The roomful of frantic brand managers were whispering, gushing, giggling, organising, scheduling and holding out a lighter for him, offering him lemon or milk for his tea. For his fan club, Shaan is the best but for the benefit of those who aren’t his fans, trust me he is gorgeous. Tall, polished, suave, eloquent and intelligent with honey-coloured eyes, the camera doesn’t even transfer half of his aura across the lens. From being an LSA anchor, he’s now gone on to endorse the rival brands. But that’s not the only change he’s undergone.
There were no fumbles and no stumbles as he sat in the backdrop of balloons and diaper packs, diligently set up by the brand people for photo sessions. Yes, the bloodthirsty gandasa-swinging onscreen gujjar does have a softer side to him.
Shaan was in Karachi last week to launch the One Pack = One Vaccine campaign in Pakistan, joining hands with P&G and Unicef. Supported by the ministry of health, the cost of one tetanus vaccine for every bachat pack of Pampers sold during Ramazan will be donated to Unicef.
“Are you always surrounding and waited upon by so many people,” I asked Shaan, awed at the furor his presence created. He glanced at me, smiled quietly and put his cup down.
In age and experience, he could be compared to Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar who have built themselves as hot brands. So where does Shaan stand after spending more than a decade in Lollywood?
“As far as Salman or Akshay are concerned, I just feel that they are less-gifted but luckier, whereas I am more gifted but less lucky. If you look at the bigger picture, they make as much money working in three films as I do working in, say, 35 or 40 films. But it is not all about money. In Bollywood, they are doing good work in their own right but they can do far better. Here, I am talking from an actor’s point of view and I am disappointed in everything I have seen so far.
“I saw Asoka and also discussed with Shah Rukh Khan that he should have at least read a book on the historical character before doing it. It was his responsibility to accurately portray the legend. His Asoka in the film was dancing and being funny, but in reality he was a swordsman who didn’t swim around half-naked with women. What would you say if there was a barish ka gana in Lawrence of Arabia? They’re all doing the same run-of-the-mill stuff, nothing outstanding. You might see a good shot by some actor in some role and people might love their films, but I rate them for being stars of sava lakh ki abadi. There should at least be one Tendulkar.”
If Shaan hadn’t been an actor, he would have been a lawyer. But he believes that at this stage he needs to be satisfied with his work in films more than anything else. “It is not about doing a lot of roles or that Lollywood doesn’t offer me stuff to show my potential. That’s a different story altogether. It is about knowing yourself and that you have the potential. It is scary to see people who are recognised as international stars doing such bad work. You ask yourself what would you do if you had that role? But you have the satisfaction of knowing that you could have done it better. It is not the kind of work or the amount of work I am doing, I have done justice to my work and that is what matters most to me.”
While Shaan defends the Pakistan film industry for not playing its role in projecting a positive image of Pakistan in the international arena, he has plenty to say about the portrayal of Pakistanis in Bollywood productions. “It is not just their films that portray us in a certain way. When you go to India there is a certain ‘thing’ that you feel. I can’t pinpoint it but I know it’s a negative vibe. If you look at our history, Partition and the resulting massacre, we have our side of the story and they have theirs. The anonymous verse Akhaan di laali vi dasdi ae, roye tussi vi ho, roye assi vi aan probably explains it in the best possible way. On the face of it there is love, they talk loudly, show a lot of emotion; ‘tussi Lahore ton aaye ho’, touching their chest and your feet, reeling off little anecdotes and stanzas about Lahore and Delhi…but the bottom line is they don’t want you….simple!
“I was offered a film and it was to be directed by Sudhir Mishra. He sent me the script and I read the whole thing. It was okay except that they were going to portray Dilip Kumar as a playboy, show his on-the-set romances as the story of a Muslim lover boy. I felt that they wanted to tamper with Dilip’s image who is now 85, and I didn’t want to be a part of it. Why were they doing it, just because he is a Muslim? Then there was another film called Dehli 0006 where they had a barber shop with an image of the Hindu god Hanuman on the wall next to a picture of Khana-i-Ka’ba. Also, there was a she-goat in the film called Fatima who did funny things in the mohalla like eating people’s stuff, etc. I severely objected to the image of Khana-i-Ka’ba hung next to that of Hanuman and the name of the she-goat.
