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Mikaal Zulfiqar – Up, Up And Away!

You have seen him on TV, he has been part of a few Bollywood films and even had a cameo role in last year’s surprise hit Cake but you haven’t seen him the way Mikaal Zulfiqar will appear in Sherdil, Pakistan Air Force’s next feature film, releasing on March 22. He might remind you of Tom Cruise from Top Gun but trust me, his performance will be no less than the Hollywood hunk’s who became a benchmark for actors who want to play an Air Force Officer on screen. The News Tribe got hold of the Pakistani Superstar and had a chat with him regarding his upcoming film, how he trained for the role of the Fighter Pilot and what are his expectations from the film. Excerpts:

The News Tribe: Welcome to your first proper Pakistani film after so many years, where you are playing the lead. How does that feel considering you have done three films in Bollywood, and a few cameos in Pakistan?

Mikaal Zulfiqar: Oh yes, I am quite excited (smiles). My colleagues at TV had advanced to films a lot earlier so yes, I am a little late to the party but thankfully it will be worth the wait. I have been an award-winning TV actor and wanted to progress but the kind of roles I was getting were either not leading roles, or were extended cameos such as in Godfather, Cake, and Na Band Na Baraati. Thankfully this progression through Sherdil would be an important stepping stone for me and I would hopefully make my fans proud who had been waiting for my Pakistani film debut for a long time. I have high hopes from the film and hope that it does well at the box office, to mark the real start of my film career.

TNT: It must have been fun staying at the base, following cadets wherever they went?

MZ: You can’t imagine how much I learned by staying at the base; it was like a crash course for me. Whenever I left my room, there would be cadets parading around and I would follow them to match the walk. I tried to incorporate the way they spoke, the way they carried themselves, a fighter pilot’s demeanor and even how they wear their watches into my character and Squadron Leader Hassan Jalal who helped me with that; he himself was nothing short of a celebrity as he was the Test Pilot of JF 17 Thunder and I was completely under his wing throughout the film. It was because of him and my director Azfar Jafri that I was able to give my best so when the Air Chief commended my performance by saying that I did justice to the role of a fighter pilot, I was over the moon!

TNT: Did spending time with the Air Force people change your perception about them?

MZ: After working in Sherdil I have become a huge fan of our fighter pilots since they live a life of uncertainty; on the outside, we believe that being a hero is easy but trust me, every time they step into a plane, they put their lives in danger as there is no guarantee that they will return safely. It’s a one-way journey with a possible return and they give it to their motherland without any hesitation. They forget about their family when they fly the machine which they know could malfunction as it isn’t human; that mentality makes them superheroes in my eyes. Secondly, they are undoubtedly the best Air Force is the world because a) they train every day, be it war or peace and b) for the last 17 years, they have been in a state of war due to the War on Terror. We incorrectly assume that their life is easy and all they have to do to escape a plane is to eject and end up safely on land. Let me tell you, for them, ejection is a last minute resort and 99 percent of the time the pilot either injures his legs or ends up with an injury to the backbone that could cripple them for life. They are so different than us especially actors who are conscious about their face, looks etc. as it’s our bread and butter; for these soldiers, it is not a matter of life and death but something they are ready for, without any hesitation.

TNT: How did the role of Haris affect you mentally and physically?

MZ: It was a challenging role for me as an actor because, in the Air Force, you can’t show emotions but as a film actor, you have to be emotional. That’s why I tried to balance my character so that it neither looks dull nor over the top. Since I was playing a civilian turned fighter pilot in the film, I had to go through all the process; went through all the rigours of cadet life including becoming a murgha with my hands on my ears through my legs. (Laughs) It was all different from TV so it did have its effect mostly physical; we usually give our 100 percent in dramas and/or commercials as there isn’t much scope to go overboard. However, in Sherdil, I had to give my 500 percent to look the part of an Air Force Officer. Be it running towards a parked jet, competing in the obstacle courses, firing the bow and arrow, using weaponry or riding a horse, in order to look the part where I grow from a cadet into a top fighter pilot, I had to give my best. Thankfully, despite travelling between cities, moving between different setups and the physical and mental exertion, we managed to end the project in one go.

TNT: And then there is a Romantic interest for you in the film …

MZ: Oh yes, there is but that’s part of the story as well. The character I am playing has to battle on two fronts – personal and professional. On the personal front, he has his father whose own father was in the Pakistan Air Force and achieved martyrdom when he was young. Then there is his love interest played by the gorgeous Armeena Rana Khan who raises question over my character’s commitment to their relationship. On the professional front, Haris has to prove his love for his country since he is the best fighter pilot they have, despite what his family thinks. It was great sharing the screen with Armeena and she was as usual brilliant throughout the shoot. Sadly, she isn’t part of the film’s promotion due to prior commitments in England but I hope she makes it to the premiere on time.

