Actor Aasif Khan talks about how he left behind a pre-determined career in the cement industry to following his dreams in Mumbai, and the challenges he overcame along the way.
“Yeh khana toh Astik bhaiya bhi na kha paaye. (Even Astik won’t be able to eat this bland food).”
When Parchun, essayed by Aasif Khan, says this to Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra), in Netflix’s Pagglait, it feels comforting. Not just to Sandhya, a woman who has just lost her husband, but even to the viewer. In the next scene, we see Parchun sneaking into Sandhya’s room with a packet of chips so she doesn’t have to further torture herself by eating the bland food, as ancient custom demand of widows.
Pagglait (2021), the much-talked-about dark comedy-drama film by Umesh Bist, touches upon the problematic patriarchal customs that revolve around the fate of a widow in India. Aasif portrays a character that lightens the atmosphere, filled with heavy mourning, with his goofiness. He is that friend, who subtly shares your misery without necessarily seriously addressing the issue at hand.
Parchun is in stark contrast to the misogynist Ganesh, a character in Amazon Prime’s Panchayat (2020) series. Here, Aasif plays a privileged groom brought up in India’s rural landscape, who demands to be treated like a king, for his wedding is the biggest day of his life. His vile and entitled behaviour to get a chake waali khursi (a chair with wheels) will make you hate him as much as you loved Parchun in Pagglait.
For Aasif, an aspiring actor from Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh district, this is his biggest reward — to be able to make people feel for his character.
“I remember how none of my classmates agreed to do a role where their pants accidentally fall in a school play for comic relief. They were embarrassed but, for me, it was an opportunity to make people laugh, which they did. As a Class V boy, I perceived this as magic, and knew I wanted to entertain people for life. I carry that same enthusiasm and desire while performing as an adult,” Aasif recalls in a conversation with The Better India.
Aasif may have just started his journey, but has already left remarkable impressions in the audience’s minds with the multiple OTT movies and series he has starred in within a short period of time. These include Mirzapur, Paatal Lok, Jamtara, Panchayat and, of course, Pagglait.
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The 29-year-old came to Mumbai from India’s hinterland to fulfil his one true love — acting. The expensive city that doles out hard-hitting lessons to everyone alike was no different to Aasif. Odd jobs, innumerable auditions, and rare joys were part of Aasif’s journey as well, but the only thing that set him apart from the rest was his fearlessness and iron will.
From working as a waiter to acting alongside industry stalwarts such as Pankaj Tripathi, Raghuveer Yadav and Anushka Sharma, Aasif’s journey resonates with thousands of young boys and girls who leave everything only to end up in the city’s cramped rooms with pockets leaking quickly.
Building his own narrative
Aasif hails from Nimbahera village, which is one of the largest cement manufacturing centres in Asia. His father worked with JK Cement and, like most men in his village, Aasif was expected to finish his graduation and join one of the cement companies. But Aasif was unwilling to join the rat race. He says he was never really interested in academics, and that grace marks would save him every time.
Somewhere in the mid-2000s, Aasif started binge-watching The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. He was mesmerised by how comedian Raju Shrivastav was entertaining the viewers and judges alike. The trend of rookie stand-up comedy had picked up in Rajasthan too. Aasif would often participate in local stand-up comedy competitions.
“I was hosting our family and mohalla gatherings. I never dealt with the fear of public performance or stage fright. I was too young to decide a career back then, but in my heart I knew that acting was an option,” he says.
In 2008, his father passed away, and Aasif had to be moved to an evening school due to financial constraints. He took up a part-time job in a telecom company to ease his problems and worked till his elder brother found employment.
Soon after, he expressed his desire to go to Mumbai to try his hand at acting, but was met with disappointment. No one in his family ever pursued a career in the film industry, or even any other art medium. In a family filled with doctors and engineers, he saw his dream dying, so he quit his schooling in 2010 and ran away from home.
