You may not remember him as the charming officer in Salakhain (2004) but that is where Sami Khan made his silver screen debut almost a decade ago. Since then he has come a long way, acting his way through over 30 television serials from Khurram Ali Rana’s Dil Se Dil Tak (2005) to his most recent role as Buland Bakhtiyar in Syed Ali Raza Usama’s Bashar Momin (2014). The pinnacle of his career, however, was Zafar Mairaj’s Ghar Ki Khatir (2012), for which he bagged a Best Actor trophy at the PTV Awards as well as a coveted Tamgha-e-Imtiaz for perfecting the role of a nomad in Quetta. The trajectory of his career may have navigated mostly through television, but Khan feels his ultimate goal is films. The silver screen is where he’ll complete a full circle.
“I am conserving my energy for the big screen,” he says with a smile when we meet at the Nabila’s studio, where he is being photographed. “I want to make sure that when I agree to an offer, it will be something I can be proud of.”
“Heroes and heroines are not made on TV,” he continues. “Characters make a TV serial successful. Films create stars. The production scale of cinema is grand and the impact huge.” That said he is thankful to destiny for the opportunities that have come his way.
“Not working in films is a conscience decision on my part,” Sami Khan explains when asked why he’s stayed away from cinema even though Pakistan’s film industry is experiencing a somewhat revival these days. “I am paying attention to Syed Noor’s advice that I should wait for the right offer, and not rush into films because if my movie fails, I would be left stranded with just one medium. Working in a film must be treated as grand and I am waiting for the right moment.”
Sami Khan moved to TV when he realized that there was no scope in films, but that happened after Salakhain, in which he and Ahmad Butt made a debut. Salakhain did generate some interest, having Zara Shaikh as leading lady and Sonu Nigam as playback singer on several scores. It wasn’t enough, and for Khan, was followed by a couple of stints with music videos, including Annie’s ‘Maahiya’.
“That just happened,” Sami reminiscences with a smile. “I was at home when Annie and my brother (actor/director Taifoor Khan) were discussing the music video of the song. The singer saw me and asked my brother whether I was the same person who acted in Salakhain and was selected. I have been lucky when it comes to music videos as I also did Abrar ul Haq’s ‘Pardesi’, which became a hit as well. From there onwards, it has only been TV, TV and TV.”
Isn’t he tired of working on television since he has experienced the diversity of film and music? “I would have, had I not chosen different projects and thankfully, I have managed to work with the best talent around,” he explains. “I consider myself a director’s actor and television is a safe medium since there are fewer risks involved. If it works, we are a hit. If it doesn’t, we have other projects to bank on. That space has allowed me to experiment on TV and mature as an actor.”
It has to be said that at a time when new faces make fly-by-night impressions, Sami Khan has managed to make a lasting one. He believes luck plays an important part in an actor’s development. “I was lucky that the moment I switched to TV, Geo Entertainment was launched and Tere Pehlu Main became a hit. The viewers liked my way of acting and I am glad I didn’t disappoint them,” the actor remembers. “I try to abide by my rules and believe that to act isn’t difficult; to not act is the real art!”
Sami admits that his resemblance with a legendary actor has had its benefits too. “Well, it sort of did aid me a little as people began referring to me as Nadeem sahab’s son. Once I was out shopping and a person approached me, asking about my father and I was like ‘Do you know him?’ and the guy replied, ‘Of course, who doesn’t know Nadeem sahab!’”
Born as Mansoor Aslam Khan Niazi in a family of engineers, Khan believes that being a good student has helped him in his professional career. His parents wanted him to become an engineer, like the rest of his siblings, but he had another love: cricket. “I loved playing cricket, always have. I could have made it to the college cricket team but I was too competitive in my studies. I always wanted to be in the top five of the class and that kept me away from even pursuing a professional cricketing career.”
Then how exactly did he end up as an actor? “One day I randomly went to audition as a host for a television show. Film producer Rashid Khawaja saw my photographs and recommended me for Shehzad Rafique’s Salakhain, where I made my debut as an actor.” The rest is television history, some good and some not so honourable.
Khan admits that his supporting roles in ‘saas bahu’ sagas are nothing to be proud of but actors have to give in to the battle of ratings. “Even actors are sick of these soaps,” he says, “There are many issues that haven’t been addressed in Pakistan, but due to ratings, we are stuck in these regressive plays. Ratings define the success and merit of a program these days and that’s the unfortunate thing. I want to make something on the lines of BBC’s Sherlock but I know that it may not get the ratings.”
Strangely, Khan isn’t averse to endorsements and feels that TV commercials play their part in making one a household name. “For me, doing a commercial with dialogues is as good as acting, and I don’t consider it modeling,” the actor explains. “You get to do what you like in an advanced setup, in quick time and are richer in experience by the end of the shoot.”
His inspirations as an actor, however, come from films. He finds Shaan to be one of the finer actors in Pakistan – when and if used properly by directors – but also looks to Hollywood. “I am a big fan of Kiefer Sutherland because he has such command and control on his voice that you can’t stop praising. Then there is the intensity and dedication of Christian Bale and the maturity of Hugh Jackman and all you can do is be in awe of these actors.” Sami adds. “I tried to follow Christian Bale by gaining weight for Love, Life aur Lahore and would love to do something that requires fluctuating weight and playing with my appearance.” This explains the beard, groomed for a role in his upcoming play by Syed Ali Raza Usama.
Bollywood has its influence too. “I must admit that Shah Rukh Khan’s energy is limitless,” he continues, “and that’s why I am a die-hard fan of SRK. He doesn’t do different roles but his fans love him. On the other hand, I also like Aamir Khan for his diversity: he keeps reinventing himself.”
Does he plan to hop across the border too?
“I got an offer from an Indian TV channel a long time back but nothing materialized,” he says honestly. “I am very happy for actors like Ali Zafar, Fawad Khan and Imran Abbas who are not only doing well in India but are paving way for us in Bollywood too. It’s time to get over the Pakistan and India rivalry because we can’t compete with their industry. However, we can try to learn from them and provide them ideas and acting talent since our artists have worked in conditions their actors can’t even dream of.”
Until that opportunity comes his way, it’s television for Sami Khan, and he is TV’s big star. What sets him apart from other actors of his generation? He sums it up philosophically: “I live my life on a daily basis, consider all my projects as my final one and try to give my full devotion. I came into acting because I love it … yeh kaam ibadat ki tarah hai. I am sorry to say that new people don’t think of it like that and are in it for the fame. People think and act; I feel and act. If you are thinking, you are acting but if you are feeling it, then you are living it. And that’s the best way to express your emotions.”