ISLAMABAD: I remember meeting Hamza Ali Abbasi for the first time over four years ago at the screening of a Pakistani film in Islamabad; he was then a budding actor, aiming for the skies and with two major upcoming films (Main Hoon Shahid Afridi and Waar) in his kitty. Back then, he had a lot to say, he still does, but perhaps different affairs interest him more now. He’s had a polarising effect on his fans, and detractors alike. He stirs up controversy, yet miraculously gets away with it. He is truly the biggest living testament of paradox. After a daunting chase, I finally manage to get a hold of Abbasi, hours before he sets out to Lahore for shooting spells of his films, Maula Jatt and Parwaaz Hay Junoon.
In his zone, physically and mentally trained to get into the skin of his character, ‘Noori Nath’, the lead antagonist in Bilal Lashari’s reboot of Maula Jatt, we begin our tete-a-tete with what made Hamza take up the taxing disposition. “After Waar, one thing I really liked about Bilal was that he goes for something that’s larger than life, he’s always challenging himself. He’s not someone who would want to make ‘commercial’ romantic-comedies that would earn him some money, which is how most film-makers work here. Bilal’s trying to hit new milestones,” he noted.
Continuing of his union with Lashari, he confessed, “I am admitting to the fact that Waar had a weak story, and most of it was in English, but what worked were its unprecedented visuals. And through Maula Jatt also, Bilal will surely set new milestones.”
“I’ve been a part of the project since Bilal once randomly told me he wanted to do a remake. We saw it on YouTube, and it actually started off as more of a joke. Gradually, he realised that it can actually be made into a film, and so he started writing the screenplay,” he proudly disclosed.
Putting together a casting coupe of sorts, Hamza stars against Fawad Khan, Mahira Khan and Humaima Malick in the epic, period action. Speaking of his character, he observed, “Personally, I loved Noori Nath’s character, I feel it’s very complex and messed up, it has all the dynamics that the Joker from Batman had. So it was naturally appealing to me, but Bilal is very professional, he doesn’t consider friendships while casting. In fact I didn’t even know I would be in it, I had thought of working behind the camera. But either way, I wanted to be a part of the film and landed myself with perhaps one of the most challenging characters of my life.”
Hamza also met with veteran actor Mustafa Qureshi, who originally breathed life in Nath’s character. “If you see the original movie, you know Noori Nath is more of a text-book-bad-guy, he’s not evil. He’s a dignified villain, so there’s a very fine balance where you actually are a villain, but there’re some aspects of you that are rather respectful. It’s a weird mixture that Mustafa Sahab helped me understand better,” he says of his casual interaction with Qureshi. “It was very patronising of him; he really wanted to see what Bilal has to offer.”
Moving onto what Hamza may credit for his superstardom – a social medium that has allowed his pontifical and assertive internet presence and grit behind the virtual world create waves across the web, he tells me he’s always been this politically charged. But he’s quick to add that he also elects to comment on local cinema every now and then. His relatively recent take against item numbers took the industry by storm. He says he’s a feminist and believes in equal opportunities and rights, seeing sensual lyrics and visuals as derogatory to women.
“Like male actors are judged on their acting, somewhat on their looks and generally, their talent, actresses should be too. Most of the actors don’t have a beefed-up body, including myself. So there’s nothing decent about just adding item numbers that are not needed,” he emphasises on forced inclusions. “Capitalising women on their sexuality to get a few eyeballs is pathetic. Women’s bodies can’t be used to sell films; you need to use their talent and capability. You’re not damaging me, you’re damaging women. I’m sure Na Maloom Afraad 2 would’ve done as well without an item number.”
With millions of devoted and loyal followers on Facebook and Twitter, it’s surprising to see how Hamza uses his handles to share his outlook on the social ongoing, but rarely of his highly anticipated showbiz endeavours. “I don’t see a point in keeping people constantly updated,” he is quick to respond. “They’re public projects, people will get to know about them and they’ll watch it once they’re out.”
