In Baaghi, we are not glamourising Qandeel or turning her into a saint: Osman Khalid Butt

Many of us know Osman Khalid Butt (OKB) from his viral Maya Khan and Humsafar parodies. Since then, the heartthrob has starred in many famous TV dramas and was also the lead in 2017’s Balu Mahi. Currently playing Sheheryar in Baaghi, the actor has received a lot of praise for his character and for standing up for women’s rights. Talking to The Express Tribune (ET), the actor discusses his journey from theatre to the silver screen and his stance on feminism in Pakistan.

ET: You started off with YouTube videos, which were highly appreciated. Why did you suddenly stop?

OKB: The YouTube sketches started on a whim; Video-blogging in Pakistan was virgin territory back in 2011 and I was very surprised my brand of humour went mainstream when the PTA video went viral (for that time). The fact that people actually subscribed to my brand of crazy propelled me to make more and as the videos gained more popularity, I was very close to signing a monetisation deal with YouTube when the website got banned in Pakistan. Also, the core Living Picture (our channel) team started drifting apart because: life. At the time, content sharing wasn’t big on Facebook and as I was already pursuing theatre and television projects at the time, I completely shifted focus to deal with that heartbreak.

I am making a comeback, though. I say this every year – in 2014 we even shot a 30-minute parody of Waar that’s still gathering dust in a hard drive somewhere – but 2018 should mark a return to irreverence.

ET: How did you then venture into TV dramas?

OKB: When I was growing up, despite a liberal exposure to the performing arts because of my father, being an actor was little more than a pipe dream. I would write a lot to channel that creative energy – poems, short stories and fantasised about one day becoming an author, like my idol Stephen King. It wasn’t until 2004 (into my third semester of a Telecom engineering program), when I saw a production of the play Dracula in Islamabad that I realised I could at least dabble in theatre. The fact that a then 15-year-old Shahana Khan Khalil played Lucy, one of the principal characters, gave 19-year-old me the courage to go audition for Moulin Rouge, directed by Shah Sharahbeel. That evening of my very first audition – January 2, 2005, marked a tremendous turning point in my life. I fell madly, completely in love with theatre. It truly is an actor’s medium and for an introvert like myself to be able to put on so many masks and wear so many different personalities in front of an audience – that freedom, that power – to express, to captivate… that became my life. I’ve acted in over 23 productions, directed 11 and done everything from choreography to backstage to costume design to production in between.

Now THAT'S how you make an entrance at a mehndi, haha! Billo Hai, the wedding song of the year, is out now! Full link in bio. Let's make these steps go viral! @parchithemovieofficial @hareemfarooq (aka the one with the dancefloor pwnage) @alirehmankhan (waah, kya energy hai, kya expressions hain!) @theusmanmukhtar (and to think you were even worried!) @ahmedaliakbarofficial (Man, serious Superstar Avatar vibes) @shafqee (love you for picking up the moves so quickly even though you came literally four days before the shoot!) #AnotherHitINC Choreography by yours truly.

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The move to television was also because of theatre: an actor friend recommended I go audition for a small role in director Haissam Hussain’s Durr-e-Shehwar; I had a blink-and-miss role in it. Haissam then contacted me to be part of Ilaaj-e-Zid Dastiyaab Hai, an Urdu theatrical adaptation of Taming of the Shrew and Pakistan’s entry to the Cultural Olympiad preceding the London Olympics in 2012. It was during rehearsals that he discussed Aunn Zara (eventually my second TV drama) with me. Once we came back from our four-city tour in England, he told me he wanted me as one of the leads in his drama Aik Nayee Cinderella. That became my television debut.

The transition from the stage to the camera was difficult for me – precisely because I was used to being theatrical with movements and body language. Television, of course, is a medium of restraint. In unlearning everything theatre taught me, I appeared rather stilted on screen initially.

However, working with – and learning from – wonderful actors and directors, I started ‘easing up’ and allowing myself to be more present and natural during filming. Five years into the industry, I am fortunate to have had at least three roles that I will cherish forever. Aunn in Aunn Zara is a spoilt man-child yet to come of age in a boisterous, wonderfully quirky matriarchal household. I think it’s one of the finest comedies ever made – most definitely one of the best ensemble comedy-dramas. Diyar-e-Dil’s Wali was another very well written, complex role; subtle yet layered – and there were some beautiful messages about family and the bonds that tie in that drama serial. Then there is Sheheryar from Baaghi who is an antithesis to the toxic masculinity Kanwal Baloch is so used to and jaded by.

ET: Speaking of ‘Baaghi’, Saba Qamar who plays Kanwal Baloch had Qandeel Baloch to draw inspiration from. What resources did you use to prepare for your role and why did you take it up?

OKB: Baaghi touches on a very important, urgent subject matter because there still seems to be such conflicting sentiment about – and I can’t believe I’m having to say this – whether Qandeel had it coming or not. Because she didn’t fit the traditional Pakistani girl narrative as seen from the myopic eyes of men – and women – who claimed a moral high ground. At the time of her murder, for every cry of outrage there was a louder cry of ‘good riddance’. As though anything justifies the cold-blooded murder of a woman. As though THAT is what our religion preaches. As though honor is directly (and solely) proportional to the yards of cloth on a woman’s body. We were – and still remain – so quick to condemn. It seems to be what we know how to do best.

