“This has really never happened before,” laughs a slightly bewildered looking Usman Mukhtar as he insists to our waiter to charge him for the bottle of water he ordered. The wait staff at Mocca, smiling ear to ear, wanted to waive the cost, clearly fans and familiar to the Islamabad native.
If there need be evidence of Mukhtar’s rising star status, this is merely a glimpse into it. An actor who made his stage debut in 2006, has found what he himself is seeing as his big break with 2019’s Anaa, a drama serial that drew in audiences even if you weren’t one to particularly indulge in Pakistan’s drama offerings.
As Altamaash on Anaa, Mukhtar took on a role of a straight forward, tortured and what the creators told Mukhtar to channel a “Christian Grey type,” in terms of behaviour and mannerisms, not proclivities. A role he feared would put him in a box he would not later be able to break.
“This guy’s an antagonist,” said Mukhtar about reading Anaa for the first time. “I had read the initial three, four episodes and I don’t really like this guy, I didn’t know if I should do this as my first drama series.”
For 2019 to be the year of Mukhtar’s television debut is surprising. A classic dark handsome, exceptionally talented and a key player in Islamabad’s film and television fraternity, Mukhtar got his industry start alongside his contemporaries in Islamabad’s once thriving theatre scene.
But Mukhtar never had intentions of becoming an actor. It’s when he tried theatre for the first time the passion awoke in him.
“There is nothing like it, I love it so much. There is a different energy when it comes to live performance and playing off your audience, I hope I can do it forever. In-between all the other stuff I will make time for it,” said Mukhtar.
Mukthar most recently did a number of shows with the theatre group Insolent Knights in the capital, including a play with Osman Khalid Butt, Phadda about masculinity and friendship also written by Butt. A show they may travel with in the future.
Last year Mukhtar starred in Anwar Maqsood and Dawar Mehmood’s play Naach Na Jaanay as a young Imran Khan.
“I was about to go on stage [for the first time in three years], and I started feeling really bad anxiety, palpitations and everything. Thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can go out there, I don’t know if I can do this.’ I powered through got on stage and the anxiety went away. That’s the kind of magic that theatre does.”
But following the mainstream path to success did not draw him into the industry, it became a necessary component to create the art he wanted. “No one wants to invest in you if they don’t know who you are, they always say the same thing, ‘but what big thing have you done?’”
Mukhtar who has directed, written and produced behind the scenes and wanted to make work that way would find roadblocks when it came to backing and people believing in him to bring his work to life.
In 2016 he starred in Janaan a critical and commercial success, in 2018 he starred in Parchi which opened the doors to offers on TV shows. But nothing was striking Mukhtar’s fancy.
“Anaa genuinely came in such a way that I can’t help but think someone was looking out for me,” Mukhtar said earnestly. “I was in a dark place, a bad place after Parchi. I had gotten offers but nothing felt right and then eventually they stopped coming. I was depressed and eating a ton, gained so much weight, and then the call for Anaa came.” Mukhtar dropped the weight, got into the best shape of his life and was gifted a delay in the production that allowed for him to be his best self for the role.
“For the longest time I struggled and I wanted to do everything on my own,” said Mukhtar. “I wanted to create good stories that I wasn’t seeing happen in the commercial industry. I was a nobody you know? I didn’t know if [Anaa] was going to do well it’s been a really long struggle and everything and so when I saw the reaction – it was amazing.”
Seemingly overnight Mukhtar became a household name when his first episode, the second of Anaa, premiered, “It was so exciting, I am so thankful and grateful,” said Mukhtar about watching Pakistan’s love for his character, and him in real time. “I woke up to thousands of tags and notifications and I was just blown away.”
Up next on the cards for Mukhtar is possibly a film, he could not give too many details, and two drama serials which have been shot and will premiere later this year. Most excitingly perhaps is the premiere of Mukthar’s own short film Bench, which he wrote and directed, starring Rubya Chaudhry (another Islamabad talent), which he has begun submitting on to festival circuits like the Tribeca Film Festival for consideration.