Interview by Ally Adnan
Noted restaurateur, the grandson of the greatest songstress of all time, and now the male lead of Asad Ul Haqâ€™s upcoming feature film, Dekh Magar Pyaar Say, Sikander Rizvi talks to Ally Adnan about show business, growing up without a father at home, his illustrious grandmother and much else
What is it like to be the grandson of the biggest star India and Pakistan have ever produced?
Noor Jehan was, first and foremost, my daado and then a star. Generous, indulgent, kind and loving, she was a great grandmother. I grew up thinking of her as warm and caring person in my life and not as a star. I was always aware that she was someone special because of her aura and how everyone treated her but it wasnâ€™t until I was in my teens that I began to realize the enormity of her talent and the magnitude of her stardom. And even though I now have a grip on how big she was as a star, I remember her as my doting and loving daado. She was the best grandmother anyone could have.
How do you remember her?
Daado was full of life. She was always surrounded by people. There was a positive energy about her. She was loving, she was warm and she was a lot of fun. She had a larger than life persona but she was approachable and kind. I loved her presence and her company.
As a child, I used to spend my summers in the South of France with my mother and her parents. Daado used to visit us with her entourage of attendants, musicians, friends and family members. Those visits constitute some of my fondest childhood memories. Daado would sing for us during those visits, tell us stories and entertain us with her jokes. And she would take over the kitchen during her visits and cook for the entire family.
â€œThe audition did not go well and I was surprised when I was called back and offered the role of the lead. It really fell in my lapâ€
And she was one hell of a cook.
Yes, she was. An amazing, amazing cook who could work wonders in the kitchen. I have not had desi food as good as that cooked by Daado in my life. Listening to desi music, while eating desi food and enjoying desi jokes, all in a French setting, was an unreal and exceedingly charming experience.
Noor Jehan was not the only strong woman in your life. Your mother, Florence Villiers, is an amazing woman herself?
Of course, she is.
My mother is one of the strongest, most resilient and enterprising women that I have ever met in my life. As a young lady, she hitchhiked her way to Pakistan, met my father and married him after a heady romance. When my parents divorced, she raised me and my sister, Sonya Jehan, entirely on her own.Â As a young lady, she ran a boutique which was very successful. This was followed by the opening of her own restaurant, CafÃ© Flo, in 1998. It has been running successfully for more than seventeen years and continues to be one of Karachiâ€™s toniest eateries. She treats her guests, her staff and herself with great respect. I have immense admiration for my mother. She is honest, straight-forward and does not believe in playing games. She suffers from multiple sclerosis but is fighting the disease like a tigress.
Your parents divorced when you were five years old. Did the divorce affect your childhood negatively?
To some extent, it did but not terribly.
Sonya and I lived with my mother after the divorce. She assumed the roles of both the mother and the father to a large extent. There were, of course, times when I wished that we had a father in the house but those were few and far between. My mother filled what could have been a terrible void very well. Sonya and I were allowed to meet our father. We loved him and would visit him in Lahore. He would come to see us when he was in Karachi. He had great love for us. Sonya and I were never short of paternal love. I think that my mother had made a concerted decision to not use us as pawns in a game against her ex-husband. That, more than anything else, helped me have a positive, happy and fulfilled childhood.
â€œI remember Nur Jehan as my loving and doting Daadoâ€
Show business is not an easy industry to enter. A lot of people have to work hard for years, dealing with disappointment, rejection and humiliation, not to mention abuse, before they see any success. Did you have to work hard to get the lead role in Dekh Magar Pyaar Say?
No, I did not. My entering show business was pure happenstance. I had done an advertisement for Asad Ul Haq. Six months after the ad, he invited me to audition for a role in his upcoming romantic feature film. The audition, in my opinion, did not go well and I was surprised when I was called back and offered the role of the lead. It really fell in my lap. I had never had a serious plan to enter show business. I am grateful that I did not have to grow through what a lot of people have to before they get their first starring role in a feature film.
Do you think that your financial and social standing helped make your entry into show business easy and protected you from abuse?
It probably did but it was not the only thing. I think the manner in which one conducts himself also protects him from predators. Confident people who work with dignity and integrity are less susceptible to abuse.
Show business in Pakistan, and elsewhere, has a dark side. Did you see it?
I have heard about it but, fortunately, I have not seen it myself.
Dekh Magar Pyaar Say was shot in a spell of forty-five days. Was it hectic?
It was hectic but a lot of fun. Director Asad Ul Haqâ€™s team is very capable and managed the project very well. Travel, logistics, costumes, rehearsals, shoots were all done on time. I do not think many movies have been shot in periods as short as forty-five days.
