Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

Ali Zafar on hard graft, being shy and 'Chashme Baddoor'

Most Bollywood stars at press junkets are about as fresh as a week-old corpse.

Ali Zafar though, is different.  

When I meet him on a horrendously cold and wet Spring day in Central London, he's perfectly coiffed and immaculately turned out in a dark blue sweater, stylish leather jacket, jeans and blue-suede brogues.  And exceedingly polite.  

No faded Guns n' Roses t-shirts, scruffy Keffiyehs or ripped skinny jeans tucked into unlaced boots here.  And no distracted, sideways glances or staring at a smart phone.

And, in spite of having been on a 12-hour flight, an eight-hour conveyor belt of interviews - not to mention being criticized, perhaps unnecessarily, by the director of his new movie for not doing enough promotional work - Ali is fresh as a daisy and well entrenched in his position as the finest looking male playback singer in Bollywood.

The Pakistani artist, singer, musician, composer, producer and actor was in London this weekend promoting Chashme Buddoorhis, his latest project; given the raft of talents Zafar packs, it is only appropriate to call this a project.

Not only is he the undoubted star of an ensemble piece but has also composed several of the songs and lent his silky smooth vocals to three of them, offering the director three times what any other male lead would offer.

"Singing is my first love but I love acting as well so to be able to combine the two is amazing.  I originally signed up as an actor for Chashme Buddoor but I suppose because I started off in the industry as a playback singer, there is an expectation when I do a movie.  It was fun," Zafar says in his husky tone, in sentences that tend to trail off into whispers.

Directed by David Dhawan, Chashme Baddoor is a remake of the 1981 romantic buddy comedy of the same name with Zafar, Siddarth Narayan and Divyendu Sharma playing three university roommates of disparate temperaments who get tangled up in an almighty mess owing to, well, a girl.  

The film is the latest in an ever lengthening line of 'Buddy' films that have become a bit de-rigueur in Bollywood.

"I think we were fortunate to have had Sai Paranjpye (director of the 1981 director) co-writing the film.  I love the original film and I think this remake is a really faithful but contemporary update," the star says.

Zafar plays the chief protagonist Siddarth, a quiet, shy, refined young student whose only vice, it seems, is an occasional ciggie.

It's a perfect fit for the son of academics from Lahore, as Sai Paranjpye, the director of the 1981 original and co-writer of the remake, attested herself.

"Zafar is aristocratic and cultured.  And there's a certain innocence about him at the same time", she says.  

Culture seems to ooze out of Zafar but he also comes across as being very bashful.  His carefully chosen answers come in a clipped, refined - almost noble - English, in beautifully woven, economical sentences.

It's a person that is starkly at odds with the public perception of Zafar as a versatile artist bubbling with effervescence whose success - particularly as a Pakistani in Bollywood - is based not only on talent but a considerable amount of street smarts as well.

"I've always been quite shy, painfully shy in fact.  I have always had to work really hard at being slightly crazier because I suppose you have to be a little crazy to be successful in this business.  I couldn't actually go up to a girl and speak to her as my character would do in this film.  So I had to really work at my confidence and get out there and be extroverted because that was required in order to achieve what I wanted to achieve artistically."

"I think a lot of the credit needs to go to my mother who would, literally, force me to participate in school debates. 

The thing was, I would be fine on stage but I would feel really shy otherwise.  I think I'm still like that.  Somewhat," Zafar adds, his voice trailing away.

Bashful or not, the boy who had to sell 15-minute sketches at a 5-star hotel in Lahore to get his first album recorded, Zafar, 32, has had a phenomenally successful and varied career.  

That first album the sketches financed - titled Huqa Pani - went on to become a huge success, spawning hit singles like "Channo", "Ek Pal" and "Rangeen" and selling hundreds of thousands of copies worlwide.

Since then, he has released three further albums, all to considerable critical and commercial success and entered acting full time in Bollywood, resuming on a career path he first dabbled in with the odd modelling job and appearances on Pakistani soaps.

It hasn't always been an easy ride, particularly in an industry whose relationship with Pakistan and Pakistanis has been patchy at best.  

His first mainstream Bollywood film - stereotypically enough - was 'Tere Bin Laden', about the then Pakistan-based Al Qaeda leader in which Zafar plays a desperate immigrant.  

The actor though, is typically philosophical.  "The stereotyping isn't as widespread and entrenched as people think. 

Like Hollywood or British cinema or any other film industry, Bollywood has its own cliches and stereotypes.  From a personal point of view, Bollywood has been incredibly warm.  The people of India have been immensely welcoming. I'm extremely fortunate to be able to travel between the two countries and work when I want to.  As an artist I can't ask for more."

That philosophical approach has been borne out of a terrific work ethic, evident on the day I interview Zafar.  

Whilst there is plenty of help at hand, from the outside it looks horrendous being Ali Zafar.  

Interviews and photo calls and to-camera pieces go on all day with a 10-minute break to grab a bite in the afternoon.  The press is then followed by an appearance at a cinema in a different corner of London to meet and greet fans and then, after a quick change, an after party back in the City.

To be at it like that all day and keep your wits about takes a special sort of attitude.  

"I've had to work really hard throughout my career.  It took about six years of hard graft to get my first album recorded.  You have to have the right attitude and I think I owe a lot to my parents for instilling that in me.  If you don't have a sound upbringing and a supportive family structure it becomes a very difficult life."

"You're always up and about you have to look good and feel good and look fresh and you need to smile at a lot of people all day long and even if you don't feel like, because people have their preconceptions.  In order to do that you need to have a certain attitude and need to be humble."

"If you have passion and if you're talented and if you work hard with that talent then you will get what you deserve."

Chashme Buddoor is released 5 April.

- Poonam Joshi




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