boys will be boys and their humour is very different from girls. Often three boys will sit and make jokes that women may find offensive…that’s just how it is. But we wouldn’t crack the same jokes in front of girls; a certain level of decorum needs to be maintained.

“Like on the set of Muqaddar, there are certain lines that Madiha doesn’t cross,” he went on. “She’s very careful and draws a line at intimacy on screen. We respect that. There was another girl who refused a project because she felt the character had to cross a line which she was unwilling to. We respect that. These principles apply on screen and off screen. Girls and boys draw their own lines. I always say that anyone asking for money to promote you will never get you work. Whoever is demanding unethical favours will exploit you; they will never help you. Beware of these characters. Stay away from them. Youngsters need to be able to recognize them.”

The conversation continued, with Faysal citing Big Bang, 7th Sky Entertainment, idreams and MD productions as respectable production houses where you’d never hear anything fishy happening on sets. There was a need for actors to be aware of what was happening and for producers to ensure a window of communication so that the cast and crew could register a complain when and if they needed to.

As a veteran, as an actor and producer, Faysal does have a responsibility to also draw the line wherever he can, to ensure work ethics are implemented. One hopes this is another role he’ll play to just as much perfection.

Faysal Quraishi, television’s charismatic chameleon