Ahsan Khan began his career in show business as a teenager and, in a span of two decades, emerged as one of Pakistan’s biggest stars, making a huge name for himself in the world of cinema, theater and television. In an exclusive interview for Good Times, the popular actor, host, model and occasional writer talks to Ally Adnan about his past and upcoming projects, his newfound love for Urdu literature, minority rights in Pakistan, Ramzan television programming, his fondness of qawwali, and a lot else.

Your last television serial – the phenomenally successful Udaari – aired in 2016. Why have you not appeared in a television play since Udaari?

Udaari, as you say, was phenomenally successful. It propelled me to the upper echelon of actors with superior acting.  I could no longer turn in performances that were less than competent without disappointing my fans, people in the industry, and, most importantly, myself.

I, therefore, had to put a lot of thought and consideration into selecting acting projects for myself after Udaari. It took a while but I am now working in two serials – Miriam Pereira and Aangan – that will be aired soon. I believe that my performances in both are as good, if not better than, the one in Udaari.

What attracted you to Miriam Pereira?

Miriam Pereira deals with the issue of minority rights in Pakistan. The subject is very near and dear to my heart. Our country is home to people of many faiths but, as a nation, we have yet to learn how to treat them with love, respect and equality. It is important that all citizens of Pakistan be given the same rights.

“People of all religions and faiths need to be shown in the media in a responsible, positive and fair manner”

The country’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, had envisioned a secular, tolerant country in which everyone would enjoy religious freedom. Sadly, his vision has been hijacked and not been allowed to become a reality.

I am not an expert on religion and don’t pretend to be one on my show, Ramzan Pakistan.

Who hijacked Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan?

Political, religious and business leaders, each for their own nefarious purposes, have laid waste to Jinnah’s vision. They have all helped create a corrosive sense of nationalism that allows the systematic and widespread mistreatment of people who are not Muslims. This is sad and totally against the fundamental beliefs of Islam.

In an Islamic society, Muslims are accorded no special privileges and have the same rights as people of other faiths. Religion is not allowed to become the basis of discrimination of any sort. That is the society that all of us need to help create in Pakistan.

What is your view of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy and anti-Ahmedi laws?

I believe that though it’s necessary to have laws that protect the honor of the Prophet (may peace be upon him) and the sanctity of Islamic beliefs. At the same time, it is important to make sure that the laws are not used for harassment, murder, intimidation, abuse, and censorship. The interpretation, implementation and execution of the laws should be reviewed regularly to make sure that they are being used to protect the honor of the Prophet (may peace be upon him) and Islamic beliefs and not for other purposes.

The key to the success of sections 295, 296, 297, and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code lies in the correct, just and fair implementation of the laws.

Do you feel that Miriam Pereira  will help the cause of Christians in Pakistan?

Yes, I do. It is little steps like making this serial that will help mainstream Christians in our society. People of all religions and faiths need to be shown in the media in a responsible, positive and fair manner.

I feel that viewers will enjoy Miriam Pereira because of its authentic and accurate representation of our society. Emmad Irfani, Sadia Khan, Rasheed Naz, Seemi Raheel, and Laila Zuberi have acted really well in the serial.

And you?

I think I have done well too but, to be honest, mine is only one of the several good performances in Miriam Pereira.

Aangan  is currently being shown on ARY Digital  but you are not a part of the cast. Will your character appear in the serial at a later stage?

The play that is being aired on ARY Digital is not the one that I am working in. Mine has the same name and is being made by Momina Duraid Productions for Hum TV. It is based on Khadija Mastoor’s 1962 novel Aangan. I think its title may be changed to Khadija Mastoor’s Aangan for purposes of disambiguation.

Ahsan’s upcoming serial Aangan is set at the time
of Partition and deals with the lives of ordinary people who made immense sacrifices
to gain independence from the British

Khadija Mastoor’s novel deals with a lot of themes – culture, morality, politics, feminism, and religion, to name a few – in addition to romantic love, which is at the center of its story. What aspects of the novel are highlighted in the television serial?

