Travelling with someone reveals a lot about that person, but in this time-strapped age going on a road trip adventure isn’t always feasible, especially if they are celebrities who have a film to roll out that weekend.
But Gulf News tabloid! did the next best thing in Dubai as Pakistani singer-actor Ali Zafar and Maya Ali, his co-star from his debut production Teefa In Trouble, swooped into the UAE for a fleeting press junket.
Last Friday, we took them out to brunch so that they could experience one of Dubai’s famous Friday traditions.
The proverbial gravy? We gleaned far more about Zafar, his discovery Maya Ali, his eventful life, his humble beginnings and his troubled present where he’s battling allegations of sexual harassment made by singer Meesha Shafi in court. Perhaps it’s the sumptuous food served at the Bombay Brasserie in Taj Dubai or the riveting company, but there’s no better known lubricant than perfectly-cooked seafood kebabs and crunch chaat (Indian street-food delicacies) to get the conversation going.
Naturally, we addressed the white elephant — Meesha Shafi’s sexual harassment charges — in the room and Zafar responded with a fatalistic fervour, but we also spoke about different topics under the sun such as taking the much-needed vacation with his family after the release of Teefa In Trouble on July 19, his bizarre anecdote of painting along with Salman Khan during his Bollywood stint and his propensity to dish out life lessons with studied ease.
“As Michelle Obama said in her speech: ‘when they go low, we go high,” said Zafar, when asked about reports that he tried to sabotage a young artist’s career.
Despite the stakes being high both on the professional and personal front, Zafar — who has acted, produced, sung and written the dialogues of his ambitious $1.6 million film — cut a relaxed figure. The father of two isn’t finicky, except his request for gluten-free food, and gave us plenty to chew on in the course of our decadent brunch.
Here’s Zafar’s take on…
On Teefa In Trouble, his Pakistani film debut made on a budget of $1.6 million (Dh5.87 million):
“It’s my first Pakistani film after having done seven Bollywood movies and it’s my first home production under my banner Lightingale Productions. Our Pakistani film industry was in bad shape for many years, although it’s going through a revival now. So, five or six years ago when I was in India shooting for a film there I thought to myself that someday we should also have a film industry like how Bollywood does. With that dream and ambition we began Teefa In Trouble. Director Ahsan Rahim and I were close friends. We were bouncing off ideas for many years, but after five years of brainstorming Teefa In Trouble emerged. It’s the biggest production that has come out of Pakistan budget-wise. So I have put in everything that I have — physically, emotionally and economically, just so that we could contribute towards developing our industry and give Pakistan a film that Pakistanis are proud of. Not just Pakistanis, but everyone who enjoys the world of films. The struggle for Pakistani directors is to come up with their own originality and identity… We went through 16 drafts before finalising the script.”
His character Teefa in the entertainer:
“Teefa is a goon living in the walled city of Lahore. He works for a gangster, Bhatt saab [sir]. Teefa does odd jobs for him and one day, Bhatt saab says: ‘you need to kidnap this girl [Maya Ali] from Poland so that she can marry my son.’. I ask him if he were kidding, but Teefa goes on that mission and he finds out that Maya’s character has her own thing going on.”
His troubled year studded with sexual harassment charges…
“Inner strength comes with practice and meditation. My concepts have been very clear in life. When you know the truth, you don’t worry about anything. Ultimately, the truth will come out. I block any negativity that comes my way. I focus on the positives and I let nature, God and the natural justice system play its part.”
His reputation being tarnished as an artist after being accused of sexual harassment…
“The analogy behind blemishes is… imagine you are wearing a white salwar kameez [tunic] all your life. After you have bought it, you clean it regularly and somebody just [makes a whoosh sounds and makes a throwing action] and that stain is on there but it takes time to be out… But because I have complete faith in people’s intelligence… As the saying goes: ‘You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.’ As people keep revealing things with facts, people will understand the truth. We are already prepped. We have filed a suit with all the evidence attached and what went behind it. We are taking it seriously… I have worked so hard in life. I have worked hard to earn respect and nothing else. I cannot allow anyone to take that away from me based on a series of lies. I will not allow it… We got a gag order in the first hearing, it is fast enough for me. There have been two hearings and none of them [women who have accused him of sexual harassment] have appeared in court.”
Reports that he tried to sabotage artist Faris Shafi’s (Meesha Shafi’s brother) latest release by allegedly asking that his single be placed towards the end on the music-streaming site Patari, thus diminishing its reach:
“I don’t even want to comment on the lows that have been pursued to damage my reputation. For me facts are important. The co-found of Patari portal came out with a statement that no one from [Ali Zafar’s] team approached us. It was an internal conversation between employees. There’s a saying that goes: ‘there are no legs for lies.’… My entire life I have helped artists without mentioning it, without advertising and without telling anyone. I have been working towards women empowerment for the last seven or eight years. Our foundation works in areas where women are subjected to doing odd jobs to earn a small amount of money. Rehabilitating them and educating them without putting hashtags on Twitter is what I call activism. I have never flaunted it. The good that you do in the world should be between you and God … The values and ethics among our generation have gone down the drain. On social media, it’s the easiest thing to type or tweet anything. The difficult things is to go out there in the head, face them and change their lives.”
Spirituality, being his biggest guide in life…
“I am a believer of spiritualism. I have experienced things enough to know that after difficulty comes an easy period. The difficult times in your life make you stronger… When you look at the larger picture, you realise that all that is happening in life is a part and parcel of your journey… I am proud of everyone who has been around me during this difficult time. My family, my fans, my wife — she knows the truth. She is such a graceful woman… but I wish there were stricter laws in social media. Cyber laws need to be stronger. Five friends can’t just stand up and destroy someone’s life on social media.”
His journey in films and music so far…
“I take pride in the fact that I have worked hard in my life to reach wherever I am. But, I feel it is just the beginning. I still consider myself as a student and as a seeker who is going through this infinite process of evolution and growth. In this life, I need to make the best of this life. I started off as a sketch artist in a five-star hotel. I wasn’t born with a silver-spoon and I worked very hard to reach here.”
“I want to go to China and live in a monastery for a month and meditate. China and Rumi’s grave in Turkey are the two places that I want to visit... Ultimately, life is all about introspection and finding your inner world.”
Maya Ali’s first audition:
“It was so bad. It was pathetic, you have no idea. I was shivering and there were reams of words that I had to speak. At one point, I asked if I could do the audition without wearing my heels. He [director Ahsan Rahim] looked at me bizarrely wondering what’s the connection between heels and a good audition?!,” said Maya Ali in an interview with Gulf News tabloid!. But Teefa In Trouble makers, including actor-producer Ali Zafar, didn’t give up on her. Zafar’s brother was also her biggest fan.
Ali was called back for another audition and she came out with flying colours.
“Teefa In Trouble is going to change the landscape of Pakistani films,” said Ali. Meanwhile, producer-actor Zafar had just one question.
“My first conversation with Maya went around the lines of do you have any issues in life? Food issues, attitude problems or punctuality issues,” said Zafar with a laugh.
Did you know?
Ali Zafar was discovered by Pakistani make-up artist Nabila, founder of Zero Makeup, when he was 18.
“When I was sketching in the hotel lobby, make up artist Nabila spotted me and said I should be a model. She called me for a shoot the next day and predicted that I would be a big star one day.” said Zafar. Nabila did his hair for a song in Teefa In Trouble.
Don’t miss it!
Teefa In Trouble is out in the UAE on July 19