Ali Zafar has picked up a gun. No, he’s not shooting Shaan with it. (Although one can imagine the temptation!) Ali has also grown out his hair, thrown on a leather jacket and put on a fedora for good measure – all done to look the part of an assassin, which is his next role in upcoming film Kill Dil. In all his years in Bollywood (just shy of four since his debut release), Ali Zafar has maintained his boyish charm throughout his progression of rom-com Romeos – an image he is finally shedding, just as he plans his return home.
Yes, Ali Zafar is coming back to Pakistan for a longer stint than his press junkets allow, because he plans to make a movie on home ground. Prolific ad man and music video director, Ahsan Rahim, who has directed ‘Sajania’ and co-directed the ‘Channo’ videos, will be taking the helm, while Ali is currently writing the script, adding another feather to his proverbial cap.
The film, which is unofficially being touted as a comedy, will be a refreshing re-acquaintance of Ali and the Pakistani screen, with which his association in the past few years has been limited to singing the praises of a telecom company, dancing for a brand of tea, sniff-testing a B-grade detergent and the likes.
He admits that for a long time, doing ads was the only thing that made financial sense to him in Pakistan. And it’s hard to begrudge the man his business sense, especially since he’s heading back home to invest hard-earned capital and years of experience in the movement to revive Pakistani cinema.
Performing artists in Pakistan have had a tough decision to make. Claiming to refuse offers from across the border, some chose to rough it out here, where the film industry has only just begun to show some semblance of a revival, where memories of an album-buying, music video-watching culture are tinged with 90′s nostalgia, and where it is only television (and the commercials running on it) that offers big, bankable bucks. Others leapt at the opportunity to take their talent to foreign, more profitable shores, earning their due share of money, big screen exposure and the publicity that follows. As the saying goes, “All publicity is good publicity.” Which, in other words, means that anyone enjoying the limelight has had to bear their share of brickbats.
At a time where every third actor in Pakistan scoffs at the idea of “going to India” and those who do are branded “cheap sell-outs” – the pseudo-national buzzword of the year – there’s Ali Zafar who talks about it simply in practical money-making terms. And despite becoming a de facto spokesperson for every artist who has made the move to Bollywood, he lets his actions speak for themselves, never caring to defend his stint in India.
“I’m a singer and songwriter first and actor second,” Ali declared during a quick chat at the launch of an ad campaign in which he is featured. “Sadly the music industry couldn’t establish itself here, and consequently many artists have suffered. Those who went to India were able to sustain their careers,” he continued, echoing that ever so common refrain. “People don’t watch music channels; they watch films,” he later added, implying that films are where music matters now.
Ali has carved a niche for himself in Bollywood, serving a multi-hyphenate role as actor-singer-songwriter, while occasionally also taking on the responsibilities of music director. He’s starred in a film (or two) every year since 2010, and his fans know to expect his music in every film he stars in. Although his last album Jhoom was released in 2011, Ali remains as prolific a musician as always, thanks to his Bollywood career. But he’s paying a price.
It appears that Ali’s been reduced to a musician for hire – a very well-paid one, at that – sacrificing his artistic freedom to work according to a brief. “They say ‘We want a peppy song’ or ‘We want a danceable song’, then I have to write a song like that,” he admits.
“It’s not only about money, though,” he clarifies, “I recently released a single called “Chal Bulleya” that borrows from Baba Bulleh Shah’s poetry. If I have to make music for my self-satisfaction, I work on something more serious and meaningful. Because that’s what’s close to me.”
From crooning all Romeo-like in “Jhoom” and taking a jaunty jibe at corrupt politicians in “Chal Dil Meray”, Ali’s style has had to evolve to evoke the arms-wide-open expansiveness of a euphoric Bollywood moment, like in London Paris New York or lend well to the bhangra pop-ish vibe of the Total Siyapaa title track. His rich baritone, which is unmistakeably his, is still there, and that’s what appears to count with his fans, which seem to multiply both there and at home.
Ali Zafar maintains a quiet connection with his homeland even during his music-making for Bollywood. “I make all my music in Pakistan. My songs are produced and recorded at my studio in Lahore. Everyone I work with on the songs, from backup vocalists to poets, are from here. We have lots of talent that is not yet discovered. We should use it.”
In Kill Dil, which is due to release in November this year, Ali has taken a backseat in the music department and is singing just one song, leaving the composition and music direction to renowned film composers and his long-time collaborators, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. Instead, he focused on the challenges of his new role, which is a first of sorts.
“In Kill Dil, I’m doing a role that is not comedy. There’s action, there’s drama, there’s romance. I play an assassin in the film, so obviously my character has shades of grey. I’ve wanted to do a role that challenges me. So, that’s why you’ve seen me in a completely different look in Kill Dil.” With fight sequences and stunts in the offing, we may have expected Ali Zafar to graduate from rom-com hero to action flick bad boy in the future. But Ali prefers to return home to get started on his film.
It was at a celebration of Pakistani films that Ali Zafar rose to the defense of the country’s giants – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ghulam Ali, Barey Ghulam Ali, Reshma – who have also worked in India, to great success. The offhand remark, that anyone who went to work in India is a cheap sell-out, was “disrespectful to all these great people,” Ali said, “I thought I should point this out… because you have to stand up for your own people. That is also patriotism.”