From Lahore to Mumbai, Ali Zafar is already a rare pop phenomenon. But can he goofball his way through a politically charged film, asks Pragya Tiwari
LOUNGING BY the seaside pool of a Mumbai hotel, Ali Zafar is every bit the beautiful boy he is marketed to be, except when directing us to his table he mixes his right with his left and laughs himself silly in apology. Born to Lahore-based academecians, Zafar, 30, a self taught musician, formed an amateur rock band at 16. After college he took up modeling and sketched portraits in a hotel lobby to make enough money to cut a song. Channo, the single he produced himself, catapulted him to fame in 2003. At a time when the pop star phenomenon has pretty much petered out in the subcontinent Zafar also managed to cross the border to become a cult in India. But pop stardom is short-lived, and having understood that Zafar is eager to reinvent himself as an actor.
Unlike the trashy vanity debuts of Himesh Reshammiya and Sonu Nigam, Zafar is set to enter Bollywood with a promisingly daring political satire titled Tere Bin Laden. His on-screen sparkle remains intact off-screen. In person he wears his heartthrob status lightly and is properly comfortable with his boy-nextdoor persona. “I was exposed to rockstar glamour overnight,” he says, “It feels fake and surreal but I understand the audience wants to be entertained, so I take the role on.” In the film Zafar plays Ali Hassan, a Pakistani television journalist who makes fake Osama bin Laden tapes to land a job in America. Initially skeptical about reactions to a film that makes light of dark themes, Zafar is now confident that “the humour counters negativity, and also enables us to make a serious point.”
Might one assume that he relates to this bumbling opportunist? “I do relate to him,” he says, “but I wouldn’t go after my goals by hook or crook like Hassan does.”
Both Hassan and Zafar come from middle class Pakistani youth — a milieu that’s either desperate to escape the country or extravagantly defensive of it. Zafar fits into neither category, embracing his country as openly as he critiques its dilemmas. “We are defensive because we are always being attacked. Anything bad that happens is somehow Pakistan’s fault when most of us don’t even relate to the generalisations accorded to us,” he says. He explains the politicisation of Pakistani youth, saying, “We live amidst turmoil that affects our daily life. We have to read the papers to understand how to go on.” After a moment, he adds with perfect comic timing, “Would I have been able to answer the kind of questions you’re asking if I didn’t read the papers?”
The tongue remains firmly in cheek, the smile remains resolutely flawless. Yet Zafar also remains slightly unironed with his rubber-ball goofiness. When he says he’s optimistic about his country’s future you find yourself wishing, for his sake, it’s as simple as he believes it is.