Much like vampires that appear ageless, Ali Zafar is growing … young. That’s the first impression I got of him when I met him for a heartto-heart about his upcoming film. Time seems be in love with him; he doesn’t look very different from when I first interviewed him almost 11 years ago. Zafar admits he’s been on a very strict diet and exercise regimen – all in preparation for his upcoming film, Teefa in Trouble.
The interview took place in a meeting room at a local five-star hotel. We’re occasionally interrupted by members of the staff who, while leaving, ask Zafar if they can take a photo with him. After the interview, he promises them. This isn’t anything new. The first time I interviewed him, back in 2006 right before his second album was coming out, the only time he had available to talk was for a short coffee before, during and right after arriving at the airport to catch a flight. Back then, in public places people would maintain a respectful distance but someone would approach him occasionally and without breaking off in mid-sentence, Ali would simply take the paper they had, give them an autograph, and return it to them. It seemed almost routine.
He retains his tendency to become sombre while in conversation. The difference is that there is a marked softness, coming across as thoughtful in his approach now. Perhaps it is a natural by-product of having had more than a decade of experience under his belt, or perhaps from being a father.
“While I was working in India I was very conscious of the fact that this is not my country,” says Zafar as we sit down for a chat. “Pakistan is my country.Things between India and Pakistan are very uncertain. Things can come to a stop anytime. Which is why, contrary to popular perception, I never shifted my base to India.”
It was while he was working on a Bollywood film called Chashme Baddoor (2013) that Zafar decided he was going to work on his first Pakistani film. He had an idea for a story. The first thing he did was call the ad film director Ahsan Rahim. “We worked on that idea for a year and a half and then we discarded it,” he adds. “Then I worked on another idea called Deosai. For 15-20 days, I went to the north to do my research, discover and feel the place now. And I felt it’s a little early to invest so much money into filming action up there — it will be very difficult. So perhaps, for the first film, do something that’s a little more practical.”
“We started off with an idea to make an action comedy, then romance came into play and then the songs”… And hence Teefa in Trouble was born. Set in androon shehr (inner city) Lahore, the movie centres on a character that keeps finding himself in precarious situations and has to find a way out of them. It also involves a lot of action. Does Zafar think he’s well-suited to play a regular person? “I can because I’m a Punjabi, na,” he responses, his accent becoming thick and strong.
“I come from a mohalla in Lahore. That’s who I am from inside. With time, you become a little polished, but I know who I am and where I come from. I know the language, the streets, how people talk and their mannerisms.” They worked with both a local and foreign fight choreographer for the film. “I had so much fun!” Zafar says talking about doing the action sequences. To fight and to dance are pretty much the same thing, Zafar stresses, as he demonstrates his point by slowly and gracefully moving through a small sequence, counting the numbers of each step as it progresses. They’ve wrapped up the shoot in Lahore. The second phase of filming is currently taking place in Poland. “We wanted to have Eastern European architecture in the film – something that hasn’t been seen before," says Ali. “You put a camera in London and everyone knows its London. I’ve already shot two films in London.” Does he struggle to adapt between Ali Zafar the singer and the actor? “I think it’s about striking that fine balance," he responds.
There was another script in the works that centred on being a musician but Ali refused to entertain that one. “I don’t want to do that because that will just have me play myself,” he says, “Maybe later. That’s why I also chose Tere Bin Laden as my first film in India, as opposed to another film I had been offered in which I would’ve played a musician.” Eight films (and guest appearances in two others) in, and Zafar is tired of playing similar characters. “I’ve had this look of a ‘romantic’ hero or a ‘chocolate’ hero," he says, seeming slightly embarrassed. “Teefa is unlike any character that I’ve done before." Ali had been filming for Tere Bin Laden when the 2008 Mumbai Attacks took place. “Luckily, I only had two days of filming left,”he related to me during an interview back then. Quite a few media professionals working in India at that time had to come back to Pakistan. What about him? “The Indian media instantly started thrashing Pakistan but on the ground level nothing changed, things were still pretty normal for me,” he had related. This fallout was completely different from what happened last year after the Uri attacks. Pressured by a right-wing political party in India, Pakistani actors were“banned” from Bollywood. Caught in the middle of all of this were Fawad and Mahira Khan. Did he feel a sense of déjà vu watching how everything unfolded? “My own brother Danyal was there,” Zafar relates. “He’d been there for two months prepping for a film with Yash Raj. He was being launched by them. He was going to start filming in a week. My film Dear Zindagi was about to come out.
“I realised that the difference between now and then —because something much bigger had happened before — was the presence and emergence of social media. But being an optimist, I always see a silver lining. Things happen at a certain time for a certain reason.”