In the past year or so, Fawad Khan has spent 35-odd days in Lahore. It’s the city he calls home, and the nonchalance of which he misses terribly; the one where “all the mohallawallahs know me, so they don’t really care,” he tells me, settling into a plush couch at the seaside hotel in which he’s been staying in Mumbai.
That number of 35 days, he hopes, will see a significant increase. Early the next morning, he’s flying back home for a much-needed break, after wrapping up his third Bollywood film, Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, and to much more challenging tasks… like water balloon fights with his son, Ayaan (“It’s a great way to cool down in the scorching heat, and also great exercise”), and to wife Sadaf, who prefers to stay home while he works (“I do consult her on everything, but she feels I know my craft and she doesn’t, so there’s no reason for her to constantly be on the sets”).
The flight back home couldn’t have come at a better time for Fawad. Limited time in Mumbai means he’s been working round the clock to wrap up commitments, despite being under the weather. Only a day earlier, he arrived at our shoot ill and sleep-deprived, and yet, almost effortlessly, hammered out one cover-worthy shot after another. “You look like you finally got some sleep,” I say. His toothy grin — the one that melted a thousand girls’ hearts in his 2014 Bollywood debut, Khoobsurat — is a tacit approval.
Actors from across the border have often appeared in Indian cinema, and a few have managed to make a lasting impression. Most recently, Ali Zafar enjoyed his fair share of popularity, until his star started to fade on the back of some poor film choices. Fawad, even before his second Bollywood film — the delightful Kapoor & Sons — had hit theatres, already had a major fan following in India. Many would credit this to his nuanced performance in the Pakistani soap Zindagi Gulzar Hai, a runaway success when it was aired here (it also had a lot to do with him bagging Khoobsurat, as well as a meeting with Karan Johar). Others are taken by his striking appearance, articulate interviews and effortless poise.
But throw one compliment after another at Fawad, and he’ll brush them off with a laugh. He’s polite to a fault, and can hardly believe that someone enjoys his performances or can spend hours debating why he should never shave. Or can he?
Here are some excerpts from a conversation about female attention, the film business in Pakistan, ensemble casts and more.
Double-breasted pinstriped suit, maroon T-shirt and shoes by Tommy Hilfiger; watch by Omega
So you’re telling me that if I open your inbox, I’m not going to find mail from fangirls, describing in excruciating detail what they want to do to you?
No! They’re very sweet and respectful, actually. They’re not as crazy about me as, say, Shah Rukh Khan’s fans are about him. I think my fans are like, ‘Yeh itna tameezdar insaan hai, iske saath badtameezi nahi karni chahiye’.
Come on. Play it down all you like, but the film industry is obsessed with appearances. It’s got to be a major advantage to look the way you do, right?
(Laughs) No, I don’t think so. Kaash aisa hota. You guys are giving me an inflated ego. Now, if someone comes and calls me ugly, I’ll really hold it against you. In any case, I don’t think that’s the right kind of advantage an actor should have. Of course, it’s nice to be told that you look good; but if I were to receive a compliment that often, I’d rather it be something like ‘Banda bada solid hai’. I understand that not every fan can meet me personally and get to know me, but they can know a bit of me through my films. I feel it is wrong for actors to say that they played a certain character, but are nothing like them in reality — unless they play a serial killer, which I really hope they aren’t anything like. Actors always leave some part of themselves in any character they play, and that’s the Easter egg for any viewer to find. That’s what people fall in love with it. So I really would like people to fall for that.
What kind of characters are you looking to play now? So far, you’ve got two ensemble movies (Kapoor & Sons and Ae Dil hai Mushkil) and one where the leading lady has a dominant role (Khoobsurat).
Does that make a difference? When I pick my projects, I tend to rely on my co-stars, so that there are other people to face the music (laughs). I do have total faith in my script selection; it just so happens that they’ve been ensemble films so far. Yes, there could be a solo film on the cards. There has to be that interesting a story to take up that weight to carry on my shoulders. For an actor of my calibre and popularity, it’s a risk that needs to be well thought out.
My next film is also with Karan Johar’s banner; we’ll begin shooting in November. To be honest, I take my work pretty easy, and this is the busiest I’ve been in the 35 years of my life. It’s kind of difficult to juggle with the two films I’ve signed back in Pakistan. It’s a ‘Dono kashtiyon pe pair rakh ke sawaar hain’ situation, because the problem is in going back and forth, due to the complicated route of travel. There are shorter routes to take that I am exploring, which will allow me to be home for lunch if I leave from here in the morning. Maybe that might have a bit of a change. But so far, it’s just hopping from one place to another.
You owe a chunk of your fame to Zindagi Gulzar Hai. Are you of the same belief as so many Indian actors that TV is a great stepping stone for a career in films?
