The man with many faces

November 15, 2020

Having over two decades of work behind him, Ahsan Khan has proven his mettle as an actor of highest caliber, which is why people are confused by some of the choices he makes. He talks about his selection process and how it helps him stay sane in an increasingly zany industry.

It’s been 22 years since Ahsan Khan first set foot on a set, kickstarting a career that has the trajectory of a guided missile. Countless TV plays later, it can be said with full authority that he belongs to the pool of veterans that transform according to the mould given to them, convincingly and effortlessly. Just looking at his roster of work in the past few years alone is validation enough.

Ahsan took us back to 1947 in Khadija Mastoor’s period play, Aangan (2018); Safdar was a small but extremely strong part of the play. His comic timing surfaced in the insanely popular Baraat series (2011, 2012) and then last year in Shahrukh Ki Saaliyan. Jumping from comedy to spirituality, he then won his fans over in Alif (2019). Taha Abul Ala, he says, is a role he wanted to play from the heart and his passion for the project showed in his work. Having played the romantic hero countless times, it was then the abhorrent pedophile he played in Udaari (2016) that certified that this was an actor with the potential to do anything. It wouldn’t also be wrong to say that Ahsan’s character in Udaari, Pa Imtiaz actually helped start the conversation around child abuse on a mass level. He also picked up numerous awards for it.

Having delivered such substantial work, why did he agree to take on a character as senseless and naive as Umar in the currently playing drama serial Bandhay Aik Dour Se. He laughed, as we settled down to chat, last week in Karachi.

“I felt as if I’d been playing very intense roles lately, so I wanted to do something run of the mill,” he replied. “But I was still careful about what I chose. This play has normal, basic characters. It has family values. I loved the script and despite the character’s shortcomings, I had to give it my best performance.”

How did you envision the character when you read the script and the way Umar was written?

“I thought that there are so many people around us who have zero value for what they have. And it’s in our nature to want things that run away from us. You know how they say that love makes you blind; I think this term was written specially for Omar,” he replied, well aware that his character was getting a lot of flak for being so gutless. “I’m playing a young boy, who’s about 27, 28 years old. I know lots of such people of this age who have just completed their studies and are just as naïve. Plus, the character has connected with the masses. The other day, I was shooting an outdoor scene for Yasir Nawaz’s film near Ranchore lines and people around kept shouting at me, ‘Which girl will you go to, why aren’t you figuring it out!’

“This is actually the second Umar I’ve played who’s a simpleton,” he laughed when sharing: “First in Mere Qatil Mere Dildar and now Bandhe. In Mere Qatil, he wasn’t able to get rights for his wife and everyone around him manipulated him, including his brother. Having said that, these are characters that I have been given, and I have to portray because I’ve signed the project.”

One character he didn’t have to apologize for at all was Taha Abul Ala in Umera Ahmed’s Alif. Taha was written as a complex character, son of a calligrapher who loses his gift when he falls out of his father’s graces for falling in love with a dancer. Shattered to the core, he abandons his wife and son and ultimately dies in solitude. Ahsan managed to tap into the depths of Taha, his dedication to his craft, his infatuation and love for this woman and their son and ultimately the guilt that envelopes him and pushes him into self destruction. Not many people could have portrayed Taha as effectively.

Did Ahsan at any point feel that he shouldn’t accept a supporting role, that of the central character, Momin’s (Hamza Ali Abbasi) father?

“As a formula, the length and number of scenes is what matters to people,” he replied. “With Alif, I was told that it’s kind of a guest appearance and at first I thought this character might not be visible becaue others are so strong. How will I make my place in this play? But I did it and I don’t think I’ve ever played a character that was so rooted in reality. Plus, with a good team – such great actors - and a good director, you will always learn. Haseeb is a wonderful director and I wanted to work with him.”

Alif did get incredible critical acclaim but did it get the kind of viewership that it should have?

“When you talk about TRPs, there’s an explanation for it,” Ahsan explained. “We have limited meters in Pakistan, and where they are located, people over there like a certain kind of content and that’s okay. We can’t say that if something didn’t get ratings, people didn’t like it. Plus, Meray Paas Tum Ho was also on air at the same time and everyone was watching that. The timing, I think, shouldn’t have clashed. But on YouTube the views were crazy. Speaking for myself, I have to say that ratings do matter but job satisfaction also matters. I ask myself, am I enjoying this script? Will I love doing this role? Then ratings and reviews follow later. If I don’t like doing something then why would others like it?”

Taha Abul Ala in drama serial Alif is a role he wanted to play from the heart and his passion for the project showed in his work. Having played the romantic hero countless times, it was then the abhorrent pedophile he played in Udaari that certified that this was an actor with the potential to do anything.

The most satisfying role in Ahsan’s career, he would agree, would be Udaari’s Pa Imtiaz, a man who marries an older woman to prey on her young daughter. The performance was chilling, the message impactful to the effect that Ahsan himself had to take time out and away to detox from it. To play a character so evil; was that a decision that came easily to him?

“At that point, I just wanted to do something different,” he remembered. “Eversince I was a child, I’d always wanted to do the opposite of what everyone else was doing. I did Preet Na Kariyo and then I did Paani Jaisa Pyaar with Saba Qamar, in which I played a rapist. Everyone asked why I was doing these negative roles at a time in my career when I was getting offers to play the hero. But I had played the hero and I got Udaari becaue I had done the other two negative roles.”

Ahsan has also dabbled in cinema, in fact his foray into acting was with the film Nikkah in 1998. Though he did a couple in between, it was then Chupan Chupai in 2017 that showed him off as a film star, an actor that had presence on TV and could also hold his own on the big screen. His chemistry with co-actor Neelum Muneer was also appreciated, one reason why he is working on a second film with her.

“I am working on Yasir Nawaz’s next film, Chakkar,” he confirmed. “The genre of this film is a bit of an experiment for Pakistan. It’s a suspense/thriller type of film. Yasir plays one character and Neelam is in it too. She’s a wonderful actor and people want to see us together.”

What about the much talked about Rehbraa with Ayesha Omar…wasn’t that supposed to release ages ago?

“People found out about Rehbraa much too soon,” he admitted. “The media started talking about it and we did some photoshoots prematurely, at a time when the film’s shooting hadn’t even begun. We had just signed the film. Shooting started eight months after all that media hype, which is why it seemed to be overstretched. The film was 70% complete earlier this year but then a couple of things happened; the producer had to go to the US and then Covid brought things to a halt.”

The coronavirus may have stopped the filming of Rehbraa and slowed down many other things but Ahsan’s work progresses as it did before. These days he is shooting for upcoming drama serial Qayamat, which should air by the end of the year, he shared. In Qayamat he will play a character which is the complete opposite of Umar; it’s a negative role. On maintaining a certain look for a role, Ahsan is very clear that he doesn’t shoot two dramas at the same time just so that he can maintain the look for his character. This is another marking of a solid actor, one who isn’t tempted by everything that comes his way.

How did he maintain his cool and composure at a time when everyone was running for more fame, more fortune and above all, more social media popularity?

“Our problem is that we’ve forgotten how to deal with stress and we’re stressing over the wrong things,” he concluded. “We become jittery and destructive all too easily. Even our religion teaches patience but we have no patience. We’re always in a rush. We post a picture on social media and then worry about its likes. We do a drama and worry about its views. Mental health is real and all these things impact it. I try to focus on my work and stay away from distractions as much as I can. At the end of the day, it’s family that grounds you and brings sanity to your life.”

The man with many faces