film
Janaan Boys

Asiana talks bromance, Pakistani cinema, inspirations and more with rising stars Bilal Ashraf and Ali Rehman Khan

Posted: 25.09.16

A new kind of prototype is emerging from the conveyor belt of Pakistani talent, fulfilling two essential characteristics befitting of heartthrobs: talented and the kind of prince-charming-dashing that girls dream about. And they come in the form of Bilal Ashraf and Ali Rehman Khan, the two male leads starring opposite the beautiful Armeena Rana Khan, in Pakistani rom-com Janaan, directed by Azfar Jafri, written by the brilliant Osman Khalid Butt and produced by Reham Khan and Imran Kazmi. And let’s face it, even though Fawad Khan is guilty of leaving a flutter in our hearts, Pakistan was in dire need of more male heartthrobs, and these two certainly give Hollywood and Bollywood heroes a run for their money. Aside from girls going ga-ga over them, the best thing is that they can both actually act.

Ali Rehman Khan is best known for wooing aunty jee’s on their television sets in Pakistani drama Rishtey Kuch Adhooray Se. Such a believable and effortless performance he delivered, it seemed that Ali’s character in Janaan of mischievous, vain, playful, fun-loving Danyal, was made for him. So aww-inducing was his portrayal, every girl is falling for him and his wit.

The moment you see Bilal Ashraf on screen, after you’ve gotten over swooning over him, you will wonder – where on earth was this handsome specimen hiding all this time and what took him so long to grace our screens? He was indeed hiding, as Asfandyar in Janaan was his debut acting stint. His on-screen presence, magical chemistry with his leading lady Meena and not to forget those adorable trademark dimples, will definitely leave an imprint on your heart, as will the film.

A heartwarming and uplifting movie, set against the backdrop of the lush green valleys and picturesque region of Swat in Northern Pakistan, family and love are themes at the heart of the story. The lighthearted politics, drama and frolics involved in a Pakistani family, especially whilst planning a wedding, are at times hilarious and other times dramatic. On a darker yet significant note, social and taboo issues are also touched upon which is much needed in Pakistani cinema, yet manages not to overshadow the positivity of the film at large. Armeena Rana Khan, also known for her role in Bin Roye, really is a picture-perfect pretty throughout and her soft spoken, sweet ways are enough to capture the hearts of the audience.

Earning a spot in the UK box office top ten upon releasing, here’s hoping Janaan has set a new precedent for more Pakistani talent and films to get further and recognised on a global platform.

Since we couldn’t decide if we were Team Bilal or Team Ali, we had to have a chat with them both whilst they were in London for the premiere of Janaan

Janaan has broken records by becoming the first Pakistani film ever to hit the UK Box office top ten - how does it feel to be recognised and appreciated on such a global platform?
Ali:
It feels great! We weren’t expecting this when we started off Janaan, it was just a very small film, filmed in the smallest city of Pakistan, which is the capital, and now we’re here and it’s huge, it’s all over the world, in over 17 countries, we’re having an international premiere here in the UK and we couldn’t be happier. We never imagined we could bring Pakistani cinema at the forefront. We’re making not just history, but we’re paving the way for Pakistani cinema and other filmmakers in Pakistan to follow suit. We’re setting a trend and we hope people latch on and start doing the same, because this is a big deal for Pakistan and up is the only way to go from here.

There have been an abundance of movies being churned out of Pakistan lately – does this mean Pakistani cinema is finally evolving, and why this sudden revival after this pretty long lull? 
Bilal:
Well, Pakistani cinema is definitely changing, I think we owe a lot to films like Waar, because they started this new trend and it’s also due to the digitization of the equipment, because initially, post-production was very expensive. Digitization has made filmmaking more affordable, so a lot more people in Pakistan are making films. So when a couple of films do well and you see the response internationally and locally, then everyone wants to join in, which is great, because what’s going to happen is eventually a lot of people will make films, the producers will remain, and that’s how the industry will build up. You also have a lot more institutes and young people studying filmmaking, where it’s not looked down upon anymore as career choice. I definitely feel that Pakistani cinema is going to make its mark in the next four to five years and create its own space in world cinema. 

There is so much talent in the Pakistani industry, but due to lack of opportunities to make it big in Pakistan, they usually end up finding success and fortune across the border in India, like Ali Zafar, Fawad Khan, Mahira Khan, Atif Aslam. How can this change so that Pakistani talent stay on their turf? 
Bilal:
By making good films like Janaan!
Ali: We don’t need to keep anyone on their own turf. I think this cross-cultural and cross-border cooperation is fantastic. In Janaan, we have Armaan Malik singing our title track, Salim Sulaiman produced the music, Shreya Ghoshal is also on board, which is a first for Pakistani cinema. But I think it’s all about making more films, as people want to be involved in something more credible, that they think will do well, investing good money, having good scripts, getting good actors in - this is all going to help the revival and it will encourage the talent. It’s good for the industry to grow when they go away, but then return and contribute to their cinema as well. It’s only when people don’t come back and contribute, that’s where the real danger is. We talk about this thing called ‘brain drain’ and ‘brain gain’, but I think over here, it’s a talent gain and drain. As long as we’re not facing a talent drain and it’s coming back and reinvesting itself into the industry, then that’s fine, there’s no issues. The fact is others are way ahead of us in terms of production, so the more we learn from them, the better it is. 

