It is at a small musical gig tucked away in the shadowy confines of the Commune Artist Colony in Karachi that I first bump into Asif Raza Mir. My immediate thought is, “This isn’t possible … is it?” and he stares quizzically at my equally bewildered expression.
Then he flashes his twinkling, shy half-smile which gives it away instantly — he is still his charming, courteous self that we all came to recognise and adore when he used to work for PTV more than a decade ago.
But Raza Mir is a changed man. His face is no longer marked by the characteristic moustache and some extra pounds seem to have accommodated themselves by default over time. His eyes are still the same though — astonishingly lucid and yet entirely affable at the same time. Two minutes of conversation and he has courteously agreed to make himself available for a tete-a-tete with Images.
His present residence, somewhere in the northern vicinities of the city, is still undergoing a make over of sorts as he opens the gates clad in casual blues. Seating himself in the simple, sunlit living room, he apologises profusely for the noise and clutter around the place and for his mobile phone ringing every so often. (Most of the callers are excited associates wanting to know whether Asif Raza Mir really is back in town.)
Finally getting over the formalities, he starts talking in his characteristic, clear accent, punctuated occasionally by the hammerings in the adjoining room: “I was out of the country, living in Calgary, Canada. I left seven-and-a-half years ago and it has been two months since I arrived.” As to why he left, he calls it a “long, long story. But to make it brief, I was running my own business and doing very well at that.” He is referring to his advertising agency, Blazon, a joint venture with Uzma Gilani. Towards the end of 1998 however, things took a down turn.
“In about six months, the agency went from being the fifth or sixth largest agency in the country to almost zero.” One of the major reasons he cites for this turn of affairs was a disturbing financial situation. “I had a choice of either starting all over again here or taking a fresh start somewhere else. I opted for the second option. That is when I left the country in 1999 and never returned until now.”
Moving to Canada with his family, he settled and took up a job. “It was my life’s first job,” he says incredulously. After seven months, he switched to a private business for two years and then back to a job with the Hudson’s Bay Company. “I worked with them for three and a half years, and then one fine day, I decided it’s time to go back,” he rounds up.
He is quick to justify his decision, “Actually, the kids were growing up — the elder one is about 13 and the younger one is eight. So I thought that if I have to go back, now is the right time. Otherwise kids adapt themselves to a particular lifestyle and it is unfair to enforce oneself upon them.” He pauses, and then adds reflectively, “I wanted them to see where we come from. They were too young when they left; I wanted them to have a taste of this place and then decide.”
Asif credits his wife, Samra as an instrumental support throughout his decisions. She is presently working with an NGO.
I question him how he is coping getting back into the flow of things and he smiles and reveals his dimples all over again. “I received such a great welcome when I came back. People have been extremely nice. I always thought that after being away from the country for eight years and for almost five years from showbiz before that, people would not recognise me. But they do, and it is a hugely pleasant surprise.”
He credits the drama serial Tanhaian as his claim to fame in which he co-starred with Shahnaz Sheikh and the late Yasmeen Ismail: “It has been repeatedly telecast so many times across so many channels and people still watch it surprisingly enough.” Verily, so much so that Asif came to be recognised as Zain, the gentle yet passionately subdued man who would rather see his love pass him by than come out clean with his true feelings.
It is this image of Zain that has overshadowed his public image as well, making him a timeless entity for the masses to identify with. “They remember Zain, although the physical appearance backing the character has changed. I have aged but they still recognise me which is really amazing because I never came back in between. I completely disappeared,” he twinkles.
So now that he is here, what is really on his agenda? Asif sits back to explain his eye on things to come: “Back when I was associated with the media, most of my time was taken up by my business. But that proved to be advantageous because I did not experience over-exposure. People still want to see me and that is very encouraging. So I have decided that I shall be working in front of the camera, at least for the next one year. I am returning to drama serials and film and I want to see how far I can go with how I am now.”
He elaborates, making it clear that he will be taking it easy for the next couple of months. “I want to concentrate on the creative side that I haven’t touched for a long time.” He tells me that he is doing rehearsals for a serial for PTV which is supposed to go on air in March, and another for ARY which will air in September. Both the serials have been written by Haseena Moin. A third project includes the remaking of old Pakistani classic films into telefilms. “It is an interesting concept: films like Dupatta and Baji will be converted into long plays for television. I plan to be hopefully a bit choosy about what comes my way. I am not touching anything besides this; I’m just taking it easy.”
Grapevine had it that Asif had left the country rather embittered with the “industry”. Is there any truth behind this notion? Surprisingly, he nods: “The impression wasn’t too far from the truth. But the bitterness was not towards TV or the film industry, but my own business and certain people. I felt let down a lot of times and I started feeling bitter. I am not a bitter person and I didn’t want the environment to change me.” He pauses a bit, as if reflecting over what to say next.
