Up Close with Actor, Dad, Ali Kazmi
An Interview with Ali Kazmi, star of Deepa Mehta’s, ‘Beeba Boys’
I had the chance to sit down and interview a rising star of our community; none other than the charming and spirited Pakistani-Canadian actor, Ali Kazmi. I have had the pleasure of knowing him for the last 20 years. We go way back to school days where my earliest memories were of bumping into him during rehearsals for our school concert. He was of course a lead in one of the Urdu plays and I had adapted a screenplay for another. Even back then he had the same infectious energy which one cannot escape from, not even his friends. It’s a different experience to interview a friend, because you start off the conversation catching up on gossip and then eventually it’s all about the kids.
I like to refer to Ali and my husband as “chuddi buddies” (childhood friends). They are both involved and hands on fathers. In fact Ali had just come back from an outing with his one-year-old son at the nearby community centre in downtown Toronto; a daily morning ritual of dad-son bonding which I dare not interrupt. His son is a darling who already has picked up on his dad’s charm, evidenced by the looks he gives my 4-year-old daughter! We eventually brought the conversation back to the interview at hand and even I was surprised by how much more I learned about him.
I moved here for love and that is the truth. I am married to my high school sweetheart. We knew each other since we were 12. We met on a dusty playground in school, in Karachi. We never did anything about it though. We stayed good friends, best friends actually. She moved to Montreal when we were 19. I remained in Pakistan, finished school and continued acting. But when she left, it really hit me. So when she came back the following year to visit her parents I asked her out. We both felt that this would go somewhere serious, maybe that is why we waiting all this time. Unfortunately a few months later 9/11 happened. The repercussions of it I felt greatly. First off the human loss and second, almost selfishly it hit me that with my ‘Pakistani male profile’ it would be difficult to get a visit visa. So we dated long distance for 6 and half years. I stayed in Pakistan. She finished university and started working in Toronto. She would visit me once a year. Finally I built up the courage to ask her to marry me.
We married in Pakistan and decided to move to Canada. It would be an adventure for me. Maybe I’ll go to film school and start this thing all over again. The idea of which was daunting. I was terrified when I came. It was the toughest plane ride I ever had to take. I was leaving while I was at the peak of my acting career. Many people from the industry who had left Pakistan never got back into that field. But you know what God is great and I think if you believe, anything is possible. And for this I have to thank my wife who is truly my back bone. She supported me through everything. It gets me emotional every time.
We were just newlyweds and she told me to do what I needed to do. So I went back to school for drama and production and started from zero. I got a job in retail, which was something I was not used to. Especially living the life we do in Pakistan you end up feeling a little entitled. But it’s completely normal for here. It teaches you the value of money, the value of hard work.
Did you find it difficult breaking into the industry here, especially as a South Asian? Did you ever think about quitting?
There were times where I wanted to give it up but something inside me would genuinely not let me give it up. I just had this faith, this belief call it what you will, blind faith. And I had the support from my family. So I just never stopped. I auditioned for everything under the sun.
Trying to get in the industry here as a South Asian on top of it all was another daunting task, I had finally gotten the local degree in production and drama and needed the Canadian experience. I didn’t have an agent so wasn’t sure how to go about it all so I just applied and auditioned for everything.
What was the opportunity that changed your life?
I was auditioning for an independent feature film and coming out of the studio I saw this flyer saying auditions upstairs for the Fringe Festival. Fringe festival is one of the biggest theatre festivals in Canada. It’s a really good place for young directors and actors to show off their talent. The audition was for The Indian Wants the Bronx by Israel Horovitz. I knew the play because it was Al Pacino’s first play before he became famous, back in the 60’s. I knew the character of the Indian guy in it, who is the main lead.
The Indian character is supposed to be an older man in his 50’s. I wasn’t on the audition list and just went in. Something inside me, the hunger and fear, of just wanting to do good work and make something of myself here, pushed me to go for it. I could have easily just walked away and gone home. But I knew I had to do this. I went up to see all these 50 year-olds waiting to audition, and here I was with my faux-hawk and torn jeans and a t-shirt. So I waited for everyone to audition and then I asked them if I could give it a try as well. They said ok, probably thinking let’s have a laugh. I read for the part and got a standing ovation.
They were just shocked I think. I don’t know if I was that good it was just unexpected. Then they asked all about where I was from and what I did. In the end they said listen the part is for an older guy so we’re going to have to say no. I said no problem, thanked them and left. Two days later I got an email from them saying they had looked through the audition tapes and I was the best they had and if I would like to join them. We performed in a back alley behind Honest Ed’s, to give it a more visceral experience.
I still played the character as older. This play really was a pivotal moment because prior to that I had been struggling for about 8 months after graduating film school. The play ran for 10 days. We got great reviews. The last 7 days of the show were sold out completely. Agents and producers had come to watch and that is how I landed my agent who I am still with to date, Craig Alexander. That was 6 years ago and since I have been in about 20 or so Canadian and American TV serials, 4 feature films, lots of shorts, some commercials. And now I have a film at TIFF.
