In Conversation with Ahsan Khan
Ahsan Khan opens up to FYI’s Editor-in-Chief, Batool Mehdi, about the celebrity platform, taking on difficult roles and how he stays so refreshingly grounded.
If you want a fair barometer of an actor’s stardom, look no further than the number of times you are interrupted by fans during an interview or shoot, for selfie requests.
And that barometer screams that Ahsan Khan is a bonafide star.
He smiles and does the mandatory posing every time he is approached. And then goes right back to what he was doing.
You certainly can’t knock this man for his professionalism.
And that’s the thing that strikes you most when you meet him. Even so far as punctuality goes – Ahsan gives you a time and he very much sticks to it. As we sit down to talk and order our respective coffees, you can instantly tell that he carries no airs or graces about being a household name and face. In an industry where so many have made a career out of being pretentious, Ahsan is very much the poster boy for a refreshing air of humility.
“If you’ve been working for as long as I have, you can go two ways,” he laughs. “You can get caught up in your own so called fame and lose the bigger picture or you can recognize that fame for what it is and use it for the bigger picture.”
That about sums up his entire approach right there.
We begin our conversation by an interesting observation on the sustainability of local cinemas. “I think we need to get out of this bubble that we can afford to only produce the ‘right’ kind of films,” Ahsan declares. “There’s no such thing. We need films. As many of them as possible, because otherwise our cinemas won’t sustain, especially now that bollywood films aren’t coming in.” Although I initially counter that in a race to produce quantity, we will inevitably lose out on quality, eventually I see his point of view. Particularly in light of bollywood. Because, if anything, what’s obvious is that our generation – those of us in our mid 30’s and onwards, is perhaps the last one to really idolize or obsess over bollywood, to varying degrees. Those of us who grew up on it, did so without access to all the other countless avenues of entertainment that kids nowadays have, I comment. “Yes, I mean my daughter, she’s 11. She has no such love for it. Frankly, she doesn’t even know about it,” Ahsan agrees, as I pretty much state the same of my fifteen and twelve year old nephews. “This is what I’m saying though,” he explains. “You need quantity. From that quantity only, we will eventually hit our stride. But films hongi, tou cinemas chalein ge. Not every film can be a Cake. That was truly quality film making. But for now, we need to embrace making as many as we can. Ussi mein se chaant chaant ke we will find the right direction.”
Ahsan goes on to lament about a film that has “been stuck in production hell“, in his own words, for quite some time now. “So, this film I signed a while ago with Ayesha Omar in the lead opposite me – Rehbara. It was shaping up so well. And then God knows what, but something happened between the director and producer and now it’s stuck indefinitely.”
He is excited about the other film he has signed – an out and out comedy, with Kubra Khan. “I’ve been offered about 5-6 films in the past few months but this. This, I read the script and literally laughed out loud,” says Ahsan. I ask him though, if he feels the whole ‘Punjabi culture’ genre is being exploited to death in our films now. “To an extent,” he agrees. “But see, for me, I was genuinely looking to sign a pure, unadulterated, fun film. Something that put a smile to my face all the way through. This was it.” As for the saturation of genre, in general, he goes on to offer that it’s happening everywhere. “There are limited scripts, limited directors, limited production houses. Honestly, sometimes you want to do so much more, but you just can’t.”
Is that frustrating, I ask. “I’m a glass half full guy, always,” smiles Ahsan. “My theory is that you have to take the good with the bad. Otherwise you won’t get any work done.” Fair enough. He explains further that it’s not that he doesn’t recognize the dearth of quality at times. He is just hoping that for every bad, there also a good. “If I feel like I’m really losing interest or that the monotony is killing me, then I escape for a bit, usually to London to spend time with family and just get away from it all, even if just for a bit. That usually does the trick,” he says with a smile.
Is this why an Udaari every now and then is so important? Ahsan’s face lights up at the very mention of that memorable project. I tell him he was a brave actor for choosing to do that role, and even more so for using the role to further highlight the plague of child abuse in our society through his interviews and media. Not many in our industry might have done that.
“There’s no doubt that Udaari really challenged the narrative,” Ahsan comments. “We really fleshed the character out. There was a lot of work involved and I had a great team behind me. As far as creating awareness, I won’t say I realized straight away that was I had to do,” he’s honest enough to admit. “But definitely once I started seeing the impact, I honestly thought it would be ridiculous not to use the traction generated by the role to really bring home the horrors of child abuse.”
And that’s what has really defined Ahsan, in terms of his persona, for a while now. The strength and ability to speak on certain matters or do for certain issues, that other actors are sometimes afraid to touch with a ten foot pole. I tell him his touching tribute to Mashal Khan in one of his award acceptance speeches absolutely symbolizes the way a celebrity platform can be used for the greater good. He tells me that now it has become a conscious effort on his part to do so. “If we never talk, if we never speak up, how are we ever going to expect any actual change?”
How difficult is that process though, I wonder. And is there ever any backlash? “I think first of all, it’s about recognizing that awareness doesn’t always come with education. I have seen some real parhay likhay jahil as well,” Ahsan is quick to point out. “It’s really all about broadening your viewpoints, your horizons. And a whole lot of empathy. Nothing is possible without that.”
It is that very empathy which has led him to carry on his charity work. You can see it in the causes he takes up or chooses to highlight or the voiceless he chooses to champion. Does he feel that social media helps in this regard? “Oh, absolutely,” Ahsan admits. “So, I have a funny relationship with social media in that sense,” he laughs. “I still feel awkward promoting anything of my own, my work, or a project or an interview. But I have no problems sharing a cause of the needy or the downtrodden because that’s the whole point.” He pauses and then adds, “The only point of frustration is that sometimes powerful people, politicians, will come and offer so much help, but the minute you follow up on it – nothing. You get more help from the common man at times than those in actual positions of power.” He goes on to talk about society in general. “I’m a positive guy. I like to see the positive in people. And most of the time I do. But I just wish we weren’t quite so numb so much of the time. We need to become less reactive and way more proactive.”
Ahsan clearly feels passionately about this. “I get asked this about Ramzan transmissions too,” he says. “But the thing is, rather than seeing it as something hypocritical or fake that I’m doing, I look at it as an opportunity to again, help spread some awareness and even more importantly, help dispel some harmful notions.” He elaborates on this some more and tells me a recent experience. “If a religious scholar is saying something, I will use my platform to authenticate that. Ask two, three more scholars. Get their references as well. By having a transmission like that sometimes, you can actually get an opportunity to call something out that doesn’t quite seem right. This way, you’re actually giving back in some capacity, other than just being the face of a channel for a month.”
At the end of it, Ahsan says it’s all about balance, in work and in life. “I tend to find strength in my family and my faith,” he says with the contentedness of a man who if not outright having found that peace, is certainly striving his best to search for it. “I think that’s why I’m also quite picky about the events I go to. I can’t show up everywhere. I can’t do the hectic after party scene. It all gets exhausting after a while.” And disillusioning too, maybe? “Oh, yes,” he shakes his head. “Sometimes you’re so impressed by someone and their work, and you get to know them and become so terribly disillusioned by how self absorbed they are.”
As we begin to wrap up, it’s clear that Ahsan is an actor who believes in actors actually having a voice. “Do what makes you happy, sure. Yes,” he says. “But do it with a certain sense of awareness and responsibility, otherwise what is the point of having this celebrity platform at all.”
There’s a quiet resolve that comes with an exuberance of spirit, with Ahsan. The more you get to know him, the more you realize we need the likes of him more, not just in our industry, but also in society, at large.
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