“I believe in matriarchy”

Ally Adnan talks to model, director and now actor Adnan Malik, one of Pakistan's hottest young stars 

“I believe in matriarchy”
Adnan Malik currently heads the award-winning AMP (Adnan Malik Productions), a multi-platform boutique production house based in Karachi and is starring in Hum Television’s top-rated series, Sadqe Tumhare. In an exclusive interview with The Friday Times he talks at length about himself, his life in show business, cinema, friendships and family.

You never seem to wear any socks. Is that a style statement?

Ha! Ha! Ha!

It is less a style statement and more an effect of watching too many episodes of Miami Vice while growing up.

Are you aware of your status as a true fashion icon in Pakistan, one who people look to for current trends and styles, and do you enjoy it?

I am flattered that some people consider me a fashion icon but I am not even sure if I am current and trendy. Dressing up well is important to me and I just try to be myself. I believe that how one presents himself on the outside is a reflection of what he is on the inside. I have always admired well-dressed people.

Adnan Malik
Adnan Malik

You started your career as a model, worked as an anchor and a host on television, produced videos, produced films, worked as a director and are acting now. Do you plan to do virtually everything in show business, or will you settle for one vocation in the future?

The various facets of show business are intrinsically connected to each other and I enjoy each one of them. I really enjoy acting, but I find myself most comfortable and most honest behind a camera. I studied filmmaking in college and love all aspects of it. I think my true calling is story-telling. I am enjoying doing multiple things currently. It is a great learning experience which I feel will contribute to making me good a filmmaker.  That is where I think I will end up.

You father is a very successful doctor. Did you ever consider medicine as a career choice?

I did consider a career in medicine for a hot minute but concluded that it was not right for me. Abu supported my decision not to be a doctor. That being said, I feel that my father and I share the same philosophy and ethos. Healing others is very rewarding. It gives one a purpose in life and an opportunity to give back to the people. I try to do the same, albeit through a different medium.  If you see my work, especially the documentaries focusing on gender identity, you will see that there is more to it than just entertainment. I enjoy work which has social and cultural relevance. Stories of people on the periphery of society, and those struggling with cultural and social boundaries appeal to me. I try to tell stories in a way that brings marginal conversations to the mainstream. In my own way I try to do good and give back through my work.

Is show business a viable career choice in Pakistan today?

Of course it is!

There are many avenues to making a lot of money in show business. People are cashing in on the success of the business in Pakistan. There is literally an actor, director, or cinematographer lurking under every stone.

What are the perks of being a celebrity?

I enjoy the rewards of celebrity more than the perks. I love doing what I do; money, glamor, recognition and other perks, if you will, are secondary. What I enjoy and find truly rewarding is people telling me that my work has impacted their lives in a positive way. It makes everything that I do all the more worthwhile.

What is the downside of having a career in show business?

The lack of privacy. I am a very private person and uncomfortable with people prying into my life.

People have a lot of rather specific expectation from those in show business. It is challenging to stay focused and not to allow these expectations to modify your course.
There is a lot of envy and jealousy in the industry - traits that I, thankfully, do not have

There is a lot of envy and jealousy in the industry – traits that I, thankfully, do not have. People tend to judge you very quickly without trying to actually understand who you are.

The work is very grueling as well and the schedules demanding and unpredictable.  There are weeks when I have to work round the clock and weeks where I have nothing to do. This makes it difficult to lead a healthy and balanced personal life.

If you had not been well-educated, affluent and well connected, would your entry into the world of show business been more difficult?

These factors must have helped but I believe that talent shines through regardless. Talent matters and always has an impact.

Are people who are poor, do not speak good English, and lack a solid social standing treated fairly when trying to enter the field of show business?

No, they are not. Breaking class barriers is tough not just in show business but in all fields. And the problems of unfair and poor treatment are not unique to Pakistan. The underprivileged suffer similarly all over the world. Fortunately, a lot is changing and some great initiatives are being taken to address the problem. The Karachi Youth Support Network (KYSN) guides and supports youngsters whose talent may otherwise go untapped due to financial and social hardship. The MAD (Music, Art and Dance) School recently organized a show that featured musicians and dancers from Lyaari. I used the same group of performers for a major commercial. I hope the initial break was the jump start that they needed for a career in show business.

You are a hardworking and productive young man of many talents. Now that you have arrived, do you feel that you owe anything to the industry, give something back?

