The TV sensation gets candid about acting, anxiety and his journey in Lollywood

Let’s start with your childhood. What was life like growing up?
We were 2 siblings, me and my sister. We grew up in Islamabad. Growing up we were raised by my mother and my grandfather. It was good. It was interesting. I was a big cricket fan. I spent most of my time playing cricket out on the street and I used to love comic books. I used to read lots of comics. Specifically, DC comics. So yeah, it was great.

You were also in boarding school for a while. What was that like?
Yes, I was sent to boarding school in ‘94. I was there till ‘97. I was 9 years old. Of course it is tough. There’s a change of routine. You have to wake up at 5 in the morning. So yeah, it was tough; but I guess every boarder who goes to boarding school has to go through that.

You even wanted to pursue cricket as a proper profession at one point and that didn’t work out. How come?
It didn’t. Actually my grandfather wanted me to compete my studies. He thought that cricket was such a big commitment and that it would interfere with my studies so he wanted me to focus on my studies first.

I read somewhere that your family was not okay with you becoming an actor. How did that feel?
It didn’t feel great. This is back in 2004 when I made the decision I wanted to do this. There were huge fights at our house. Till 2015, it was a constant struggle. Because you know, in our culture, media and actors are looked down upon. Whenever you get the question: ‘Beta what do you do?’ You go like I’m a director and an actor and people go like, ‘No, what do you actually do? What’s your actual job?’ So people don’t even consider it an actual profession or job. There was a lot of back and forth. I was really rebellious. I would sneak out for shoots and stuff. I was locked out of the house so many times by my dad because he’s like if you’re coming back from a shoot you’re not entering the house. But eventually, I feel, most of my family members and family friends who thought oh ye tou zindagi kharab kar raha hai saw me succeed and somehow they were automatically okay with it. It’s such hypocrisy. You think how are you okay with this now? It was a long 10 year journey where I felt like I had no support. The only support I actually felt — and I even spoke about this before — is Poppy (Shayan) She was the owner of Kuch Khaas in Islamabad. At the time, in 2011 I was very ambitious and I was struggling. She gave us home. She made all of us – me, Obi, Shahana believe that we belong somewhere. That we were capable, we were talented, we were creative. She gave us the platform and that’s the only support we got.

You were also a filmmaker at one point.

I still am. That is what I want to be known as. Acting is something that I’m doing. I enjoy acting but I want to primarily direct and make films and stories.

How is filmmaking different from acting? What do you prefer?
I mean I definitely prefer filmmaking. I love telling stories. I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker; but it’s just the kind of stories I want to tell, they’re not commercial. My creative side doesn’t agree with taking on projects that are super commercial and specially if it’s a narrative that I don’t agree with. That’s one of the reasons I still haven’t done an all out commercial film. I’ve done shorts, I’ve done other stuff but commercially I haven’t. Hopefully, one day inshaAllah.

Your first project as an actor was Janaan. How did that happen?
Actually, no. Fun fact, my first feature was Gol Chakkar. It was a film that was shot in 2010/2011 and that was a total indie project. I had long hair and a beard and kajal in my eyes. I played this character called Shera.

How did you go from there to Janaan? How was that experience?
I mean, there was a 5 year break in the middle where I was just directing music videos and then this movie Janaan came about.

What was your experience like working at a proper Pakistani movie set?
It was interesting. It was intimidating at first. I wasn’t really involved in Janaan because I had a very small role. I was there for 4-5 days maximum. It was intimidating at first and it was also interesting.

In 2019 you starred in your first TV serial Aana, how was that experience different from movies?
It’s so interesting because I had done Parchi and Janaan. Janaan was a great experience. Parchi was very hectic. There were long hours of shooting. I was also DP for that, so for me it was really, really tough. We were running no sleep. We were shooting 36 hours straight. After that, I was doing this drama and I was let go because the production thought I was over weight. We had shot for one whole week, and after that they told me we’re letting you go because you’re over weight. I thought maybe I had made a big mistake choosing this career when this happened. Suddenly, I got a call from HUM saying they wanted to cast me in a production. By that time, I was in depression so I was just eating all the time. At the point that I was let go from the first production, I honestly don’t think I was overweight but I started eating and gained like 30 kilos. So when I got this call from HUM, to play this guy called Altamash I was like have you seen me recently? But we had time. The shoot was supposed to start after 2 months but somehow got delayed by a couple of months and by that time I had lost weight. You know, one thing about HUM is that it’s always felt like home. Even my first drama, I felt so comfortable working with them. They’re all so nice and they’ve always felt like family. They’re very understanding.

