Rising Star: Canadian Artiste Ali Kazmi Soars and Shines

From theatre and television to Deepa Mehta’s critically acclaimed film Beeba Boys, Ali Kazmi has come a long way. His next venture is an animated feature film produced by none other than Hollywood’s diva, Angelina Jolie herself. Joyeeta Ray catches up with the suave first generation immigrant from Pakistan to find out how he stepped up his act to find his place in an increasingly star-studded world.

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He calls himself a global citizen. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, he comes from a family of creative juggernauts. His parents are eminent television actors and directors – Rahat and Sahira Kazmi. With such a lineage, it would seem that the acting gene would be imbedded in him, making it a cakewalk on stage. But he begs to differ.

“Lineage like that can be daunting. We lived in a joint family with my grandparents but the kind of wisdom and love you get from them is timeless!   It was like growing up in a warm and loving film school!”

At a young age when kids wish to be doctors, engineers or astronauts, he naturally gravitated towards the performing arts. He made a name for himself in theater, television and films, both behind and before the camera. His work took him to Pakistan, India and USA where he excelled for over 17 years, picking up several languages along the way. He speaks English, Urdu, Hindi Punjabi, Persian, Pashto/Dari, basic French and Arabic.

In 2008, life and love brought him to Toronto where he sharpened his skills in a Film and Drama school. The city is now home where he has built a nest with his wife Alizeh and one year old son, Rafay.

Meet Ali Kazmi who started his acting career at the age of one and has never looked back since.

Ali with his illustrious parents

ALI KAZMI:  As a toddler, I was featured in a national song (on television) directed by my mother, Sahira Kazmi. The song titled “Vattan ki mitti” (beloved earth of my country) had me hoisted on my father’s shoulders waving the Pakistani flag.

By the age of 14, I was a model, dancer and professional actor.  But I moved to Toronto in 2008 and had to start all over from scratch. With hard work, grit and perseverance I believe I’m getting somewhere. My latest gangster flick “Beeba Boys” made by acclaimed Oscar nominated film director Deepa Mehta premiered in TIFF 2015 (Toronto International Film Festival).

SSZEE MEDIA: That was a dream come true no doubt. But how tough was the journey?

AK: It really seems like a gargantuan task to make it in the western world as a South Asian actor. Scary at first but liberating because you learn so much more!  I did theatre, TV and films; directing, producing and acting, both for the money and the love of the medium! Each experience added a new dimension to my life as a person and performer.

My schooling is from Pakistan. I went to CBM college of Business Management for a BBA in marketing and proceeded to film and drama school in Toronto. I believe in observing people, love their stories, and have friends from all parts of the world. I do a lot of voice-overs and multicultural work

But it was a theatre play that changed my life as a performer here. I entered an audition for a stage play titled “An Indian wants the Bronx” that was based on Al Pacino’s first play before he became who he is! They needed a South Asian guy for the role of a 50 year old! The hunger within me forced me to go for it.

Initially I was not listed. They said that they didn’t know what to expect from a man in torn jeans and spiked hair for the role of an old village man! (Laughs) But I got a standing ovation for the audition and made through. The play did very well at the Fringe Festival 2009. I was signed up with an agent who stayed with me since then.

I have also worked till recently in a production company, China Syndrome Productions Inc.  I started as an Editor and worked my way up to the position of Director and Producer, making mainstream and multicultural commercials, documentaries and corporate videos. I truly believe that one cannot portray life on screen if one has not lived it! I am a marathoner, triathlete, certified scuba diver, adventurer, traveller and dreamer. But my journey has just begun.


SSZEE: So how was he handpicked for Deepa Mehta’s crime thriller Beeba Boys?

AK: When my wife and I were expecting our first child, I felt the need to work harder and reach higher! I was hosting and producing a TV show with TVOne Canada at the time and had interviewed a prolific filmmaker-Arshad Khan. He had worked with filmmaker Deepa Mehta earlier so I requested him to send an email to her production team to introduce me.  To my luck, they were silently casting for a new film then and called me in to audition. Deepa loved my performance, we met and the rest is history.

Boss, as I call her, taught me a lot about life and films. My son Rafay was born during filming last year and she gave me two days off even though we were in the thick of filming then. I will never forget that.

Beeba Boys not only sheds light on violent youth issues in Vancouver but also worked on several other levels. It’s a gangster film with heart and emotion at its core. It’s a search for identity and starts a dialogue between nature versus nurture with brotherhood and family values at its core. All that was wrapped in a slick package that appealed to people of all races, faces and places!

I mean, how often do you see seven awesome South Asian boys on the cover of a main stream English film? To me this is a step forward for South Asians to be a part of global cinema.

SSZEE: What was it like to be part of such a big production?

