Actor Faran Tahir and Paths Less Traveled
By Ras H. Siddiqui
It is not always easy to take a segmented approach towards reporting on an all-day conference such as OPEN Forum 2011 but once in a while some exceptions just have to be made. The Organization of Pakistani Entrepreneurs (OPEN) is already well-known for providing ongoing business mentorship and networking opportunities for the Pakistani-Americans here in Silicon Valley and in Boston, Houston, New York and Washington DC. We have previously covered OPEN’s annual Forum plus monthly or quarterly events on a number of occasions. But this year a couple of segments attracted this scribe’s attention at OPEN Forum 2011 in Mountain View, California out of which the “Paths Less traveled-Conquering new Frontiers” featuring a keynote address to our community youth by actor Faran Tahir took center-stage. The other segment namely “Gen Y Entrepreneurs” coordinated by a 16-year-old Zahra Siddique also captured one’s imagination.
Faran Tahir was introduced by tech entrepreneur, movie producer and OPEN Charter Member Shoieb Yunus. Faran’s keynote speech provided personal insights into the difficulties he had encountered on the path towards becoming an actor. Surprisingly, some of that resistance came from within his own family, one which has been quite a major contributor to the performing and literary art world in both India and Pakistan and now the United States for five generations (counting Faran’s son’s cameo appearance in Iron Man). From his great grandparents starting an Urdu magazine in India in the late 1890’s to his roles in Star Trek and Iron Man, the Tahir family has been quite busy.
Born in Los Angeles, Faran grew up in Pakistan and then returned to the US to study economics and business at UC Berkeley. Facing a life and career “as charming as econ can be,” Faran approached his parents (who both trained at UCLA in theatre) about his alternate career of choice, i.e. acting. “Eventually I realized that I should follow my heart.” “They begged me to do anything else.” What he gathered later was they were testing his motives and whether this career choice was just an attempt to feed his ego? He also realized that they were trying to protect him from the hurtful rejection which accompanies this journey.
Faran kept an open line of communication with his parents throughout his career and changing paths. He also realized that to succeed he needed formal training. So he went to Harvard and got his training in theatre from there. “And that started my journey,” he explained, one which has had its ups and downs. He added, “I have had some disappointment and I have also had a number of successes. I have learned that in order to become an actor, I have to remain a student all of my life.”
He said that it was a tough business to be in and that he liked to be artistically challenged but “I don’t want to become a source of perpetuating stereotypes and that is a constant battle that I faced… especially in the early part of my career.” After he completed college he got the opportunity to read for the role of a Pakistani storekeeper who is being held up at gunpoint. Faran really got into his role as a fearful person who is staring down the barrel of a gun. But the casting Director looked puzzled and bewildered and said something like: “That was great. But you are not being Pakistani enough. And then he proceeds to show me how to be a Pakistani.” Faran had his listeners at OPEN Forum 2011 rollicking in laughter as he proceeded to deliver exactly what the director had in mind, inclusive of the heavy accent and “Pakistani” hand gestures. “I was young and I wanted the job. I also had that debate within myself. But I just couldn’t bring myself to turning this character into a stereotypical buffoon.” Faran very politely declined that role and left. He said that this kind of situation arises every now and then in this business and one just has to deal with it.
He said that when he started out in this business, there were only a handful of South Asians and Middle Easterners involved in it. “But things are changing now.” Giving examples like Reza Aslan and Shoieb Yunus present at this OPEN Forum, he said that some people are already taking it to the next level. “People are finding ways to change the conversation and not just keeping it in the stereotypical realm of who we are,” said Faran. Our people are slowly chipping away at this hurdle. He gave the example of Iron Man in which he was able to engage the director, producer and writer in the conversation and succeeded in taking any negative references about religion out of it. “But it came out of a conversation. It came out by engaging with the other person.” He also gave an example from a role that he played on Grey’s Anatomy, a character who has seen his family die in conflict and was now himself facing a terminal illness. Faran explained how he was able to enhance the role by showing the character in a private moment of prayer.
Faran highlighted the fact that we all hope to see our community portrayed in movies and on television shows in a more multidimensional fashion. He said that this is a valid concern that we have. Again he stressed that minorities and immigrants need to engage the media. “We cannot rely on the kindness of strangers,” he said. He added that no one understands our history, our life our experience as well as we do
“We can use the tools of today to create a stronger community.”
“We can use the power of the media to start a dialog between the rest of the world and us,” said Tahir. But within this realm, he put the onus back on our community. “While we celebrate our positives we also have to analyze our negatives,” he said. He added that we also need to become a part of the now global artistic community and in the process the fabric of the societies that we live in (it cannot be done in a vacuum). Media and the arts in our community need its wholehearted support down to the family level. Concluding his thoughts he said that he had high hopes for the next generation, one which has the potential to excel in all areas, including performing arts.