ISLAMABAD: Ali Zafar, with all his enigma and star power, has truly secured a place at the absolute top in the Pakistani entertainment scene. With a career spanning over fourteen years, Ali has proved to be worthy of all his stardom and praise. His diverse virtuosity saw an extension to the world of acting when he crossed the border to become perhaps the first local actor of his generation to bag himself leading roles in sought-after productions.
Though two of Zafar’s Bollywood features never went on floors courtesy the political tension between India and Pakistan, there can be no stopping to his undeniable prowess. Ali ventures into cinematic production with Teefa in Trouble, helmed by film-maker Ahsan Rahim.
He tells me with great pleasure to have wound up within nine months, despite extensively shooting in Lahore and Warsaw, Poland. Does he plan on starring in all of his productions? “Not in all of them,” he responds, “I’d love to hunt and search for new talent and make interesting stuff, it doesn’t necessarily have to have me in it.”
He’s also raised eyeballs for his increasing ethereal and anomalous approach to art and being, but refuses to be labelled, for he is the master of all trade. He can sing, dance, act, paint, model and above all, he’s been able to resonate his inner voice and celebrate his true self.
On one fine winter afternoon, we caught up with Ali Zafar on movies and matters of social and individual progression, amongst other things.
ET: Your debut Pakistani film, ‘Teefa in Trouble’ is apparently ready for release. What can cinegoers expect from it?
Ali Zafar (AZ): Teefa in Trouble is an action romantic-comedy. It’s been designed to entertain from the very beginning to a point where we hope you laugh, you crack-up, but we’d also like you to shed a tear and feel the emotions. We’d like to see you dance to our songs and ultimately, provide a cinematic experience that hasn’t been done here yet.
I’ve said this before too – whatever I do, I want it to be more than just fluff and there’s a deep message embedded in the film – something I feel more people need to understand.
ET: Unlike most entertainers, Teefa in Trouble also promises to showcase your leading lady Maya Ali in a substantial role. How important do you think it is for cinema to portray women as empowered and liberated?
AZ: This is one cause I want to focus on – backing women and their rights. I’ve found my own foundation, through which we’ve taken up multiple challenges in order to do more. Women are the repressed voice in the society – we men need to stand up, hear them and fight for them because we are the ones who’ve played a part in denouncing their voice.
I feel genuinely happy seeing more women, not only join this industry, but also take up entrepreneurship or businesses, or just any profession at all. My mother is a teacher and she’s spent her entire life in research. Still travels for work and is in Europe for a conference as we speak. I’ve had the opportunity of working with great women also and it gives me great pleasure to see women like Fizza (Ali Meerza) producing such successful films.
ET: The film also marks the debut of your own banner, Lightingale Productions. What inspired you to set up a production house in Pakistan considering how unpredictable the business is?
AZ: I wanted to make films and tell stories and I felt the need to contribute in rebuilding our industry. You know the day I went to India and I saw how the industry works there; I knew I’d like to use all the experience and knowledge to help build my own film industry. And that I could do, with my own production house.
I don’t worry about anything in life because I think fear and worry only stop you from taking big risks and if you don’t take risks, you can never become successful.
I’ve had faith in Teefa in Trouble since the very first day, and that’s why we were able to wind it up within seven months, and shoot dangerous action sequences and stunts. And when you have faith in something, you have to believe in it blindly and follow it with all your heart and passion. That’s how I’ve always operated. At 16, I knew what I wanted to become and I just never thought otherwise.
ET: On a more serious note, your recent music and poems that you put up on social media have reflected on your spiritual influence. Would you call yourself a Sufi in the making?
AZ: There’s so much more to learn to be able to claim myself as a pure, divine or holy Sufi man. I’m a student of life and what I’ve learnt is that my pursuits need to have deeper meaning –beyond fame, money and popularity, because I’ve achieved all of that and once you have it, you realise it’s not the ultimate goal. There is more one should aspire for. Happiness comes from thinking that everything is one. We need to work towards the betterment of each of us, collectively, as people.
