“I like being the villain of this industry” - Shamoon Abbasi

  • 12 Jan - 18 Jan, 2019
  • Attiya Abbass
  • Interview

In need of no introduction and with an unparalleled body of work to his credit in the industry, stands tall (and now bearded), Shamoon Abbasi. Critics would unanimously declare him to be the man who has changed the paradigms of how negative roles are portrayed in the show business today. After appearances in numerous dramas and telefilms, Shamoon has also featured in various films post revival of Pakistani cinema including Waar, O21, Manto and more. The actor at present is consumed with his first big release, a mystery thriller titled Durj, which he has written and directed himself, too. In his baritone voice, Shamoon introspects and talks about his first venture into the industry, his penchant for playing negative roles to perfection and his astonishing look for the film, which he insists on keeping a secret, as yet (“no photographs, please.”). Read on…

At what point in your life did you realise your passion for acting?

It all started with an acting show called the Express Challenge in 1996 or ’95. I was invited there to watch it and the organisers offered me to take part in it. I was sort of shy but still gave it a shot. Since it was an acting competition, very skilled and trained upcoming actors were already on board and then there was me; who hadn’t acted before. Somehow, I cleared all the levels and managed to seize the winning title. I believe in that moment, I realised that perhaps I can act a little bit.

Right after that, along with other projects, I was offered a role in Yasir Akhter’s telefilm, called Titli which went very well.

But how did the actor in you turn into a director and writer?

I had this thing for photography and visuals and wanted to learn more about how the cameras roll, how things are operated behind the camera. I joined Yasir’s production team and started learning the shooting process, whilst acting. It was a time when I was both acting and learning to be a director, simultaneously. Yasir was a great man and a teacher and was very supportive of all my endeavours. Much later, I ventured into direction. While I was doing this Tapal cinema, I introduced Humayun Saeed for the first time in Zeher. He was young, had the desired charisma and I made him do some action related scenes, which actually clicked.

You come from a family of dramatic avenues, with your father being a novelist and drama writer. Is it safe to say you were influenced by him?

Most of my family members are writers, novelist and poets. But honestly none of them were part of any dramas or show business. It was me who actually pushed them to this vision. I started with my father first who was a great novelist; I urged him to give dramas a shot. And again being the skilful dramatic writer that he was, he was quick to be appreciated by influential directors he wrote for, including Haider Imam Rizvi, Iqbal Ansari and a lot of other senior directors and producers. People think that because my family was part of show business, that’s how I was introduced in this industry. But that's not true, I got everyone to start writing, to start building this context for drams and a film. At present in my family we have many renowned writers, my aunts Seema Ghazal, Nasreen Zami, my cousins Samina Ejaz and Shahid Nizami... Everyone started along those lines for different writers, producers and channels.

Taking on roles with negative energies and being a villain has become your quintessential. Did you always plan on playing such roles or it came naturally?

In Pakistan, every guy wants to be a hero. And do you blame them? It does have many perks, the financial side to start with. When it comes to playing “heroic” roles you get to do a lot of endorsements advertisements and lots of promotional campaigns and get significant monetary gain from it. Most of the actors which come to show business want to become heroes so that they can garner some commercial value. But when it came to my persona, I realised that there was always a gapping space left for negative roles which were reserved for people who usually were not great actors. So basically, when there is a good hero in a setting, it calls for a need of an equally good counterpart as a villain. For me playing villainous roles has never been a problem… I don't know if it's because of a certain face cut that I have or a personality that is required for negative roles that worked in my favour. But I have strived not to become a clichéd negative character; the sort of pathetic villains we often get to see. I wanted to become a villain that people like. After doing negative roles for over 10 years, I feel that Shamoon Abbasi has a sort of following for being a villain on the screen, which I like. People who know me personally know that I am not at all a bad person. [Laughs] I haven't tried to part ways from being a negative character or try becoming a hero, unless it's a badly written role. I sort of like being the villain.

Give us some insight into what your latest film, Durj. I believe it’s based on a horrifyingly true incident. When and why did you decide to breathe life into a historic crime of this nature by making a film on it?

Durj just popped up. Once I got to know about this heinous crime that happened in Pakistan and how the culprits were caught and were put behind bars. But then in a matter of just two years they were freed and left to roam the streets. That left a question for me. How is that possible? There are these men who have been preying on human flesh and they have been set free? I wanted to highlight this thing. But Durj is not just about cannibalism; it is based on the psyche of characters and how they perceive life, how they wish to fall in love and how they want to have babies together. And mostly, how they translate everything into their own logic. So when you watch Durj, you will not just see human flesh being eaten. We tried to avoid that totally, we didn't want a gruesome movie on screen. It's more of an emotional drive, because for the first time you get an insight into the antagonist and get to understand him. How people like them are products of the society and how they perceive the society. It is a thriller but it's not a gruesome thriller where you get to see flesh, bones and blood... Although the trailer may suggest otherwise. It's because we had to introduce the subject as well. All actors have delivered an emotionally driven performance be it Maria Khan, Sherry Shah or me.