“Lots of people were not nice enough and things turned out to be pretty ruthless at times, even after I left. It is very easy for people to say something, not realising how it can affect a person’s life and his family’s life in so many ways. I had my whole family here.” He is referring to some rumour that had been doing the rounds in local newspapers at the time. “People used to read it or hear things from someone and they used to question me and I didn’t have an answer. That is one of the causes of my leaving the country.” He blinks, as if to wipe out the memory of the incident, “That is the past now and I’m not interested in pointing my finger at anyone. But I am glad I went through that. I saw through a few things and learned a lot.”
We move on to more pleasant things, like how he is finding Pakistani television’s progress. “It’s a different scenario altogether. When I left, there was only PTV while NTM was having its issues going on and off air. But now, it is a big change. There are a lot of options available to the viewer which is excellent and production standards have improved tremendously. When I say ‘production standards’, I mean the technical side of things. There is a lot of improvement; visual appeal has improved and people have tried to learn the commercial aspect of it all.”
But what of the persistent lamentation that Pakistani drama has lost its days of glory and is at an all time low? Asif gives his own perspective on things: “I have always maintained that drama is a reflection of your society, what it wants and where it is going. What you see today on TV is what people want to see; they had been missing that for a long time. They have been watching PTV drama since 1967 and they have grown up watching the same stuff. Now drama is paying the price for not adapting to change. Our viewer has been thirsty for options and for once, the viewer is getting that.”
But he doesn’t mean that soaps are the answer to our problems. “We can’t compare soaps with those dramas. Those were different times with different demands and creativity.” He compares the state of production here with that across the border: “India’s strength has always been films and drama their weakness. Our strength has always been drama and film our weakness. Unfortunately, we did not build up on our strength and instead, adopted their weakness, which has always been television.
“Today, most people ask me the same question: ‘Where are those dramas? We miss that.’ It was almost a kind of ownership; we felt that only we could do it. Even in other countries, no one ever used to challenge the fact that Pakistani drama was worthwhile. People in Canada still recognise us by our faces, even if they don’t know our name.”
Behind this bleak scenario, he feels another tacit change taking place, one that is much deeper and disturbing. “I think people on the production side are making efforts to experiment with the better side of Pakistani drama. But in the meanwhile, an entire generation of stars is dying; the people that made those dramas possible. And new writers never developed here. Today, the young generation of writers do keep the classical times in mind, but their vision is not broad enough because this is all they have seen. So the concept of drama is fizzling out.
“The previous generation used to express their feelings and knowledge. They used to read and study; they were different. Now, the concept of reading has died. People are incorporating whatever visual input they have received in their scripts and nothing more.”
According to Asif, the truth is much bigger than what we are anticipating. “The most unfortunate part is that we are growing very rapidly and in every direction, but our base is very weak. Our people are not trained or groomed; they lack the depth that is required for excellence. I don’t want to sound like a critic but the reality is that we are not ready for this explosion. This will have two effects: the substance you will see will mostly be substandard. There will also be the occasional good stuff in there which will receive encouragement and good workers will get busier.
“Right now, everyone is trying to make money. They fear uncertainty; they are afraid that this explosion might close down. But I think it is here to stay. Times have changed and I am glad Pakistan has opened up as a country. Otherwise we would have been left behind,” he wraps up assuredly.
He refers to subtle changes that have clearly taken root in our society: “There had always been a taboo about show business, that young boys and girls must not come and work here. People still question me: ‘Okay, so you used to act. But what did you really do professionally?’ It was never taken seriously as a profession. But today, parents are very proud to say ‘my son is a singer’ or ‘my daughter is a producer’ etc. That is a big change but we need to educate ourselves. My biggest fear is that we might collapse because we do not have enough good people to sustain this change.”
He labels his return to television as a “debut all over again.” His actual debut was really rather lukewarm, part of the Aik Mohabbat Sau Afsaane series. But the drama where he got true recognition was “the first coloured TV play for Pakistan, called Phoolwalon ki Sayr.” He laughs about a curious impression that has been following him around for years: “A lot of people somehow associate me with the play Qurratulain, although I never worked in it.”
As to the characters he now intends to do, has he kept any preferences for himself after getting immense recognition as Zain? He confides, “Zain as a character was not a very dramatically strong role. It was a very simple, mellow role with its highs and lows but it left its impression. I have always believed that as an artiste, you contribute to the role and do not expose your personality. People remember the role and not the actor and that is a success for the actor. So I am going to go with the characters that come my way and not impose my personality on them. I would prefer to do roles that carry depth and detail but never something for the sake of solely minting money. There are so many options available; I don’t want to limit myself. The final decision remains up to the viewers.”
It is evident that his presence is being felt within his cohorts’ circles since his return to his homeland. “I was at Bushra Ansari’s daughter’s wedding a couple of weeks ago and I met a few people from my times there. Now that I have started moving back into that crowd, I am gradually getting in touch with everyone. Half of the people look at me as if I am a ghost, I’ve changed so much! They also never expected me to be back. So I like to see this as a second life.”
On a concluding note, he reflects over his long term plans: “There is a lot of experience behind me so now I feel more confident, more mature in a lot of ways. I may not stick to acting for a long time and I will probably go behind the camera very quickly and try my hand at direction. Eventually I will go into the business side of things. That is where my interests really lie.”