Almost twenty years and over four dozen drama serials into his career, Ahsan Khan has finally arrived. The character that will go down in history to define him: Imtiaz Sheikh, a child molester in drama serial Udaari. Call it fate but for an actor who has spent a better part of his life painting himself in all shades of chocolate-hero goodness, it’s ironic that the one stand out role has been absolutely black. It’s ironic and just as much, if not more, impressive.
Given the level of risk involved in portraying a controversial character that had the potential to attract all sorts of criticism, we must acknowledge Ahsan for taking up the challenge. It wasn’t an easy decision but one that eventually paid off with the awards and accolades he received for it, amongst which the most coveted was the Lux Style Award for Best TV Actor. When he talks of the success of his character, however, he talks about the awareness it managed to create amongst the masses. Child molestation, rape and abuse are evils that lurk in the dark shadows of all sects of society and for the actor, his biggest achievement was to break the taboo and draw attention to them on television.
“I think my character in Udaari was even more impactful because of the roles I’ve done in the past,” Ahsan Khan reflected as we sat down to talk about the last one career defining year in his life. “It has been a learning process. I was able to pull off this role because of the characters I have played in the past. My character in Udaari was received well and proved to be a benchmark only because of the kind of goody boy image I had created on television otherwise. Viewers were amazed to see me in a completely unusual role.”
The good boy image is not restricted to the characters Ahsan has played over the course of his career though. It also reflects in the way he articulates himself. In person and away from the glare of the proverbial spotlight, Ahsan is neither intimidating nor arrogant. If anything, he is forthcoming and remains one of the more approachable actors in the field. It is also easy to note the remarkable shift that has come in the actor after the unprecedented success of Udaari. With dozens of TV productions to his credit, he has now chosen to become selective about his work – unlike an year ago when he was appearing in one production after another. It seems that Ahsan is clear about the power of quality over quantity.
“I’m not doing any plays now and sitting at home. This is what Udaari has done to me,” Ahsan laughed while sipping his coffee. “I was very young when I entered the field. At that point I was in a rush to achieve something, to become a hero. But gradually I learnt from my mistakes and started to evaluate my work. I feel a sense of contentment after doing Udaari. I have been offered several scripts since then but the roles haven’t appealed to me. I found them to be generic.”
Post-Udaari, Ahsan feels that the role of artists is not just to entertain the audience but also includes shedding light on subjects that are shoved in the corner. He will do commercials for the sake of good money but the actor maintains that a certain balance must be found between what sells commercially and what will bring social issues to the limelight.
“Being an actor it is my responsibility to not just think about myself but also give back to society,” he said. “If I’m doing four plays for myself, I would like to take up a project that is solely for the betterment of society. This is important to keep the actor in me satisfied which is my major goal and for that I often compromise on money too.”
As Ahsan talked about giving back to society, I asked him if he feels an actor should be politically relevant. A case in point is his acceptance speech during the Lux Style Awards 2017 in which he spoke about Mashal Khan.
“It goes without saying that one cannot be blind to what’s happening around them,” Ahsan observed. “If the society you live in is affected in any way, you cannot simply ignore it and move on. It all comes from home. The way I’ve been raised, if I see anyone suffering I will definitely help them. I don’t care if I sound politically correct or not but one has to be vigilant and should not shy away from speaking on matters that affect people. People look up to us and we should speak up for their issues. In fact we all should work in this direction especially when we see that our politicians aren’t willing to bring about any change.”
Having spent years in the world of acting, Ahsan maintained that television has mass appeal because of which it has the power to impart strong messages and spread awareness. However, he is critical of some of the things that pass off as entertainment on TV channels in Pakistan including the terrible morning shows that seem to be all about getting married.
“Most of the content that is shown on our television is regressive. Most morning shows only talk about marriage while news-based talk shows feature politicians bickering over one issue or another in belligerent fashion. TV dramas, on the other hand, revolve around weeping willows and how dependent women are on their male counterparts.