Is acting in a film glamorous?
No. My mother, who had lived in Shah Noor studios for a long time, had warned me that shooting for a film required a lot of patience. I was prepared but was surprised at the amount of waiting that was involved. I had to wait for hours between takes. It also always seemed to be very hot. And I was always sleep-deprived. Waiting, heat and sleeplessness are the three facts of shooting for a film but I enjoyed the experience nonetheless. It was good to take a break from my restaurant, Xanderâ€™s. After running it for almost four years, I had become very comfortable managing the restaurant. It was nice being forced out of my comfort zone.
I am new in the industry and really do not consider myself to be a part of it but I have seen a lot of successful actors work very hard day in and day out. Acting may seem to be glamorous, it may actually be glamorous, but it is not easy. Managing dates, memorizing lines, rehearsing, dealing with the media, promoting projects, and handling celebrity make up for a grueling livelihood. And then there is the heat, sleeplessness and waiting!
â€œMy mother hitchhiked her way to Pakistan, met my father and married him after a heady romanceâ€
Did your furlough affect business at Xanderâ€™s ?
It did. The restaurant did better business when I was away!
A lot of Pakistani films have been criticized for imitating films from Bollywood and for their stereotypical depiction of women as weak, emotional and dependent. Is Dekh Magar Pyaar Say going to be different?
Yes, it most certainly is. It will be a refreshingly different film. The story is good, the music is good and the direction is good. The story is romantic and fresh. Dekh Magar Pyaar Say is certainly not Bollywoodesque. I think people will enjoy watching the film.
The film certainly has a very fresh look and feel?
Yes, it most certainly does. It has an ethereal, almost fantastic feel. The city of Lahore has been shot in a manner that is completely new and unique. Asad chose excellent locations to shoot for the film and cinematographer Nic Knowland did a masterful job capturing them on film. Dekh Magar Pyaar Say is very appealing both aesthetically and visually.
How did you prepare for Dekh Magar Pyaar Say?
I trained, primarily on diction and dialog delivery, with Asad and some other folks for a month. I speak Urdu fluently but not like a Lahori. It was a challenge to learn how to speak the language as Lahoris do but a great learning experience. The rest of the training was about acting basics, camera angles, continuity, and body language. Asad made it easy and fun for me.
Did you have to learn how to dance for the dance number with Amina Ilyas?
Actually, no. I know how to dance and enjoy dancing. It is something that I am very comfortable doing. Wahab Shah choreographed the dance and I rehearsed some moves with him but did not have to learn how to dance for the film. It was the one thing I had down before Dekh Magar Pyaar Say. The real challenge was shooting the number in Lahoreâ€™s blistering heat while wearing a sherwani and pretending to be having a lot of fun.
Isnâ€™t Amina Ilyas lovely?
She most certainly is. Very down-to-earth, intelligent and very interesting.
Did you make new friends while working in Dekh Magar Pyaar Say?
Yes, the entire Dekh Magar Pyaar Say team. I got along very well with everyone on the set. As far as friends in the industry go, I knew a lot of people already, because of my restaurant, through my sister and because of my grandmother. I have socialized with a lot of people from the industry for a few years. Doing the film did not add to my set of close friends.
Your mother who is French has made Pakistan her home. You studied in Switzerland, worked in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, and spent a part your childhood in France but are settled in Pakistan. What do you like about Pakistan?
The people. Pakistaniâ€™s are warm, friendly, loving and hospitable. One can forge lifelong friendships in Pakistan, ones that survive the toughest of times. When they want to be, Pakistanis can be unbelievably hardworking and conscientious. And they are genuine, sincere and kind.
The French are not like that, are they?
No, they are not as warm as Pakistanis.
They also have a reputation for being rude.
Yes, they do.
Is the reputation fair?
Not really. I have met some very polite and kind French people over the years. People in Paris tend to be rude but once you get out of the city, you see a gentler and kinder type of the French. The reputation for being rude is somewhat dated, in my opinion. Things have been changing for the better for several years. The French government understands the power of the tourist. It has been educating its citizens that people will stop visiting the country if they find the French rude and inhospitable.Â The museums, boutiques and cafÃ©s will not survive without tourists. It makes business and economic sense to be warm, polite and friendly.
Do you ever think about leaving Pakistan for France?
I have dual citizenship and could move to France whenever I want to but like it here in Pakistan. There are things that bother me in Pakistan but the country has great people and a lot of opportunities. I like it here. This is my home.
Ally Adnan lives in Dallas and writes about culture, history and the arts.
He tweets @allyadnanÂ and can be reached at [email protected].