I owe a lot to Pakistan. It is certainly not easy to work and live here but no other place would have given me the number of fantastic opportunities I have had. I cannot imagine doing, what I do over here, anywhere else in the world. Pakistan is my country. It has treated me well. I try to do my part through both formal and informal channels. I sit on the board of the truly wonderful Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) which is a non-profit organization dedicated to cultural and historic preservation. I am very proud of the organization’s educational programs and am very happy to spend both time and energy with CAP.

Your films Bhuli Hui Hoon Daastan and Telephone Pyaar both, in their own individual ways, paid homage to Pakistani cinema. Did you watch a lot of Pakistani films growing up?

I did not see a lot of Pakistani films while growing up because the industry was in a decline at the time. My brother, Saqib was and is obsessed with Pakistani cinema. He would drag me to the cinema every now and then. The films I saw at the time did have an impact on me. Shami Ara’s film Miss Singapore with Babra Sharif was an inspiration behind the Punjabi Love music video.  I became truly interested in Pakistani cinema after studying filmmaking in the United States. When I returned home, I wanted to learn about our cinema heritage. Bhuli Hui Hoon Daastan as a project of self-discovery. I wanted to place myself as a filmmaker in my own country.

Pakistani cinema today is on a path of what many believe is critical and commercial success.  Do you believe this to be a renaissance?

I think it is a reinvention of Pakistani cinema. These are very exciting times. There are so many films on the floor right now! The change really came about when it made business sense to make films. I made the point in Bhuli Hui Hoon Daastan. Once we allowed Indian films to be shown in our cinemas, people started returning to cinemas, cinemas got upgraded and the industry started making money. It was a chain reaction. As the monetary returns grew, it became feasible to make films locally. Today there are more than fifty films in production. That is pretty amazing!

Are the Pakistani films of 2014 over-rated?

It will take time for the industry to develop and mature and start producing films that are world class. Since we do not really have a cinematic identity yet, these are curious, but exciting, times for filmmakers.

What kind of cinema do you like?

I know what I do not like: Affected, mainstream, blockbuster films.

I like films that have a strong narrative, focus on story and character development, and have interesting dialogue, where form follows content. A film needs to engage all of my senses for me to truly like it. Some of the contemporary directors whose work I follow are Paul Thomas Anderson, Jacques Audiard, Vishal Bhardwaj, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and François Ozon.

Do you plan to make feature films?

Oh yes I do. It is definitely on the agenda and will, hopefully, happen sooner rather than later!

Your video My Punjabi Love for You seemed to be a simultaneous tribute to both Quentin Tarentino’s Kill Bill series and Rangeela’s Aurat Raaj. What did you want to communicate through the video?

Tarentino is a true cinephile and all of his films are referential to older films.  My Punjabi Love for You was similarly a homage to films – the Kill Bill series, Aurat RaajMiss Singapore, and Sex and Fury – that have influenced me. The narrative of the video is a subversive comment on masculinity and the role of women in our culture.

I first heard the song three years ago and started visualizing the video as an epic revenge drama. I loved the propulsive nature of Bumbu Sauce’s song. It is retro, grungy, and raw. It has a dramatic guitar riff. The fact that a man is singing from a strong Punjabi woman’s perspective is cheeky. I just loved the song and instinctively knew that it had to be an action video!

I spent a fair amount of time developing the character of Parveen Bano for the video. She was a strong woman whose tremendous strength and resilience becomes evident as she faces adversity and violence in life, forcing people to take her seriously and to not sexualize her. She kicks some major butt in the video.

Adnan Malik & Mahira Khan
Adnan Malik & Mahira Khan

There is a great deal of focus on gender issues in the narrative. Why?

I was raised with very strong and independent women around me. At heart I believe in matriarchy, and think that the world would be a much gentler place if it was run by women. Parveen Bano, played by Aamina Sheikh, starts out as a victim and transforms herself into a strong, self-believing, kick-ass wonder woman. She beats men at their own game, rescues her kidnapped husband, but then chooses to leave him. I think she is a strong role model for women here.

Gender identity, issues and politics are important to me. I want to force people to talk about them. Our country has produced female leaders like Benazir Bhutto and yet displayed misogyny and inexplicable cruelty as in the cases of Mukhtaran Mai and Malala Yousafzai. We need to confront, understand and address gender issues in Pakistan.

Your second video - Zoe Viccaji’s Phir Milli Tanhai - seemed more personal, very different from My Punjabi Love for You

Phir Milli Tanhai was more of an impressionistic piece. In the video I depict the story of a break-up the way I see it and the way I have experienced it. It was about first love and moving on. I wanted to weave an emotional tapestry in the video and to have the visuals speak louder than the narrative. But my focus was not on visual gimmickry and splendor; it was on the emotion.

