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Ahad Raza Mir spills the chai on diversity and Hamlet

By Aymen Sherwani, March 22 2019 —

University of Calgary theatre student turned Pakistani film star Ahad Raza Mir makes his return to Calgary for the first time in three years to take on the role of Hamlet in Vertigo Theatre’s Hamlet: A Ghost Story.

“It’s really nice because you leave one place and you think that place will forget you but they didn’t,” Mir says. “I was called back to play a lot of roles I wanted to take on, but couldn’t, and the calls would keep coming. That means that I still have a home here. People think of me enough to go, ‘Hey, let’s give him a call and see if he wants to play a role. This time, for Hamlet, it worked.”

Although he rose to prominence in Pakistan with successful dramas such as Yakeen Ka Safar, the star’s roots began in the U of C Operetta Company’s production of West Side Story. However, Mir is no stranger to Shakespeare, having also performed in The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth before switching to the film industry.

“I think me coming back is less professional and more personal,” Mir says. “I wanted to return to the stage, I haven’t been on it in so long. I also just wanted a challenge and to be honest with you, when I’m in Pakistan, I’m just at my house because if I go outside it can be kind of hectic at times. While I love taking selfies and I love my fans, I just needed a break.”

The story of Hamlet has been retold countless times with many interpretations since its original production in 1602. When setting out on a role like this, many actors struggle knowing where to begin, in part because of the gravity of a role with such a vivid ancestry.

“I’m figuring it out as the process goes and I probably won’t figure it out until halfway through the show,” Mir says. “Our adaptation is unique because we’re playing with a horror element. What The Shakespeare Company does really well is that they make things accessible for people who don’t usually watch or are even familiar with Shakespeare. I think our first goal is to make things relatable for the audience. We don’t want people sitting there going, ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ The way I’m doing it is not so presentational but more humanized. It’s less about presenting and more about the actor to feel it — if they communicate properly, then the audience will get it.”

While Hamlet transcends time and evolves to fit the temperaments of its audience, something special about Hamlet: A Ghost Story was its costume design on the production poster. To the untrained eye, the half-skull, half-Ahad design is probably the main focus of the production poster. However, as a person of Pakistani heritage, my eyes instantly focused on the collar of Hamlet’s shirt, which resembles the collar of a traditional men’s kurta.

“To suit me, they definitely gave Hamlet’s costume a Desi vibe,” Mir says.

To see that level of representation in the world of performing arts was something I did not imagine seeing. Many Pakistani Canadians, myself included, take pride in the fact that Ahad is the first South-Asian Canadian to play Hamlet in Canada. It is a monumental form of representation for other South-Asian students that are also aspiring for careers in the performing arts. It makes us feel as though we too have a chance at becoming successful artists, when the entire world, our parents included, are telling us that we are meant to become doctors, engineers and accountants.

“I was a bachelor of business administration student at the University of Calgary and switched into drama because I felt that that’s what I wanted to do,” Mir says. “I think that — unfortunately — when a lot of Pakistani, Indian, Afghani and Bengali people move from abroad and their kids are born here, they force their kids to take something on that’s serious, like becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer.”

Ahad, whose father and grandfather are legends in the Pakistani film industry, expressed that he was very lucky to have such supportive parents.

“I had a lot of Desi friends who wanted to play music or dance but — because of their parents — they went into engineering or became unhappy doctors. I feel like that’s too bad because when you come to places like Canada, there are so many facilities to learn about the performing arts. I hope that by doing Hamlet, there’s some Pakistani kid in the audience going, ‘If he can do it, I can do it,’ ” he says. “Canada is getting really good with promoting diversity on stage, it’s just parents that are not letting their kids explore. My life changed completely when I made that call to my dad and said ‘I don’t wanna do business’ and he just said, ‘Okay, good. Good for you.’ I just hope that parents become more supportive in that sense.”

It is no surprise Mir has a large South-Asian audience, some of which are also pursuing careers in the performing arts. Mir has advice for these aspiring performers.

“Your dreams are achievable, you just have to be smart about it,” Mir says. “You shouldn’t listen to people that tell you not to do something, because if you feel it is what you’re meant for, then follow it. It’s the same how I was doing business, thinking that I would do my business degree and then get into acting because I needed something to fall back on. I realized that if I have a plan B, which is business, then that might as well be my plan A. It’s because I’m giving all my effort to one thing only to just move onto something else. If I put 110 per cent into one thing, then something will come out of it.”

Mir taking on his role as Hamlet is living proof that you can do whatever you set your mind to with enough dedication. Hamlet: A Ghost Story runs from March 20 to April 13 at the Vertigo Theatre. Tickets are available through the Vertigo Theatre’s website.  

Spill the Chai is a weekly column that seeks to showcase the talents and achievements of the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities at the University of Calgary campus, but also “spills the chai” on the issues they face on a daily basis, by speaking power into the narratives of the many students of colour on campus. This column is a part of our Voices section.

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