The Icon Interview: Passion In The Bloodline
Abdullah Kadwani’s legacy is a prodigious one.
He, along with his partner Asad Qureshi, has helmed 7th Sky Entertainment for almost two decades now, turning it into one of the most successful names in the realm of TV drama production in Pakistan. It is famed for its Midas touch, churning out hit after hit. He also has a wealth of experiences to share; observations, technical knowledge and nostalgic recollections collected over a media career that spans more than 20 years.
Haroon Kadwani, Abdullah’s eldest son and fledgling actor, is inevitably reaping the benefits of his father’s labours and know-how.
The two of them sit across from me in the late hours of a hot, balmy Saturday night in Karachi. Their schedules are jam-packed — Abdullah’s roster of work is endless, and Haroon has been reading scripts and is on the verge of signing on to his next drama — and our interview could only be scheduled on the weekend.
“Ask anything you like,” Abdullah gives me carte blanche as soon as we meet. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It is said that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and such is the case with media giant Abdullah Kadwani and his eldest son and fledgling actor Haroon Kadwani. On Father’s Day, Icon tries to find out if the bond is more than one of a son simply riding on the coattails of his father
Our conversation ends up being a very long one, simply because there is so much to talk about, ranging from the ‘science’ of TV drama production to the recent colossal success of 7th Sky Entertainment’s drama Tere Bin, to Haroon’s currently on-air drama, Jhoom, which is winning positive reviews. Luckily for me, this father-son duo are quite at ease with long conversations and late nights.
“He barely sleeps,” Haroon tells me, motioning towards his father. “People at his office will vouch that they can message him at any time in the night and he will reply immediately.”
Abdullah divulges, “Even when I am travelling, I am up at Pakistan time. I’ll take short naps, but I’ll be part of the decision-making process, working from wherever I am. Asad and my work requires us to constantly be alert. There are immediate judgement calls that need to be made regarding every project, the filming, the promotions, the overall packaging. We don’t want any delay or discrepancy to take place just because we weren’t available at the time. Even when we’re in the country, we only manage three or four hours’ sleep daily.
“At a time when the audience can quickly get disillusioned and switch channels, it’s not easy capturing their pulse and keeping them rooted,” he points out.
Based on the high viewership ratings, in real-time as well as on YouTube, Abdullah and Asad it seems are doing a fine job of holding their audience captive.
You may or may not agree with some of their storylines but it is undeniable that 7th Sky Entertainment’s success is mindboggling. I muse over this with Abdullah and Haroon nods in agreement. He knows it all, has absorbed it all, understands the nitty-gritties. Son. Apprentice. Possible hotshot producer in the making — I ask Haroon about that later!
Haroon is also a young TV hero, having worked in only a handful of projects so far but with each ending up a huge success. His telefilm Ruposh, which aired in early 2022, hauled in over 500 million views on YouTube, and his drama Jhoom, airing on Geo TV, has garnered quite a fan following. Despite his very evident popularity, Haroon has been building his career slowly, being very careful about the projects that he selects.
At a time when many of his peers often launch into signing sprees, agreeing to all sorts of projects just in order to remain visible, I find Haroon’s reticence to be quite wise. It goes without saying, of course, that he is one of the lucky few who can afford to be selective.
The son rises
“I have to envision myself as the character I am being asked to play, when I read a script,” Haroon tells Icon. “I need to be able to relate to the character, his emotions, the situations that he will face. Also, the story has to have substance. If a drama is packaged well, gets promoted extensively, has a great soundtrack but doesn’t have a strong story, then the audience won’t watch it. I am also always on the lookout for challenging roles.”
Such as your role in Jhoom, I ask, where you’re playing a young man with a past history of depression? “Yes,” he says. “We all have people around us who have struggled with depression and anxiety.
“Before playing Aryaan [the name of his character in Jhoom], I discussed the story extensively with the director and the producers and then, based on their thoughts, I built the character in my head. It’s very important to discuss how people who have struggled with mental health may recover completely, but still end up getting stigmatised by society for life.
“I do know that I gave the role my all. It’s up to the audience to decide whether they like a character or a drama and, like everyone else, I will end up making mistakes. At my end, I just make sure that I work as hard as I can on my role.”
I turn to Abdullah: the 7th Sky Entertainment umbrella extends over a large number of drama productions annually, some of which become massive hits. Does Abdullah ever regret not casting Haroon in a drama which ended up becoming very successful?
He replies, “Of course, you can never predict exactly how successful a drama will end up being. We can tell if a drama will be received well. I think that, by now, Asad and I understand the audience that much at least. Regardless, I feel that whatever is meant for Haroon will come to him. I would never regret not casting him in a particular role because God simply meant for that role to go to someone else.
“Maybe Haroon will star in one or two 7th Sky Entertainment projects in a year, maybe they will be hits. That’s his fate. All I can do is give him advice and, then, he needs to work hard and choose his characters wisely.”
