Hamza Ali Abbasi reminds me of a centaur. He’s a hybrid star, a mythological creature with the body of a super star and the head of a social activist. Hamza has the looks, charm, charisma and talent blended with a baritone that would make many woman weak in the knees – but he doesn’t use that charm and voice to romance leading ladies in films; he uses it to update his statuses on Facebook. Instead of talking films, TV dramas and success he prefers to spend three hours of his day on a political talk show and talk about issues that run him the risk of getting blacklisted every now and then. Before meeting him, I’m in two boats over this man’s true identity. And it’s the first thing I question him about.
“If you must put me in a box and if you must go for a stereotypical definition then you could say that I am an actor and a socio-political activist,” he says. “I do what feels right.”
He’s unpredictable, that’s for sure. This is an interview I had been asking him for over six months. His extremely busy schedule delayed it endlessly and we’d end up discussing viewpoints on – you guessed it right – Facebook. But an unexpected call in the morning informed me that he was in town and we could meet after his talk show on Bol TV. He walked in around 11pm on August 13, dressed in his customary black shalwar kameez, and his eye on the television set showing live coverage of the Imran Khan and Sheikh Rashid jalsa in Rawalpindi.
“Can we watch this before we begin the interview,” he asked. How could I say no?
The stroke of midnight, fireworks and one rainy jalsa later, we got down to talking about him and what was driving his life and choices.
“The bottom line is that whatever I think is right, I do,” he said. “But I know that I have to do the right thing. Whether politically or even in acting, I now do very specific kinds of projects. Over a period of time, as I’ve grown up intellectually, I’m realizing the responsibility I have. Those who appear on TV or in films, they have a responsibility to society. I just do what I think is necessary.”
His choices, no matter how ‘responsible’ have also put him at odds with the industry he works in; they have worked to his disadvantage. Hamza has become extremely careful with the projects he signs up for; losing most commercial capers in the process. Last year he lost around four brand endorsements simply because brands did not want to affiliate with someone as politically motivated as him.
“Last year I had a lot of brand endorsements but they started putting conditions on me,” he recalled with a good natured laugh. “They wanted me to stop appearing at dharnas and stop being political. I support Imran Khan because I think that what Imran Khan is saying is right. I don’t care if brands back out.”
He does have a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to voicing his opinions, the most recent being his opinion on item numbers and how they are counterproductive to the progress of Pakistan’s film industry. Hamza’s Facebook status condemning ‘items’ came alongside the release of ‘Kaif O Suroor’ and while he did not take any names, his condemnation was automatically directed to Na Maloom Afraad 2 and its ‘item girl,’ Sadaf Kanwal.
“Then why do you expect that man, sitting in a cinema and watching a half naked girl dancing, to not objectify women?” he asked back. “People love porn and it sells more than anything but does that make it right? Where do we make a distinction? We say porn is not okay, but if a woman is saying ‘mein supari hoon, chaba ley mujhe’ that’s okay? I think it’s a genre of porn. What makes me sad is women defending item numbers. Am I wrong to say that a woman’s talent isn’t looked at when she does an item number? Her looks and body are looked at.”
“Plus,” he added, “has any item number in our films ever played a role in making a film a hit or a flop? Look at Bollywood films like Dangal, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, PK – a good film doesn’t need shit like this to be successful. This stuff isn’t good for feminism. I’m a huge feminist. I have a very female oriented household. My mother is a criminal lawyer. My sister is a dermatologist. I know this is bad for feminism. I’m surprised that we’re even debating this.”
Hamza went on to explain how he felt there was a difference between private and public life.
“I would beg people to differentiate between private life and a public matter,” he said, explaining how public figures and celebrities had the power to influence the masses with their behaviour. He may smoke in the private space of his home but not so readily in public as it may influence his young fans to smoke too.
Did that make him a hypocrite, as was repeatedly pointed out by his critics? We rewound his life a bit to get a clearer picture. Three years ago, Hamza Ali Abbasi was happy to be considered hot property. He did the shirtless scene in Jawani Phir Nahi Aani and was a “party animal,” by his own admission.
“If I kept living the lifestyle I was living four years ago, I would have put Rasputin to shame,” he admitted. “I used to be a party animal. There isn’t a single person in Karachi or Islamabad who might have partied more than I did. I was a womanizer; 80 per cent of the stories you’ve heard are true. But then things changed. People go around and call me a hypocrite. I’m not a hypocrite. In fact, I’m way too honest about things. I accept that I used to have a different lifestyle. But I’m trying to change it. I’m trying to be a better person. One thing that led me to this thought process was my father’s death. When a parent dies then death becomes very real. It made me ask a lot of questions.”
It was difficult to believe that somebody once as socially active as him, a 32-year old, could go cold turkey on all guilty pleasures in exchange for a pure, celibate life.
“It’s not that I’ve suddenly become a saint,” he laughed. “But as long as you’re conscious of your flaws. If you don’t even recognize that you’re making mistakes, that is the actual mistake. I make mistakes but they keep bothering me and I want to correct those flaws.”
So how does the new Hamza Ali Abbasi, who looks down upon item numbers and is unabashedly political, choose films? He is currently working on Parwaaz Hai Junoon and Maula Jutt and I was curious to know what motivated his choices.
“When I choose my work, I think ke yaar, what am I giving to the society? I don’t want to do something that I will feel bad about doing. People watch and our work influences them so for me, that’s my biggest priority. Money does not matter.”
“The Air Force is making a film after 30 years,” he continued. “And I wanted to be a part of it. The Air Force isn’t known to make films the way ISPR is. It was their first attempt after many years and they wanted to show a young, new face. So it has lots of elements. Cadet life is fun and that has been shown in the film. There is a lot of humour. I’m playing a pilot. There’s a love story also. Hania is playing the lead in it.”
How did it feel romancing someone 12 years younger than yourself?
“Why do you think I shaved?” he laughed again. “With my beard I looked like her uncle. She’s very young. She’s 20 but she looks 15, 16 years old. So I decided to shave because I didn’t want to look like her chacha. But when she came all ready for the scene, with her hair and makeup, she was looking three years older than me.”
You kept the beard for Maula Jutt, though…
“Maula Jutt is by far one of the most difficult roles of my life,” Hamza said, to my surprise. “I’m playing Noori Nutt. I coincidentally met Mustafa Qureshi sahib and told him that I spent a lot of days studying his body language. It has to be a balance between a Noori of 2017 and the essence of Mustafa Qureshi.”
While both films are several months away from releasing, Hamza’s career continues shaping up in political activism. He has no plans to run for politics, he says, but we can see that there is a politician in the making here. Is this why he plays the religion card every now and then; it is a guaranteed credit to the vote bank, I ask.
“I have an opinion and I’m not afraid to voice it,” he repeats, as we end the interview. “And I don’t play the religious card for popularity. Have I ever tweeted or put up on FB that I’ve just offered Fajr? If anything, my views have gotten me into trouble more than anything.”
“Honestly speaking, belief in God makes you very relaxed,” he concluded, counting off lost opportunities, films, brand endorsements etc. “It makes you very content and happy in whatever condition you’re in.”
–Photography by Kashif Rashid