In conversation with Shahzad Sheikh

August 1, 2021

From a heroic protagonist to a devious serial rapist, Shahzad Sheikh talks about his career and his hunger for roles with substance.

In conversation with Shahzad Sheikh

Shahzad Sheikh’s acting career began in 2010 with Dreamers (Season I), on AAG TV opposite Ainy Jaffery and Furqan Qureshi. He played a dreamy college kid in the sitcom directed by Azfar Ali of Sub Set Hai fame. Dreamers was quite a novelty amidst weeping soaps and serials back in the decade. Eleven years on, with two feature films, 23 telefilms, and over three dozen drama serials under his belt, armed with a degree in method acting from the New York Film Academy, Shahzad Sheikh is still hungry for roles that can challenge him as an actor.

His character Irtaza, in GEO TV’s Raaz-e-Ulfat, was the chocolate hero wrapped in a shiny romantic love triangle and plenty of drama. Shahzad’s portrayal of the flawed Irtaza won wide acclaim. The story, written by Maha Malik and directed by Siraj-Ul-Haq, remained in the spotlight because of its stellar cast, starring Yumna Zaidi, Shahzad Sheikh, Komal Aziz Khan, and Gohar Rasheed, and dramatic storytelling.

After recently featuring in a digital short film, titled Garmee, Sheikh has been making waves with his latest social justice thriller, Phaans, which has been written by Samina Ijaz and directed by Syed Ahmed Kamran. The last few explosive episodes of Phaans turned the tables for Shahzad Sheikh as a performer and all for the better.

He plays the role of Saahil, a serial rapist who fakes mental disabilities as a hoax to fool people into thinking he is an innocent child trapped in an adult’s body. His effortless performance almost led audiences to root for him, and his sinister transformative scenes stole the show. The intensity with which his character switches from a lewd, perverted man, back to his public persona is laudable.

Sheikh himself observes how this negative role seems to have outshone all heroic roles that he has played in the past. Sheikh sat down to have a candid tête-à-tête with Instep and shared his journey of essaying the role of Sahil in Phaans and how he is still hungry for roles with substance.

Instep: How did the role of Sahil in Phaans come to you and what made you say yes?

SS: I got a call from Mahesh right after I finished shooting for Raaz-e-Ulfat, who pitched me Phaans and I instantly refused because I said I am not comfortable with playing the role. Three days later, Ahmed Kamran (the director) called me and explained the entire story in person to me after which I said yes. I initially refused the role because the plot centred around rape and the driving force of the story had several negative elements. We already depict so many vices on television and the plots are centred around defeatists and villains, and I did not want to be the one to promote all this on television. However, this is the reality and someone has to do it. I haven’t done such a character in my career, I was a bit nervous as well. Sahil in Phaans has several different layers as a character, and he doesn’t walk with just one shade and I wanted to challenge myself as an actor. We’re all tired of doing routine work you know: the same foreign-educated boy who falls head-over-heels in love with some girl and then the issues that obstruct their banal romantic relationship that follow.

Instep: How did you prepare for the role, which became increasingly complex?

SS: This character was incredibly challenging for me. We were supposed to shoot right before the pandemic hit us. I had to wait for about a year for this project to start. This role was so different, I decided to not pick up any projects and I sat at home for 15 months with Sahil in my mind. The lockdown turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it gave me ample time to research and embody Sahil’s persona, his behaviour, his delivery, his body language, his characteristics and mannerisms. I read up about autism and also watched several movies for reference. I drew a rough sketch for Sahil which comprised bits and pieces from everything I had read and watched, and began to rehearse one day before the mirror and my wife disapproved of the character I had created.

I was about 10 days away from shoot and I just unlearned everything I had learned, and went on set with a clean slate. I didn’t want other iconic characters to creep into Sahil, so on day one, I performed instinctively, and we just built from that.

We’re all tired of doing routine work: the same foreign-educated boy who falls head-over-heels in love with some girl and then the issues that obstruct their banal romantic relationship follow. Our drama characters are just there to create unwanted drama. Some of the best scripts penned here are rotting away, but there is no viable platform that supports and promotes niche content which can eventually snowball into uplifting the quality of content on a larger scale.

