An actor’s sojourns: the Behkawa experience

Behkawa was memorable, primarily because I was not expected to behave like a star, or even a star in the making

One of my first television serials, Behkawa, was also my most memorable. I had worked in PTV serials so far, which was a valuable learning experience. However, working in a state-owned organisation is a different experience. There are no pressures from the marketing team or the channel owners.

In most cases, the producers are laid back or even careless about costs. There are also ‘sifarshi’ cast members, who waste a lot of time during the takes. Moreover, the crew is quite spoiled or lethargic because of a lack of accountability. I got introduced to the Mazhar Moin-Fasih Bari director-writer team when I was cast in one of their telefilms.

It was indeed a different experience, but I remember it most for the co-actor and one of Pakistan’s first mega TV stars, Roohi Bano. It was heart-wrenching seeing her state. My role was not very challenging, but I must have done well because soon after I was offered an important role in ‘Behkawa’, written by Fasih and directed by Mazhar. Not only was I acting in a private TV serial, but the shoot was in Karachi, the Bollywood of Pakistani television industry.

The role was very demanding and challenging. I was allowed to take my time, encouraged all the way both by the director, writer and my senior co-actors. I remember a scene in which I was to hold Maria Wasti’s {playing my adopted sister) hand. I was nervous during the rehearsals, till just before the camera started rolling, she just grabbed my hand herself, kind of forcibly. It gave me the confidence I required, and the camera indeed captured the incredible chemistry we had.

The drama was very well received. The story was quite unorthodox and bold, very different from the run of the mill formula TV serials dealing with Saas-Bahu conflicts or the superficial problems of the rich

In another amusing incident, another quite famous actress, trying to help me asked why I didn’t make my eyes go left and right. Baffled, I asked her what did she mean? She showed me how ‘real’ actors act, and made her eyes go left and right. Apparently, doing that makes you look good on TV.

Thankfully, I never quite understood what she meant by that, since I act on TV not just to look good, but to bring as much truthfulness to the scene as I can.

I loved the hustle and bustle of the city as well as the production atmosphere. Everyone was always on a tight schedule. People were more professional and efficient. In fact, sometimes they would become too efficient and churn out scene after scene like product in a factory. There was no room for lethargy as the culprit could be thrown out the next day (unlike the PTV crew, who are with you till ‘death do us apart!’).

I learned to value water as it would run out right when one was in the middle of a much-needed shower. I loved not knowing anyone in a strange city and going on marathon TV watching binges on non-shoot days. I loved being on my own, making money on my own, getting my own food, making new friends, some of which have stayed to this day. Some I am no longer in touch with, but the fond memories remain.

A physical scar on my leg, which I have to this day was from one such memorable experience. I was quite proud of my bike riding and happily agreed to do a biking scene. Unfortunately, the bike was to be stationed on a slope, the driveway, with no previous momentum because of demands of the scene. As a result, when ‘action’ was yelled, I gave it a nice little kick.

The ‘kick’ proved too much, and the bike went flying, with me on it. It was heading straight for Maria. I mustered up all the heroics I could, and turned the bike away from her in mid-air, missing her by inches. I fell to the ground, and the bike kept on going, as if it had a life of its own, breaking quite a few things.

In the commotion, everyone came running to me, asking if I was okay. The scene was okay, and I continued with the shoot. But I had in fact hurt myself. I look at the scar on my left leg, not as a scar but a trophy.

The drama was very well received. The story was quite unorthodox and bold, very different from the run of the mill formula TV serials dealing with Saas-Bahu conflicts or the superficial problems of the rich. The stories were of ordinary people from the lower strata with their meanness and selfishness, with sparks of humanity. It was a Manto-esqupeek in the lives of the scum of the earth.

The story was quite unorthodox and bold. My character was quite complicated. His relationship with his (adopted) sister is ambivalent and muddled. Such roles can drain an actor, but I have always liked them. The character I portrayed was not only complex but also skewed with a disturbing past, and I had to make a special effort to understand and empathise with it.

I had to be sensitive and delicate as the viewers of TV plays come from a variety of classes and ages, and we wanted them to empathise and not detest or be put off. The end of my role was suicide. I have done many ‘dying’ roles since then, but the ‘Behkawa’ death was quite shattering. It has been several years since the serial was aired, but even now some viewers come to me and tell me how that scene moved them.

These roles allow an actor to dive into unchartered territory, to delve deep into the paradox of human nature, and to emerge as a better actor ultimately. My experience of portraying complex roles on stage was very useful. The alertness and full commitment required during a live performance are not natural for a TV-only actor.

It is not easy to immerse yourself in the role of every live stage performance. But for a TV recording, you have to do it every time the director shouts ‘action’ and stop when he says ‘cut’. This switching on and off multiple times for different takes: master shot, close shot, big close, over the shoulder, re-take, is unending. But one good thing: Once the shoot is complete, it is over.

The writer is a director/actor; and a core member of Ajoka Theatre Pakistan

Published in Daily Times, February 14th 2018.