In 2002 when Imran Abbas made his acting debut with the Pakistani teleseries Umrao Jaan, it turned him into an overnight star. In the years to come, Abbas would act in more than 100 TV shows, garnering a large fan following in a nation where TV is bigger than films. Nearly a decade later, as he is set to take his big leap into Hindi cinema, Abbas is amazed at the twist in his destiny. He is currently working on his second Hindi film, Raqs with Muzaffar Ali, director of the iconic 1981 Bollywood film Umrao Jaan starring Rekha. And much like that film, it is a period piece set in Lucknow.
“I play the role of a prince who is in love with a courtesan. It’s not just a love story but explores how Hindus and Muslims were peace loving, and the hatred was created by foreigners’ manipulation,” he says.
It has been an unusually hectic day for Abbas in Mumbai, who is used to juggling four shoots a day in Pakistan but here he seems out of his depth with the sheer extent of promotional activities for the launch of the new channel Zindagi, which will beam content from Pakistan into Indian households. Next month he will be touring India to promote Vikram Bhatt’s Creature, his first film in Bollywood, which releases in two-month’s time. “If you look at acting in this part of the subcontinent, the ultimate destination for an actor is Bollywood. It’s a natural progression,” says the 32-year-old actor who is currently focussing on his career in India.
Acting happened by chance to Abbas. He studied architecture at the iconic National College of Arts, Lahore. It was here that he was exposed to different art forms — he was the head of a music society, and dabbled in sculpture, mime, photography and graphic design. “I didn’t even think I was good looking. Someone suggested that I should try modelling and soon I was spotted by the director of Umrao Jaan,” says the model-turned-actor, who was approached by Indian filmmakers such as Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Mohit Suri and Rajkumar Santoshi after they saw his work on YouTube. He missed out on Guzaarish and Aashiqui 2 since he was contract bound to other projects.
About his compatriots, such as actor Shaan Shahid, who recently called Pakistani artistes working in India, “unpatriotic sellouts,” he says, “It’s a case of sour grapes. He should broaden his mind.”
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