An actor is defined by the kind of roles he portrays and there is always a once-in-a-lifetime kind of a character that puts him on the map. ‘Bhola’ in Ranjha Ranjha Kardi has proved to be that character for Imran Ashraf, who has been garnering acclaim left, right and centre for his effortless portrayal of a mentally-challenged young man.
Bhola isn’t a character that viewers can easily relate to or fantasize about, but it has won millions of hearts, resulting in a huge fan base for Imran Ashraf. We caught up with the actor in Karachi for an exclusive interview one fine evening on the set of an upcoming play, before he flew to Lahore where he is presently shooting for Inkaar that went on-air earlier this week.
“God has been very kind to me; viewers accept me in all kinds of roles no matter how unconventional they are,” Imran shared as we spoke over a cup of tea. “While essaying the role of Shammu (Alif Allah Aur Insaan), who was a transgender, when I came out of the makeup room the junior artists felt awkward. I was scared to see their reaction, wondering how the audience would respond to it. But thankfully it was received well by viewers in Pakistan and beyond; they accepted me even as a transgender and poured in praise wherever I went.”
To one’s surprise, Imran never wanted to become an actor. After graduation, he got hold of a diploma in Asset Evaluation with plans to join his family business, since his father was a board member at UBL. Sadly, however, their business closed down due to some unfavorable circumstances and Imran had to begin from scratch.
“I started looking for a job,” Imran recalled. “Then I got a call from a director I had worked with in a telefilm during my childhood; he offered me a role but I was so bad that the channel wanted to cut my scenes. After that, I didn’t get any work for two years and I just used to sit with the editor and observe everything. That was a very hard time, even in terms of fulfilling my basic necessities such as food and shelter.”
“After two years I started getting roles, varying from lead roles to supporting ones,” Imran continued. “I have had several highs and lows since then, so I have gotten used to it.”
Imran has essayed a variety of roles on the small screen, ranging from that of a romantic hero in the recently concluded Dil Mom Ka Diya to a transgender in Alif Allah Aur Insaan, to the mentally challenged Bhola in the ongoing Ranjha Ranjha Kardi, followed by an anti-hero of sorts in his newest play Inkaar.
In 2016, he won the Viewers’ Choice Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Dillagi, followed by nominations under the same category for Dillagi and Gul e Rana in 2017.
“People come up to me and say ‘I always choose unusual roles’. That’s not the case. Nobody ever let me ‘choose’,” Imran admits, adding that getting a role in a good play was all he wished for, even if it was a small one. “I would then add my bit to make it as impactful as I could. These were left-over roles that nobody would even think about, not even the producers. Anyone could do them and they would offer it to me. I kept taking them up, hoping that they will turn out to be good for me.”
The actor believes that all those roles that he essayed paved way for Bhola and made it a success. He credits his Creator and fans for the recognition that is coming his way from everywhere, including industry insiders who took to social media and poured in praise for his craft.
“I never tasted popularity before this,” he admits. “However, I believe, if you get success, take it gracefully. We don’t know how long it will last so it is better to not take it to our heads. I am sure there will be many Imran Ashrafs who will come after me; they will take inspiration that if I can do it, they can too.”
Imran is certainly overwhelmed with the love and appreciation people are showering upon him but at the same time, there is something that upsets him. There are people in the industry who still don’t believe in his craft and hold his luck responsible for his success.
“They come up with statements like ‘you have been lucky’, etc,” Imran maintained.
“The audience has broken the norm but there are some big guns in the industry who aren’t willing to accept it. They still offer me roles that they used to earlier but then there are others who believe in me and come up with roles that have substance.”
“There are two types of people in the industry,” Imran continued. “Those who judge you on the basis of your social class and then there are those who couldn’t be bothered by it.”
Reflecting on a few (rather heartbreaking) experiences he has had over the years, Imran shared that lead actresses of plays he has worked in, used to ask him to do a scene with them and show the hero how it is done. “I was used for this purpose,” Imran recalled, adding that one of the leading actresses recently asked him if he still does small roles or has he stepped up?
Nonetheless, Imran is grateful to the Almighty for all that He has blessed him with and remained consistent in his efforts all these years. But one wonders if he ever thought of quitting.
“I might quit any day,” he was quick to respond. “I even did that for about eight to nine months when I felt I was being typecast; during that time I wrote my first play, Tabeer that was directed by Aehsun Talish. I still think of quitting when I find anything unjust. I always tried to add substance to even the smallest of roles that I was offered, I have given 10 years to the industry so now I should be offered roles (like that of Bhola) where the script has something for me. If people continue to treat me the same way despite proving myself than I don’t think it is worth it. I am tired now.”
That said, Imran revealed that he is writing a drama for himself, which will be directed by Aehsun Talish. Besides that, he will be essaying a key role in Rafay Rashdi’s upcoming web series Badshah Begum alongside Iman Ali and Gohar Rasheed.
Presently, he is essaying key roles in drama serials Jaal and Inkaar aside from Ranjha Ranjha Kardi that continues to intrigue viewers with twists and turns. Directed by Kashif Nisar and written by Faiza Iftikhar, RRK is a fast-paced play that follows the life of Noori (Iqra Aziz) and Bhola, and subtly touches upon several social issues. According to Imran, there is a lot more coming up that no one can predict.
Speaking of his most recent play, Inkaar, in which he appears to be an anti-hero as per the teasers, Imran informed that he will look stylish on the small screen after a long time. Written by Zafar Mairaj and directed by Kashif Nisar, the play features Imran alongside Yumna Zaidi and Sami Khan and has a social issue at the heart of it.
“It’s a grey character,” he noted. “The play tackles a social cause and revolves around the theme of ‘No Means No’; if a woman says ‘no’, it means no. It also tackles themes such as love, feudalism and follows a battle between truth and the system.”
Moving on, I asked Imran if he plans to make his film debut anytime soon, to which he responded, “Right now I have multiple film offers from lead roles to that of villains from some big banner production houses, but nothing has clicked to me yet. When I am offered a film that needs me I would definitely do it. Or else, I might never do a film.”
As the interview came to a close, we spoke of the growing importance of social media and its impact on an actor’s life and work. Imran is of the view that we can’t trust everything that we see on social media but, at the same time, it is not possible to ignore it.
“We can’t deny the power of social media. One and half months back my account was private. It was Iqra Aziz who asked me to switch it to public and then Asim Azhar insisted I make it public too. I had 30,000 followers then and now they have reached up to 4 lacs. I try to reply to all of the messages I receive in my inbox. I love to connect with my fans; they own us,” Imran said on a parting note.