Also I believe if you’re a creative person, your outlook has to be different. I like to read and write poetry, I don’t want my music to be random fluff, look at my song Julie, it might be a peppy and fun track, but it has a deeper meaning. From my surroundings, I’ve learnt that people are completely consumed by the material aspect of life and they are spending a lot of their energy into acquiring something that may not give them sustainable peace. In general, there’s also a lot of negativity and it spreads like virus, and so does positivity – it’s like a fragrant scent. You have to choose between the two, what you want to be.
ET: Speaking of evolution, do you think you have the same destination you did when you started off?
AZ: I’ve seen artists who’ve kept doing the same thing they did a decade ago, but it doesn’t work and they kept thinking in the same pattern as they used to. I have grown, but at the same time, I’m still the same guy who used to draw and sketch at a hotel lobby, aspiring to become a great artist.
Now, after going through this journey, I’ve evolved to become someone who looks beyond these things also. Initially, I just wanted to put my music out there and be seen; when you’re young, you want to be famous. I never really ran after money, but I wanted people to know who I am and hear me sing. I wanted to be on stage, seeing people sing my songs with me, and once that was achieved, I kept giving myself different dreams.
I wanted to give myself a new target and set a benchmark that nobody from Pakistan had hit before; I wanted to become a movie star, and in the biggest film industry in the world that is Bollywood. I believed I could do it, and then Tere Bin Laden happened, and most recently, Dear Zindagi happened, which was my seventh film.
Then, I wanted to make a Pakistani film on my own, I think this was about five years ago when I was working on Chashm-e-Badoor and I really wanted to see an industry in Pakistan also. Since then, there have numerous subjects that have come my way, but we finally selected one, which was Teefa in Trouble. After this, I’ll probably challenge myself to something else; that’s how life goes.
ET: You just brought up Bollywood, and one has to ask you for your take on the ban that’s been imposed on the trade of talent. How has your expedition been across the border, and do you see a brighter future?
AZ: My journey’s been wonderful. I’ve always been an optimist, a romantic, an idealist and I cherish whatever I’ve gone through in life. I never have any regrets. I do, if in case I’ve ever hurt somebody intentionally. But, otherwise, I’m extremely thankful to God. I’ve made a lot of friends in India. We talk, we laugh and I feel it’s just a part of life, you move from one place to the other, it’s progression. It obviously doesn’t feel too great – I think peace between India and Pakistan would serve a great deal to the people of both the countries. When I was there, making movies, I always thought that more people had to be here with me and there had to be more exchange.
Whenever Fawad or Mahira would come to India or let’s say Naseeruddin Shah or Om Puri would work in Pakistan, I would feel extremely delighted because that had initiated this process that had not happened for so many decades. It was something tremendous that was happening. Indians were getting to see Pakistan through its artists in a completely different light. Having completely shut that process, one way to look at it would be that it all went to waste – but it didn’t, nothing does. Whatever you put out with positive energy, eventually, comes around – it’s all karma.
ET: There’s been a huge influx of digital platforms and how web-space is now the success criterion. Do you think the current lot has it easier?
AZ: Every era will have its ups and downs. I remember when TV was introduced, musicians criticised it for focusing on visuals than music, and now social media has taken centre stage. These things keep evolving, but what should evolve are our perceptions, understanding and awareness to our surroundings and purpose.
If we keep surviving on a superficial level, we will never acquire greatness or reach out to our full potential – as a society, as individuals and as artists. We must always seek wisdom and knowledge rather than likes or comments; we must have pristine clarity.
ET: Lastly, you’re also a complete family man. How do you manage to take out time for your kids with your gruelling professional schedule?
AZ: My family and my kids (Azaan and Alyza) have always been my priority. I was gone for over a month and a half for Teefa in Trouble since we shot in Poland, but I’m spending time with them now.
I dropped my son off to his new school on his first day and I play with my daughter all the time when I’m home – it’s important to me. In fact, my elder one draws and he’s very artistic and my daughter is a complete diva. I would love for them to explore their creativity and be in the arts, but they can do whatever they want of course. For me, my family is everything.
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