Bollywood or not, the truth is, I realized very early in my career that I was very poor at my craft. I knew it from watching my own work, as well as from the assessment of potential employers. So I got into TV, thinking that not too many people would be watching, and it would be good training for me. I had no formal lessons. I’m very grateful for what that show has given me, and I’m still open to TV offers. I’m too lazy to take up a daily show and commit to something that requires me to get out of bed every day, but I’d be excited by a great limited-episode series.
Jacket and sweatshirt by H & M; Trousers by Selected Homme
So acting was a sudden decision?
Not really. I think everyone, at some point of time, fantasizes about being an actor.
Did it subconsciously come from being on stage with your band and experiencing that high of performing in front of a large audience?
I’ll tell you what — I became a singer accidentally, although I always wanted to. I just didn’t think I was good enough. I picked up the guitar within a year; then I moved on to the drums the next year. I was a quick learner and even at a later age, I picked up with surprising ease. In college, it was a huge motivation because I was a back-bencher. Acting and singing were what I enjoyed.
Do you still find the time for music?
I’m going to find the time. As we speak, a close friend is prepping the studio. I used to have a small home setup, from where I did lots of jingles. Then I took it apart, par abhi khujli ho rahi hai. I want to do it again.
Another way would be to sing for your own films, as is the trend these days.
See, it’s not bad to make music for a film, but I can’t multi-task — singing and acting all at once. If I commit to a project, I will think, ‘let’s finish this first and then think about other stuff.’ Also, I feel my taste in music is not really for the film audience. It ranges from Nine Inch Nails to Radiohead and various other things. Not classic rock, but more industrial. I also like mixing genres. For a song in — for example — a romantic film, they’ll have to sit me down and change my approach.
So romantic films are coming up, then?
Would I like to do one? Why not? I used to hate the thought, but I realize I’ve been able to entertain the audience a great deal, and most importantly, I’ve enjoyed myself too. So one should continue doing that.
The stereotypical Bollywood hero is the guy who sings, dances, throws a few punches — a mix of everything. Is it something you feel you could pull off?
I think it’s great! He’s Superman; just that I see myself more as Clark Kent.
What kind of movies are you really hoping to do?
Exciting things are coming my way, actually. In the middle, there was a hiatus where I wasn’t getting offered the kind of films that I would enjoy, but luckily I’m getting them now. My inclination is towards anything that has a story to tell. In the early stages of my education as well as my career, I figured that entertainment is a big way to educate the audience. So I feel like I can do my bit by playing a good role, and have someone walk out of the theatre, knowing what the moral of the story was.
You made your Bollywood debut in a quintessential chick flick. While it paid off, and you went on to bag work with a top studio, didn’t the role in Khoobsurat feel less meaty?
That’s true, but no, I didn’t feel that way. The casting director had seen my work, and Sonam’s (Kapoor) aunts and friends were convinced that I was the guy for the role, so I got a call. I had no idea what was in store. I enjoyed the movie. I didn’t think I would get an award for it. I just came in with minimum expectations. That’s what keeps me happier — surpassing non-existent expectations. After that, I met Karan (Johar) as well, also because his mother had watched my work, and then he watched a bit of it. I’m happy that he likes my style of acting. We got into a conversation and he presented the script of Kapoor & Sons. I think he got the impression that I’m the kind of guy who enjoys a twist in the tale — less theatrics and more content. It’s a one-of-a-kind script and I’m glad it came my way.
It’s also a brave move, saying yes to a role that so many top actors turned down. Also because — pardon the bluntness — you come from a country that isn’t exactly famed for being liberal when it comes to homosexuality.
I’m surprised as to why so many people turned down the role. As for the perceptions back home, I didn’t have any notions. And the response was amazing. I’m glad you brought it up, because it gives me a chance to dispel any misconceptions. I would have loved for you to witness the post-release response in Pakistan. People embraced me and did not once say, “How brave of you.” They simply loved the film and the performance. It surprised me. You may have called me brave as a compliment, but when someone doesn’t even notice that aspect of it, it’s a more pleasant surprise… that they took it in their stride and are alright with it.
That just makes the so-called “new wave” of Pakistani cinema more exciting — knowing that intelligent, liberal people are behind it.
I certainly hope so. Right now, content will take a while to progress. The audience has broken free form the shackles of having taboos plastered on them and being hindered from so many things in life. The Internet has been a blessing as well as a big curse. There’s a lot of hate that goes around. At the same time, these haters get so much exposure to what is going on around the world that their reactions are not as abrupt or extreme as they were in the past. That’s why the audience is evolving in Pakistan too. They go to the theatre to watch a film and feel something. They do get offended by some things, but then, that’s also a reaction that an actor wants. It means you played your part well. They aren’t stupid to think ‘Yeh banda aisa hi hai zindagi mein’.
What are Pakistani film-makers doing differently now?
There’s a lot of interesting work happening. I think right now the majority of the film-makers are trying to do something more mainstream, which is easy on the eyes. They are trying to entertain the audience in the lightest manner possible. There is one-odd film that comes from a film-maker such as — there are many more, but my favourite is — Shoaib Mansur, with whom I did Khuda Kay Liye. He made Bol too, and I hear he’s working on something new. His films have a social message. So all kinds of content is being made, but as of now the concentration is on entertainment. There’s a lot going on in the country, so people want a break from that too.