What did you study in the United States?

I studied film theory and production at Vassar College. I had gone to the United Sates to study economics like a good desi boy, but after three semesters of misery, took classes in film and art history class. That is when I really found myself.

Not many people return to Pakistan after completing their studies in the United States. Why did you come back?

My final thesis film at Vassar was Bijli which tells the story of a transgendered Muslim who passes as a man, during the day and dances in drag at night. The film did well and was a finalist at the student academy awards. It won the Best Short Film at the Kara Film Festival. The film’s success made me think about returning to Pakistan and making films. I had always wanted to return and work in my own country. I had never imagined being away from my family for too long.  In 2004 there was a perception that Pakistan was going places and there were many opportunities in the country. Things seemed to come together at the time and I returned to Pakistan.

You returned to Pakistan in 2005 and will complete a decade in show business soon. How has the world of glamour and your success changed you as a person?

In my head, I have always had a sense of glamour and success; so not much has changed! Ha! Ha! Ha!

On a serious note, I do not think glamour and success have changed my core in any way. My values and my belief system are completely intact. They have not changed at all. In fact, my purpose in life is much clearer today than it was before I entered show business. I feel more grounded and honest now!

Have you seen your friends change in the last decade?

Of course. People change. Life happens. We do not live in a vacuum. Some people have been through tough experiences and some have had it easier. But my core group of friends is still the same and their values are still the same. Though, unfortunately, they are scattered all over the world now!

What role do friendships play in your life?

Friendships play a very important role in my life. I am blessed to have some very talented, empathetic, well-adjusted people in my life.

Are you close to your family?

I am very close to my family. It is the single most important thing in my life. We do not live together any more, and are individuals who like their space, but we are very close and connected nonetheless. My family is my strength and my guiding light.

You play the roles of a very intense young man in the television serial, Sadqay Tumhare. Are you as intense in your real life as well?

I am actually a rather mellow person and I do not carry the kind of anger that my character, Khalil, does.  But, yes, we share traits. I play a lot of sports, I like to be the best at what I do, I believe in fate and can be very romantic.

Your performance in Sadqe Tumhare is competent, assured and highly nuanced, decidedly more than is expected of an actor making his debut on television. How did you prepare for the role o fKhalil?

Playing the role was an enormous challenge. Khalil Ur Rahman Qamar’s writing is beautiful. We were not allowed to change a single word. It was really daunting to memorize long dialogues. In order to fully get into character, I spent weeks rehearsing and watching the angry young man performances of Amitabh Bachchan. I trained physically and lost weight to play Khalil who is a cricketer. I imagined his body would always be aching. In order to show anger, I would clench my stomach muscles. Someone told me later that the Chinese believe that the stomach is where one has all the fire.  So, all along I had been channeling this fire. I actually let myself get lost in the character, especially towards the end when he becomes hopeless and a weaker man, prone to sulking and brooding. Some of the character’s darkness actually spilt into my personal life!

You are working with some senior and more experienced actors like Muhammad Qavi, Farhan Ally Agha and Shamyl Khan. Was this intimidating?

No, not at all.

All my co-actors were very supportive. Qavi Sahab was the first person I shot with. He had worked with my mother in the past and I felt instantly comfortable with him. Samiya Mumtaz brought her theater training to our sets and was very helpful. She was great to work with. Shamyl was excellent. He is a measured and professional actor. We had a lot of scenes together and he really helped soothe my nerves. I was actually very lucky to have a very supportive and talented cast in my first television serial.

Did you enjoying working with Mahira Khan?

Mahira and I have been good friends and have known each other for many years. We used to be VJs at MTV and have always shared good chemistry. She is a very thoughtful, sensitive and generous actor. She is extremely talented, yet very down to earth. In fact, she was one of the reasons I agreed to do the serial in the first place. A lot of people had doubts about whether I could pull this off, but she believed in me from day one.

Are you enjoying the adulation?

It is very rewarding to have one’s hard work appreciated. There are two kinds of fans. One, those who are interested in your celebrity, and, two, those who have been moved by your work. I can always tell them apart. It is the latter whose appreciation means a lot to me.

People are referring to you as the new Fawad Afzal Khan. Is that a compliment for you, or for Fawad?

That is very kind. Fawad is a very talented actor who has spent a lot of time in the industry. I have a lot of respect for him. It is definitely a compliment to me.

Ally Adnan lives in Dallas where he works in the field of telecommunications. He can be reached at allyadnan@outlook.com.

Exclusive photographs for the Friday Times by YaseenLakahani