These issues are relevant to our society but don’t overdo it. Where has our art and culture gone? Where has the celebration of our poetry gone? It is essential to instill some sense in your people by giving them something meaningful to watch.”
Udaari was one of the few plays that attempted to spread awareness and change the way people perceive the concept of ‘child abuse’. It was followed by quite a few socially relevant plays that took up themes like child marriage (Mera Kya Qasoor Tha) and society’s discriminatory attitude towards transgender community (Khuda Mera Bhi Hai). However, they failed to maintain the sensitivity of the subject and ended up sensationalizing it.
“If you sensationalise rape or the birth of a transgender, the essence is lost,” Ahsan asserted. “There’s a thin line in between that one has to be very careful about while highlighting a tough subject. It needs to be handled with care and the ultimate goal should be to spread awareness. A solution should be provided at the end.”
This reminds one of actor-comedian Yasir Hussain’s offensive remarks regarding Udaari at the recently held Hum Awards. Referring to Ahsan Khan, he had said, “Itna khoobsurat child molester, kaash mein bhi bacha hota.”
Hussain may not have done it intentionally as his friends and co-actors insist but one cannot help but feel disgusted by his words. It rightfully attracted a lot of criticism and sadly the issue, as Ahsan pointed out, is bigger than one person.
“More than what happened at the event, I was amazed to see people’s reaction over it. What should I say to those people sitting in the audience who treated it no less than a joke and were laughing at it?” the actor questioned.
He further added “We don’t give attention to the issue itself but focus on other things. We are more than happy to condemn Hussain but we refuse to dig deeper.”
So was Ahsan Khan always sensitive towards societal issues or is Udaari the reason behind his gentle approach?
“It’s not because of Udaari or my profession in general,” he shared. “It’s a very personal thing. I prefer doing a random act of kindness for someone who needs me than spend time with my family. It’s just that things have started coming to the forefront now because of social media. Many people said that I do it for publicity. Even if I’m doing it for publicity, at the end of the day it brings a positive change in someone’s life and that’s what matters to me.”
Moving on to social media, Ahsan is not very active when it comes to keeping his fans updated about his whereabouts. He does share things but only when he feels like doing it. Part of the reason is that he has no desire to become a ‘social media star’ or an internet sensation without requisite skills nor is he interested in the game of numbers.
“Social media doesn’t have to do anything with the success of stars like Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, Amitabh Bachchan or Irrfan Khan,” the actor noted. “I want to associate myself with such actors. It’s great if you have a massive fan following but it’s useless if your work doesn’t reflect that. It has to be a lot more than just displaying what I’m eating and when I’m sleeping. This is not what defines an actor. I find it very artificial. If you want to become an icon, you have to be good at your craft.”
Irritated with actors and directors who have given up on the television industry in the post cinema-revival age and have proclaimed that they will only do films, Ahsan stated, “They are neither taking up TV projects nor doing any major film. They just make statements instead of doing something substantial.”
Unlike fellow actors mentioned above, Khan will focus on both mediums. He will do films and will continue to star in TV projects also. In fact, the actor is gearing up for two film projects this year. One of them is called Rehbra and features the actor alongside one Ayesha Omar. In the second film, Chupan Chupai, which is a dark comedy, Khan will share the big screen with Neelum Muneer.
“I opted for films because right now there’s a lot going in the local film industry. Directors want to work with established actors so I decided to collaborate with them and experience something new. Not that I want to prove a point nor will I claim that my films are going to be out of this world, I just wanted to work with new people and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey. I will learn with every film project that I do as I did in TV. I would appreciate if people come to me and share their feedback on my work. There’s a long way to go before we start making great films.”
In the end, television will always remain Ahsan’s first love. “We’re known internationally because of our dramas, how can I stop doing that? Whenever I visit any country, people show a lot of love when they see me and this is because of the plays that I’ve done.”
The actor will return to television very soon with two TV plays that are currently in the works. Until then though, Ahsan is happy basking in the glory of the enormous success of Udaari and the amount of love and appreciation the social project has brought to his life.