“I sat on the train and reached Borivali the next day at 7 in the morning. I had never seen so many people assemble in one place. I was overwhelmed by the crowd, hunger, and this giant city, but managed to find a friend’s connection in Bhayandar area. I stayed at his place for five days. I looked for jobs but no one wanted to hire an 11th-passout. Finally, I received a job as a waiter at a five-star hotel. Thus began my saga of innumerable auditions, living with nine boys in one room, and learning to survive in Mumbai on vada pavs and poha,” he recalls.
This whirlwind lasted for about two years.
It took several heartbreaks and rejections for Aasif to realise that acting is a craft that needs to be seriously honed. By this time, his mother had come around, and would constantly tell him that one day, he would become a ‘hero’. Her confidence pushed him to learn acting via theatre groups in Jaipur.
He joined Sabir Khan’s Sarthak Theatre group. He planned to learn acting and return to Mumbai in six months. Instead, he ended up staying for six years. Interestingly, Irrfan Khan, who was also from Aasif’s district, has worked with the Sarthak group in his early days of acting.
“With movies such as Paan Singh Tomar (2012), The Lunchbox (2013) and Haider (2014), this Rajasthani guy with big eyes was making a mark on India’s movie industry, and this gave me confidence that I could too. Neither did he have a six-pack, nor the quintessential looks of a hero. He was shattering glass ceilings with his extraordinary performances in content-driven movies,” Aasif says.
While working at the theatre group, he completed Class XII, and joined an Open University to complete his undergraduate degree, which he quit in his second year to return to Mumbai.
Lights, camera, action
With unwavering faith in his craft, Aasif ensured a growing acting graph — from a junior artist to doing a scene with one line, a television episode, 4-5 scenes with a superstar, and finally, the day when life turned around.
Aasif appeared in a few episodes of Crime Petrol and finally bagged concrete roles in Toilet – Ek Prem Katha (2017) and Pari (2018). However, in both the movies, his scenes never made the final cut.
“After working hard for years, reaching the audition stage, and beating hundreds and finally landing the role, you think you have emerged victorious. I remember I forced all my friends to watch Pari, and none of them could tell me my scenes were cut fearing it would break my heart. But I wasn’t dejected. I continued working and was finally selected for India’s Most Wanted starring Arjun Kapoor in 2019,” he says.
Not many know this, but Aasif had rejected Panchayat as he had already signed Mirzapur and Paatal Lok, in which he had more scenes.
“Panchayat’s director, Deepak Mishra, convinced me to do the film. I’d portrayed a dark character in Paatal Lok, so I treated this as a refreshment. Soon, the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed, and the series was released. I was flooded with messages, and I saw that many memes were being made on one of my scenes. Later, all his other series released as well, and OTT became a stepping stone for finer and bigger roles. I remember a COVID-19 positive lady admitted in Bengaluru hospital messaged me saying that she saw me in several series and forgot her pain. That is certainly the biggest compliment I have ever received,” says Aasif.
Despite his popularity, Aasif says he was aware it would last only for a while. Without letting the outpour of compliments go to his head, he continued working hard and bagged a few pivotal roles, some of which he didn’t have to audition for.
Aasif considers himself fortunate to be working under certain directors and alongside actors who are known for their exemplary performances. He loves observing how they prepare for roles, their dialogue delivery, improvisation and long pauses.
Meanwhile, he credits his mother and theatre group for fanning his dreams and keeping him grounded.
“My mother was not impressed with Mirzapur and Paatal Lok because of the foul language but, thankfully, she liked Pagglait. She doesn’t openly compliment me, nor does she treat me like a star. Whenever I go home, I am always running errands for her. As for theatre, it has taught me to get the performances right in the first instance, as there are no retakes there. But the joy I get when people applaud at the end of the play is unmatched. That’s why I have continued theatre. At present, I am doing a Rajasthani adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
So what’s next for the actor? “I am currently shooting for Shubhratri and Humans, a Disney Hotstar production and a few other projects which I cannot reveal now. 2021 does look exciting,” he adds.
All images are taken from Aasif Khan/Instagram
Edited by Divya Sethu