You have written, directed and played the lead role in Durj. Is it difficult or exhilarating running the show on your own?

In the past, I have written and directed at once and have received several awards for it. I am also known to have a very filmy style in depicting my stories. My cinematography has always been different, my type of writing has been distinctive. For me it's not a very difficult task to do, because with Durj I knew the lines and the depiction I had to portray. It's both written and directed by me so there will be no communication gaps and would be very easy to convey. I believe you have more grip over your roles when you write them. It all depends on a good team too. Thankfully, I do have a good team, a group of enthusiastic members who understand the fragility of the subject and are technically strong to execute it. Our post production process is very strong, probably one of the strongest in Pakistan. When all this comes together, the results are epic.

Since, the feature-film is based on a past incident, did you attempt to thoroughly study its case files and the crime itself to maintain the authenticity in the film and stay authentic to the facts in the crime?

Yes, a lot of research had to be done for Durj. It was not because we wanted to complicate the storyline, it was because when you claim to be working on a true incident, it's imperative that you zoom into the nitty gritty and the nuances to be part of the script. The impact needs to be real. You can’t just come up with fantasies when narrating a true story. You can include a careful measure of fantasy in your project, in order to make it dramatic or impactful, but at no cost can you rearrange the history of a real event that you're narrating. We had to go into the depth of this cannibalism incident and to know how the police, the court and public reacted to it. We collected all that data and there were definitely contradictions. Some people insisted to hang these people [cannibals], some said you can't because they technically didn't kill anyone, they just dug up dead people from the graves. And there was another category of people that insisted that it’s a psychological illness that requires treatment. So, there was a chunk that had to be researched before making the film and it helped the cast to grab their roles with these detailed references and gruesome facts about how these people operated. The entire cast delved into the little details to wrap the characters around themselves.

Your transformation for this film is astonishingly real and great. How did you attempt to slip into the skin of this character? Do you feel it has affected you mentally?

Yes, the transformation took me more than 18 months during which I grew this beard untamed and naturally without any trims. Living in the skin of character for over 20 months and looking the way you don’t look every morning, seeing the reflection of a man with a wild beard... Yes, it does affect your psychological aspects. Usually, when you are in a character, you get some room and detach yourself for a while. But with Durj, I had to give up meeting people, going to parties, decline wedding and birthday invitations. Because I didn’t want to be seen that way, because there was too much to explain otherwise. People used to ask me so many questions. What’s wrong with you, what’s with this beard? Because in Pakistan people usually don’t spend so much time in creating their roles. They would rather pick up a fake beard and put it on their face and voila. I wanted my nails to grow to a certain extent where the camera can actually expose them and the viewer can see that. It’s not the beard or the nails. It was the total human transformation. It was a psychological mess, I admit but thanks to my team, we are still sane and normal. [laugh] And I also knew that this role will be over one day. But the journey of Durj was very demanding. And then there was Sherry Shah who went bald. For the first time in Pakistan somebody just took this step and I think it was a big sacrifice on her part as a woman. So, we both supported each other that way.

What’s the story behind the title ‘Durj’?

I had a lot of titles in mind for the film. But I wanted a title which had a dual meaning. I went through around 16 to 17 languages, to come up with title which could aptly describe the film. Then I tried digging into Urdu rekhta and it found this word called “durj”. Basically it’s a half word taken from durj-e-dehan or durj-e-chasm. Durj is basically a box that keeps valuable stuff and the box itself is called durj. We related the word to the film with a simple thought process; our last space or place after life is our grave. It becomes a casket, a durj, which is our last physical destination.

Every director has its magnum opus piece. His best work, his masterpiece. Do you think Durj is going to be “the one” for you? Or do we have to wait for your best?

Yes, Durj will define me as a director. It doesn’t end my definition but it can be placed from where I start defining myself as a cinema director. There is a lot more to come, there is a commercial and comic side in me that will come out too. Durj is not just a movie it’s a statement. And I feel proud about it and how it has been made and how we actually managed to evade all the complications that surface in Pakistan while making a movie. With a compact and constant team that I am working with, Durj has a lot to offer.

Out of all roles that you have played, which one is closest to your heart and why?

I liked them all and there is so much to do. But I can’t say there was any one role that was very close to my heart. I have been equally passionate and driven on all projects. Sometime, the results are depended on the directors and producers and the team in the production, but as a director, I always endeavour to deliver the best of Shamoon