In my opinion, Mohammed Ehteshamuddin has made Aangan less as a romance, and more as a chronicle of our political, moral and cultural history. It is a poignant – and heart-wrenching – portrayal of the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent. Instead of focusing on the lives of political leaders and freedom fighters, the serial deals with the lives of people who were affected, in more ways than one, by the partition and who made immense sacrifices to gain independence from the British.

What do you like about Aangan?

I like the manner in which women have been depicted in Aangan. The female characters of the novel are complex and real, written with a lot of insight, understanding and intelligence. Aangan’s story is a highly intelligent account of feminism in South Asia. It pits a woman’s desire to be independent against her need to love and nurture and highlights the strengths and weaknesses of feminist ideology; it also shows how women deal with adversity, pain and failure in a way that men cannot. I am fascinated by Khaidija Mastoor’s intelligent exploration of the female psyche in Aangan.

Were you familiar with Khadija Mastoor’s work before starting work on Aangan?

I was not, but became a huge fan of her writing after reading Aangan. She is an incredible writer. I learnt a lot about history and culture by reading her novel, which is is a literary tour deforce. I am not surprised that it has been translated into13 languages.

“Aangan’s story is a highly intelligent account of feminism in South Asia”

I am now reading Zameen and have already purchased Bochaar, Chand Roz Aur, Khail, Thakay Haaray, and Thanda Meetha Paani to read once I am done with Zameen. Khadija Mastoor has introduced me to the wonderful world of Urdu literature. A few Urdu books will now always be on my bedside.  There is no going back for me.

Do you play the role of Safdar in Aangan?

Yes, I do. It is a double role that gave me a lot of room to explore as an actor. I am satisfied with my performance. Sonya Hussain and Mawra Hocane play the roles of Salma and Aaliya. The cast also includes Sajal Aly, Ahad Raza Mir, Omair Rana, Abid Ali, Uzma Hassan, and Zeb Rehman.

Child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, transgenderism, and minority rights – Pakistani television seems to have come of age and become comfortable with tackling, heretofore, taboo subjects.

Yes, the number of topics being explored in television dramas has expanded.

You seem tentative in your praise. Are you not happy that television channels are now addressing issues that have historically been swept under the rug?

I am happy but concerned that a lot the “taboo subjects” are being explored with a desire to shock and not to break new ground.

Khadija Mastoor novel has been translated into 13 languages

What kept you busy between Udaari and the two upcoming serials?

A whole lot. I started work on a book about child sexual abuse. I expect it to be published in the fall. It’s a collection of my feelings, thoughts and experiences while working on Udaari.

I made my stage debut with Serendip’s production of Ishq – the Legend of Heer Ranjha, at the prestigious Saddler’s Wells Theater in London, in 2017. The musical was a collaboration between Pakistani and British artists. It afforded me an opportunity to sing, dance and act – the three things that I enjoy more than anything else in life. Ishq – the Legend of Heer Ranjha was received very well.

I hosted Knorr Noodles Boriyat Busters on GEO Television. It was a game show for children that allowed contestants to compete for prizes by participating in a number of physical activities. I believe that it was the first time a game show had been made solely for kids. I had a lot of fun hosting the show.

I starred in Mohsin Ali’s feature film Chupan Chupai, which was both a critical and a commercial success and earned more than PKR Seventy million  in its first week. I enjoyed working in the light-hearted fun comedy and am glad that it was a success.

I wrote and produced a short documentary about Zainab Ansari, the six-year-old Pakistani girl who was raped and murdered in Qasur. It is now complete and will be shown at festivals all over the world. The documentary, titled Candle in the Wind, took a lot of time, emotion and energy. I felt connected to the project at multiple levels, as a father, a Muslim, a Pakistani and a human being.

And, as in previous years, I hosted the Ramzan Pakistan show on Pakistan Television in 2017 and 2018. It is a very demanding show but I like doing it. It does very well in ratings.

