The girls in the office are in a tizzy. Within minutes of us telling a couple of them that we’re going to interview Bollywood’s latest heart-throb, Fawad Khan, the news has spread like wild fire and our phones haven’t stopped ringing since. ‘Fawad Khan?’ asks one, breathless with excitement. ‘You mean an interview with THE Fawad Khan?’
When we confirm, the next question is a desperate, ‘Can we come too, pleeese?’ More telephone calls flood in from more friends, all with the same request: Whether they can tag along to catch a glimpse of the 180cm-tall Pakistani actor, who is setting the big screen on fire with his drop-dead gorgeous looks in his recent Bollywood film Kapoor & Sons, directed by Shakun Batra of Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu fame. It hit the theatres last week.
We let them down gently, telling them it is a telephone interview.
Half an hour into our conversation, I ask Fawad how it feels to have such a huge female fan following.
‘I’ve heard that I am a pin-up guy for men as well,’ he says, laughing throatily. ‘I guess it all began with my days in television.’
Fawad may have burst on to the Pakistan film scene in 2007 with Khuda Ke Liye (In the name of God), but it were the soaps Humsafar (Soulmate) and Zindagi Gulzar Hai (Life is a bed of roses) – first aired in Pakistan on Hum TV and then dubbed in Hindi and televised across India to great success – which established him as a pan-subcontinent superstar. His performance as a writer in the critically acclaimed Kapoor & Sons is already making waves but it’s TV that triggered his popularity.
After playing a bumbling spy in his first show Jutt and Bond, he landed several roles that helped him earn an armload of awards as well as stay on top of the popularity charts.
Shoaib Mansoor’s film, Khuda Ke Liye might’ve launched Fawad but it was Zindagi Gulzar Hai which made him a household name.
But it was his brooding look and restrained acting in Humsafar and Zindagi Gulzar Hai that made him a household name. Almost overnight, Fawad garnered millions of fans not only in the subcontinent but also among the diaspora and film offers started pouring in from India. ‘I feel both shows let me into households not just in India but even abroad,’ he says. ‘I respect them because they made me who I am today. They’re a very important part of my life.’
No one expected such a massive response to the shows, not even the teams involved, says Fawad. ‘When we were filming, we thought they would work; people would like it. But I never knew they would become this popular. The impetus they’ve given my career is just mind-boggling.’
All the popularity has taken the 34-year-old star to the top rungs of Bollywood.
Although some offers came immediately after the critical success of Khuda Ke Liye, they soon petered out for one reason or the other. ‘But when Khoobsurat (Beautiful) came along in 2014, there was no way I could say no,’ says Fawad, who’s married to his college sweetheart Sadaf and has an eight-year-old son, Ayaan.
‘Here was a chance to meet and work with a legend like Anil Kapoor, one of the producers of the film.’
Starring as a princeling Yuvraj Vikram Singh Rathore opposite Sonam Kapoor, this romantic comedy – loosely based on the iconic 1980s film by Hrishikesh Mukherjee – did mediocre business, but Fawad was noted for his fine performance, in fact he walked away with the award for Best Male Debut for that year.
Was he nervous when he stepped into the dog-eat-dog world of Bollywood?
‘I’m always nervous before starting any project,’ he says. ‘Nervousness, apprehension, fear... these feelings are in me always, whether I’m acting in films or a drama in Pakistan. I get the jitters. But it most often lasts just a day or two, then I am in it totally.
‘My biggest goal is that I should be able to, at the bare minimum, maintain my self-respect among the audiences as a good actor. Anything more than that is a bonus.’
The star is quick to admit that the greatest feeling Bollywood has given him is a sense of acceptance. ‘I was immediately taken in,’ he says. ‘It’s great to be accepted somewhere other than your home town. It sort of gave me a feeling that the world is my oyster.’ And while his fans in India welcomed him with open arms, Fawad too feels extremely comfortable in their midst.
‘[Mumbai] feels like home,’ he says. ‘Anywhere else in the world I feel like a foreigner, but in India there are similar faces speaking a similar language. So I don’t feel I am outside [my home country].