Your TV serial Hum Kahan Ke Sachay Thay with Mahira Khan is a big hit but people hate your character. Do you get a lot of hate because of that?
I get a lot of messages saying we hate you Aswad. You need to be hanged. It’s very freaky. They think they directly talk to Aswad. They say things like Aswad you’re horrible to Mehreen. It’s interesting that people get so involved that they cannot differentiate between what’s real and what’s not.

What is Mahira like as a co-star?
It was great working with Mahira. Even Kubra. When you come on set with these guys it doesn’t feel like you’re shooting with big stars because they’re so down to earth. They’re so grounded. By the end of it, it was just like a little family. When we had breaks we were just talking, laughing and joking around.

Out of all of your projects, which one was your favourite?
My favourite project is something we shot recently: Umro Ayyar. It’s just been a passion project. I’ve been an Umro Ayyar fan since I was a kid. Growing up reading comics like DC and then Umro Ayyar was just like like that. I remember when I was in boarding school there was a bookshop there and Ama used to buy me these books: Umro Ayyar stories and Tarzan and Manu ki kahaniyaan and she would read them to me. I never thought that I would even be in a project that’s Umro Ayyar. Being a superhero fan, being in that environment on set was just such a huge pleasure. It was an amazing feeling. So that’s probably one of my favourite projects.
Tell us more about Umro Ayyar…
It’s just amazing. When I was offered this movie it was during quarantine. Asfar, the director, mentioned this project to me back in 2019 because they were working on this project secretly. So it took them a good year to do the pre-production. He had mentioned that he was doing something and that he might get in touch but I had forgotten all about it. September 2020, I get a call from him asking if I can meet him. We sat down at the office and he told me that there’s a project; a movie called Umro Ayyar and I said I’m in. I didn’t even ask what role, I just said I’m in. It was an amazing experience working with all these people. Faran Tahir is such a great human being and such a great actor. He was in Iron man. I saw that movie and I couldn’t believe that I was going to be acting with him. I had some action sequences with Faran Bhai that I just couldn’t do because I was so intimidated. But Faran Bhai was so kind. He was like, no this is your job. You need to do this. Sanam is a great actor too and I’ve mentioned this so many times in the past. The two actors that I would love to work with are Sanam and Sajal. Sanam I got to work with. Ali Kazmi is a great actor and even Manzar Sahab. It’s just amazing to work with all these people.

You recently got married. How’s the married life going?
Its amazing. We were friends before we got married. And I think that friendship really matters. There’s never a dull moment these days. We’re always joking around. We’re cooking, we’re eating, we’re watching movies. So, its amazing. It’s a great time that I’ve spent in the last month.

Does your wife ever get tired of all your travelling and working? Does she ever come with you?
No no. She tou actually says go, work! She can’t travel because she has work. I have really bad flight anxiety. I try to drive to Karachi every time I have to do a project. This time around I can’t because there was a really short notice. I have to take a flight. So I said to her, “Listen, I can’t do this alone. Can you come with me?” So I’m dragging her with me because I can’t do it alone.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Again, I don’t know. I mean, I wish and I hope that I keep doing what I love doing and that I keep doing projects that people love. But again, I don’t know what’s going to happen in 5 years. In 2018, we never thought we would be in a pandemic in 2020. So, you never know what’s going to happen. But I’d really like it if in the next five years I get to make my feature and I get to do some interesting projects.

What advice do you have for young people who wants to be actors/filmmakers but might be struggling right now?
There are so many kids that are filmmakers and they come up to me and tell me they don’t have opportunities and they’ve struggled for a couple of years and say they want to quit. I keep telling them all of them, I say listen, do not quit. It took me 11 years to kind of, somehow, be in the mainstream media. It was a long journey. You need to put in the hard work. Don’t lose hope. Don’t be disheartened. Work hard and don’t sell out and InshaAllah you’ll get there.

Photography: Naba Khalid
Wardrobe: Rici Melion
Hair and Styling: Nabila Islamabad
Coordination: Mahnoor Zahid

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