Is the show Ramzan Pakistan or Ramadan Pakistan?

The show is conducted in Urdu and not in Arabic. It is, therefore, Ramzan Pakistan.

The Ramzan  transmissions of Pakistani television channels recently came under the heavy criticism of Islamabad High Court (IHC) Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui. Was the criticism justified?

I don’t get to watch the Ramzan transmissions of other television channels because my show on PTV keeps me very busy but have seen bits and pieces on YouTube and social media. I have liked some of what I have seen but am mostly dismayed by the activities that are a part of most of the shows. I think they are inappropriate for Ramzan. I find the criticism of the court largely justified.

Justice Siddiqui was unhappy that, while foreign experts were hired to provide detailed analyses during cricket matches, artists and cricketers were asked to speak on matters of religion in Ramzan television shows.

Yes, I am aware of his feelings.

Do you share his feelings?

I don’t think that religious clerics and scholars should be the only ones allowed to talk to about religion. People of faith, who study Islam with responsibility, have a right to discuss and talk about religion. That being said, I will add that competent religious clerics and scholars do a lot of research and study religion in great depth and with a lot of intelligence. It is best that they lead discussions about serious religious matters.

Ahsan made his stage debut with the musical Ishq – the Legend of Heer Ranjha, at the prestigious Saddler’s Wells Theater in London, in 2017

A lot of the “show business” hosts of Ramzan programs act with a lot of arrogance and take it upon themselves to guide, educate and lead viewers in matters of religion. Do you find their didacticism annoying?

Yes, I do but the problem is not limited to people hosting shows in Ramzan. Everyone in Pakistan acts like an expert – and not just in matters of religion – irrespective of his education, knowledge and scholarship. I host Ramzan Pakistan with a lot of humility using a different approach. My role in the program is that of a student and a facilitator. I facilitate religious discussions in my program, participate only when confident, and learn whenever possible. I am not an expert on religion and do not pretend to be one in my show, Ramzan Pakistan.

You have hosted Ramzan Pakistan on PTV for six straight years. Do you enjoy hosting the show?

I enjoy hosting the show a great deal even though it is very demanding and draining physically. It is not easy to talk, almost non-stop, for, a full six hours, while fasting.

What do you enjoy about the show?

I like four things:

One, I am paid very well to host the show. It is great to be able to make a living by doing something one likes to do.

Two, I learn a lot about religion in the show and find the learning to be truly invaluable.

Three, I receive a lot of blessings and prayers from the audience and from viewers. The duas (prayers) make me very happy.

Four, I love the qawwalis that are performed during the show. It is one of my favourite segments of the show.

Are you a qawwali aficionado?

Yes, absolutely. It brings together music, poetry, Sufism, mysticism, and Islamic thought in the most remarkable manner. I can listen to qawwali all day and all night.

Who are your favourite qawwals?

Without a doubt, Fareed Ayaz – Abu Muhammad Qawwal and Brothers. They are direct descendants of the very first qawwal in the world – the thirteenth century Miyan Samat Bin Ibrahim – and, in my opinion, the best qawwals in the world today. I love their sons, Ghayoor – Moiz – Mustafa Qawwal and Brothers as well. The two are, however, not the only qawwal parties that I like. Pakistan and India are home to a very large number of highly talented qawwals. I listen to all of them.

“It’s not easy to talk, almost non-stop, for, a full six hours, while fasting”

Now that Ramzan  is over and the shooting for both Aangan and Miriam Pereira is almost complete, what are you doing?

I am recovering from the grueling schedule of Ramzan and spending quality time with my family. I am in the final stages of talks for two projects – one for cinema and the other for television – that will hit the floor soon. I will announce them as soon as I sign the contracts. I am also planning to work in a stage play named Rang E Rihaii which follows the structure established by A. R. Gurney in his play, Love Letters. The play unfolds in a series of letters, written by two friends, over the course of several years and deals with the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of women in a novel and interesting way.

Photographs by Haseeb Siddiqui

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

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