‘It enforces the belief that we truly live in a global village where there may be physical boundaries, but people are welcoming. Where there is love and hospitality, good things happen.’
And one of the best things that happened to him was bagging the best debut award.
‘I felt very proud when I took my trophy back to Pakistan,’ he says. ‘I just represented my country; I mean, I truly had no words to express how honoured I felt because it is a prestigious award. The recognition I received was truly remarkable!’
Having courted scripts on either side of the border, the question then comes to mind is how easy is it to slip into a role. Fawad is quick to respond: ‘To be honest, in my span of work so far, I’ve not come across a character that required a lot of research to portray. But some sort of research does go into the preparation of the character.
‘I’ve played everything from a village oaf to a city boy to an urban man. I’ve gone from playing a prince to playing a writer from a middle-class, humble background [in Kapoor & Sons].
‘Yes, I do a certain amount of research. But I also come across different people every day and pick up cues from them which I use in my character portrayals.’
It is this curious mind and perceptive acumen to absorb styles or mannerisms of different people that have held him in good stead.
‘As actors, we naturally begin to mimic certain things that we like about people,’ he says. ‘It is almost plagiarism, but one that you cannot capture!’ And slipping into the role of a love-lorn prince in Khoobsurat was particularly easy.
‘I’d seen so many movies with princes and royalty, and because I had been observing a lot, I could essay the role quite naturally.
‘Also where I come from – Lahore, Pakistan – you often across people who have a very aristocratic demeanour, so it was wasn’t very difficult.’
Going by his success thus far, it’s perhaps not far-fetched to say that Fawad’s gut gives out the right feelers.
‘If I can feel strongly for a story, I’ll take it up,’ he says. According to the grapevine, Fawad said yes to Kapoor & Sons right after reading it in one sitting in a hotel room.
‘That’s my rule of thumb,’ he says. ‘If the script is unputdownable then I’ll do the film.’
Although his role in the film is a tad controversial, Fawad insists it is ‘very nicely layered. The film will put a smile on people’s faces.’
Kapoor & Sons, he says, covers the fights and insecurities one would face growing up in a middle-class family in the subcontinent.
‘There may be period dramas like [the recent Bollywood film] Bajirao Mastani, which is fine. But in contemporary cinema, one thing that we don’t generally tap into is the dynamics that members of a middle-class family share with each other. I believe that such stories reflect the every-day struggles of the common man; these The Pursuit of Happyness kind of stories connect well with the masses.’
Fawad himself faced some tough choices in life while growing up and admits to being a rebel of sorts. A computer engineer by profession, he knew even while in college that information technology was not where his heart is.
‘I opted for computer science in college [National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences, Lahore] only because IT was hot at the time and everyone kept saying that was where the future lay,’ says the star who spent his childhood and growing up years in Riyadh, Dubai and Manchester, thanks to his father who worked in the sales department of a pharmaceutical firm and had to travel a lot.
‘But I was never much of a computer scientist nor did I want to be.’
Another challenge the actor faced, and now lives with, is developing diabetes mellitus type 1 at the age of 17. It came about following a viral infection he contracted after an accident damaged his pancreas and its insulin-producing beta cells.
Music and theatre was what he enjoyed. A regular in college plays, ‘I found acting an escape from studies’, he laughs.
The actor also used to play the guitar and drums, and was the lead vocalist in a metal band called Entity Paradigm.
‘I was – and still am – passionate about music,’ says Fawad. ‘We did a lot of stuff just to look cool. It was less singing, and a lot more screaming!’
It did not take long for talent spotters in Pakistani showbiz to zero in on him, and soon Fawad was being offered roles in soaps.
‘By the time I graduated, I realised I was enjoying acting more than IT,’ he says. ‘I guess where your heart lies is where you put in your best efforts as well.’
In 2008, Fawad decided to take up acting as a full-time career. But coming from a relatively conservative background, his family wasn’t very keen on him entering the field of performing arts. ‘It was a plain no,’ he recalls. ‘My father made it clear. Typical of all parents, he told me to take up a career that would help me support a family.’
But Fawad clearly had a mind of his own. ‘I was a sort of a rebel at that time,’ he admits. ‘You know, when you’re at an age when you’re full of fire and passion and you want to do only what you think is right? I was something like that.’