“From Ghazi Ilamdin Shaheed killing Rangeela Jasoos the writer, these subtle pinches push you to a point where your sanity can become insanity. I was talking to cricketer Shahid Afridi and he told me that from behind the stumps the Indian audience irritates us so much that we sometimes lose concentration. There are many examples of this particular psyche that you come across in India.
“I would work in Bollywood if a good film is offered to me, not otherwise. Not like Jawaid Sheikh who is doing crappy roles which he really shouldn’t.”
Shaan feels that the Pakistani film industry suffers with each changing political scenario. “Even my gardener wanted to be paid early because he was concerned about mulk kay halaat. In this situation, it will probably take another 20 years for art, not just in one medium but as a whole, to flourish in Pakistan.”
With such a big deal being made of Abhishek Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor and even nothings like Tushaar Kapoor just because they happen to be second generation stars, does Shaan (he is the son of renowned film-maker Riaz Shahid and film actress Neelo), with the film industry in his blood, think we lack the right attitude? “The basic link is missing here which is the appreciation of art. We need to respect artistes with all our heart. Actors make a lot of money now but the true sense of respect is something different. The process of art is killed from the day a boy or a girl informs his/her parents to their utter dismay that s/he wants to become an actor. In our society, a girl’s fate is decided the day she is born. We need women as script writers, poets, actors…”
Don’t we need young men as well? “I see hero material every day and while they are good, they lack commitment. You don’t necessarily have to be good looking to make it in showbiz. I have seen ugly people carry themselves really well. There has to be that flair that the screen requires.”
I try to provoke him by accusing him of filling a dead man’s shoes. What was his own identity, other than being the modern-day Sultan Rahi? Unruffled, he explains. “We are a very politics-oriented nation. People attach their hopes, happiness and sorrow with the politics of this country. It is a close-knitted thing. In such a scenario, you have to understand the audience and I do that very well. I fill a dead man’s shoes because at the end of the day that’s what the public wants. For me, it’s a bigger vote than a casted vote because they pay for that vote. I bring the people to me, make them pay and then I say what I have to say to them whereas politicians have to pay people to listen to them. So I’m better placed.
“Films are magical. Name one TV actor that you can remember apart from Lucille Ball. Films stay in your memory, live with you while television lives in the house. It will cost me a Rs20 crores to open up a TV channel but if I could put that kind of money into making a film, it would certainly make a difference.”
Does that mean more Gujjar roles in the future for the actor? “Yes, Gujjars are very intelligent, they know how to market themselves.”
With Khuda Kay Liye (KKL), Shaan says he tested the waters and loved the experience. But he has separate views as an actor and as a viewer. “As a person I feel that KKL is a beautifully made film but the truth was limited. Why does the film point fingers only at mullahs? Is it a trend? As an actor I really enjoyed working with Shoaib Mansoor. He is a creative man and a creative writer, though a bit difficult to work with. Once you accept the script and agree to do the role, there is no going back. It was a good script, I read it and asked Shoaib saheb what he wanted. He said ‘give me something new’. So I took a month to shop for the character in my mind. I borrowed from here and there, a bit of Ali Azmat and another rock star, and Mansoor was the end result.”
What did he think of Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani? “Bad!” And Jawaid Sheikh’s Khulay Aasmaan Kay Neechay (KAKN)? “Worse!”
Details follow. “Mehreen needs to actually sit down and figure out what she wants. If the country is like a burning house and if I make a film on flies, where is the relevance? The film should make a statement about the present-day situation highlighting her point of view. Ramchand Pakistani doesn’t do that. She should stick to making plays and moreover she is a Jabbar, she doesn’t need to work.”
