Chalay Thay Saath, the latest Pakistani film on the block, is all set to hit cinemas in April 2017. As a run up to the release, FUCHSIA met up with the cast of CTS, and specifically, the Chinese-Canadian actor who stars it big in the film alongside our very own Syra Shehroz. We talked about the story behind the story, the setting, the making of, and, amongst other things…how to take that crash course in URDU…or any foreign language…as told by none other than, our blue eyed boy-the male lead for Chalay Thay Saath! So here he is-FUCHSIA Magazine in conversation with: Kent S. Leung.
What were your expectations before you landed in Pakistan?
I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t have the highest nor best expectations before arriving in Pakistan. The excuse goes along the lines of ‘the media really only portrays Pakistan in a certain light and that light isn’t exactly the most pleasant.’ However at that time I’d already travelled lots in China so I was aware that what the media portrays and what a country truly is like can be, and usually is, hugely different. So I reminded myself to keep an open mind and I’m glad I did, as my experiences in Pakistan were truly eye-opening and unforgettable.
On taking a Crash-Course in a foreign language-specifically URDU.
USE IT AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. And don’t be apologetic if you get it wrong. Cause even though you may be trying your hardest to get it right, the people around you will probably think you’re making a joke and will enjoy a good laugh. Learn to laugh along with them whether you understand why or not.
Your thoughts on actors working across borders?
When I first started acting, I dreamt big from day one but at the same time, knew how challenging (if not nearly impossible), it is to ‘make it’ as an actor. As actors we all like to believe and show to the world we’re successful and not starving artists but the truth of the matter is, 99.9% of all actors are starving artists. We put on this face to our peers and to our fans that we’re stars and that the roles we play are because of our choosing. But the truth is, for the majority of us, we’re just simply happy if we have work, period. Crossing borders does increase opportunity but I think one of the challenges I faced psychologically was, accepting that working in other countries (be it China or Pakistan) does not mean I’m giving up on working in Hollywood or that I’m giving up on trying to work in Hollywood. Before I moved out from Canada I admit that I had this sense of pride. And looking back at myself now, I know I was wrong to have it. Because now that I’ve crossed borders and worked in China and Pakistan, I’ve realized that as an actor it is simply a blessing to have work, to do the things I do and get paid for it, to travel to beautiful places and work with beautiful and talented people and call it ‘work’. And if it wasn’t for the fact I put aside that pride, I would have never worked with people like Umer Adil and Syra Shehroz and travelled to Hunza and humbly felt the warm welcome of everybody I came across in Pakistan while being there.
Will Kent be the blue-eyed boy from the CTS cast? Any special Shalwar Kurtas/ Sherwanis being designed for you?
I am looking forward to being amongst my cast members in Pakistan and being the ‘blue eyed boy’ as you say. Thus far it hasn’t been overwhelming as I’m not on ‘ground level’ there in Pakistan experiencing the hype. But I am very excited for the experience and also actively curbing my expectations for fear of being disappointed for some unbeknownst reason. Trying to keep that level head is hard sometimes. As for the shalwar kurtas or sherwani… I’m actually working with Palwasha Yousuf now to have something prepared for me for one of the nights there. I’m hoping it will be a welcome surprise!
Pakistan-was it a culture shock or…just like home?
I would say the general conservatism as a result of Pakistan being a Muslim country really struck me. Things ranging from alcohol being practically illegal, there being an extremely low threshold for sexual or ‘racy’ content in films, to women needing to be covered up in very specific aspects stick out in my mind now. Suffice to say while growing up I didn’t have much exposure to Muslim traditions and practices so these things I found extremely interesting while I was in Pakistan. At times I felt I may have been quite offensive out of accident since I wasn’t aware of the common practices. I remember constantly checking with Osama whether it was ok for me to say certain things or act a certain way. I really didn’t want to offend anybody.
Actually at one point I made a vague theory that the concept of drinking tea was as big a deal as it is in Pakistan as a result of the inability to casually have a beer with friends. Cause people gotta drink or consume something while socializing, am I right? Gosh… I really hope me saying this isn’t offending somebody. As for things that felt like home…not to go all deep on you but even the concept of home has changed so much for me over the last couple of years. I don’t even know how to compare with Vancouver or Beijing right now. And on top of that when I was in Pakistan I was in small towns for the most part, far away from a city. So I don’t think much of it felt like home at all. But I don’t mean that in a bad way. It was a constant adventure.
Did you face any challenges when shooting a Pakistani movie?
