A Nomadic Heart

By Siam Raihan and Sabrina Fatma Ahmad

Born in Brahmanbaria, raised in Sylhet, a young man with a restless heart and stars in his eyes came to Dhaka to seek his fortunes. The roll of the dice set him on a road to stardom, and with three back-to-back hits in this year alone, shattering a few international records on the way, Sariful Razz has definitely arrived, and how. This month, as he graces the cover of MW Bangladesh, we peel back the layers to see the man behind the superstar

Sariful Razz turns up at our morning shoot at Radisson Blu Water Garden, dressed down in baggy jeans and a draped flannel shirt, his long hair bundled up under a beanie. The new dad hasn’t had breakfast yet, and so he’s starving. Club sandwiches are brought in, and he chows down, never missing a beat as we launch right in.

Idyllic beginnings

Sariful Razz was born in Brahmanbaria, where he led what he describes as a “raw and exciting” childhood. Living close to the border, in lush green settings, every day was filled with wonder for this bright-eyed, curious child, who was interested in everything, everyone, everywhere, and unable to settle his nomadic heart. “Every evening would end with my parents receiving a list of naughty things I had been up to all day,” he recalls with a laugh. 

The family moved to Sylhet because of his father’s job. Razz completed his SSC from The Aided High School, one of the oldest secondary schools in Sylhet. After completing his HSC from Sylhet’s prestigious Madan Mohan College he moved to Dhaka in 2009. Initially, the plan was to enroll at Dhaka College, but his uncle expressed some concerns regarding his prospects, so he moved to Narayanganj. “I used to idolize my Boro Mama. He was always well-dressed and impeccably groomed. I remember, even as a kid, I would run around in his shirt and shoes, even though they were too large for me,” Razz recalls with a grin. Bad news for anyone who agrees with us that this is an incredibly adorable image; no photographs from the star’s halcyon childhood exist.

The same Boro Mama was mildly concerned that his flighty, impressionable young nephew, with his fascination for history and love of poetry would be absorbed into politics, although Razz had no concrete plans for his future at that point. A year later he came back to Dhaka and enrolled at a private university. Financial woes began to threaten his education.

From ramps to the silver screen

The mood shifts as we move from breakfast to makeup and hair. Razz keeps things light, which makes it easier to delve into what were very turbulent times for the young man. His foray into modeling initially began as a means to support himself while living in the capital city. A virtual newcomer without any network or connections, he had to rely on his natural good looks and sense of style to get ramp gigs. And yet somehow, he remembers this period without a sense of rancor.

“I stayed with a friend at his place in Dhanmondi – you know, in those days, probably now as well, there’d be many young bachelors sharing one space. It was hard, but also enjoyable. I roamed around the city a lot, spent a lot of time hanging out by the lake, talking to people. I was good at striking up conversations, and I enjoyed listening to their stories.” He maintains that he was going with the flow, trying to see where the tides of fate would take him, but these interactions, these stories he was absorbing, combined with his interest in history and poetry, would prepare him for his future. Only, he didn’t know it yet …

Razz was fascinated by the giant billboards that were ubiquitous in Dhaka a few decades ago. As he was already modeling, he wanted to see himself on one if he could. With that in mind, he decided to build on his natural skills and grow a network of contacts. He started looking for a grooming school where he could learn the ins and outs of ramp modeling, and finally enrolled at a model school run by popular Bangladeshi model and choreographer Bulbul Tumpa. His first gig came in 2009. There was no turning back after that. Ramp work began to arrive in a steady stream, and major brands came calling. 

“The time I started modeling, our fashion houses were more invested in Kashmiri models. For every five Bangladeshi guys in a shoot, there were 15 Kashmiris. So it was very hard for a Bangladeshi man to break into this industry,” explains Razz. 

He understands now that the preference for Kashmiri models comes from preconceived ideals of attractiveness, which at the time, favored fair skin and sharp features. 

We pause as he leaves to change, and comes back in a three-piece ensemble from Marooned, in decadent dessert shades of caramel, cinnamon, and toffee, wavy hair framing his face in a dark halo, looking like he stepped right out of a storybook, and it is hard to imagine how anyone could pass over an opportunity to use such a fantastic frame for their brands, but clearly, the zeitgeist was different a decade ago.

