Actor and visual effects director Bilal Ashraf, once again teamed up with Mahira Khan on the exemplary biopic on Lieutenant General Nigar Johar Khan. Ashraf well known for his role in ‘Janaan’ and blockbuster hit ‘Superstar,’ starring alongside Khan, is now once again taking the big screen but this time on the real life story of a woman who defied all odds. Ashraf’s first biopic (as they are seldom made in Pakistan) is a true testament to women empowerment in a time where cell phones were not even prevalent and social media was not even a term. Ashraf took on the role as ‘Johar,’ the very doting and supportive husband to Lieutenant General Nigar (played by Mahira Khan).
Ashraf proved he is more than just a handsome face, with his model looks and charming persona, he had to play the role of an older man and that too, an Army officer! The actor goes on to say, “I think the most challenging part was playing an older guy, because you have to surrender your own self and it’s not easy. That was probably the hardest thing about this role.”
SHE: ‘Aik Hai Nigar,’ What is this biopic about? Give us a run through in your own words on this telefilm. The actor goes on to say, “This is the story about a woman named Nigar, she became the first female General of Pakistan and the first Surgeon General, currently serving as General. It’s about all the challenges that she’s gone through in her life. All the tragedies and the sacrifices we don’t really see or hear about- all we see and hear are the bright sides of their story. From sports personality to film personality or any celebrity, we don’t see the real sacrifices which people miss out on. This film is about her entire journey, her story from family to her marriage, to everything really…and it’s extremely inspiring!”
A true women-powered telefilm, depicting the triumphs and the demise of real life characters played by Ashraf in a role which really left the audience saddened and in awe. (We won’t add any spoilers, don’t worry!)
“After shooting the first scene, I had the pleasure of meeting Ma’am Nigar and I sat with her for like an hour and a half. After hearing everything from her, I changed the entire character 360 degrees!”
“And yeah, I guess I never wanted to be an actor but I just got pulled in front of the screen…and here I am!”
Ashraf went to a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, called Franklin Marshall, where he was a double major in finance and arts, he also attained minor in Psychology. Ashraf worked as a hedge fund consultant in New York. Ashraf studied animation and visual effects because his late sister was into filmmaking. She was teaching at NYU and it was later the family moved to Pakistan and opened up a little studio. The actor goes on to say, “And yeah, I guess I never wanted to be an actor, but I just got pulled in front of the screen. And here I am.”
“I feel women do better than the men in a lot of things as well. It’s just about the opportunity, right? You need to give them the opportunity.”
SHE: Bilal are you a feminist in real life? Do you support women empowerment truly?
Bilal Ashraf: Well, a hundred percent! I feel that a woman is no less than any man out there. I’ve learned a lot from playing Sir Johar’s character in terms of his support for her, his sacrifices.
I think, it’s okay for men, to actually support women, whether it’s women in their lives, whether it’s the their mom, mother, sister, daughter, whoever, and to our friends, to support them and to nourish them.
Be happy for them and to remove any egos, because if they do well, they’ll really make you proud. So I think it’s phenomenal, it’s fantastic! And I think, one of the major reasons why I did this role was because I actually do support this cause, I feel we were all equal and in fact, I feel women do better than the men in a lot of things as well. So it’s just about the opportunity, right? You need to give them the opportunity.
SHE: I was personally intrigued and enthralled with your role in ‘Aik Hai Nigar,’ because my father served as Captain of the Pakistan Army and his Father served as Major. So all of my life I’ve heard war stories and stories about my dad’s life as an Army officer. But it wasn’t until watching this film, I was able to have my childhood stories manifest on the screen. It was a surreal moment for me watching you in army attire, I envisioned my own father as an officer for the first time. It was rather emotional for me.
Bilal Ashraf: Wow that’s great! Well, hats off to the entire wardrobe team, they’ve done a phenomenal job with everything because all they had was pictures to go off of. And I think you’re absolutely right, because it’s a kind – of film which connects with everyone…with the young, with the old, because people may know someone in the army in Pakistan especially in Islamabad or in Lahore, there are a lot of army families…and we’ve always heard stories…I’ve heard stories, you know, growing up and I think what’s nice about it, is the fact that it’s not about action and guns. It’s a real life story, it’s organic, which you can kind – of relate to. I have a lot of messages on Instagram from a lot of different people saying you’ve dressed up like my dad or you’ve dressed up like my uncle…I was like, wow.
SHE: What did you learn about the Pakistani Army that you did not know before?
Bilal Ashraf: I think just the fact that they’ve taken two initiatives; giving a woman that rank on merit, in a country which is dominated by men, and there are primarily men in the Pakistan Army, of course there are women too, but for them to actually make a woman a General. Secondly, she (General Nigar) is still a serving General. So of course, it’s a very sensitive topic, a lot of red tape, and to be able to make a biopic and release it while she’s still serving…is huge! That speaks volumes on their part when you allow this to take place, it shows things are changing for the better. And it’s great because no woman is less than any man in any way, shape or form in any field. And this is something that’s coming from them (Pakistani Army), which is massive. You know, it’s a double victory.
SHE: What research did you do first to prepare for the role of Johar besides Googling?
Bilal Ashraf: Well, I didn’t have much because there wasn’t anything, if you actually Google Johar there’s not much there. So with General Nigar, her interviews are out there but with Johar, there’s nothing. So literally we had to go off pictures with whatever information I was being provided by Mahira (Khan) and her team. And by General Nigar’s assistant. I had to voice note them. She’s (General Nigar) been very supportive and my acting coach Sunil, really helped me out. We were going through pictures, studying Sir Johar’s body language, his stand etc…After shooting the first scene, I had the pleasure of meeting Ma’am Nigar and I sat with her for like an hour and a half. After hearing everything from her, I changed the entire character 360 degrees! So I was like, okay, maybe I was doing this wrong. I think the most challenging part was playing an older guy. You just have to surrender your own self and it’s not easy. So that was the most hardest part.
