I want people to remember me for my work: Bilal Abbas Khan

One of the most talented actors of his generation, Bilal Abbas Khan made his debut in the world of show business in the year 2016 and, in a very short period of time, established himself as an actor of considerable merit and promise. After working in a number of theater plays, television serials and one feature film, the handsome young man arrived as a star with his sensitive portrayal of a mild-mannered orphan in Hum Television’s television serial O Rangreza and as an actor with his assured performance as an intense young man in ARY Digital’s Balaa. Bilal stands tall amongst the A-List of Pakistani actors today. In an exclusive interview for the Daily Times, he talks to Ally Adnan about his career in show business, the art and craft of acting, his love for theater, the importance of friends and family, and a lot else.

PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) recently issued an order deriding Pakistani television dramas for deteriorating quality, boldness of themes and plots, and inaccurate portrayals of Pakistani culture and society. What do you think of the order?

I think the order was inappropriate and unnecessary. It disturbed me. The Pakistani television industry has produced, and continues to produce, serials and series of very high quality. It is very prolific, especially given the size of our country, and produces programs that are entertaining, educational and informative. I think dismissing the industry in the manner that the PEMRA did was unfair and irresponsible.

Do you believe that it is PEMRA’s place to dictate standards of decency to television channels?

Absolutely not. Pakistani people are intelligent, educated and wise. They can decide what they – and those that they are responsible for – should and should not watch. If they find a program boring, offensive or inappropriate, they can always turn the television off or switch the channel. A government body does not need to make the choice for them. Pakistani viewers can exercise their right to freedom with the click of a remote-control button.

You do not belong to a family of show business professionals. What attracted you to the field of acting?

I grew up watching international art cinema and was fascinated by its variety, depth and intelligence. Satiyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder were personal favorites. I loved their films and wanted to inhabit their rich, complex and very interesting characters. The desire grew into an indefatigable penchant for acting that continues to this day.

Historically, the world of show business has had a stigma associated with it. A lot of Pakistanis do not consider it to be respectable. How have you found the world to be?

I am aware of the negative view that a lot of people have of the world of show business and, although I respect their right to an opinion, I find it to be incorrect. I have been in the industry for a few years now and found it to be respectable, professional and upright. I like being a part of it.

What barriers and challenges did you face when entering the world of show business?

I had to convince myself, along with people who care for me, that acting was a good career choice for me. That was the only barrier that I faced. Luckily, I overcame it without much difficulty. My friends and family members supported my decision wholeheartedly and with great enthusiasm. The challenges involved learning the craft, finding the right projects, and staying focused. I was fortunate and, at the outset of my career, got to work with some truly amazing writers, directors and actors. They helped me deal with the challenges. It may not have been entirely easy, but I have had a great ride in show business thus far and am very grateful for my success in the field.

You are the scion of a well-heeled family with considerable money, influence and clout. Has your family’s status and standing been of help in your career?

No, it has not. My family members did help me but not in the way you imply. They were supportive, they believed in me and they encouraged me to pursue my dream. That is only help that I needed and got. The only other factors that contributed to my success in show business are hard work, determination and, perhaps, good fortune.

Unlike a lot of Pakistani actors, you studied acting at the venerable National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA). Has formal training in acting helped you in your career?

Yes, it has, and in more ways than one. It has given me confidence, poise and self-assurance. It has helped me acquire histrionic skills in a systematic and effective manner. It has introduced me to a number of major acting systems, affording me a large set of techniques, methods and processes to choose from and employ as an actor. Perhaps, the most important skill that I acquired at NAPA was the ability to work as a member of a team. Television dramas and films require team work; all members of the cast and crew need to know, respect and work well with each other. NAPA helped me develop an appreciation for the work of each and every cast and crew member.

Did you enjoy your time at NAPA?

I did; a whole lot. It was quite possibly the best time of my life. I learned a lot. I made a very large number of friends. I found a few very sincere mentors. And, most importantly, I got to act and do theater on a regular basis. NAPA is a great institution. I cannot say enough good things about it.

Do you subscribe to any of the major schools acting – Stanislavski’s System, Lee Strasberg’s Method, Stella Adler, Meisner Technique, Michael Chekhov’s Psycho-Physical Technique, Practical Aesthetics, Uta Hagen and Viola Spolin?

I have studied several of the acting systems that you mention, and borrow and employ items from each one of them. I do not subscribe to any one school of acting exclusively but, if I had to choose one, it would be Viola Spolin.

What is it that you like about Theater Games?

Viola Spolin’s Theater Games help actors stay focused on the moment at hand and make choices that they would make in real life. There is a great focus on improvisation and improvisational techniques. As a result, actors learn to act and respond in a real, quick and truthful manner based on the present moment.