Fine, she made questionable choices – there is no debating that – but are you really going to celebrate her murder because of that? How many of us really even bothered with her backstory – until of course, it was too late. I think an all-too-sudden excess of social media has given us too big a voice and this delusion of self-importance whereby we feel that our opinion is somehow the word of God. It’s not. And we shouldn’t play God either.

In Baaghi, we are not glamourising Kanwal/Qandeel or turning her into a saint; she is still making those choices, still walking down that same path. But I suppose it gives us some food for thought; seeing her struggle, seeing her pain, her rebellion – it reminds us she was human. And without the liberties afforded to most of us.

Just some casual self-promotion, haha. But seriously though: Are you watching? Thursdays at 8:00 pm on @urdu1tv.

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For me, Sheheryar represented a school of thought. He is her friend, he is where she seeks solace; he sees through the Kanwal façade and is more interested in Fauziah, the real her. It is their frank conversations and the immediate connect of two lost souls – him being a romantic and her being a realist; both dealing with losses – that makes their dynamic so special.

I see a lot of comments underneath posts on Baaghi where people say men like Sheheryar don’t exist – that a respectable man who is willing to accept a flawed woman is the stuff of fantasy. It’s not. Men like him exist, but more importantly: more men like him SHOULD exist. He is in no means perfect and certainly no knight in shining armour (here’s a thought: most women don’t need one; they are their own heroes!) but he chooses to exercise restraint, he chooses not to judge. In a nutshell: he chooses to TRY to be a better human being.

There is such misogyny and sexism entrenched into what our idea of masculinity is and I feel that is very regressive – that’s the kind of mindset that Sheheryar tries to shed. It is okay for a man to be emotionally intelligent, lend support to and not play judge, jury and executioner when it comes to a woman and her choices. It’s not an assault on his masculinity and that is what I wanted to showcase with my role in Baaghi. Why is Sheheryar an exception? Why can’t he be the norm?

ET: How was it like working with Saba since she just gave an exceptional performance in Bollywood’s ‘Hindi Medium’?

OKB: In one word: phenomenal. Her dedication to her craft is a thing of beauty – it is what makes her such a formidable force of nature on the screen. Working alongside her has made me a better, more emotionally resonant actor. I’ll give an example: I joined the shoot almost three months into filming and I had a scene with her my first day. We sat on our scene, rehearsed it, polished it, spoke at length about what both characters were trying to convey and how much that could be portrayed through silence instead of dialogue. Somewhere during the filming of that scene, I forgot there was a camera. I forgot I was an actor, that there was a crew of twenty-plus watching us – I was Sheheryar, and I was ENTHRALLED by the magnetism of Kanwal.

Saba did that. She is not confined to her character; she works to make the scene work as a whole. We were so… in the moment that the dialogues ended and our improvisations began. In that moment she reminded me what a beautiful thing this medium is and how much I love acting. Every scene with her became so much more than what was written.

ET: According to you, which has been your best performance till date?

OKB:   Personally, Diyar-e-Dil, because playing a Farhat Ishtiaq hero is perhaps one of the biggest tests of your mettle as an actor. It’s definitely been one of the biggest learning curves for me in television. Like I said before, he was such a layered character there was a lot of material to play with; so many relationships and dynamics to explore.

Everyone should have a Harminder in their lives. #webehustlinghard

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ET: ‘Balu Mahi’ was released early 2017. In your eyes, do you think it was a success?

OKB: I don’t look at the merits of Balu Mahi from a box-office perspective – and its returns are well documented so I won’t get into that – but yes. What a cinematic film; every frame was beautiful and meticulously thought out by our director Haissam. The feminist spin (giving girls the freedom to pursue their dreams might seem like a hackneyed concept but a commercial film with a feisty, unapologetic female lead with actual agency is a rarity for Pakistani cinema); the wonderfully composed and filmed songs, the scale, the ambition, the arrival of a bonafide superstar in Sadaf Kanwal… there is a lot to celebrate.

ET: Acting-wise, which is better? Film or TV?

OKB: (Laughs) Usually this question is television versus theatre, in which case no prize for guessing what I’d choose. I suppose film is a bigger challenge because it’s suddenly not just about your face (less close-ups!) but your entire body language. I learned a lot watching myself onscreen in Balu Mahi. Your acting has to be even more nuanced because a larger screen captures so much more.

ET: You wrote the screenplay for ‘Siyaah’ and ‘Janaan’ and now you’re choreographing for ‘Parchi’. Why are you doing so many things?

OKB: Why CAN’T I have it all? I’ve had so many passions growing up: writing, acting, dance, even direction. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of films I’ve directed in my head. Also, I can’t ever sit idle – I’m a man filled to the brim with nervous energy so I occupy myself with all things creative. Think of it as me crossing everything I dreamed of doing off my bucket list. And, with say Billo Hai of Parchi crossing 4 million views in just a month, I’m not making a fool out of myself in the process either. (Laughs)

ET: Are there are upcoming projects in the pipeline?

OKB: I’m writing the screenplay for two feature films, one where I am free of commercial trappings so that’s a great opportunity for me to flex my writing muscle. There are a couple of television scripts I’m reading: again, one is a very offbeat character so I’m excited – nothing concrete yet, of course. I really want to explore different characters this year; break away from the mold. Still searching for a tremendous, three-dimensional villain to play.

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