Somewhere in DHA in Karachi, a game night is going on at director Wajahat Rauf’s house – a nice promotional gathering to bring together journalists, bloggers, publications and the cast of his latest film Chhalawa, which stars Azfar Rehman, Mehwish Hayat and Zara Noor Abbas. You walk in and the basement is where the party is at. Some are busy playing table tennis or the latest Mortal Kombat on a huge screen, somebody is interviewing Mehwish Hayat, while others are posing, shooting, chatting, drinking soda or smoking cigarettes.
I find myself with Rehman and we go upstairs, away from the party to find a quiet spot to talk. Our conversation, unlike the usual film interviews, doesn’t involve questions about his character in Chhalawa or his experience working in the film, but rather his journey as an actor. Rehman claims he has tried to stay away typical shows and films. “’ve tried not to do basic dramas only. I’m regular in my modeling campaigns and hosting shows like Miss Veet Pakistan. I like to keep away from typical shows too, to do things as different as I can. Even Enaya was a different project. It’s Pakistan’s first web series.”
But Enaya, which also put Rehman with Hayat and was directed by Rauf, received a ton of negative criticism in Pakistan. The actor believes Pakistani audience is still not ready for experimental projects. He knows Enaya wasn’t experimental enough for “people with our backgrounds, who speak English and watch Netflix, but it was different for the average Pakistani audience.”
According to Rehman, the social media response Enaya received in Pakistan was completely different from what it got in India. He believes there is a major double standard in our society when it comes to watching Bollywood stars do certain things on screen and then seeing Pakistani stars do them.
“If I post a picture with my co-star, people raise questions. I posted a picture with a senior actress playing my mother, people still talked negatively about it, called her out and made assumptions. When we talk about response, whose response we are talking about? Is it the response of teenagers on social media or is it the response from the company whom we made it for? Or is it the audience oversees who want a second season?”
He also addresses the age old conflict between entertainers and critics. “I am an actor. I’ve been working for 10 years. You have seen my dramas, whether you liked or hated them. If I have survived this long, there is a body of work behind it. What is the credibility of critics? Do they get certified from somewhere? Anybody sitting at home feels a certain way and becomes a critic.”
For the Punjab Nahi Jaungi star, one should have a “full education in filmmaking and watched at least 1000 films” to be considered a worthy critic. “If you like chicken and not sushi or nihari, does that mean sushi is bad? No, it isn’t. A reputed critic from Lahore told me Chhalawa should have a little skin show or it won’t work. But the thing is if there’s skin show, you will rip us apart later.”
However, one can’t help but notice how most local filmmakers even vehemently defend the universally panned projects. Rehman says they spent three months making Chhalawa and there will be people who will bash it. “But we have an emotional value attached to it, we will obviously be defensive. Let me tell you: if a filmmaker accepts that he made a bad film, it would affect his next project negatively. This is the conversation they have with themselves but they can’t say it because that would already kill their next project.”
But with this mindset of appealing to the masses (which has generally resulted in bombardment of substandard and mediocre comedies and rom-coms that have worked at the box office), how does one take Pakistani cinema forward? The Manto actor’s formula is to have a good combination in a project “which has a certain class but also considers and appeals to the masses.” He says, “It can’t be one-sided. While making Chalawa, we were very clear it has to be a family entertainer and have a good share of romance. It can’t be crass or have gross, double-meaning jokes. It has to be refreshing and has to have a good aftertaste.”
“We need a wider variety of cinema for it to survive. We have to think about cinema owners, we want the money to come in so they don’t shut down,” he continues. “You might be good at making French cuisine but you may have to make gol gappe to make money to run your kitchen. But your heart is in French cuisine so you need to balance it.”
He shares he would love to do films such as Dhobi Ghaat, but such films have not worked at the box office. “It’s different here. We only have a handful of filmmakers. Every actor who’s starring in films is a producer too. There are camps. So the opportunity of working as a lead actor is very limited already. Therefore, whatever opportunity comes your way, you have to milk it.”
Regardless of the criticism about his acting skills or choice of projects, Rehman is very clear on where he stands in his career and his stance on said criticism as well as the current state of industry. Our very candid interview ends with a very honest moment, “In Chalawa, there is a lot more (to offer). Mehwish is a three times bigger star than me,” he says nonchalantly and without an ounce of bitterness in his tone. “It’s true, you have to be clear on facts, you can’t live in a fool’s paradise. A lot of her audience will be coming to watch the film. She is the hero of the film. That’s how it is.”
Chhalawa is set to release this Eidul Fitr.
You can check out the official trailer below: