Ali Zafar is a star and that’s evident even as he sunbathes in his lush green garden, in hometown Lahore. Even in his most casual attire, pyjamas and a small hat to keep the sun away from his face, he exudes charisma. An international actor with countless accolades to his name, he is warm, welcoming and sans any vanity. Perhaps what stands out most about Ali is his humbleness, a quality that is hard to find in the new generation of celebrities.
In the subcontinent today, Ali is a man who needs little introduction. Starting out with his cult single, ‘Channo’, he has travelled a long way to success, proving the naysayers wrong at each turn. With blockbuster Bollywood movie hits such as Chashme Badoor and Tere Bin Laden under his belt, Ali has already made a mark in Bollywood and the offers continue to pour in. By crossing over to Indian cinema successfully, he has achieved what many Pakistani artists have been striving to achieve for decades, and he manages it with such grace that it almost looks easy. In a gruelling schedule that has him moving between countries, OK! manages to catch up with him for a quick tete-a-tete.
Ali’s house, like him, is concertedly unostentatious. His wife of four years, the gorgeous Ayesha Fazli, joins us on the terrace as we chat amicably about the weather and other trivia. His new role in Kill Dil alongside Ranveer Singh is notably different from the five other films Ali has starred in. “I like to challenge myself on a daily basis, to leave my comfort zone behind and do things I haven’t tried before. As an artist, you have to constantly keep evolving because stagnation signals the end of your career,” he explains.
But with his new role come new and more taxing demands. After wrapping up his shooting for Total Siyapaa in 2012, the intrepid star had to begin intensive training for Kill Dil. “There’s a lot of hard work that goes behind each look and every new movie. Even when I was vacationing, I had a trainer and had to work out on a daily basis. It’s tough, no doubt, but you have to make sacrifices to get the desired results.”
On the upside, being low maintenance, Ali doesn’t mind his slightly dishevelled appearance. His personal style is laid back and casual, suiting his new look just fine. Ali wears his fame and titles lightly. Being a professional actor, looking good comes with the territory but Ali is quick to point out that there are a lot of people involved in helping him. A team of professionals, from wardrobe to styling, are there to ensure that he looks debonair on air but it’s not a practice that Ali abides by in his daily life. Where does he then stand on the recent trend of artificial enhancements and plastic surgeries which so many Bollywood celebrities resort to?
“First of all, to each his own! If an actor or celebrity feels the need to get a nip and tuck, it’s their choice and as long as it brings them happiness, great. For me though, thankfully I haven’t felt the need to get anything done and in any case, I’d like to age gracefully. That said, all the stars are under constant scrutiny to always look good and if they feel surgery helps them cope with the pressure, then why not?” So how would he react if Ayesha wanted to go under the knife? “Obviously I’d try and make her believe that she’s beautiful as she is,” he exclaims. “Also, like everything in life, it’s about maintaining a balance. I mean almost everyone has gotten some procedure done but it should be subtle.”
There’s easy camaraderie between Ali and Ayesha as we all chat, and like all couples they have private jokes; the latter often chimes in to supplement Ali’s answers. Discussing the added pressure of always looking painfully thin, Ayesha quips, “I agree with Ali. If it makes someone feel good, sure but at the same time it’s important to remember that women in the industry serve as inspiration to fans who want to emulate them, so it’s important to promote a healthy body image. I think Sonakshi Sinha is commendable in this regard, because she advocates curves and is a positive role model for women.”
“ Waif thin models may look great in print but not in real life, I think. It’s important to promote a healthy body image.”
Ali’s most recent release, Total Siyapaa pairs him with Yami Gautum in a unique rom-com, where he plays a Pakistani Muslim boy who falls in love with an Indian Hindu girl. “The movie definitely has a message, but it doesn’t deliver it in a preachy manner. This movie actually advocates a cause I deeply believe in, which is that this conflict between India and Pakistan is detrimental to both states and it’s high time that it ended.”
The Zee Cine Awards this year saw Ali dance to some of his most famous songs. His longest performance to date, it took Ali only two hours to prepare, despite being a self-proclaimed “bad dancer.” Talking about award ceremonies, it’s only natural to wonder how seriously he takes the awards. “I’m not cool enough to be indifferent if I’m being given an award, but I’m also not going to be heartbroken or take it as a mark of failure if I don’t win,” he states with a grin. Another pitfall in the Indian industry is the clearly demarcated camps and cliques that divide actors. Siding with the wrong camp has ended many actors’ careers, despite their talent or past success. As a foreign artist, it could potentially spell disaster for Ali to be embroiled in such controversies. Therefore, from gymming with Salman Khan at his residence to partying with Deepika Padukone, Ali has remained neutral in his alliances and while he enjoys a cordial relation with most industry insiders, he believes in keeping work separate from pleasure. “Throughout my career, whether in India or here (because the industry in Pakistan is just as clique-y), I have always believed in maintaining a good rapport with everyone. Even if I know someone has passed rude comments behind my back, I generally ignore them and greet everyone with a smile. It’s what defines me as a person – how they act towards me in return is what defines them.”