What kind of films do you like to watch?
These days I’m really into comedy; I’ve been watching more TV shows than film. My favourite is Brooklyn Nine-Nine, because I’m a huge Andy Samberg and SNL fan. I also watch reruns of Full House. I don’t think Fuller House is as bad as it’s made out to be. For me, it’s nostalgia. These days, I watch with my son. In a way I feel like I’m passing on a legacy to him.
How do you spend family time these days?
Well, it was scorching hot till a while back, so Ayaan and I made an exercise of filling up balloons and having water fights — it’s a great way to cool down and great exercise. Also, he’s picked up boxing, and I’m interested too, so I hope he lets me take lessons with him and have a go at the sandbag too. The PlayStation is also an integral part. Oddly enough, we haven’t switched it on in a while. But I’m a big fan of the Uncharted series. I played The Last Of Us, Batman Arkham Knight… I’m not a fan of FIFA. I find it terribly boring. My friends get together and play two-on-two, but I don’t understand it. I’d rather play Sonic the Hedgehog.
Burgundy suit, overcoat and polo neck by Tommy Hilfiger; watch by Omega
Do you play a sport, though?
I was into sports big-time before I turned diabetic. In school, I played cricket as the no. 4 batsman and was the captain of the football team. I also played field hockey and badminton. These days, I’m so unfit that I don’t want people to take my pictures. I plan to get back into a gym routine once I’m back in Lahore. I’m also thinking of taking up tennis, and hopefully taking Ayaan along, so he can also get away from the TV for a bit.
What is life like in Lahore?
I’m a ghar ki murgi dal barabar in Lahore. Out of town, we are bothered a little if we go to a restaurant. But usually the only distance I cover is to take the dog for a walk. All the mohallawallahs know me, so they don’t really care. What was crazy was when Zindagi Gulzar Hai was being shot, because we weren’t on a set, but on real locations — I almost had my sleeves torn off when people started gathering. I had never seen anything like it. I don’t want to offend any Michael Jackson fans by comparing myself with him, but for me, that was like a Michael Jackson moment. Now, people’s attentions have shifted.
Did you anticipate the success of the show?
I just did it, not expecting anything, and I swear to God, that’s when the best work happens. You don’t calculate your outcome; you just make things happen for yourself. That energy can continue any flop actor’s career for many years. If something doesn’t work, tell yourself that what’s happened has happened, and that you gave it your all. So I did it matter-of-factly and had a fun time shooting with that team. It translated on screen.
And what followed was crazy. To see the show’s success in India was also refreshing, because it was quality content when pitted against some of the Indian TV shows these days.
Why is that such an odd phenomenon? I believe it’s become a regular programming standard now. Earlier, there were Indian shows that I grew upon that were equally amazing. I’d love to do a remake of 1001 Arabian Nights, which I loved. If someone wants to pitch an ambitious TV project to me, this is the one. I feel that earlier on, TV in India as well as Pakistan was more contentheavy. I’ve watched great tele-films as well. Great actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Nana Patekar have also worked in such content. Now, because TV’s overheads have gone up, there’s a tendency to calculate according to what we think the audience will like, which is the wrong approach. Make what you want to make.
Why not direct or produce something yourself?
I’d love to, but I’d bankrupt the people involved. I have too little experience. Having said that, I would want to direct someday. I feel I’m a terrible actor, and directing is something I would be better at. I imagine things very visually. I’m talking like an enthusiastic kid, but I think I’d do a good job.
Jacket and sweatshirt by H & M
How do you perceive the fashion icon status that comes with the job?
I feel fashion icons are actually just icons. Their demeanour itself becomes a fashion statement. It only happens once they become actors. You can’t say Paul Newman, Steve McQueen or James Dean were fashion icons just because they wore cool clothes. Their attitude came first. The same is the case with Shah Rukh Khan. It was his demeanour in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge that made him fashionable, not particularly the clothes he wore. Remember Tere Naam? Who could imagine that guys would want that haircut?
How does your son perceive your fame?
I think he really enjoys it. He’s quite a performer actually. He watches movies and performs in front of the TV. He’s always dancing and singing; he’s a good-looking young man. Some preferential treatment does happen, but I’m glad it’s not much. I’m happy he’s having a regular childhood, making normal friends at school. If he comes on shoots, he gets bored. He came recently and walked into the frame by mistake. He thought he could just walk across and have a chat with his father whenever he wanted to. My wife doesn’t show much interest in the making of a film either. She’s honest with her feedback, but she feels I know my craft and she doesn’t, so she doesn’t really need to come and watch me work. I force her to read a bit of my scripts, though. I consult her on everything. She picks out my clothes, too. If you ever see me badly dressed, it means I picked out my own clothes.