What are the attributes of a good actor?

I’ll be darned if I knew!

How do you rate yourself as an actor?

On a scale of one to ten, I would say a six.

Why only six?

I have my strengths and my weaknesses. I work very hard and come to the set fully prepared. My dialogue delivery is good. I have good screen presence. I work well with others. I am a happy and optimistic person and bring positive energy to my projects. That is all that I can say about my strengths. There are many weaknesses too. I need to develop greater versatility. I have to work on building a notable body of work. I have to develop the ability to understand the feelings, viewpoints and personality traits of the characters that I play as well as those that I interact with. I need to learn how to hear rather than to merely listen. I must improve and evolve as an actor. The truth is that, my current success notwithstanding, I have a long way to go as an actor.

You have a reputation for being very serious about the craft of acting and for not caring much about stardom. Is being a good actor more important to you than being a superstar?

I have great fascination for the art and craft of acting. It captivates me. I love it. All I want is to be a competent actor. Stardom means nothing to me.

How has life changed for you since you became famous as an actor?

It really has not changed very much. I am still the same person – shy, introverted and unassuming – that I used to be. I still have the same set of close friends that I had before becoming an actor. I still enjoy the same things – reading, travelling and spending time with friends and family – that I have enjoyed all my life. I hope it stays this way. I like my life the way it is today.

You have worked in several television serials, a feature films and numerous stage plays. Do you have a preference amongst television, cinema and theater?

Yes, I do. Theater is my favorite. I like the fact that one gets a reaction from the audience in real time. I enjoy the energy, vigour and excitement of theater. I love the independence an actor has on stage. No one – no director, no writer, no cinematographer, no one else – can help an actor when he is performing on stage. He is on his own. The responsibility is invigorating and energising. In my opinion, there is no better place for an actor than the theater stage.

It appears that you have a great knack for picking good projects on television; each and every one of your serials – Saya-e-Dewar Bhi Nahi, Dumpukht, Saanp Seerhi, Rasm E Duniya, O Rangreza, and, now, Balaa – has been a hit. What criteria do you use to select television plays?

I like to work with people who are positive, talented and kind. That is all that I consider when making decisions about signing on for acting work. I trust my instincts and usually go with projects that have a positive aura.

What criteria did you use to select your debut feature film, Thora Jee Le?

Thora Jee Le was offered to me when I was new in the business. It was a great opportunity for a newcomer and I jumped at it as soon as the film was offered to me.

Thora Jee Le did not do well commercially and critically. How did you deal with the failure of the film?

I put a lot of time, energy and love into Thora Jee Le and was sad to see it fail at the box office. The critical reviews – some rather scathing – disheartened me but I did not allow myself to get depressed and stay down for long. I have a great support system of friends and family, I am a person of faith, and I am naturally optimistic. I was able to dust the failure off and pick myself up very quickly.

Do you plan to do more films in the future?

Yes, I do. Thora Jee Le did not do well but I do not regret doing the film. It was a great project for me at the time. I have great memories of working in the film. I am glad I did it.

What do you think of Pakistani cinema?

I believe that Pakistani cinema holds great promise. It is in the middle of a great revival and there is a lot of positive energy in the industry at this time. We are beginning to see good Pakistani films. I think the industry will continue to evolve and become one of the major ones in the world in a matter of just a few years.

Along with Ahad Raza Mir, you changed the status quo of the industry by taking over the mantle of top young Pakistani actors, pushing a number of well-established superstars into the category of senior actors. Has any of them ever displayed any hostility and resentment towards you?

You are very kind and give me more credit than I deserve. I do not believe that I have pushed anyone out of their rightful place in the industry. To answer your question, no actor has ever displayed any hostility and resentment towards me. They have all been singularly gracious and kind.

Have you found any friends in the very competitive world of show business?

I have not, but not because there are no good people in the world of show business. There are a lot of them but I have all the friends that I need in my life already. I do not feel the need to make any more.

Are friendships important to you?

Yes, second only to family. Friendship is truly a blessing. Life would be unbearable without the support, love and companionship of friends.

What role does your family play in your life?

My family is the most important thing in my life. It is my source of strength, inspiration and enthusiasm. It provides me emotional, psychological and spiritual support. I enjoy nothing more than spending time with my family. The bond that I share with my family is not one of blood, but of love, respect, understanding, and joy in each other’s life.

Photographs by Yaseen Lakhani

Ally Adnan lives in Dallas and writes about culture, history and the arts. He tweets @allyadnan and
can be reached at allyadnan@outlook.com

Published in Daily Times, September 24th 2018.