SHE: Oh Yes! And then having the faux belly, what was that like? Was it hard walking around with the huge belly?
Bilal Ashraf: That was just prosthetics, No, it wasn’t hard actually– I was feeling sorry for Mahira (Khan), because she had to wear a body suit and the Army uniform, which is a very thick material. And it was very hot when you are shooting in about 30 to 40 (C) degrees. Hats off to her for pulling that off as well, but yeah, it was, just prosthetics, really nothing else. I didn’t put on weight. I wish I had more time, I would have loved to have a lot of food and put on weight… but losing the weight would have been tough!
“I think most challenging part was playing an older guy…you just have to surrender your own self and it’s not easy.”
SHE: And you did such a phenomenal job in all films! I have to ask about Mahira Khan… you did the blockbuster movie, ‘Superstar’ with her, how was it different doing a biopic? Was it more pressure? Was it harder?
Bilal Ashraf: The pressure was on because I still remember her (Mahira Khan) saying, look, Ma’am Nigar, doesn’t care about, you know, her role. She doesn’t care about anything. Only thing that she cares about is Johar. So you better not mess this up. I was like, thank you so much for all the pressure! Of course we built great rapport during ‘Superstar.’ We are good friends. After ‘Superstar,’ COVID-19 happened and I didn’t meet up with her that much. We, hardly met. When the world started opening up again, we both got busy. Then it was time to shoot ‘Aik Hai Nigar.’ When we started shooting it was as if we were continuing from ‘Superstar,’ it was really odd. The comfort level, the chemistry was different. ‘Superstar’ was way different. This was more mature, but it was literally like stepping right in. The chemistry is either there or it’s not there.
SHE: You’re on point about that. And then biopics are seldom made in Pakistan, so this was also a breakthrough for you and Mahira Khan to do such a movie about someone who’s even living!
Bilal Ashraf: That was a tough one. Yes. But I’m so happy that people have loved it. You know, I’m truly, truly humbled.
SHE: Yes! The audience received it well! Are there any regrets you have in the film industry that you made, or if you could do something over again, what would you do?
Bilal Ashraf: I think I would have dropped my Psychology major and I would have done a double major and done theater.
SHE: (Haha) Really? I’m a Psych major too. Psychology has helped me a lot in life. I’m not going to lie.
Bilal Ashraf: I feel if I looked on the flip side, I believe it’s never too late, you know, whatever your age, whatever anyone says, it doesn’t matter. If you want to do something, no matter what age, no matter where you are, if you can hold it in your head, you can hold it in your hand. That’s what I believe you have to, you have to focus and you have to give it your best and, and things will happen too as well. It’s never too late.
SHE: What are some other films that you would like to take part in? Did making a biopic inspire you to act in more real-life films or do you prefer scripted movies?
Bilal Ashraf: I like to do stuff which has a message in it. I think ‘Janaan’ had a good message in it. I think ‘Superstar’ had a hidden message in it. I don’t know what’s going to come my way. Am I open to doing another biopic? Yes, I am open to it, as long as I’m doing something interesting and I’m into it hundred percent.
What I would love to do is an action film, or a television drama. If it’s in the cards…I have no black or white, hard or fast rule. Whatever comes my way, if it’s a good story, good script. And the most important thing, is a good team! Because a good team helps you flourish.
SHE: Give me a name of an American Hollywood actor or actress that you would want to work with?
Bilal Ashraf: Well, I’m a huge fan of Anthony Hopkins I think he’s fantastic. And female, Julia Roberts is phenomenal. I think Charlize Theron is phenomenal as well. She’s very good the way she carries action movies and she can slip in and out of roles with ease.
SHE: If you were not an actor, what would you be doing today?
Bilal Ashraf: I love architecture. Interiors. Exteriors.
SHE: So you’re impressed by Dubai architecture?
Bilal Ashraf: That’s way too much architecture!
I think it should be a mix. Dubai is of course, fairly young. I think London has beautiful l buildings and that’s what my style is; more classic than contemporary.
SHE: Give me a message you want to give out to us SHE’s.
Bilal Ashraf: Just honestly believe in yourself, back yourself up. If you’re down, if you feel low, there’s only one way and that is up to you, there’s nothing that is impossible. Put your mind to it, put your heart and soul and inshAllah (God willing in Arabic) you will achieve.
SHE: Thank you for that Bilal! Now here’s the fun part of the interview, the lightening round! You need to answer very fast without thinking too hard. First thing that comes to your mind.
Bilaal Ashraf: (Okay Bilal took way too long to answer lol!) His reply: ANY!
SHE: Ok Favorite Car, and go!
Bilal Ashraf: (Again, Bilal took way too long to answer, :P) His Reply: ANY!
SHE: Best Actress, now don’t think too hard, just answer!
Bilal Ashraf: They’re just so many, um, I think the actress in Queens Gambit. I don’t know her name, but she was very good.
SHE: Okay, the first word that comes to your mind when I say Dubai!
Bilal Ashraf: Plastic.
SHE: Man crush?
Bilal Ashraf: Chris Hemsworth.
SHE: Favorite cologne?
Bilal Ashraf: Essenza by Acqua di Parma
SHE: Shaadi? (Wedding) **I asked this question for all you ladies 😉 You’re welcome.
Bilal Ashraf: InshAllah. (God willing).
Bilal Ashraf: My heart, my love.
SHE: Mahira Khan?
Bilal Ashraf: Dost Khan
Bilal Ashraf: Love.
Bilal Ashraf: SHE!!!!
(Bilal did not hesitate, he passed our test!!)