Haroon echoes his father. “If something is meant for me, even if it is between two mountains, it will come to me. If something is not meant for me, it won’t come to me, even if it is between my two lips. Sometimes, I have read a script and I am just unable to understand it. And then, someone else takes on the role and everything just seems to fit, like the pieces of a puzzle. I realise that that role, that success was meant for that actor after all.”
I observe that it’s a very mature perspective and perhaps it is born out of the confidence that, while Haroon may refuse a certain script, he will still have more roles coming his way. An actor without any connections in the industry may feel a sense of desperation and try to establish himself by signing on to multiple mediocre roles. Haroon, on the other hand, can be picky and zero in on characters that make him shine.
“Yes, I have that benefit,” Haroon accepts, “but who wouldn’t avail an opportunity that life gives to him? I didn’t choose to be born in this particular family. This is my destiny. At the same time, there is an immense pressure to do well. There is no room for failure. It’s make or break,” he asserts.
Abdullah adds: “There are hundreds of actors whose careers have taken off from my platform. Now, if my son also wants to build his career, do I tell him that I can’t give him work because he is my son? How is that fair? I can bring Haroon to the field, but he’ll be the one playing. I can make it possible for him to come on screen, but he’ll be performing. Getting the audience on his side will be up to him.”
He continues: “When Haroon came to me and told me that he wanted to be an actor, I got very excited. I have never pushed my children towards a particular career, but it made me happy that Haroon would be continuing my legacy. I warned him, though, that he will be entering the industry with excess baggage. People like to throw around the word nepotism without even understanding it. Asad and I have launched many stars, but when we would do the same for him, people would start talking immediately.
“I also told him to remain positive, choose his scripts wisely, play characters that his heart believed in, respect his seniors and to always, always, work hard. As a father, the best way in which I can support him is to tell him all that I have learnt from my life.”
Does Abdullah guide Haroon on what scripts to sign on to? “I am lucky,” says Haroon. “I have my father and Asad uncle advising me. That’s more than 40 years of experience, if you add up the years that they have both given to their careers. Ultimately, though, the decision to agree to a script is left to me.”
Dreams and passion
So far, Haroon has been associated with TV productions that have had a very cinematic feel to them, with dramatic visuals, music and action. Jhoom, in fact, has even been shot with the 4K cameras generally reserved for cinema. Does Haroon eventually want to make his big screen debut?
“If possible, yes I would like to work in films,” he says. “But it all depends on the script that I get. In Pakistan, TV is such a powerful medium that I would never want to cut myself off from it entirely.”
Abdullah adds, “Right now, the Pakistani film industry is growing very slowly. I would never want Haroon to stop pursuing a career in TV and on OTT platforms. Right now, film is functioning on the basis of trial and error, with not enough serious players investing into it.”
Is 7th Sky Entertainment considering venturing into cinema? “Yes, it is something that we want to do,” says Abdullah. “Right now, though, we don’t have time. People spend money to come to the cinema and we don’t want to disappoint them when we make a movie. We will only delve into it when we feel that we will be able to balance film production with our TV commitments.
“Ultimately, TV is my first love and right now, I am not even satisfied with the dramas that I am making. We have so many plans, so many projects in the works and we have to stay focused on them.”
It is said that 7th Sky Entertainment makes considerable financial investments into their productions, spending generously on sets and making it a point to pay their cast and crew on time, which is very admirable. However, is it worth improving the production value of a drama at the cost of so much expenditure?
“I think everyone spends money,” says Abdullah. “Asad and I, however, also put in time and effort. We take on challenges, set trends, create benchmarks and make Pakistan well-known on the global map. I have heard people say that they want to create a production similar to ours, but do they ever consider that, aside from money, they would also have to work as hard as us?”
I observe that while Asad Qureshi may not be physically present during this interview, he is very much present in spirit. Abdullah adds emotionally, “One day, when I write a book, I will try to find a word which defines my relationship with Asad. He is more than my brother. We have been working for 22 years now and you won’t find a more successful partnership in the media.
“Also, many of our dreams wouldn’t have been realised if it weren’t for the third person in our triangle, Mir Ibrahim of Geo. Without his support, we wouldn’t be who we are. He understands our passion.”
This passion is, of course, strengthened by audience support. “The thing is, I love my audience,” says Abdullah. “When they watch our dramas, they are committing to us and we have to respond by continuing to deliver characters and journeys that connect with them.
“Sometimes, Asad and I have as many as 500 scenes sent to us on our phones that we have to monitor and approve. There’s a lot of hard work and passion behind every single project. We are also very ruthless, professionally. We want our cast and crew to deliver and be dedicated. The writers enlisted to write our scripts complain that they could get done with four scripts in the time that it takes them to write one for us. But it is because of all the details that we oversee that the final product resonates so well with the audience.
