A well-known and highly popular director and actor, Adnan Malik is making his film acting debut with Asim Abbasi’s Cake. The talented young man sits down with Ally Adnan, and talks about Cake, Pakistani cinema, minority rights, the charm of family dysfunction, and a lot else

I absolutely believe that all Pakistanis — Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Zoroastrians and others — should have equal citizenship

Cake had its world premiere in London’s West End recently. How did it go?

It was absolutely amazing! To see the name of our Pakistani film up in lights in London’s most iconic film destination was enthralling. It was a proper, world-class premiere with a full house and people loved the film.

It took you a long while to sign on to do a film. Why?

Yes, it sure did. I had a few offers after the success of television serial, Sadqay Tumhare, but none that really appealed to me. I had worked in Dil Banjara after Sadqay Tumhare. The serial was not successful and made me realize that I needed to be choosy and selective when deciding to take on acting projects. I resolved to take on projects that appealed to me, both personally and professionally, and that were in line with my personal values. Cake certainly was all of that.

What did you like about Cake?

A lot but three things specifically – the story, the cast and crew, and the director’s vision – stood out.

The script of Cake blew me away when I first read it. It moved me, made me laugh and had me in tears. It was a real page-turner. The team of Cake was truly brilliant. Not only were the actors great, but the crew included some of the finest people in the business, like production designer Aarij Hashmi, cinematographer Mo Azmi and costumier Samiya Ansari, to name a few.

Most importantly, I loved the vision Asim had for the film. He had a fantastic story and he had the wherewithal to tell it in a simple, thoughtful and effective manner. Cake has a lyrical quality to it, which is a reflection of his sensibilities as a director.

Does the finished product live up to your expectations?

It sure does. Cake is a great film with a wonderful story and features some truly outstanding performances. It excels in a lot of areas – casting, editing, cinematography, colour grading, art direction, and costume design – that have often been ignored in Pakistani films and it has great music. It is a well-integrated film, crafted by a very astute director.

I feel that the story of Cake will resonate with a lot of viewers. The themes of aging, family dysfunction, sibling conflict, marital ennui, and love are universal. People will relate to the themes and identify with the characters of the film. We hope that it will become the perfect crossover film that appeals to audiences from all over the world. The attendees of the London premiere were certainly not limited to people from the South Asian diaspora.

What are the strengths of Cake?

In many ways, Cake is a groundbreaking film because of its story and technical soundness.  It is wonderfully written, meticulously crafted and intelligently structured. It is engaging, entertaining and moving and will force people to think about their own relationships and re-examine the way in which they view familial bonds. It will encourage dialogue and debate, and, hopefully effect positive change in the lives of viewers. I know that it stayed with me for a long time after I watched it for the first time at the premiere.

One of the issues that hurts Pakistani cinema is the desire to watch and produce films that imitate Bollywood. Cake is an important film because, if successful, it could change the trend and encourage producers to invest in films that are original and groom audiences to want more than copies of Bollywood films. We need more authentic stories to be told. So, a lot is riding on this film.

You play the character of Romeo, a Pakistani Christian, in Cake. The character is very different than your own. Was it difficult for you to play this role?

Playing Romeo was a daunting task at first but Asim was very certain that I was the actor to play the character. It was his belief in me, more than anything else that convinced me to take Romeo on. The preparation to play this character was tough but, once I got into it, playing the role became easy.

How did you prepare for the role of Romeo?

Very diligentl.

A lot of research went into playing the character of Romeo. It had been written so well that I wanted to do full justice to the role. Asim and I had a lot of discussion about Romeo’s person, history and psyche. We created a backstory for him. I spent a lot of time with people similar to Romeo in environs that were frequented by them but were totally alien to me. I remember the first day when I wore his wardrobe, donned the moustache, and walked down the street near a commercial market. I noticed that people engaged with me very differently. I looked at myself from their viewpoint and realized that I was no longer Adnan Malik; I was Romeo. The reaction of people to the persona of Romeo emboldened me to get fully into his character. It was a great experience.