AK: Making any film is a labor of love. It was daunting because it was such a powerhouse with the likes of Deepa Mehta at the helm!  I wanted to make her proud of me and do justice to the character!  If you enjoy the journey, you need not worry about the destination. What a great cast and crew I had the pleasure of working with.  It’s something I will never forget!

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SSZEE: You virtually blended into your character “Guri” in Beeba Boys who is in sharp contrast to what you are in real life. Guri is a foul-mouthed ruthless gangster and you are a thorough gentleman. How did you prepare for the role and play it so well?

AK: We met one of the real gangsters in Vancouver. He is ironically an Immigration Lawyer now! What an interesting, sad yet uplifting journey he’s had. The take away from him and the film experience is truly that crime doesn’t pay.

I read up on Sikhism, a culture I always admired, and was blown away by the openness it teaches. I spent time with my Punjabi friends to get deeper into the roots of the culture.

Deepaji proves that we (South Asian actors) can be more than doctors, cabbies and bad guys in (western) films. We can be slick lead actors who can kick ass in main stream cinema! Deepa and her husband David Hamilton have produced this film and I wish them nothing but success and happiness after all they have done for me.  She tirelessly involved herself in every aspect of the film: from the script, screenplay and wardrobe to the entire look and feel.

We had a super team of stylists who tailored our suits.  Deepaji let us have our input on our character’s style but she was the boss over the final look. We did a 10 day workshop from 10am – 6pm every day and rehearsed once a week through the filming. Workshops were were conducted by Deepa and Dr. Neelam Mansingh (a Ph.D. in theatre arts from Chandigarh, India). We put in our mind, body and soul to break into these characters, develop quirks and a background history of each character. Best of all we became a unit. So on the very first day when we walked into the sets, we were a brotherhood.

I play Guri the Gun, a deadly killer. The quirk I developed was that he loves comic books. Deepa loved the idea. What you see are layered characters that laugh and talk about other things beyond just killing because they’re human and you end up rooting for them till the end. Things like that are what set this film apart.

What I love is that Deepa lets you explore and gives you the freedom as an actor to choose, but she will honestly tell you what works and what doesn’t. This film may break many racial and casting barriers.

SSZEE: What was it like working with Randeep Hooda, the celebrated Bollywood actor?

AK: Randeep Hooda is a true artist and brother! We were all on the same page. Imagine a Haryanvi Bollywood star; a designer Sardar from NYC; two Sikhs – one from Edmonton, the other from Vancouver; one Persian Canadian; two Pakistani Canadians. All of us had a real blast and spent three months together as a family!

These guys were there for the birth of my son during filming. We still talk almost every day and I think we will always be a part of each other’s lives in some way! Deepa had to be a gangster with us to keep things tight. Handling seven crazy men is no easy feat!

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SSZEE: How did it feel to be part of a film release at TIFF 2015?

AK: The TIFF gala screening was surreal and overwhelming! The premier show of Beeba Boys was packed with screaming fans at the Roy Thompson Hall. I used to walk by the theatre and hope to perform there someday.

Beeba Boys has so far played in festivals in London, Spain, America and India, Dubai and Pakistan. The PR/Marketing team, the producers and Mongrel Media have done a superb job.

It’s hard to believe that we were walking the same red carpet as the stars I grew up watching on screen: George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Jake Gyllenhal, Salma Hayek, Tom Hardy, Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Depp, Ethan Hawke and so many more amazing actors and directors were there!

SSZEE: Your next venture is a film produced by none other than Holllywood’s  super star  – Angelina Jolie. How did that happen?

AK: It’s a beautifully written animated feature film, based on Deborah Ellis’ internationally acclaimed  novel, “The Breadwinner” . It is directed by Oscar nominated Nora Twomey.

Angelina Jolie is  the executive producer. I can’t talk too much about the project yet. I had a few rounds of auditions and finally got the call! I play an interesting supporting role and the film has a good friend and fellow Pakistani Canadian actor, Ali Badshah as the lead. Check it out on IMDB.

I have done a lot of voice work before for Radio, TV commercials and video games (Splinter Cell 6, Far cry 4 and Far cry- Primal.) But this is my first time voicing an animated feature film

SSZEE: What else can we look forward to from Ali Kazmi? Hollywood, Bollywood or more?

AK: Fatherhood, films and TV in the near future! I have a one episode role on the American TV series “Rogue” season 3 coming soon. I have a TV serial starting in on HUM TV called “Sehra mein Safar” directed by Azfar Ali end of this year. I’m working on Mehreen Jabbars exciting new romantic “dramedy” film called “Dobara Phir Se“.

One cannot do this without the love and support of one’s family! As long as I have them, I have it all!

Interview was conducted by Joyeeta Dutta Ray for SSZee Media 


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