The Pyaray Afzal actor and Kambakht director reveals himself and reflects on his newfound fame
Rumor has it you’ve studied direction from the US?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: I actually haven’t! I did Bachelors in International Relations from abroad. I came back to Pakistan and did my Masters from Quaid-e-Azam University, and then took the CSS exams and went into the Police force.
Was becoming an actor your childhood dream?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: To be honest, I wanted to become a chef. I have a passion for cooking; it’s one of my stress-relieving activities. After completing my studies I joined the Police, but it was a very predictable future. I knew exactly where I would be in 20 years; I knew the maximum I could do was become an IG. There would be nowhere else to go from there. My father taught me that whatever you enjoy, you should try to make a living out of that, then life becomes much easier. So I left the force to do what I wanted to do.
Tell us about your big break as an actor.
Hamza Ali Abbasi: I’d say it was “Waar”. I was assisting Bilal Lashari, and I wound up playing a role. That became my big break – it didn’t start out that way, it just ended up being that. Then there was a short film released around the same time called “Glorious Resolve” in which I played a militant guy, and it won an award at the Rome Film Festival.
What about theatre?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: Theatre is my first love. It started out as a hobby; I was doing my Masters when I met Shah Sharabeel. We became friends, he said, “Why don’t you do a play?” So it started out as a part-time hobby and then I became passionate about it. I think theatre helped me realize how much I enjoyed acting.
What is the silliest thing about working in show business?
I think it would be that most people in showbiz are very pretentious. I consider very few of us to be stars; Shan, for example, is a star. Ali Zafar is a star. They’ve done things that matter on an international scale. 90% of us are not stars, but unfortunately, people become stars very quickly in their own minds. They begin to think the world revolves around them, which isn’t a very healthy thought process and it creates problems. There was a film I was making and during it we had huge problems with young kids who thought they were on top of the world. There are people who act as though if they sneeze, the whole world will be affected by it, and that is silly.
Another silly thing is how flashy you’re expected to be; to wear certain things, act a certain way. I’m a very low-key person; I wear Bata shoes. I believe that if you want to look good, you can look good in the most ordinary of clothes.
What’s it like watching your plays and movies with your family and friends?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: I have just one sister and she loves my shows. She’s my biggest fan! I watched one episode with her and all through it she was like, “You did this very well, and that so well! Tum to chhaa gaey!” My mum, meanwhile, is from a political background, and she’s very against me being in show business. She wanted me to be in the Police; she said, “Just join and then if you want you can leave.” She occasionally watches my television dramas, and then she despairs about what I’m doing with my life.
How do people react when you tell them you’re a Pakistani filmmaker?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: The first thing they say is “Oh, ok. So what do you actually do? What’s your day job?” I think I look reasonably educated so they don’t assume I make the typical Lollywood films, but they don’t expect that filmmaking is something you can do fulltime. They consider it a hobby; they have no idea how all-consuming it is.
Plus, it’s not financially viable, is it?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: That’s true, and I’m blessed that I have the option of not having to worry about that. I feel it’s a responsibility for people like us, who can sacrifice financially, to help build an industry where people can eventually make a living. Bilal Lashari, for example, doesn’t do it for money.
Would you ever do a masala film with the singing and dancing and running around trees?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: Yes, I would. As long as there is a lot of entertainment and the script is good. As for singing and dancing, there are two ways to go about it; either a very nice way, or an all-out Lollywood way.
Would you ever do a Bollywood film?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: I would… (sounding VERY reluctant), I’ve got a few offers, but my first priority is Pakistani films. Getting into films was never about being a star or being famous. All I’d have to do is continue acting in TV plays and I’ll be 20 times more famous. I like acting, I want to be an actor, but I want to be an actor with a purpose for the Pakistani film industry. I want the Pakistani film industry to BE something, that’s why I’ll work wherever I’m needed, behind the camera, before it – I did a very small role in Humayun Saeed’s movie – I’d even be just an extra.
Can you sing?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: I can play guitar very well. I taught myself how to play through YouTube videos. And usually when you’re playing guitar some friend will always say, “Sing that song, man,” so you end up singing a few lines anyway. I’m not good, I’m not bad. I’m somewhere in between.
What’s it like to be approached by fans?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: Recently I’ve noticed a lot more people just coming up and telling me how much they enjoyed watching such-and-such show of mine, and it feels surprising, and really good. Friends from outside the showbiz circle find it very amusing. They laugh at me when that happens.
Have you ever had a fan encounter which left you reeling and thinking, “What just happened”?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: Yes! I was going to Dubai recently and I was given a free upgrade to business class. Then the immigration guy whisked me through immigration with a lot of protocol. I went to a restaurant where the manager was half-Arab and half-Pakistani, very mature, Oxford-educated, and he told me how much he enjoyed “Pyaray Afzal”. I was surprised that he watched it, and he goes, “Yeah! I love that show!”
What is a dream vacation for you?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: To be in my room, on my couch, watching the History Channel (we mishear it as the Disney Channel, to which Hamza laughs and says, “I’m unconventional, but not THAT much!”). Nowhere to go, nothing to do – that would be a vacation.
What is the strangest thing about you?
Hamza Ali Abbasi: One thing I never do, and which I absolutely hate, is lying. Do all the bad things you want to do in the world, but don’t lie. This is what I believe, and you know what people tell me? “You look like a complete liar!” And it just leaves me stumped. Why do I look like a liar? How can I look like a liar? I hate lying!
The most valuable piece of advice you’ve received…
Hamza Ali Abbasi: From my father, who passed away 4-5 years ago. He told me to work hard with pure intentions and leave success and failure to God. If He gives you success, be thankful; if He gives you failure, be content and work harder next time!