A lot of attention was paid to Romeo’s look as well. Asim had written him as a young man who wore checkered shirts with jeans. I did not think that jeans went well with the character and found a pair of pastel coloured, bell-bottomed pants, which my father wore in the sixties, for Romeo. They gave the character a retro look. Asim, Samiya and I decided to give Romeo a moustache and add a cut to one of his eyebrows to allude to a more complicated and, perhaps, dangerous past. I think that the effort that was put into getting Romeo’s look right was rewarded very richly. He looks like he is from another era, and, in many ways, given his values, he really is. His world view and sincerity are from an era far gone. In many ways, Romeo embodies nostalgia in the film.

You seem to be very fond of the character of Romeo.

Yes, I am.

Romeo is quiet but charming and the moral compass of the film. When I saw him on screen for the first time, I viewed him as another person, instead of myself, and found him to be very likable. He is a strong person but deals with others with kindness, sensitivity and patience. I think he is truly a hero for the twenty-first century. I think in this era of female empowerment and with the Me Too movement, we need to reexamine the portrayal of men in popular culture. In the Subcontinent, we have always depicted the hero as an alpha male. I do not believe that a grown-up, spoilt momma’s boy, who is perpetually angry, picks fights easily, and chases women relentlessly, is a “hero” in this day and age.

We need to redefine the “hero” for the twenty-first century. In my mind, he is a man who is strong, kind, supportive, emotionally intelligent, and a believer in gender equality. Romeo is such a hero and very much a man after my own heart.

What did you learn Pakistani Christians while researching the role of Romeo?

I learnt that they are not at all treated well by Pakistani society. That’s very upsetting because, in a truly Islamic society, all citizens have equal rights, and religion is never the basis for any discrimination. Islamic law considers Muslims and non-Muslims to be equal and does not accord any special privileges to Muslims. The history of Islam is full of instances where Muslims and non-Muslims have been treated equally and are subject to one and the same laws. Indeed, Christianity and Judaism have flourished in many Islamic empires. It’s upsetting to see Muslims in Pakistan treat religious minorities with contempt, disdain and unfairness.

On the positive side, I discovered that Pakistani Christians are intensely patriotic and love their country dearly. They do have a strong desire to become a part of the mainstream and be treated with love, respect and kindness.

Do Christians have equal citizenship in the predominantly Muslim Pakistan?

No, but they should.

I absolutely believe that all Pakistanis – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Zoroastrians and others – should have equal citizenship.

Why do you think the population of minorities in Pakistan has decreased by more than fifteen percent since its creation in 1947?

It has decreased because we have failed to treat minorities with fairness, kindness and equity. We have denied them equal citizenship and not allowed them to live with us in peace and harmony. Many Islamic countries, Egypt, Malaysia and Turkey, to name a few, have succeeded where we have failed. It makes me profoundly sad to see Pakistan lose the rich benefits of diversity due to the exodus of minorities.

The constitution of Pakistan guarantees the rights of minorities. A few laws have been passed to protect the rights of religious minorities, as well. Yet, the country seems to be plagued by systemic, endemic and egregious violations of freedom of religion. Do you believe that the laws and the constitution have failed to protect religious minorities because they contradict societal, cultural and local norms, or is there another reason for their failure?

Laws work when they reflect the norms, beliefs and morality of people, and fail when they are at odds with the intellectual, moral and cultural fabric of society. The people of Pakistan need to believe that treating religious minorities with fairness, equality and justice is the right thing to do; unless that happens, the laws won’t work. The only way to ensure the effectiveness of the laws is to develop a culture where religion is not allowed to become the basis of any sort of discrimination.

Do you believe that Cake has the power to positively affect the manner in which minorities are treated in Pakistan? 

Yes. I hope and wish that is makes a difference.

Ally Adnan lives in Dallas and writes about culture, history and the arts. He tweets @allyadnan and can be reached at [email protected].

Photography by Yaseen Lakhani



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