I don’t think I can generalize shooting CTS as shooting any ol’ Pakistani film. From what I heard from the cast, this shooting experience in itself was quite special. That being said, I’ll answer this question specifically to how shooting CTS was… As you may know, CTS was shot during Ramazan. This was a very interesting experience for me as everybody’s schedules were, in my opinion, in all sorts of whack. I wouldn’t say this made it difficult to shoot but definitely added an extra layer to the whole experience. Hanging out and socializing during iftar before the morning of a shoot became regular practice, whether I was breaking fast or not. (I wasn’t. I planned on trying to fast for one of the days but in the end it didn’t happen).
Canadian or a Chinese? Who does Kent identify with more?
I must say I identify more as a Canadian than Chinese. It isn’t a big mystery that Canadians generally don’t have a whole lot of history nor a deep cultural background. Despite my parents being from Hong Kong, I grew up in an extremely western neighbourhood. I lived life without borders and was extremely free-spirited. This, I identify a lot with and it’s something that is a bit uncommon in China. However that being said, now that I live in China and being amongst people of my ethnicity I’m breaking down walls within myself I never knew I had and in a way, continuing to grow as that open-hearted and open-minded Canadian while soaking in and absorbing constantly, the Chinese culture that surrounds me.
What moved you most about Chalay Thay Saath?
You couldn’t have asked this any earlier huh? … reaching into my inner memory banks …without giving too much away. Adam is having a tense conversation with his mother, who’s bitter towards Adam’s father. And the line translated from Mandarin is essentially Adam saying: ‘Father’s right and so are you.’ This line really stuck out in my head because like many situations in life where people are involved there is no right and wrong, and as a result of it, people get hurt and in turn want to blame somebody for the pain that they feel. In the moment I performed this scene I remember just feeling deeply in my heart that I wanted my onscreen mother to forgive my onscreen father and to realize…it’s just life.
We heard you were looking forward to running around trees and letting loose some dance moves. How did that pan out?
Well they couldn’t quite stop me from climbing on just about everything (trees, side of a mountain, etc). But I didn’t really get to show off any dance moves unfortunately. I did do a backflip on my final day of shooting since we were filming on the beach of Attabad Lake. Somebody on the CTS crew has footage I’m sure. A few of the crew members followed suit and were enthusiastic to show off some moves themselves. It was a great way to end the shoot for me.
As for dancing as part of the film, I was disappointed. I realized how cool it would’ve been to be a part of a ‘Bollywood’ style dance ensemble as part of the movie. I felt like if I did it I could’ve added it to my bucket list just to have it checked off.
The Pakistani experience – How would you word it for friends and family back home?
I’d tell them to go and check it out. I can’t speak for the big cities of Pakistan since I hardly spent any time there, but I think Hunza was absolutely breathtaking and worth the awkward flights and car rides through rockslide-ridden highways getting there. My parents were naturally worried once they got the news but being the parents of an actor I think they’ve been dealing with being worried for many years before that. Also my move to China definitely warmed them up I’d say.
Was it difficult to connect with people in a foreign culture?
Keeping an open mind and maintaining a willingness to connect with people no matter the awkwardness or inability to properly communicate is extremely important. People are people no matter where they are from. A smile and a warm hand shake go a long way whether you know what to say after or not. No matter the religion, gender, age or language of a person, we all joke the same way and know what sincerity is.
I have one Pakistani friend in Vancouver. Her name is Zehra and we used to work together in an office back when I used to have a ‘normal’ job. When I started discussing the role with Umer and Beenish I brought up this potential role to Zehra. She was ecstatic with the idea of me going to her home country to shoot a film and told me despite the fact she doesn’t watch a whole lot of Pakistani films, she would definitely watch this one and tell all her friends and family to watch too. I think thanks to her enthusiasm I warmed up to the idea especially quickly. It didn’t hurt either that she told me Hunza was a magical place.
How does your story read so far-Vancouver to Beijing to Hunza. ..what next ?
Since finishing CTS I’ve been working hard developing myself for the Chinese market. Specifically, learning Mandarin and Martial Arts. Although I used to breakdance and do gymnastics, it’s not quite the same as knowing how to throw a punch or kick properly for the camera. Picking up a big project here in China is my main agenda this year thus the determination in learning these two things and fast. However recently I have been in talks with some Hollywood producers so who knows, I might be heading back that way for my next project.
And last but not least, why should we go watch CTS?
In a few sentences. The breathtaking visuals. And no I don’t mean digitally created city-crumbling explosions. I mean real, sweeping gorgeous landscapes shot in Pakistan’s own Hunza valley. I myself am looking forward to that.
As for Syra and I, or rather, Resham and Adam…it’s a love story without many words. It’s a love story between two people who were open to connect despite not knowing what to say after or afraid of the awkwardness of miscommunication. In this day and age where people from all sorts of far away places meet and encounter other people from strange foreign lands, this attitude to connect and even love despite that fear, is becoming more and more something that the world needs.