His demeanour is calm but words blunt. “KAKN should be banned. Sheikh saheb has yet again goofed up. Yeh Dil Aap Ka Hua was no better. I think Sheikh saheb needs a good script. He should stop directing jokes. Yeh chotay chotay lateefay hain jin ko wo kahaniyaan samajhte hain. I am sure he has more to offer than that. He should shop for some good writers in India, or do some screenplay adaptations. Anyone can do that. My seven-year-old daughter took pictures from my camera and some of the photos came out really good. Sheikh saheb works with Ediflex and needs to know what he is shooting. Anybody can get a top shot with a helicopter but that is not a good shot. The question is what exactly are you shooting?”
With several film stars now working for television, does Shaan have any plans for the mini-screen as well?
“I have been offered TV plays many times but I think Humayun Saeed is doing a good job, so is Faisal Qureshi and a number of other actors. I feel a drink needs to be served right whether its juice or wine. I am a celluloid person. My practice is in this medium and television is not inspiring enough for me. The only catch is money, but then I’m doing other stuff for money.”
His film Zille Shah will be released on Eid-ul-Fitr. “Zille Shah is made in Pakistan apart from the post-production work and it is how a Punjabi film should be. It is a semi-art film about a Punjabi poet. It is mellow and has a softer touch for an audience that is happy watching Gujjar films. The challenge here is that you can’t bring them to a semi-art film overnight so it has to be wrapped in what they like to see, but it carries a subtle message for the audience. The main character is a true character, but I have tweaked the screenplay a bit. I’m acting and directing, I have done the screenplay and a song as well. The leading ladies are Noor and Saima. I have taken a risk with my money but why not? It is not a very expensive venture, only Rs3 crores.”
Why Saima I wonder out loud. “I think mature love is more exciting. Saima is a sellable commodity and when I am investing my money I want the financial stability to be there. It is a selfish thing but when any actor stops selling, you don’t use them anymore and that goes for anyone out there.”
Shaan hosted the LSA twice in a row but was missing from the third. “Frieha (Altaf) stopped being my manager, so I fired her. I didn’t do the third LSA ceremony because they were going off to Malaysia and had to cut the budget. I asked them to fly 90 people instead of 100 but not compromise on the budget for stage planning. We disagreed and I quit. I think the brand was going through a turbulent time. The LSA has really lost its touch.”
Talking about joining hands with P&G’s anti-tetanus campaign, Shaan says, “I had not realised that tetanus was such a killer, I thought awareness about it was much better than it actually is. The target audience is not elitist but the masses, and I can speak their language. I also intend to have subtle messages in this regard in my films. Actors have a lot of power and awe and it sometimes scares me when I shake hands with a chowkidar or a person on the street and I find his hand trembling. If I can create that kind of awe in a person then surely I can convey a message that will have an impact.”
And then he speaks about his transition from film star to style icon. “I was always the person I am and hundreds of people today are taking credit for grooming me. When I started out I was very confused. Basically I am a very shy person. I don’t have many friends and like to keep to myself. Like my idea of a vacation is to chill at home and not meet anybody.”
Shaan talks fondly about his family. “Ours was a very Persian-influenced family. My paternal grandfather did his PhD in Persian in 1936 and he also wrote a Quran Sharif ka nuskha and met the Shah of Iran as a translator. The Shah told him that he spoke better Persian than he did. My eldest daughter is Bahisht-i-Bareen Shaan Shahid.
“My triplets are called Fatima, Raanay and Shah Bano. My real name is Armaghan Shahid. These are all Persian names. I think every family should have a daughter as they make a better person of you and bring you to perfection. As Khalil Gibran said: ‘I would have been snoring and farting if it were not for the three women in my life’. The three women being his mother, lover and daughter. Women need to understand that they are keys to the mental asylum called man. If they open the wrong door, a fanatic can come out. Women can make men into beautiful, caring, elegant beings.”
It suddenly dawns on me that I have stumbled upon the philosopher in him…but that would have to be a story for another day.