The man who would be ‘Sultan’

April 5, 2020

Having spent 20 years on stage and onscreen, Saleem Mairaj has proven to be one of the most versatile actors in the industry today. But is he satisfied with the trajectory of his career?

Mega-hit TV serial Alif, an adaptation of Umera Ahmed’s novel directed by Haseeb Hasan and featuring a stellar cast headlined by Hamza Ali Abbasi, Sajal Aly, Manzar Sehbai, Kubra Khan and Ahsan Khan, raised the bar on Pakistani TV productions. The appreciation for its theme and story, writing, direction, cinematography and of course, performances poured in and amongst those most highly praised was the brilliant portrayal of Sultan, played by Saleem Mairaj.

The veteran actor’s character was layered and complex, rendered so effortlessly, which indeed was a testament to his brilliance as a performer. As Sultan Shah, he was one of the rivets in the story, proving that you don’t have to be lead actor to be consequential. Instep met the talented thespian just before the Corona Lockdown and asked him about the experience of working in Alif, his upcoming projects and his possible return to his first love, theatre.

Instep on Sunday: How did you feel when the role of Sultan was offered to you?

Saleem Mairaj: When Haseeb Hasan offered me Alif, I accepted it because he was offering it. Haseeb is one of the best directors around, whom I trust blindly and love to work with. As for the character’s status, whichever role I accept, in my view that’s the hero of the play.

IoS: Do tell us something about the experience of working with Kubra Khan and Sajal Aly in Alif. Sultan is so close to both of them…

SM: The character of Sultan Shah had three different shades; he fell in love with Husn-e-Jahan when she was at the peak of her career, then helped her when she came back as a crushed person, and finally as the father of Momina, who joined the two generations. The love he had for both women was so positive and we hardly see that in our dramas anymore. As an actor I got to play different variations of the same character and I enjoyed doing that after a long time. This was not the first time I played Sajal’s dad; I played both her husband and father in Kashif Nisar’s Sannata (she played both the wife and daughter in that). However, in Alif, we had a great time because most of our scenes had fewer dialogues and more expressions and when you have a brilliant actress in front of you, the result is magical. I hardly ever watch my work when it’s aired but the scenes with Sajal in Alif are the ones that I could watch anytime.

IoS: You started your career as a theatre artist; do you ever miss performing in front of a live audience?

SM: Of course I do. Theatre played the most important part in my development as an actor because I got to learn a lot while working with people like Sania Saeed, Shahid Shafaat and Sheema Kirmani. I used to give equal time to both TV and theatre before I dabbled into films. The actor inside me enjoys performing on stage but sadly, due to time constraints, I have not been able to perform on stage since 2012. I might go for it if a good script and team comes my way because I don’t want the actor inside me to die. It is my duty as a thespian to do theatre with upcoming actors, even if it means taking a hit financially. Performing in front of a live audience is priceless!

IoS: Everything is on a standstill in Pakistan these days but you have a few films that are near completion. Tell us something about those projects?

SM: Dr. Abdul Khaliq’s Lafangay is an out-and-out comedy that revolves around four guys played by Sami Khan, Mani, Mubeen Gabol and myself. My character is a little louder than most of my roles, but there is a reason behind it. I am also part of Ehteshamuddin’s Dam Mastam that has been penned by Amar Khan and features me, Imran Ashraf and the writer besides other actors. The character I play in the film is an extension of ‘Mehboob bhai’ from Actor In Law and while Mehboob was more Karachi centric, the character in Dam Mastam is from Lahore. I would call my cameo in Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad as something that was ‘due’ on me since Na Maloom Afraad. Back then, a first-time director Nabeel Qureshi convinced me for a cameo that clicked despite my initial refusal, but after six years and two more films, I didn’t need any convincing.

IoS: Like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Om Puri and at times Naseeruddin Shah, you’ve excelled in supporting characters but never made it to the frontline as hero. Why do you think?

SM: I feel that I play hero all the time! Just look at the Laal Kabootar character; it came so late in the film but the film revolved around him, as he was the one wearing the ‘laal cap. I may have looked like the villain on screen but whatever I was doing, that was heroic from my point of view. Similarly, I was the hero in Kaash Main Teri Beti Na Hoti ka, Mann Mayal, and even Alif through the same logic.

IoS: Have you ever thought of going behind the camera yourself?

SM: I have thought about it but maybe in the future as right now I am enjoying myself as an actor. Three of my Prime Time dramas Alif, Damsa and Deewar-e-Shab recently concluded their run while I had five film releases in 2019, so I am not in a hurry. Whenever I decide to go behind the camera, it would be something simple, on the lines of Ehteshamuddin’s Shah Rukh Khan Ki Maut, which was low budget, had good content and timeless execution.

IoS: Any plans to venture into the digital medium or would you prefer to stick to films and television?

SM: All I can say is that I don’t plan ahead and if it is His will that I should go digital, He will guide me. I would like to take this opportunity to thank people like Sania Saeed, Shahid Shafaat, Nadia Jamil, Humayun Saeed, Haseeb Hasan, Ehteshamuddin, Saife Hasan, Mehreen Jabbar and Kashif Nisar who I believe found pleasure in seeing me grow as an actor. Meeting them was the best thing to happen to me and I can’t thank them enough for their guidance.


– Omair Alavi is a freelance broadcast journalist who can be contacted at [email protected]

Saleem Mairaj: The man who would be ‘Sultan’