Since Jhoom though, Ali has been conspicuously absent from the music scene, without so much as even an appearance on Coke Studio. Music being what initially shot Ali to instant fame, the lack of a new album, barring his compositions for Bollywood, is noticeable. He attributes this to the changing trends in music and television. In the subcontinent at least, Bollywood music dominates the airwaves to such an extent that even independent artists aspire to have their tracks featured in a movie. Coupled with dismal ratings for music channels and a YouTube ban, amongst other regressive elements, it becomes difficult for even an established singer like Ali to produce albums too often.
“Jhoom received a great response but it didn’t translate into profits as you’d expect. It isn’t feasible any longer for a singer to come out with an album without an established record label backing them. It’s a sad situation no doubt, but it’s difficult for one individual to single-handedly change it. I love music and I’ll make a new album when I feel that it will get the deserved recognition in the market and by the audiences,” he states.
It isn’t unfair to claim that Ali is a creative genius – a statem-ent that is further backed by the fact that he is currently writing his first film. The movie, directed by Ahsan Rahim, will be his first Pakistani film and falls in line with his principle of giving back. “I’ve done several films in India and have achieved some success. I think it’s time I played my part in the revival of cinema here. I’d like to give back to the industry and I think it’s a very exciting time in Pakistani cinema. My aim is to make a film that represents us and while it will be an entertainer, it won’t be shallow,” he reveals.
Coming back to his stupendous success across the border, it isn’t difficult to see why India took so quickly to Ali. Honest, professional, with an infallible sense of positivity and never shirking from hard work, Ali is a star all directors dream of. His professionalism is something he attributes to his upbringing, which taught him to honour his commitments and above all, respect others and their time. “I feel that you’re a star when you reach the set on time, or deliver on your word. It’s also what makes you a decent human being. There’s no stardom in arriving late for work – you wouldn’t do it at a regular office, why do it here? As a Pakistani in India, I’m representing the entire country. If I’m tardy or moody, or have a bad attitude, people will automatically take it as a reflection of Pakistan. I feel that artists are unofficial ambassadors of their countries and they must behave in a befitting manner.”
Despite misconceptions and a lack of dialogue on both sides of the border, Ali has fared better in India than most industry insiders would care to admit. His reception by the film fraternity has been astounding, with scions such as Amitabh Bachchan tweeting about the excellence of his music even from the hospital. Whether on set with Imran Khan, Katrina Kaif or Ranveer Singh, Ali claims to be welcomed with magnanimity that is both humbling and flattering. “From Tere Bin Laden to Kill Dil, all my co-stars, directors, producers, everyone has always gone out of their way to make me comfortable. On set, they all take better care of me because I’m from Pakistan. In fact, three out of the four movies I’ve released so far have met commercial success, so even the people of India have responded well.”
But this welcome cannot be only attributed to the generosity of Indians. With a positive attitude that eschews any bias grounded in race or creed, Ali believes in interacting with people based on their personality. It is this attitude that has helped erase any borders that might have existed and ensured seamless acceptance into the film fraternity. Funnily though, his detractors come from this side of the border. Ali recalls how a well-respected, senior Pakistani actor always claimed that India would never welcome a Pakistani into the entertainment industry willingly, a hypothesis that he not only disagreed with but also proves is wrong. The same senior artist also believed that Ali wouldn’t last or get substantial roles, but with each of his subsequent films Ali only cemented his place.
“I find it very amusing when I see actors who once bashed Indian movies being played in Pakistan, or criticised artists trying to cross over, suddenly jump on the Bollywood bandwagon now when roles are being offered to them.”
As we wrap up, I ask Ayesha a question I’d been itching to know; how does she deal with the demands of her husband’s on-screen romance? Surely it isn’t easy seeing your man woo (even if it is fake) some of the most sought after women in the subcontinent, but the couple seems to be at peace in their relationship. “So it isn’t a piece of cake, but I think we’ve gotten the hang of it. I mean there are definitely times I wish he was here, but other than that we rarely fight and always make the most of our time when Ali is here or whenever we’re together,” Ayesha explains. “And you know, distance does make the heart grow fonder!” As for Ali’s three-and-a-half-year-old son Azaan, he thinks his dad is the sexiest man in Asia! “I went to his school and sang for his classmates. Then we all lay on the carpet and took pictures,” he confides happily.
Even the kids aren’t immune to Ali’s charms. There’s his undoubted magnetism and forthcoming nature, but also the fact that he is so grounded that belies he is a superstar – Pakistan’s biggest superstar.
A Bollywood actor you’d love to work with?
Ali Zafar: Amitabh Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah and Nana Patekar
Hottest female co-star so far?
AZ: Katrina Kaif
Rate in order of acting ability: Imran Khan, Ranveer Singh or Siddharth Narayan?
AZ: They are all good in their own right. Read that as diplomatic or however
Who would you want to work with next: Raj Kumar Hirani or Sanjay Leela Bhansali?
AZ: Raj Kumar Hirani
If a female co-star made a move on you, how would you react?
AZ: How any sensible man would react
REACT IN ONE WORD TO THE FOLLOWING
Priyanka Chopra’s nose job
Deepika Padukone’s birthday party
Salman Khan’s body
Would you rather skip carbs or sugar?
AZ: Three to four times a week. Taking it a little easier these days
INTERVIEW: HAIYA BOKHARI
PHOTOGRAPHY: ADNAN QAZI