Call it a colonial hangover all you want, but I’m hopelessly addicted to British shows. It’s a love affair that started with Fawlty Towers and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, and of course the notoriously politically incorrect Mind Your Language. From there it went on to more risqué fare like Blackadder, though one must confess that some of the jokes went over one’s head at the time, only to elicit unfortunately timed giggles years later when the subtext became obvious.
From there it was a logical progression to Downton Abbey and of course The Crown, with its clipped and polished accents, incredibly stiff (at least in public) upper lips and immense emotional repression in the backdrop of an empire on which the sun was surely setting. The latest season of The Crown naturally focused on a woman who has a special place in the hearts of Pakistanis: the late lamented Lady Diana.
Now, of all the many people that orbited around the star that was Lady Di, the least problematic and controversial was Dr. Hasnat Khan. Dr. Hasnat and Diana engaged in a two year relationship and it is said that she gave him the moniker of ‘Mr. Wonderful.’
While it was certain that the upcoming season of The Crown would have to feature Hasnat in one form or the other, I had reconciled myself to the idea that – as is usually the case – his part would be played by an Indian actor. After all, that’s what we saw in the hit Korean series Squid games, where the role of a Pakistani immigrant was (brilliantly) played by Indian actor Anupan Tripathi.
And so, it comes as a welcome surprise that it will be our very own Humayun Saeed who will be playing Hasnat when the show goes back on air! Now you can love Humayun Saeed or hate him, but the fact remains that this is a good thing for Pakistani actors in general, who already are and have been slowly making inroads into Western TV and film. This isn’t unprecedented by any means, and some may recall that the incomparable Zia Mohyuddin himself played a small role in Lawrence of Arabia as Tafas, Lawrence’s Bedouin guide. Zia also later starred with Gregory Peck, Sir Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, among others. Unfortunately, Zia Mohyuddin remained a notable exception and by and large Pakistani talent has had a hard time finding space in Western film and television. Until now.
Saeed isn’t the only one we should be celebrating, as in another welcome development both Nimra Bucha and Fawad Khan will soon become part of the Marvel cinematic universe.
Saeed isn’t the only one we should be celebrating, as in another welcome development both Nimra Bucha and Fawad Khan will soon become part of the Marvel cinematic universe by starring in the upcoming superhero series Ms Marvel. For those unfamiliar with this highly quirky and entertaining comic, the titular character is a Pakistan-American teenager called Kamala Khan who has to balance her newfound superpowers with the demands of living in a very desi expat household. The strip itself is refreshingly devoid of the kind of stereotypes we have become painfully accustomed to when it comes to depictions of Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular in popular media, and when Kamala’s parents finally agree to allow her to continue her super heroics-- so long as she’s home before dark it elicits more chuckles than groans. Word has it that Mehwish Hayat may also be joining the project but this has yet to be confirmed.
Its not just Pakistanis playing Pakistanis. The very talented Alyy Khan, who starred in A Mighty Heart and Traitor opposite Don Cheadle recently gave a solid performance as a Nepali police officer on the trail of serial killer Charles Sobhraj in the Netflix series The Serpent.
Here a special mention must be made of Farhan Tahir, the son of actor Naeem Tahir and award winning broadcaster Yasmeen Tahir who went where no desi has gone before by taking the helm of a starship in the rebooted Star Trek movie, while also playing a villain in the first Iron Man film.
Unfortunately, although expectedly, Saeed’s casting has also been accompanied by rather typical cribbing from those who aren’t fans of the man’s acting or even the man himself. But this isn’t really about what one may or may not feel about him. Objectively, it is something worth celebrating that at long last, Pakistani actors are getting due recognition, not so much as a result of token representation, but by dint of their sheer talent.
- Zarrar Khuhro is a Pakistani journalist who has worked extensively in both the print and electronic media industry. He is currently hosting a talk show on Dawn News. Twitter: @ZarrarKhuhro