Eventually, when his family realised that he was successful in acting, ‘they accepted it as a career’. He has not looked back since.
Named one of top three most desirable men of 2014 by a leading Indian daily, Fawad is enjoying all the success, love and adulation.
‘I have some fans who’ve done some truly amazing, crazy stuff,’ he says, turning coy immediately when we ask him to give us some examples. ‘I can’t share that,’ he says. ‘That would amount to breaking their confidence.
‘But all this fan following does make me nervous as they expect a lot from me and my films. So there is this constant fear of failure or of not being able to meet their expectations.’
In fact, Fawad credits one of his fans for him landing the role in Kapoor & Sons.
‘Hiroo Johar [mother of film-maker Karan Johar, who helms the film’s production company Dharma Productions] used to rave about me and so did her friends,’ he reveals.
‘That favoured me because I think Karan watched my work only after he heard about me from his mother. Later, during the course of the preliminary work on the film, he found me suitable for the role.’
Fawad, who married his college aweetheart Sadaf, finds it easy to portray romantic and emotional roles as he draws inspiration from everyday life.
Does Sadaf frown on his legion of female fans? ‘She takes it in her stride, she enjoys it,’ he says. ‘The only thing that bothers her is people trying to encroach upon her personal space.
‘She is very proud of me and mentions it time and again. She is my biggest support and without her, I couldn’t have come to the screens.’
‘Whenever she gets a chance, she joins me in Mumbai. When I am on a spell for say one to two months, she accompanies me to the city for two to three weeks, spends time here and then goes back.
‘My son cannot come though. He’s a schoolgoing boy, so that would impact his studies. He does complain about the fact that I’m not with him as much as I used to be and that makes me feel guilty at times.’
Fawad met Sadaf when he was just 17. She was in the girls’ section of his school.
‘We’d meet at our tuition classes, and I was so smitten that I proposed to her within a week of meeting her.’ The couple got married after they graduated.
Sadaf recently launched her clothing line Silk by Fawad Khan. ‘It’s doing well,’ he says.
While Fawad’s career is on the upward trajectory, is he worried about being typecast as a romantic hero?
‘Oh yes,’ he says, admitting that he is making an effort to break out of the mould.
‘It has been a conscious decision to choose the kind of roles I am doing now to break that typecast. This romance tag wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. I was kind of persuaded by fans into doing these kinds of roles.
‘I want to play the angry young man or negative roles. But when I found popularity in what I was doing, I continued with that for a while.
‘Now I want to show the audiences that I can tell stories through other characters too.’
This is something he hopes he has achieved in Kapoor & Sons. But then, essaying the role of a writer may not have been a difficult task for Fawad, who co-wrote the screenplay of the Pakistani romance drama film Armaan (2013) with Vasay Chaudhry. A remake of a 1960s’ movie of the same name, it was directed by Anjum Shahzad, and he also starred in it alongside the award-winning Pakistani actress Aamina Sheikh.
‘I’d like to write more,’ says Fawad. ‘I’d also like to direct a movie. I would like to tell my own story, but not right now. Before that I would want to learn and explore more in this field.’
The star considers himself lucky to have worked with veterans such as Rishi Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah, two of Bollywood’s most experienced artistes. ‘Many of my generation have yet to complete 10,000 hours of work, while these actors have decades of experience,’ says Fawad, seemingly awestruck. ‘How they operate, the stories they share, their experiences, are things to learn from.
‘I have tremendous respect for Rishi sir as well as Ratnaji, who is a much respected artiste. Their timing, craft and the comfort with which they get into the role are qualities that are to be admired.’
Fawad’s next release is Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, also produced by Karan Johar. The romantic drama stars Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma and will hit the big screen later this year.
Amid all the fandom, Fawad is remarkably modest when it comes to his looks. ‘Honestly, I don’t think I’m that good looking,’ he says. ‘If I personally felt that way I would flaunt it in so many ways. But I don’t!’
He prefers to be away from the limelight and admits that he is quite shy. ‘I have just been this way. I believe in letting my work speak for me.’