We’ve never seen him like this before. The cheery countenance of one of the country’s few male morning show hosts stares stonily from behind dark glasses – a revolver in hand, a monstrous Great Dane on leash, a lovely damsel in chains…almost. Faysal Qureshi is intense, powerful, badass. His avatar in Bashar Momin – the ongoing drama series that is being touted as the Humsafar of this season – is so far removed from his usual fresh-faced peppiness and yet he makes it work. He makes bad look good.
We meet Faysal, not in the television studio, but in the more casual setting of his home. He may look like himself again but vestiges of his stellar performance remain. The shades are gone, the hair’s grown back, he’s sporting a casual French beard instead of the ominous full-face but a big gilded portrait of Bashar Momin looms over the room in which we sit. Seated in front of it and dressed in a crisp white shalwar kameez, Faysal looks like a blank canvas, ready for his next character. (He’s going to his next shoot after the interview.) And he reiterates that thought: “An actor is like a glass. You can fill him with warm water to make him hot and cold water to make him cool.” It makes us wonder whether he approves of his character.
He does stand by his character firmly. Bashar Momin is an out-and-out gangster, who launders money for a luxurious living but he has a soft core that betrays itself time and time again. Weighing in on the hot Bashar-versus-Buland debate, he says that he’d choose Bashar for his own daughter, had he to make the decision. “People go for winners, not losers,” he says, explaining his choice. “People like powerful men. In our society, the ordinary man is run into the ground. No bijli, no gas, theft in the streets, dacoits in their homes. It’s no wonder that people are in awe of men who appear untouchable. We all want that.” But he cautions that the final message of the serial is completely different.
“It’s not a routine love story,” he claims. “You may predict the ending but you can’t guess how Bashar will get to that end. The appeal of the script lies in its different perspective. Women make up the majority of Pakistan’s television audience, and most of the stories are told from their perspective. Bashar Momin, for the first time in years, puts a male protagonist centre stage.”
Bashar Momin is also a lesson in humanity, Faysal continues, all praise for Zanjabeel’s (Zanjabeel Asim, the writer) crafting of complex characters. He prides on the fact that Bashar is a grey character. “We are all grey characters,” he digresses philosophically. “No one, no matter how heroic, will raise his voice against injustice, kill 50 guys, fight and die for the girl. We’re doing something new.”
That’s the crux of the character, and Faysal isn’t worried about setting a bad example for youths watching at home. If Bashar is glorifying the image of a gangster, he is also sending the message that family comes first. The drama also overturns the typical patriarchal narrative – Bashar evolves in the hands of a woman. That moment when Rudaba faints in the face of his wrath is the moment he falls in love with her.
“Bashar is not a womanizer, he’s never had a woman in his life. Can you imagine what he must have felt when he held her hand for the first time?”
This man, who is all evil on the surface, has an ironically lofty name, chosen specifically to drive that point home. “None of us,” he continues, “can stand up and profess to being a bashar or a momin (Believer). No one lives up to their name or the lofty ideals attached to it. I’m a Faysal,” he adds, “but you won’t see me fighting a case in court.” Bashar, whose name means bringer of glad tidings, is always screaming, because he is “an empty vessel making all that noise. He’s a shallow man, and you’ll find out why soon enough.”
Faysal joined as producer in Bashar Momin, because he’s committed to improving the standards of the television industry. An old hand at the acting game, he’s seen enough, done enough and knows enough to facilitate a much-needed shakeup on the small screen. We’ve stagnated, he says, and things are only starting to look up. Judging by what Faysal reveals, as ratings skyrocket, the splash is bigger – and people across the border are beginning to take notice.
“Just the other day, my friend tweeted from Dubai about an Indian star talking about Bashar Momin,” he shares with a hint of a happy smile. “I don’t want to take names, but we all know who’s in the UAE for the Indian Premiere League at the moment.” Is the drama going to India? It is, only delayed due to the elections. And is Faysal going to India? “No,” comes the emphatic response. “I’m very pro-Pakistan and I’m quite biased. If an Indian star paid me a compliment on Twitter, I wouldn’t re-tweet it. I’m a little bad-mannered when it comes to things like these,” he adds.
Refuting claims that his casting in a Bollywood film would be a matter of honour for his fans, he sticks to his guns: “I’ll only act in an Indian film if they agree to a co-production here. I don’t want to reap the benefits alone; I want my technicians and crew to prosper too.” We’ve touched a sore spot, because he continues: “And I’m hurt by the treatment that our stars are receiving there. The kind of criticism that is being aimed at Ali Zafar; I’d come back to Pakistan if I were him.”
He goes on: “There was a time when they used to say Pakistan doesn’t have any acting or singing talent and now their films aren’t made without us. Everyone from Shaan to Sheheryar Munawar has had a film offer. They watch all our stuff, just refuse to recognize our talent. Gulzar stood in a Lahore studio, and said that if India had a writer from Pakistan, the joint production would surpass Hollywood’s standards. What could be a higher compliment?”
Some compliments are dropped a little inadvertently, though. At a Being Human fashion show in Dubai, Noman Ejaz was walking the ramp when director David Dhawan nudged Faysal, saying “Look, it’s your joridaar’s turn,” referring to their duo in hit sitcom Mein Aur Tum. “I was surprised he even acknowledged he had seen our sitcom, which was incredibly similar to his film Partner 2. Salman, however, looked away, feigning ignorance.”
Faysal’s all about upping the game and recognizing our own talent. That’s why he was in favour of casting unknown stars in Bashar Momin, and pulling any and all strings to make the project look its best. An exasperated Faysal laments the futile attempts to compete with Turkish plays. “It’s just not possible. Their production costs are sky-high.”
He has a bone to pick with critics too. Talking about awards, he admits that most awards are a popularity contest, and true recognition comes from critics’ approval. But he says that critics need to understand that a television drama is not a film. They shouldn’t criticise characters based on specific episodes. You’re not getting a final ending in a matter of hours. You have to wait for the story to evolve. But he’s quick to shrug their comments off: “Nowhere in the world do critics get awards. Actors get awards,” he adds with a smile.
Making a film is Faysal’s dream project and he’s bent on making one eventually. A script has yet to satisfy him. “People consider me a household name, and I want to make a film that the whole family can watch together. I was supposed to start making one in October, but now I’m not. Maybe next year.”
The making of Bashar Momin
A curious mix of influences have come together to make the character of Bashar Momin. An age-old archetype from a fairytale. Marlon Brando’s angriest moments as the Godfather. A team of designers to fuss over the finer points of Italian couture. David Beckham’s fade haircut.
Faysal’s desired look for his character was created without him even having to ask for it. On the day he planned to show a photograph of David Beckham to discuss possibilities of emulating his look, Nabila had already drawn up Bashar’s portrait in the same manner he had envisioned. Ahmed Bham had a sample suit ready for Faysal. It was a perfect fit. A new musician commissioned for the soundtrack delivered a stellar number on the first try. “We couldn’t even wrap our brains around how everything was falling into place by itself,” exclaims Faysal.
The wardrobe of each character was assigned a designer, who micro-managed looks and appearances. “Slippers with the linen suit and don’t you dare tuck in your shirt!” was one of the commandments of Faysal’s wardrobe team. With Nabila at the helm of styling each character’s look, the already good-looking cast looks even better. And the trend-setting has already begun, Faisal points out. His Facebook page is swamped with pictures of little kids and teenagers who have copied his hairstyle. The demand for three-piece suits will rise; if they’re corduroy blue, it’s even better.