You had a major milestone in your life last year, the birth of your son. How has becoming a parent changed you as an actor and how you view your priorities now?
Becoming a Dad to my son Rafay has been the best role I have ever played, the biggest production I ever made with my wife (laughing).
It is a game changer. Not only is it mentally, physically, emotionally the most awe striking experience you’ll ever have, as all the Masalamommas out there know, it truly is the spice to your life. But also, you know the old wives tale that says when a child is born not only will it change your life but it will bring its own luck, its own ‘rozi roti’ (livelihood). I never used to believe in that, but strangely enough since his birth, my luck just skyrocketed. It went from strength to strength. I have done some of the best work of my life, gotten some of the best roles of my life this past year. It’s like Rafay came and opened up the flood gates.
It’s a beautiful thing. Also what not many people know is that after the theatre play that changed the course of my life, I also got a job in a production company called China Syndrome Productions Inc. I am a director and producer there. I direct commercials, documentaries, music videos and short films. This was my stable income job and I would run for auditions in between. But a year and a half ago when my wife Alizeh got pregnant, something inside me wanted to go bigger. So I took a leap of faith and switched from a full time job to a freelancer for the production company and focused all of my efforts on my acting. I had this intrinsic feeling that it was either now or never. I had to dive in to the acting completely.
What was it like working with Deepa Mehta and the cast?
Deepa Mehta, she is the boss, she is a gangster, a mother, and she is a friend.
She is one of the most amazing women I have had the opportunity to work with. The journey started from there. Gabe and Ali Momen were two Torontonian actors who I had met before just in audition rooms. But it was fleeting, so nobody knew each other really. Deepa made us all a unit. We did a ten day intensive workshop with the whole cast, with Dr.Neelam Mansingh, a PH D in Theatre Arts. This made us become a gang of boys, a band of brothers. There were trust and character exercises which helped us become a cohesive unit. It was amazing.
Our homework was to develop back stories (Deepa approved of course) for our characters and apply it to the workshop. My character for example, Gurinder Singh Chadha went through a lot in his life, he saw his wife die in front of him. We did different improve exercises, how to walk a certain way, bring certain idiosyncrasies to life. My character’s quirk was that he loves comic books (like me) and that made it into the movie as well.
They had Shakespearean comic books made just for the movie. So if you notice that is what Guri is looking through when he is not talking. Some of the trust exercises included being blindfolded and tied to one another and had to cross the street and come back. An amazing exercise we did was called the Nav Ras Box (9 Rasas), it’s an ancient theatre exercise where a grid is made on the floor, with 9 boxes of emotions written in it such as anger, love, fear with peace at the centre of it.
You walk the grid line which is neutral and take one line from your character and say it with the different emotions of the boxes you walk into until you eventually get to peace. This way you discover ways of saying that same line you would not have thought about before.
The magic of this film is we really connected beyond the movie. We all still chat every day. My son Rafay was born during the filming, so everyone came to see him and be a part of that.
Deepa made sure I took the next day off for shooting even though I was scheduled to come to work. She really is a lovely woman. She was our boss and our mother at the same time. She let us improve during the shoot. A lot of the scenes in the car between the boys are really just us going with the flow. That was how much chemistry we all had. We were so in character that she let us just play with it. There was a lot of fun and craziness behind the scenes along with intensity especially when we met some of the real gangsters. They are all reformed now, but many of them died young because of the gang wars.
At first glance the film seems to glamourize gangsters; any apprehension about communicating the message of the film?
Look I’m going to be honest here. We’ve all grown up watching gangster films, whether it is Japanese or Korean and of course the infamous Italian mafia. The Godfather is probably every guy’s favourite film. It got me into acting. Based on looking at the poster you may think it’s all about the glamour, but really it’s not.
Beeba Boys is a fun slick ride, but the message behind it is clear; that crime does not pay no matter what community you are from. I like to say it’s a film that is “Easy on the eyes and hard on the heart”.
I love the fact that Deepa is breaking the stereotype of typical desi characters and showing our other stories. How often do you get to see South Asian gangsters and ones that look good? Sure there is some glamour but the message is certainly clear. All the bling and shiny suits and toys don’t matter. Family, brotherhood and knowing your identity is what matters. This is important for any immigrant that comes here to know. It’s actually about identity. These boys simply wanted to be heard and seen. They just took the wrong path.
The immigrant experience is what you make of it. Even for the second generation born here who may not feel fully Canadian or fully Pakistani or fully Indian or whatever, sometimes they just don’t know so it is up to us parents to help guide them.
Give them the understanding of their roots as well as what it means to be Canadian. I think Beeba Boys is also about that. It’s not just a gangster movie but a film that has heart.