“You just said that our dramas have a film-like quality. Imagine how hard we’ll work if we put our minds to producing an actual movie.”
Love and hate
The audience, however, is a fickle beast. 7th Sky Entertainment’s dramas may be loved extensively but that doesn’t protect them from backlash should fans not agree with the story.
A case in point is the drama Tere Bin, which is currently on air. It is veritably one of the production house’s biggest successes, being watched the world over and breaking records left, right and centre. However, when it seemed that the drama was treading controversial ground, with the possibility of marital rape being part of the plot, there was an uproar on social media.
Rape, in fact, did not end up taking place in the successive episodes which led to conjecture that perhaps Abdullah and Asad had caved in to pressure and changed the story. I pose the million dollar question: did they really have a change of heart because of what people were saying?
Abdullah replies, “It doesn’t matter what people say. I rarely ever tweet but after perhaps a year I tweeted, in order to respond to the audience’s agitation, asking them not to jump to conclusions. They need to see the drama till the last episode to understand what happens.”
There are people who are criticising the drama, saying that it has now lost traction. Can he still profess to love his audience, especially when they react like this? “Of course, I love my audience,” says Abdullah. “I am always open to healthy criticism and, in fact, I learn from it. But I can’t give time and attention to unnecessary gossip and blame games.
“Asad and I would end up at the hospital if we were to get stressed every time we were criticised! It’s easy to sit back and complain, but the fact is that, once the drama has been conceptualised, we have to stick by the script. There are people complaining about Tere Bin and, then, there are people tweeting that they don’t want it to ever end because they like it so much. Different segments of the audience enjoy different flavours.”
I count off some of the flavours in the 7th Sky menu: romance, action, emotion and even film-centric stories reminiscent of Bollywood. “Yes,” he agrees. “We observe our audience, see what particular journeys resonate with them and create content accordingly. Dramas with strong messages are particularly very important to us. I think about 50 percent of our yearly content is based on message-based storylines.”
And the 60 episodes-long drama? “If the story requires that many episodes, we will make the drama that long,” he says. “A 100 kilometre journey can’t be covered in 40 kilometres! We will also produce a drama such as Jhoom, which is 16 episodes long, and short episodic dramas such as Jurm, which was limited to four episodes.”
There’s also the criticism that drama narratives often include plenty of scenes where people are slapping each other. I turn to Haroon: would he be open to starring in a drama where he would have to partake in a bit of slapping? “I haven’t done any such role,” he grins.
But what if such a role gets offered to him, I insist. “I’d assess the situation in the script and I will request the makers to make changes. I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it,” he says.
Abdullah interjects, “I wouldn’t remove the scene just because he or any other actor says so. Why is there this pressure to add filters to a story and make it unrealistic? We are not endorsing cruelty, but we do need to show what is bad around us.”
I ask Haroon if he thinks he will be able to deal with criticism, should it come his way, with the same fortitude as his father? “I pray to God that it doesn’t come my way,” he says, “but yes, I think I will be mentally prepared.”
Abdullah adds, “Haroon is more my friend than my son. If I am stressed out, he actually sits and counsels me. He has a lot of faith and I think that gives him strength.”
Haroon smiles. “If I can counsel him then I am hopeful that I will be able to deal with troubles, should they be directed towards me.”
I ask another question that has long intrigued me: does Haroon feel that it is unfair when it is said that he is like actor Feroze Khan? “It doesn’t make sense,” he says. “He is an established actor — one of our best actors — and he has worked very hard to be where he is now. I, on the other hand, have just started out. It’s wrong to even suggest that I could replace him. He has his own identity and I have mine.”
Does Haroon ever think that one day he might become a producer, like his father? “If I do go behind the scenes, I would be working on edits,” he says. “I think that I have a sense for that.”
The ‘edit’, the tedious post-production work once a drama has been shot, is extremely difficult, says Abdullah. “It requires an understanding of the story, the intricacies and exactly what the viewer wants to see,” he outlines.
Would Haroon want to one day work as obsessively like his father?
“If you ask me if I want to be as successful as him,” he replies, “I would say yes. If you ask me if I want to work as hard as he does, I would say no! Still, sometimes without realising it, I do get obsessive over my work. The shooting of Jhoom spanned about 60 days and there were many days when I would realise at night that I hadn’t even had breakfast. I worked on 24-hour-long shooting spells and my energy didn’t wane.”
So, perhaps you’ve inherited some of Abdullah’s workaholic ways after all, I tell Haroon.
Where does Abdullah see Haroon 10 years from now? Abdullah smiles indulgently. “I don’t want to overstate, but I feel that he has everything in him to become successful. He just needs to work hard.”
Hard work, it seems, makes the world go round in the Kadwani household. They thrive on it, in fact. Abdullah Kadwani is a force to reckon with in Pakistani media today. And Haroon Kadwani is off to a promising start.