Rehan Sheikh has returned to Pakistan after spending nine months in England, where he was caught up in hectic acting assignments. We meet up at a coffee joint at Karachi’s Zamzama which — it being a Saturday afternoon — is teeming with people. Settling down in a less noisy place to chat, Rehan belts out a good-natured laugh as I sarcastically comment “quiet place.”
He begins by informing me that he was busy with the play A Fine Balance. Staged by Tamasha, a leading British Asian theatre company, it is based on the novel by Rohinton Mistry wherein Rehan performs the role of an amputated tailor lodged as a tenant in the house of a widow. “The play was not earth-shattering success, but it was a great story on an epic scale,” he says. Moreover, it gave him an opportunity to play a unique role.
Since he landed in Karachi, he has been busy with the shooting of a telefilm Karvat, essaying the role of a non-serious England returned lawyer. “I chose to do the role because the film has a light-hearted storyline. The general perception about me is I am a serious, intense guy and I want to get rid of this tag. Ironically in England a lot of theatre work I am known for is comedy. I did a few successful serious roles here and I started to get similar kind of characters because directors cast you as you are or as you appear to be. I would like to work with directors who allow me to challenge myself and bring something completely new out of me. Such opportunities have been few and far in between.”
Rehan’s roots in England reach back to the time when he went there after matriculation to complete his higher education. Interestingly he had gone there to study electronics engineering. “I went through the school prospectuses and observed that they were offering stimulating subjects like drama and literature. I had planned to study engineering, but my heart was not really in it.” It was tagging along his resident cousin to her Urdu classes that sparked his interest in drama.
The Urdu language teacher, upon reading his poetry, suggested that he write a play for the upcoming annual function. With virtually no experience in the area — except for the plays that he staged as a kid with his sister and friends in their Isloo mohalla — he wrote, directed and acted in the play. The performance impressed one of the audience members and she invited him and his team to stage their play at a festival. This encouragement eventually led to the formation of their theatre group called the Naujawan Arts Group.
With most of the writing, concept development and acting being done by Rehan, they performed plays for around three years. Eventually, the group dispersed leaving Rehan on his own; and that, he says, changed his life. “I decided: to hell with everything; I am going to study drama.”
‘I did a few successful serious roles and I started to get similar kind of characters because directors cast you as you are or as you appear to be. I would like to work with directors who allow me to challenge myself and bring something completely new out of me. Such opportunities have been few and far in between,’ says Rehan Sheikh
As to how his family responded to his decision of studying drama, he reveals that initially they were shocked. Since there was a strong tradition of academics in his family — his two sisters are Fullbright scholars, mom was a teacher and dad was a journalist — there was pressure on him to take up something long-term. But his late father came round and accepted his decision eventually, when he watched Rehan perform in a self-written and directed play in Islamabad.
Apparently, his decision was not unwise and he can comfortably boast of holding a BA Honours degree from the University of Surrey “with a unique combination of drama and business studies. I chose business studies so I could tell folks back home that I am doing something practical and manly. The degree experience was an eye opener for me because I received a lot of exposure and got a chance to look at things differently.”
Despite the degree, acting assignments did not fall into Rehan’s lap. He first became an assistant at BBC greater London radio. Subsequently, he worked as a radio DJ and even dabbled in freelance journalism. His next job was as a newscaster for a local Asian TV channel. It was during this job that he got offered his first professional play, Women of the Dust, with Tamasha in 1993. He has been associated with them ever since.
Rehan’s radio, theatre and TV performances have been consistently impressive with his radio credits including Lysistrata, The Bounty Hunter, Crazy Night, Red Oleanders, Ananda Sannanda, Good Person Of Ajmer, Dancing Girls Of Lahore and Who Am I To You. He has worked with Tamasha in Ghost Dancing, Fourteen Songs, Ryman And The Sheikh, A Tainted Strictly Dandia, A Shaft Of Sunlight and Balti Kings. Other theatre credits include Hasan Of Baghdad, The Players, Ek Admi, Ragni, Back Strokes In A Crowded Pool, Horn Baja Kar Paas Karma and Kya Khoya Kya Paaya while on TV, he has Bisaat, Dozukh, Kiran Kahani, Cocktail, Aghosh, Pehchaan, Jo Baat Ghar May Hay, Sheeshay Ka Mahal, 27th Street, Sarak Kay Uss Paar, Aina Wohi Rehta Hai and 24 Ghantay to his list of credits.
Rehan won the best actor award jointly with the Indian actor Anupam Kher at the Fifth KaraFilm Festival (2005) for his authentic performance in 24 Ghantay. He remembers his reaction to the news: “I was shocked; it was unbelievable because they had an international jury with film entries from all over the world. Most of the time, we are not allowed to showcase our talents but I feel honoured and grateful for being a part of this great concept and unique production. The credit goes to director Shahid Shafaat for being so brave.”
About his future projects and he states that he never really plans things: “I want to go into the direction of films, Pakistani, English, Indian or Punjabi. I have a new agent in England who is promoting me for work over there. I am being selective as always while working in other people’s plays and I want to work in shorter duration media like films. I don’t wish to be a part of a four-times-a-week soap. Mohabbat Ki Pehli Kahani was my directorial debut in 2003, but it is not my last: I am planning to do a 35 mm film for which I have already written a script; so things are happening for me,” he says.