By Muhammad Asad Ullah
Bilal Ashraf is punctual for the appointment, meeting me in the lobby of a picturesque hotel in Islamabad. As temperatures rises, so, too, does Bilal’s profile. He’s still busy promoting his film Superstar with Mahira Khan that releases today in Pakistan and has already been released worldwide. I’ve seen some clips from the upcoming release and it won’t be erroneous to say that it is none less than an award-tipped performance, that is going to win Bilal even more ecstatic following, and not because of his looks – but acting, all the way.
His acting gig for Shan Shahid’s film, 021 (2014), is only half the story of his success. Although the film didn’t do well with cinegoers, but there was one face that was hugely recognised by the Pakistan entertainment fraternity: Bilal Ashraf. Post 021, he went on to play a romantic hero in Janaan (2016), a rockstar in Rangreza (2017) and an army personnel in Yalghaar (2014). All these years, Bilal, particularly, has weathered some very cruel reviews in the past, having even been coined a non-actor. But he intends to change that perception of him with Superstar. And it definitely seems to, this very time! Bilal Ashraf enrolled himself in the biggest acting academy in Pakistan this time where he took classes all over again to perfect the craft before returning to the big screen with also half a dozen abs, which he flaunts like any ‘Film Hero’ in the world.
Becoming a famous actor was never something he ever thought of growing up — he was set on having creative VFX and animation aesthetics while working for the hedge fund in New York, with double major in finance and art when 021 came along his way.
Ashraf’s capacity for expression is mesmerising. On his pleasingly fairly symmetrical face, his fierce eyes and smile compete to articulate most loudly. We discuss how he practices in between scenes, his first pairing with Mahira or with any star of that stature for that matter, and cautiously picking up the roles to take Pakistan film industry a step forward.
You’ve been living abroad throughout your life. So how did everything fall into place for you returning to your home-country and working in Pakistan film industry? Was acting something you always wanted to do?
I never wanted to be an actor. I was telling Mahira the other day, during the dubbing of the film, that I don’t know who that person is on the screen, it’s not me. My late sister was someone who was into film-making and wanted to make films in Pakistan. But unfortunately, that didn’t happen, so for me it was more about carrying her dream forward and contributing to Pakistan in any way or form I can. I couldn’t care less about competing with someone or something, because I’m not competing with someone, I just want to try and do justice to her (my sister) in some form. Now that I’ve gotten into it, I believe if you do something, do it with all your heart.
You have been weathered with some very cruel reviews in the past, having even been coined a non-actor, so how you think you have evolved as an actor for Superstar?
I’ll be very honest, I have not done theatre and haven’t done a drama — I had no desire to become an actor, so obviously for me the craft of learning is and was there, and that’s what I’ve done. I’ve tried to work on myself, on my skills. Did a few acting courses in England and for this film, Momina Duraid got me enrolled in National Academy of Performing Arts for theatre acting. So, we actually performed Superstar theatrically even before we had started shooting. So I’m always willing to learn you know. A lot of people ask me ‘Oh you’re dancing in the film?’ and I respond that I’ve been dancing throughout my life — it’s just that you didn’t know. I kept on telling different art directors and film makers to use me in the real sense for the camera. I feel an actor needs to be used properly because it is director’s medium. Like television, visions are the director’s medium; stage is an actor’s medium. And if someone doesn’t get the best out of you or use you properly, you can give the best shot but the world would never know.
How important is it for a film industry like Pakistan to have a packaged actor, an actor who’s an aplomb of acting talent and physique?
I feel Pakistan film industry is still fledgling. I wouldn’t call ourselves an industry as yet, we can say that when we’re churning out three to four films a month. When your films are up internationally — you are competing with Hollywood, Bollywood or Turkish cinema probably. And with the age of social media everything has gone accessible and global. My physical transformation for Superstar was something I came up with. I requested my producer Momina Duraid who had the belief in me. I think it added that extra dimension to the character I’m playing in the film. It took me an year for the transformation. At the end of the day, once that transformation was done, I realised it wasn’t just for the Superstar, it was much more than that: mental clarity and approach. I think youth looks at Hollywood and Bollywood and gets inspired by their physique and stuff all the time — and I felt why not if youth can look up to their own and get inspired. It’s just not me but there are other boys in Pakistan entertainment fraternity as well who works out a lot, but I believe there’s no concept of physique in our industry yet. I went through this physical transformation and did a shirtless song, not to gain appreciation for the boxes (abs) I’ve made, but to set a trend and to benchmark what Pakistani hero should look like, physically.
People might would’ve questioned Momina Duraid on why did she sign a comparatively new comer opposite Mahira Khan. I would like to ask you, why Superstar?
Because of several reasons. First and foremost, the script was fabulous. The music was out class and along with Momina Duraid Productions, everybody on-board was a maestro in their own field. From the director to the music. Second the angle of theatre and obviously then Marina Khan, Nadeem Baig, Ali Kazmi, Javed Sheikh and Mahira Khan — all acting legends. I signed also because I wanted to learn and it was a learning experience for me.
This was your first pairing with Mahira or with any star of that stature for that matter. So were you intimidated at some point of time during the shooting process or a victim of unnecessary star tantrums?
No, not at all. The energy and attitude she brings on set — was phenomenal. I’ve worked with other people in the industry as well, but would you believe it that she used to be on the set even before the call time and would be the last person to leave the set. No food tantrums — not buzzing unnecessary attitude. And she gives space to the other person to just grow. We didn’t know each other before, just some social meeting, but when we were doing theatre we got to know each other and get comfortable with each other and that is one of the reasons why you see such a chemistry on screen. I wasn’t intimidated by her because of who she is and till when we started shooting for the film, we knew each other.
So, post films, can we expect to see you in theatre or dramas?
I would love to do theatre. I have been offered many dramas for the past 4-5 years, although I feel that dramas are wonderful, but I just want to focus on films. Films are challenging to work more.
Since you’ve studied animation, Pakistan doesn’t have to offer much when it comes to animated films. What or how do you think can be done to step into the paradigm of original animated films from Pakistan?
We have small studios in Pakistan but unfortunately animation is a very time-consuming and expensive thing. Because of the budgets we have a set-back. But even films like Donkey King and Allah Yaar did well on Box Office. So there is market, people are working towards it, it’s just going to take a little time.
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