Look at our own cast, Ali Momen who plays Nep, is Iranian, Waris Ahluwalia who plays Manny is Sikh, Jag & Steve who play Harry and Jazz have lived in Canada all their lives. Gabe is originally from Pakistan but has lived in many countries growing up. Randeep is from Mumbai. I am Pakistani-Canadian .So we all come from a variety of places. Canada is a beautiful multicultural place that lets you be who you are. I have been here about 8 years and although that is not too long I’ve been through the immigrant experience of starting from zero and enjoying everything Canada has to offer, the system that it has to offer and the fact that you can be who you want to be.
How did it feel to work on a project with fellow Pakistani/Indo- Canadians in such a high- profiled film?
The week that Beeba Boys was released at TIFF was the most overwhelming and surreal experience of my life. I’ve had screaming fans before in Pakistan, but TIFF is something I have dreamed about and to be a part of its 40th anniversary at the prestigious Roy Thomson Hall was simply amazing. But having started from scratch and to get to this point is a humbling experience. It also makes you realize how important your family life and your responsibilities to them are as well. My wife recently went back to work after maternity leave, so giving my family time despite the fame is very important to me. During the promotion of the film you’re constantly on the go having to look a certain way and doing press from the morning till the night. So to come home to your wife and son and have some down time is important.
Doing regular things date nights with the wife, watching movies at home, changing diapers and going to the community centre with my son keeps you grounded. I am so blessed to have my wife, son and mom-in-law here to keep things in perspective. You need a strong family life to complement the limelight. If you don’t have a solid family life at home, all the glamour gets old really fast.
I like to be involved with my family and am a hands-on dad. So a work life balance is important to me. I am a masala-papa and I am proud of it.
How has Pakistani cinema changed in the last few years?
We’ve always had great telefilms in Pakistan but I am very excited to be a part of the resurgence of Pakistani cinema. I recently filmed a very interesting sci-fi zombie film which will be a first for Pakistan, called Sidare. It will be coming out soon. I had a cameo in Jawani Phir Nahee Ani. I am currently working on another Mehreen Jabbar film, called Dobara Phir Say which is still in filming. It’s a romantic drama which will probably be released next year. I like the fact that she shows characters like you and me that have enough desi and exposure to a western world. That is the way of the future as well, many people are leaving their home countries and travelling to different cultures and assimilating to a more multi ethnic world. And these films are sharing these stories of our different experiences.
As Pakistani actors also we should be exploring different avenues, whether it’s Bollywood, Hollywood, Europe or any other film industry. We have a lot of talented actors out there and we should go where the craft takes us and represent Pakistan globally. Our film industry is still a fledgling compared to Bollywood and Hollywood.
But we have a lot of raw talent. I’m looking forward to more institutions being formed in Pakistan and having that technical knowledge imparted. We have NAPA (national academy of performing arts) where my father teaches. We need more places like this as the mindset in Pakistan is changing. Being in the media industry is no longer frowned upon or thought of as just a past time. It is being treated like a serious profession. I think our media will be the vehicle of change and show us in a positive light that we are more than what the politics and propaganda depict. So the future for the film industry is bright.
Any advice for aspiring South Asian actors?
If you believe, nothing is impossible. The other day my father was telling me that for the first time in his career a group of kids came up to him and said you’re Ali Kazmi’s father. That was a moment of pride for him.
South Asians are the next big thing. We have so many actors getting into the mainstream, from Priyanka Chopra in Quantico, Kunal Nayyar in Big Bang Theory, Riz Khan in the Reluctant Fundamentalist and Night Crawler. The Beeba Boys! So films and roles are coming. It’s our time. Capitalize on it. Believe be passionate and please do the study, do the work. Don’t focus on becoming a star, focus on good work and being a good actor and the other things will come as a as a bonus.
Who is your role model(s)? What inspires you?
The men in my family have been my role models. My father to this day is my hero. He, along with my uncle and my grandfather are people who have molded my life.
The women of course have been strong achievers who have made their mark and played a huge part in teaching me respect and making me the man that I am.
To me my father is the complete man. He has been an active part of my life and always supported me. To this day he inspires me to be a better actor and a better person.
Other interesting projects to look out for?
I’ve done a lot of video games by Ubisoft such as Far Cry 4 and Splinter Cell 6. I do voiceovers and motion capture which is a very interesting experience especially as an actor. I recently found out I will be playing one of the supporting leads in the animated feature film adaptation of the novel The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis. Angelina Jolie is one of the producers of the film. I am really looking forward to this project.
A little known fact about yourself?
I am a huge nerd and a science geek. I was pre-med in school. I wanted to be a biological engineer. I always studied biology, physics and chemistry. I still do, I have a subscription to the Scientific American. I am always reading what is going on with Stephen Hawking. If you haven’t read a brief history of time, it is an amazing book. I’m also a huge comic geek. I am a beeba boy and a geek. Nothing uncool about science.
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