TNT: You managed to do what many of us ‘civilians’ dream of, i.e. flying in a jet plane. How was that experience?

MZ: It was a lengthy process since civilians aren’t allowed to co-pilot a plane, let alone fly in a jet. I first flew in a simple propeller head plane – Mushak – which is basic training jet and till then, it was fun. The biggest difference was the fact that while travelling in a commercial plane, we can look on the right and left, whereas while flying, you are looking at the front as well. It is scary at first but since I did it four times, I was used to it when they shifted me to a K8 where my co-pilot did some turns and loops, but no risky manoeuvres as it was to help me get used to it. These flights felt like as if I was shifted from a normal car to a racing car which makes you feel like being on the road; here the difference was that I was in the air, in a plane controlled by the only other passenger.

TNT: So when the actual mission happened, how did you feel with the plane moving up and down, taking risky manoeuvres etc.?

MZ: It was 9 PM when I finally got the call for the mission; I had to travel from Lahore to Sargodha where I was to fly in a jet plane. In the morning as I reached the base after a two-hour drive, a briefing was held at Air Force’s Top Gun School after which we all got ready for the mission. I was pumped up for this once-in-a-lifetime one-hour session where a Mirage, a JF 17 Thunder and an F 16 flew together; I was the co-pilot of one of these planes with PAF’s top instructor and we flew at 6 Gs, something no actor in this region has done, for sure.

After the first two manoeuvres, they gave me a rest (they continued flying) because the blood in my body was rushing from top to bottom, leaving me incapacitated, not being able to use my hand even. When the blood settled, they continued their job and I tried my best to look the character for a camera was fixed on my face throughout the flight. I continued being brave till 40 minutes after which we landed and trust me, I couldn’t move for two hours after I fell on the bed.

TNT: Did you take a selfie when you went to the runway for the first time in your Air Force uniform ala Tom Cruise?

MZ: That was a proud moment for me but then, everywhere when an Air Force film will be made, people will compare it to Top Gun and I am sure ours will be compared to it as well. Since our DOP Riki Butland was from the United States, I can safely say that our film will be compared to Hollywood and would be much better than Bollywood.

TNT: Tell us something about the experience of working with a Hollywood cinematographer and what were his comments about Pakistani actors?

MZ: Our Director of Photography (DOP) Riki Butland came to Pakistan with 40-year experience and it was only when he told me the names of people with whom he had worked in Hollywood that I realized that he was at first name basis with the very people we grew up listening. He started his career making music videos of Elton (John), Michael (Jackson), George (Michael), Bee Gees etc. and I instantly became a fan of his! His most recent work in films was Star Trek Beyond and Furious 7 which were both highly successful movies. I don’t know how he felt about other actors but after a four-minute fist fight sequence we shot, he told me that he has worked with the best actors in Hollywood and I was very good which was very confidence boosting for me.

TNT: It is evident from the trailer that Hassan Niazi plays an Indian Air Force Officer and you, a Pakistani one. How was the rivalry on sets considering you two like to act the part?

MZ: There is a surprise for you in the film regarding that (smiles). All I can say is that it was fun working with Hassan Niazi; the sensitive topic didn’t make us go overboard as we both kept it subtle, unlike Indian films where Pakistanis are shown in a bad light. He may be playing an Indian but Hassan Niazi stayed natural in his character, the way he spoke, his mannerisms and interaction will impress all. We are lucky that the film features a real-life current event and that it is being released close to that; otherwise, nobody makes films like Sherdil anymore where there is a message for all. It will show to the world that Pakistan is here to stay, we will not go away and we want to live in peace. If we are provoked, we will not stay down and retaliate. This film is here to put us on World map and will show others that we are a cool and calm nation that prefers peace over war.

TNT: And what is next on your plate post-Sherdil?

MZ: Right now the only upcoming film of mine is the untitled Kamran Shahid project which is nearly complete but awaiting release. The rest of the films are on paper including my own production. I am hopeful that Sherdil will do well in cinemas; in a situation when people are skeptical of releasing a film, our producer Nomaan Khan must be commended for the brave decision to release the film. What happens next depends on how Sherdil performs but I am hoping that it will steer the industry in the right direction that is up, up and away!

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