– Shahzad Sheikh

Instep: We heard you don’t use glycerine for tears – so how do you manage them on-screen and what led to this choice?

SS: Acting is a craft, and the person who owns the craft is an artist. This is part of my learning experiences from my time studying Acting for the Camera at the New York Film Academy, where we were told that whether your character is happy or sad, angry or delusional, you have to dive deep into your personal life and bring that emotion out so that it looks genuine, and natural. If one moment I’m fine and my eyes are crystal clear, and in the next cut on-screen I’m crying my eyes out, it will look fake. It does not help to develop a genuine moment with which my audience will connect. Crying is a very intimate and personal experience, if you are remotely sensitive and empathetic in real life, if you see someone laugh, you laugh, and cry if they have tears in their eyes.

It is of course immensely difficult to put myself into dark places, but I had to so it looks real. It takes time to come out of that zone, but that’s what the craft is all about. For me, using glycerine does not work. I ask my director to give me time and he does that so that’s how Sahil has come alive.

Instep: Do you feel like Phaans is a turning point in your career?

SS: I wouldn’t exactly term Phaans as a turning point in my career, but it’s my bad that I didn’t pick up a project like this before. I see a lot of difference in my range as an actor because there are so many switches in the character. But you can’t just judge an actor by such roles. I would term Phaans a ‘learning point’ rather than a turning point. Playing Sahil was a huge learning curve for me. I learned so much from Sahil: I learned freedom from him and I learned self-expression and non-verbal communication through his body language. This was unlike the other run-of-the-mill characters I’ve played: like guys who simply come home from work and whine about issues in their love life, marital life and family problems. It depends from character to character. Phaans would have fared phenomenally well if it was a tight 18-episode thriller serial instead of a repetitively prolonged series with 29 episodes.

Instep: Do you feel negative roles allow for a better acting margin?

SS: Absolutely! Look at Avengers, who runs the whole show? It’s Thanos, right? When you see your enemy so powerful and invincible you inevitably are in awe of them. My friend Gohar Rasheed told me before I played Sahil, that when you’re playing a negative character, in your world you are right, so play the character believing that whoever you’re embodying is right in every way. Put your own beliefs and value system aside, only then will you be able to perform your negative role in a convincing way.

Instep: You once said that men are merely props in Urdu dramas, if you had it your way what kind of roles would you wish to see for other actors and yourself?

SS: It’s true, all stories in Pakistani dramas are centred around women, including Phaans. The story is about Zeba and then there are perfunctory characters attached to her. We see so many OTT stories on Netflix and Amazon Prime: this craft is not just burger ki kahaaniyaan centred on the mundane elite upper middle class. There are so many stories to be told and innumerable genres to explore. All stories here are about women and then men running after those women and their individual or collective domestic trials and tribulations. Why can’t we talk about the lives, journeys, and ups and downs between friends, siblings or something as simple as a bromance or an adventurous road trip? Actors can’t experience freedom or catalyze a performance margin if all the characters we play are the same and the only thing that changes is their name.

Instep: Who do you feel is to blame for the low level of content being produced in our television industry?

SS: I hold audiences completely responsible for this: if they stop watching sh*t content, channels and producers will stop making it. But it’s a fact that the TRPs given to such inferior content is unbelievable! It’s like, one night I finish watching a phenomenal film like Interstellar and the next day I go to shoot and say, “Nahi main isse shaadi nahi karunga!”. The moment something remotely off-beat is attempted on TV and it doesn’t mint money like saas-bahu sagas, makers go back to producing dead-end masala. Our drama characters are just there to create unwanted drama: they have lost their soul, their reasoning, their purpose. Some of the best scripts penned here are rotting away, but there is no viable platform that supports and promotes niche content which can eventually snowball into uplifting the quality of content on a larger scale. When Dreamers (Season I) came as a tight 13-episode college youth series it was well received but it never got commissioned for a second season. The world has reached the moon but we are still stuck in the stone age when it comes to creating fictional content for television in Pakistan.


– Afreen is a creative writer and digital media professional with an interest in   film, TV and pop culture.   She can be reached at   [email protected]

In conversation with Shahzad Sheikh