Some of the film has been shot against stunning backdrops of Swat, regions of Pakistan which are so negatively portrayed in media - how do you hope the film will break these damaging stereotypes?
Bilal: The fact that Swat has been in the news because of Malala and it has been in the news for the wrong reasons, I feel the most important thing is that it breaks the typical definition everyone has about Swat or Pakistan, because we have shot some amazing scenes in breathtaking locations. This film is about the Pakhtoon culture, it’s also based around Swat, and that message itself going out in the world, shows that there are good and bad places everywhere in the world, along with negatives and positives. It’s what you take from the place - and Swat is phenomenal. We used to eat there late nights, Armeena would go for jogs, we would walk the streets late. Pakistan has a lot more positivity, it’s just how you look at it. If the media just wants to highlight the negative side of Pakistan, the people will perceive it in a bad way and I think that would happen with any country or religion.

Janaan means something that is very dear to you in Pashto - who or what is your Janaan?
Bilal: My film, my family and my friends are my Janaan.
Ali: My film, the crew, the people involved in the film, they are like family to me, my family and this moment, all of it, from the day we started filming, right through to promotions, it’s all my Janaan. My friends, my co-actors who are now like family. It’s all very special.

Everyone has probably asked you, what was it like working with eachother, so I’m going to ask you all to describe one another and what you admire the most about eachother and what irks you the most.
Bilal: I’m very lucky to have found a good friend and a younger brother in Ali. I met him for the first time on the sets of Janaan and we hit it off from the beginning. Even when we’re not promoting Janaan, we still hang out and I’ll easily go and stay at his place if I’m in Islamabad, as if it’s my own house. For Ali, my family is like his family when he comes to visit too. It’s beautiful what cinema has done, it’s brought people together. Apart from Ali, there are other people I had never met until the movie, so we’ve developed a really strong bond and friendship. I don’t necessarily dislike anything about him, because Ali is who he is and that’s why I love him as a brother. 

You must annoy eachother at times though!
Ali: Not really! And if we do, it’s all in good humour. I think we all know eachother so well, we know what will get a smile out of the other.
Bilal: Plus, I ignore him anyways when he’s being annoying!
Ali: Yeah. He never listens. And that’s what irrirates me! But we never take it negatively, we do tease and annoy eachother, it’s just a good laugh. I don’t think there’s something about Bilal that annoys me, but I do enjoy pulling his leg sometimes. Like he said, we have such a great bond, we’re like brothers now – he is honestly like the elder brother I never had. It’s always nice to have someone watch over you, especially when you have always been the only one doing the watching over your whole life, so it’s special to have that and Bilal is a great guy who I get along with. He’s always been very supportive and he’s a go-getter, so because of that, he has also given me at times, the impetus to do things I probably wouldn’t have normally done. So it’s good to have Bilal around!

So besides acting, you all juggle a whole host of other things on the side – how are you all managing all these different aspects of your life and following Janaan, what will take priority in your lives?
Bilal: We are both doing another film, along with Armeena, called Yalgaar, which is based on a Swat operation. For myself, I will go back into shooting Rangreza and Jhol, which are two films I have taken up.
Ali: I’m actually continuing with the same producers for my other venture, you’ll find out what it is very soon and also there is another film in the pipeline, which I can’t really talk about. So, very exciting times and films coming out soon. Between us, there are about four or five films coming out next year, so we’re very excited about the future of Pakistani cinema – this is just the beginning.

Who or what is your inspiration?
Ali: My dad. My grandfather. I’m one of those people that gets inspired a lot – I find inspiration in everything. I don’t necessarily have one person, I’m lucky to have been surrounded by people who are great influencers, who have done a lot of good work in their lives, so they have all influenced by life in some way or the other.
Bilal: For me, it’s definitely my late sister, I think I’m doing a lot of things because of her. She wanted to see Pakistani cinema at an international level – she was a filmmaker, but unfortunately, she passed away. So I am carrying her dream forward and here I am, sitting in London, for the premiere of Janaan. So, she has been my inspiration, along with my father also, and my mentor, Hassan Waqas Rana, who is the producer and writer of Waar and my forthcoming film Yalgaar.

Interview by Fariha Sabir
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