Farhad Khan escaped Kabul while shooting his next movie in the city. Now, life in Pakistan as an artist with refugee status means giving up on his dreams of being an actor.
Farhad Khan, 29, cannot stop thinking and talking about the good old days. Wearing a traditional Afghan dress paired with a black blazer, the Afghan film star is seated in the drawing-room of his neighbour’s house in Karachi’s Afghan Basti. The walls of the room are coated with a faint purple – resembling the pale tone of Khan’s voice as he recalls his entry into the world of acting.
The Pakistan city has become his home since the man known as Afghanistan’s Shah Rukh Khan — after the Bollywood star he loves to mimic — was forced to flee Kabul soon after the Taliban takeover in August last year. The memories come to him like the flashbacks in his films which had put him on the road to stardom.
“I started acting as a hobby by mimicking Shah Rukh Khan and making random clips on social media with one of my friends,” he tells TRT World.
He was on a successful streak as an actor when his career hit a deadlock the day the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Busy filming his blockbuster the same day in Kabul, Farhad's life changed in a matter of hours as he escaped towards Pakistan.
He was born in Pakistan, Karachi, in 1990 as an Afghan refugee. He grew fond of acting in his teen years after watching Shah Rukh Khan’s film Darr (Fear). He mimicked the King of Bollywood, dreaming of becoming as successful as him one day.
In 2015, Khan moved to Istanbul for better economic opportunities. Though he worked as a tailor during the day, Khan was always keen on pursuing acting. To fulfill his dream, he would perform in shows in hotels across the bustling district of Taksim square in the city. He entertained his audiences by impersonating Shah Rukh Khan and was soon to grab the attention of a Turkish producer.
“I worked on a few projects in the Turkish drama industry with Oktay, my friend. After I gained more professional experience by working in Türkiye, I later moved to Afghanistan in 2017 where I worked on two films,” he adds.
Back home, success was knocking on Khan’s doors. In 2020, he signed a contract to star in a big-budget film titled Dehshatgard. Although more than half of the project was completed by summer 2021, the Taliban's entry into Kabul on August 15 meant that the production had to come to a standstill.
Escape to Pakistan
“The day the Taliban entered Kabul, I was on a shoot. Kabul had plunged into chaos. There was street crime everywhere, people were paranoid.”
“Our entire crew just dropped everything… cameras, lights, the entire set, and we all just left. My life changed in a matter of hours. I went to Kandahar first, and then came to Pakistan through the Chaman border and then reached Karachi,” he recalls.
Stuttering to describe anything further, Khan says he just wants to erase that day from his memory. A day which, he added, was like living in hell.
Like Khan, Meena Wafaa, an artist and singer who escaped Kabul the same day, made her way to Rawalpindi.
Now 25, she started her career as a singer at 15. Singing in Pashto and Farsi, Wafaa had gained popularity in a decade.
As a woman with no official card to enter Pakistan, Wafaa’s nerves on August 15 were fraught with anxiety.
“I felt like death throughout the journey. I was paranoid, scared, thinking what if the Taliban recognise me? When I reached the Chaman border, I had to pay almost $600 to be able to enter Pakistan.”
Wafaa did not know who the people at the border were. But, she remembers that they threatened to hand her over to the Taliban if she did not give them the money.
Caught in financial worry and legal limbo, she can’t even afford to get an Afghan citizen card in Pakistan.
“I had such an amazing life and a career back in Afghanistan. I travelled to India and to Dubai to perform in shows. Financially, I was in a better position. Now I have nothing. Even to get an Afghan citizen card in Pakistan, I’m being asked to pay around $300,” she says.
Lack of hope
Over the past 20 years, Afghanistan’s entertainment industry thrived under the US-led government, opening up opportunities for talents such as Khan and Wafaa. But things changed drastically with the chaotic US withdrawal, leaving the people in Afghanistan's entertainment sector at the mercy of the Taliban, which considers some forms of entertainment "forbidden".
People from the entertainment industry are stuck in Afghanistan, Khan says. Even the prominent filmmakers of Afghanistan, such as Saleem Shaheen, live in the shadows of the Taliban’s governance.
“The whole world knows Saleem Shaheen, and if someone like him feels helpless, think of how dire the situation is. People from our industry are stuck in Kabul. They can’t work there at all,” he adds.
Khan and Wafaa are among thousands of refugees who have fled to Pakistan under the veil of fear.
The Taliban takeover forced 300,000 Afghan refugees to seek shelter in Pakistan, with 105,000 entering on valid visas.
According to the UNHCR, the UN agency which handles refugees, there are 1.4 million Afghan refugees registered in Pakistan, many of whom have been in the country since the 1970s.
Opportunities in Pakistan
For Khan and Wafaa, being refugees makes it more challenging for them to restart their lives in the entertainment industry of Pakistan.
“I’m not doing anything, I can't even find work here because I have no ID at all,” says a teary-eyed Wafaa.
According to the Chief Executive Officer of the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi, Junaid Zuberi, it is important to allow talent from refugee backgrounds to flourish in Pakistan.
“The kind of life they have had, it is important to see how they can express it through their art,” Zuberi says.
Considering the growing nature of the entertainment industry of Pakistan, it is vital to give a chance to these artists who are under refugee status, adds Zuberi. “And we must ask, how can their experience be utilised as a form of creative expression?”
Khan and Wafaa are both caught in financial difficulties. While all of Wafaa’s savings have run out, Khan is working as a tailor to make ends meet.
They both feel as if “they fell on ground zero suddenly” despite the success of their careers.
“I used to earn a lot of money there, but here I can hardly make anything. I'm an artist, and art has no boundaries, so I’m hoping I will get work in Pakistan soon,” Khan says.