The performances he watched on screen led him to dream, even better to build castles in the air. Dream and sleep is what he did like most others his age. But sooner than he realised, he was on the chariot to mark his name in the field of ‘colour’ as he likes to refer to show business as. “It was purely a coincidence that I became a part of this field,” Saleem Meraj, the actor who likes shades to his character, says. Starting off as a theatre actor, Meraj, like many other growing individuals didn’t know what to do with life. “Most of our young lot is very much confused – be it their future, education or what they want to pursue in life,” but what turns the fortune wheel for some is the circle they become a part off. And that’s where Meraj’s life took a shift. “I didn’t know I wanted to act. It was a happy chance that I met Sania Saeed and Shahid Shafaat, and the two offered me a play. After some exercises, I was given a role.”
And from thenceforth, Meraj couldn’t judge the work he was doing. “I started getting projects and received appreciation from people, that was when I figured main thori buhat acting karleta hun,” the grounded actor states. Learning and working with veterans, Meraj now feels he was moulded during the days he was associated with theatre. “I feel I was lucky for the people I worked with like Sania, and then her father Mansoor Saeed Sahib, it was the way we studied theatre that I improved as an actor and my confidence and personality shaped.” It was then that the cast he was being shaped into made him understand the responsibilities an actor has on the society. “From learning about one’s rights to paying back to the society, I learnt a lot under the influence of theatre’s finest,” he expresses. And that is the reason that unlike many who want to get famous once they are on-screen, for Meraj the aspiration was short-lived. “I never wrapped myself with the thirst for fame; for me whatever character I did, had to be good.”
Not having a formal education in acting, Meraj has a smirk on his face when he thinks of his years as a student. “I did my graduation with so much difficulty,” reveals the thespian who was a “shy, backbencher, who never bunked school.” His learning was on the go as he points out, “We did Urdu, German, French and English plays where we had to study them thoroughly,” Meraj says, marking out acting “as a field where reading is very much required.”
It was in 1999 that he made a debut on the small screen. “I did my first play Afsoon Khwab from the Ek Mohabbat Sau Afsaney series, directed by Mehreen Jabbar. A year later, I played the character of the great Jamshed Ansari Sahib in the remake of Kiran Kahani,” Meraj talks about a time when he hopped between two mediums – theatre and TV. “I worked with Sheema Kirmani’s Tehrik-e-Niswan, when she did theatre with Khaled Ahmed,” he reminisces about the days when he travelled across major cities and all of interior Sindh. The fondness he had for the stagecraft made him travel to the eastern neighbour’s territory too. “I performed at the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi as well,” he shares about the time he spent at NSD, a big name in theatre.
When this scribe met Meraj, she didn’t know it’ll be during a scene, one that has no director shouting out ‘cut’ or giving a cue. It happened so candidly, that it was when Meraj was asked what the craft is for him, did he remark, “The manner in which we met, I considered it good acting.” Knowing that it was an unknown scene, one that will be published, rather than aired, I ask how he would grade the act. “Both of us were candid. For me, the way I deal with things in real life, is how I act too – common sense for me is acting,” says the actor, who will soon be taking the director’s chair. “Right now I have my hands in a lot of projects, but soon I will try direction, maybe in the next six months or two years,” Meraj speaks about the new role he will be taking whenever he gets the chance.
If not sooner, Meraj gets what he wishes for later. “Years ago I used to pray to get a character or a scene in a film,” the dreamer-cum-realist shares. What was it about the silver screen that appealed to him so much? “Actors like to see themselves on the big screen,” and as words leave him, humbleness is what spreads out in the air that surrounds us. “When Ramchand Pakistani was in cinemas, I took my father and showed him the poster,” he sprinkles the memory of a proud son, sharing his limelight with his dad. When asked if he would want to work in Bollywood, he states, “Zarur. I will work for Bollywood if I’m given a character. With me, what I think of, for instance if I wish for an international trip, I want to travel sooner; mera dil karta hai main film karun, tou aj nai tou kal mujhay lagta hai mujhay opportunity mil jayegi.”
From the very first play Meraj did, to the characters he has done to date, not once has he felt he shouldn’t have done any of the roles. “I have done so many characters with variations; unfortunately, when we talk about good roles here, we have a set rule like the character of a mad man, beggar or a businessman; I don’t see it that way, for me, every character has a margin, all you have to do is perform it sincerely.”
Mostly seen in the garbs of negative characters, Saleem Meraj’s real life has never been affected by all that he does on reel as he shares, “I’m a simple husband and father.” A morning soul, Meraj starts his day at 6:30 and helps his wife in dressing up the kids for school, then goes to drop them. “On days when I’m off work, I like spending time with family.”
Does he believe our industry is serving the public like it should? “Not at all,” is what he counters. “We are going downhill, and this is the time when correction should be done be it in theatre, films or TV; it needs no saying we have extremely talented writers, directors and actors,” the actor sheds light on how various fields in our nation need correction.
Currently, Meraj has a number of projects that are on-air. “I think this shouldn’t be the case; one’s screen presence should be slightly limited.” Once dreaming to secure a spot in films, now this very actor has a number of films up his sleeve. “Saawan, Na Maloom Afraad 2, Jhol, Rangreza are a few that will be releasing in 2017,” he points out. As for what is next on his plate, this dramatic artist only needs to wish, and rub it against a lamp and wait for the genie to grant him his next venture. •