“Social media has become very influential, so I choose to be vocal about things I think matter a lot. I use it as a platform not to update about myself, I think I’m not that important and it won’t really make a difference to the world,” a modest-Abbasi stated, adding that he looks at subjects that he feels are overriding. “I choose to create awareness about public issues that I consider being very important, and to me, that’s the best use of social media. You need to educate people of a cause which is bigger than your own self. I find it rather mediocre to update people about where I am or what I’m wearing and eating.”
It doesn’t only end at social media, Abbasi has also taken the plunge onto television, and he hosts a political talk show. Now while popular hypothesis suggests that the channel is funded by the armed forces, the activist in Hamza sees it as an opportunity of catering to a larger audience in his pursuit of bringing Pakistan a principled government. As for criticism, the devil may care.
“Even people like Edhi were criticised; it’s all a part of it. I believe it actually helps you grow as long as it’s constructive. I respect those with a retrospect. However, if there’s a systematic propaganda, there’s nothing that can be done,” he maintains. “It all depends on the scale of facts. It’s not about who is saying it, but what they’re saying is more important. All I know is that I am not an anchor-person, but I have complete freedom on my show to share my views; nothing is directed or scripted.”
Not very often do you come across a notable public figure that’s open about his perspective and viewpoint; it’s both endearing and menacing for the fact that Hamza is an open book, yet that may upset many groups. He refuses to use his social media platforms for paid posts, and solemnly documents his verdicts. To him, his judgment is superior and rightfully so. Over the years, his fan base has only grown. However, has his candid persona distanced him from the rest of the fraternity?
“I kind of am the odd one out, but look at actors in Hollywood, during their most recent elections, they publicly chose political sides. Not because they want to become politicians, I don’t plan to be one either, but not having a stance at all is always a bad idea,” he maintains. “I don’t blame our actors because when you’re too vocal, you offend people too and it affects the amount of brand endorsements you get. So they’re never black or white, and that’s why I had to give up all of my campaigns. I had to choose between the two and I decided to be who I really am. I don’t judge them for it, but the more influence you have, the more responsibility there is on your shoulders.”
His metamorphosis has naturally affected his opinions also; he credits self-evolution for his maturity of thoughts. “My opinions have changed, there are things that I found acceptable a few years back and now I don’t, or vice versa. The realisation basically came to me when I understood the need of self-awareness that can come from anywhere, religion or spirituality. I realised there’s a certain responsibility I have. Celebrities are not only entertainers, they’re so much more than that; they need to indulge themselves in causes they believe in,” Abbasi encourages.
Coming back to cinema, Hamza is definitely exclusive with his projects. He was last seen on the silver screen over two years ago in Jawani Phir Nahi Ani; he’s also only done a handful of serials. What have kept him financially stable are investments he had made earlier on in businesses apart from the entertainment. Hamza stepped into the showbiz after sorting out his basic bread and butter, and perhaps that’s what’s kept him zestful.
“When I set out for acting, I kept it as my passion; I never took it as a profession. And that’s what’s still kept me interested; I haven’t made it a compulsion. I am still where I was when we shot Main Hoon Shahid Afridi,” he shares. “I always knew acting was all about luck, it’s a gamble. There’re so many more talented and better looking men, but it’s about who God chooses and I feel very grateful. My approach, however, has changed, I now believe in doing films that are more socially relevant and impactful.”
Substantial cinema interests him now, he believes in innovation and not imitation, and that’s what’s kept him from crossing the border or starring in multiple senseless comedies. “Films need to be a little more than just entertainment. For instance Parwaaz Hay Junoon has comedy, it has a romantic-track, there’s lots of action, but there’s liability attached to it also with Air Force on board,” he reveals how he signs onto scripts. “It has a message that I feel is very relevant. Maula Jatt too, is a film that will contribute to the growth of Pakistani film industry. That’s what I look for, I don’t want cinema to be just paisa wasool.”
Hamza’s a strange milieu of contradictions, yet his devastating-good-looks and acting prowess make him one of the biggest stars of recent times. He says he’s politely declined the sequel of Jawani Phir Nahi Ani, yet that hasn’t hampered his relationship with Humayun Saeed. He also feels very passionately about the process of filming on a whole, though his directorial debut, Kambakht got shelved, he does plan on renewing the script after the release of both his acting assignments next year. Until then, here’s hoping we see (and read) more of Hamza Ali Abbasi.