Growing up in the Ghazni province, “one of the most unsafe places in Afghanistan,” Sameer Ali Khan clung to the unlikely dream of becoming an international movie star. Today, he is well on his way to realizing his childhood ambitions, but threats and unrest from his native country have provided an unwelcome distraction.
“Sometimes you are in an audition and you suddenly get a call from Afghanistan,” Ali Khan told MSNBC on Monday. “Whenever I get a call from Afghanistan, the first thing comes in my mind is ‘I hope my brother and sister are OK.’”
Ali Khan’s journey from Afghanistan to America could make for its own compelling Hollywood screenplay. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become an engineer, but as a youth, Ali Khan’s head was filled with fantasies of pursuing a more creative career.
“I was always fascinated by the actors and the movies,” he said. “We didn’t really have any kind of film industry in Afghanistan, the one that we had was really kind of limited and was not very accessible to all people.”
After he finished his schooling, Ali Khan saved money for two years and eventually self-financed a short film starring himself. He then made his way to India with no experience and virtually no funds. He threw himself at the mercy of the burgeoning Bollywood movie business, working to establish himself as a reliable bad guy in action adventure films. At first, Ali Khan’s newfound celebrity was well received by people back in his homeland, but he began to experience a backlash when he brought nearly a dozen Indian performers there with him last summer, something he claims had “never happened in the history of Afghanistan.” The Mumbai Mirror called it a “goodwill tour.”
The actor was warned of threats coming from within the hotel he was staying in. He recalls wanting to confront his opponents face to face but was dissuaded to protect his safety. According to The Mumbai Mirror, Ali Khan and his extended family were bombarded with violent messages.
“[They were saying], ‘this guy is getting support from Hindus, or the Americans or whoever because he wants to change the youth, he wants to brainwash the new generation.’ Which is something very stupid, I have nothing to do with that,” he said. Ali Khan maintains that the Afghanistan visit with the Indian actors was “misunderstood.”
In the fall of 2015, Ali Khan got a break — and his first real exposure to American audiences — playing a small villainous role in the Bill Murray comedy “Rock the Kasbah,” which is set in Afghanistan, but was actually largely shot in Morocco. When he got the role, like any young actor on the rise, he shared his good fortune on Facebook. When his post went viral in Afghanistan, he says that once again his intentions were misinterpreted.
“My look was a Taliban kind of look … these stupid people made the judgment ‘OK now this guy is making fun us by wearing our costumes,’” he said. “They hadn’t even seen the movie.”
Although “Rock the Kasbah” received mixed reviews and performed tepidly at the box office, it was praised in some circles for providing a more humane and nuanced portrait of Afghans compared to traditional Hollywood fare.
For his role in it, Ali Khan’s family received more threats, like ”We’ll cut off your hands and legs” and “We’ll kill you if you step into Afghanistan again,” according to the Mumbai Mirror. His parents relocated to the United States, and eventually, Ali Khan joined them.
Ali Khan had planned to return to Afghanistan, if for no other reason than to obtain his visa for India. “I’m not scared of these people,’” he said. But now that he’s here in the U.S. with his parents and has been officially approved to work here, he may remain indefinitely.
“I am loving it, I believe there is more opportunity for me to achieve my dreams,” he added.
Still, he is dogged by stereotypes and the stigma of Afghanistan, which he believes has been misrepresented worldwide by “a few individuals” who are bastardizing his nation’s predominant religion.
“I am a Muslim, and I follow Islam as best as I can and I can honestly say I am following it better than these people,” he said. “Islam is all about peace first of all. There is no restriction in Islam that says you cannot be in the movies … or you can’t have music. In Islam, suicide is the biggest sin which is unforgivable, and these people are doing it in the name of Islam.”
“If I’m in the film business, as long as I’m not hurting anybody … why do you have to tell me what I am to do or not supposed to do?” he added.
From Ali Khan’s perspective, the world is making a mistake by characterizing terrorist organizations like ISIS and the Taliban as “terrifying” and “horrifying,” when from his perspective they are the biggest “cowards” and “losers” on the planet, people who have been indoctrinated from a very young age with untruths about other faiths and cultures, and have not been adequately exposed to alternative viewpoints.
“They only have one mindset … you just press a button, and boom, you’re in heaven. This is the mentality of these stupid people,” he said. “What they’re doing is against Islam. [In the Muslim faith], you respect other peoples’ religions so they respect yours. It’s not like [the terrorists] have extraordinary powers.”