Being a billionaire

As an actor, my primary concern has always been to observe people; observe life itself

I was born into a family with socialist leanings and was told that the rich and powerful elite was the source of all evil. They lived lives of luxury while the poor masses toiled and suffered.

The ruling rich had no compassion or humanity. They enjoy the best lives in this world and ask the masses to work for it for rewards in the hereafter. In Ajoka, I got roles of revolutionaries or rebels who were challenging the ruling classes and the unjust system. In TV serials too, my characters were mostly the underprivileged. So when I was offered the role of a billionaire, I readily accepted the challenge. This was TV serial Meri Dulari, written by Ansar Abar Raja and directed by Amin Iqbal.

An actor can be anything. That is the beauty of being an actor. I have never been a billionaire, and it is highly unlikely that I will ever be, but as an actor, I can be anything, anyone. But this billionaire was not born with a silver or golden spoon in his mouth. His was the story of rag to riches. And he had scores to settle, a billionaire with a mission of revenge. So it was a double villain, a wealthy man and then a man burning with jealousy and revenge. I tried to understand the character — one-dimensioned characters are not very interesting for an actor or the audience. So I had to work on the back story: how did he succeed as a businessman and why was he so hurt and humiliated?

Everyone has a story; everyone has justifications for how they behave, everyone is human. If only we all could realise this simple truth, the world would be a much more interesting place

The play starts off with our would-be billionaire in his teens. He is innocent, young, loving and poor. He falls in love. His love is pure and sincere. His girl also loves him, but she is ambitious and selfish and ditches her sincere lover for a rich, powerful man.

Hurt and humiliated, our jilted lover disappears for next ten episodes of the serial, only to reappear years later. He makes a dramatic entry in the office of the man who had snatched his beloved. Wearing an expensive white suit and other attire worth millions, he has come to discuss a partnership deal with his erstwhile rival. He is now much richer and more powerful than his rival, who does not know the past of this filthy rich man. Cut to the husband’s home. The billionaire has been invited for dinner. Another dramatic entry. Out of smoke (yes smoke), comes out the man on a mission, to be greeted by the very woman who ditched him. She is shocked to see how sophisticated and classy ‘shabby’ has become (as she fondly used to call him).

Shabby has also learnt the art of seduction. Lavish dinners, long drives in expensive cars and luxurious outings. His Ex had seen a good life with her affluent husband, but not such opulence and unrestrained abandon. While he is busy seducing her, he makes sure that the business of his rival goes down. He tells her that he toiled to become rich, only for her, that he still desires her, loves her, and wants her back. On the other hand, the husband goes bankrupt. She eventually falls for the rich and determined lover.

Losing his wealth and wife, the poor husband commits suicide, leaving the door open for are union of the old lovers. In the dramatic last scene, the two are having dinner, and she tells Shabby that in her heart she had always loved him, and was willing to marry him now. He gives her a disdainful look and starts laughing hysterically. ‘Who wants to marry you,’ he exclaims. He reveals to her that he had waited for this moment all his life. He had become rich, manipulated the bankruptcy of her husband and seduced her, all to take revenge for his humiliation and rejection years ago. For ten years, he waited for this moment, when she offers to marry him, and he can reject her.

I usually am not a spiteful or mean person and do not take rejection to such horrendous extremes. But here I had to adopt such a persona where the thirst for revenge and malice destroys everything he has or everyone who is close to him. I chose not to use any ‘techniques’ for my roles; a set standard of expressions used over and over again. I worked from the inside out, imbibing the character’s spirit, putting myself in his shoes.

Following the ‘magic if’, as it is called in theatre language. For this transformation, one needs strong focus and inner energy, something which is very difficult to portray for television. There are thousands of watts of huge dazzling lights, people are screaming at each other, actors are not bothered to give proper cues, not to mention working for 18 hours straight at a time. Even in this environment, I have tried to work seriously, which can result in funny situations at times.

In one amusing incident, I had a scene with a well-known actor. According to my character’s personality, I had to be in control and domineering. My fellow actor took it personally and was cross with me on the sets. He later told a friend that I had been rude to a senior. That reminds me of another serial, in which I was playing a rich kid and the actor opposed to me was a leading film star (at least he thought he was).

He was also playing a rich guy, and we were playing chess in the scene. I thought I might learn a few things from my star co-actor, whose first name happens to be that of my father. As scripted, at the end of the scene I checkmated my rival player. Suddenly the star asked for a timeout. He went to the director and said, ‘Yeh bacha mujhe maat kaisay dey sakta hai! (How can this kid checkmate me!). The production team tried their best to convince and console him while I quietly waited for the set. Finally, the scene was shot as scripted, but the star displayed a nasty attitude for quite some time.

As an actor, my primary concern has always been to observe people; observe life itself. As a child, I remember crying, being angry or laughing in my room. In that state of intense emotion, I would run to the mirror to see what a genuine expression looked like. Gradually, I realised there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters, only ‘interesting’ and ‘not interesting’ ones. This realisation has allowed me to access the psyche of all the characters I have played, from bloodthirsty warriors to Sufi saints, farmers to billionaires. Everyone has a story; everyone has justifications for how they behave, everyone is human. If only we all could realise this simple truth, the (entertainment) world would be a much more interesting place.

The writer is a director/actor; and a core member of Ajoka Theatre Pakistan. He has been involved in spreading awareness on socio-political issues through theatre

Published in Daily Times, March 9th 2018.