“We had these preconceived notions of masculinity back then; that a man had to be very fair skinned, and have curly hair and light eyes, like the Kashmiri models – who are good looking, don’t get me wrong – but what was important then was that male models look ‘foreign’, because that would somehow elevate our brand value,” he muses, going on to express his sadness at this lack of self-confidence the Bangladeshi fashion industry had at the time. “We suffer from some kind of inferiority complex; that something Bangladeshi, whether it’s a brand or a model, isn’t ‘good enough’; that we have to somehow promote an association with something international to sell it,” he says, adding that he is happy that these ideas were challenged, and the market for homegrown talent has increased exponentially the last decade or so. The shift had already begun to happen while he was working as a model.

“As years went by and I kept working, I came across the beautiful Azra Mahmood. Her choreography and style were very different from the regular shows we did at that time,” Razz said. So strong was this affinity for Mahmood’s vision and style that he began to work exclusively with her. Mahmood’s mentorship would pay off, and Razz eventually achieved his billboard dream, to the extent that during the 2016-2017 Eid season he made a record for featuring on more than 300 billboards across Bangladesh. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

Screen debut

A wardrobe change, this time into what the MWB team jokingly dubbed the “Hong Kong Mafia” look, a slinky leopard-printed button down from Marooned, worn beneath a blinged out blazer from Raw Nation. With his hair tied back, Razz is every inch the action star. He talks about working in spite of injuries on the set of Gunin, mentions that he would love to work on an action flick, if the script was right and the director had a vision he could get behind. This is a confident star speaking, a bankable actor with three back-to-back blockbusters under his belt in one year alone. He is quick to remind us that this was not something he had planned for.

By 2016, Razz had earned a reputation and made a place for himself among the prominent fashion brands in the country. Out of the blue one day, he got a call from renowned filmmaker Redoan Rony to star in his film Ice Cream. The initial meetings didn’t strike Razz as momentous, but when, after the third meeting, Rony expressed that he was considering Razz for one of the central roles of the film, something shifted. “I thought this would be an excellent scope to start a film career alongside modeling, as I always had a passion for the big screen,” Razz explained. He agreed to do the film and it turned out to be a life-changing event for him. 

Through a dark phase and back out into the light

Razz enjoyed working on Ice Cream but the experience came at a cost. While his film debut was well received, the big fashion brands he worked with as a ramp model swiftly cut him out of their shows and shoots. “The brands assumed that I had fully transitioned into films. The truth was, I had no idea how to advance as an actor. I had no contacts, no PR machinery or strategy, or even any idea about how to land a new project,” he confesses. 

Feeling a bit lost, he turned to his mentor Azra Mahmood for help. “This time I was more selective about the brands and shoots I would work on,” he added. Almost three years went by before he was approached by Star Cineplex authorities as they were producing their debut film No Dorai directed by popular filmmaker Taneem Rahman Angshu. 

The project came with another challenge: The entire film was shot in the Chittagonian/Cox’s Bazar dialect. “This challenge again showed me how different films throw different hurdles in front of an actor. I had to learn the local dialect and also had to learn how to surf as the film was based on surfing,” Razz continued. This film was an eye-opening moment for Razz, as he decided to focus solely on acting and wanted to embrace what new obstacles he might face with new roles to come. 

“I have no regrets about my modeling career as I gave everything I could, considering the Bangladeshi ramp scene. I did all my modeling to survive at that time. But after No Dorai I realized my passion for acting and decided to transform myself into an actor.”

Razz is full of wonder and gratitude at where he is in life right now. Yet things were not as rosy even very recently, when Covid-19 hit the country, and brought the entire film and theater industries to a standstill. 

Poran and Hawa and Damal, all films that he stars in began shooting before the lockdown but they could not be released due to the enforced lockdown all over the globe. Gunin was the last film to be shot during this period, but was released first after the lockdown was lifted. 

“Every bit of liquid cash I had saved doing these projects was gone during the lockdowns. I didn’t know if these films were going to hit the theaters or not after Covid. Had it been a mistake to leave everything else to follow this plan? I just kept thinking that Covid completely destroyed me,” said Razz. 

His fears, though justified, would turn out unfounded as Poran, Hawa, and Damal not only made it to the theaters, but all three turned out to be massive blockbuster hits, breaking all sorts of screen records around the country. Hawa would go on to find super-massive success internationally, drawing huge crowds of the Bengali diaspora around the world to theaters and screenings of the same.

The pandemic era would also prove to be a gift on the personal front. During the shoot of Gunin Razz and his co-star Pori Moni fell in love. It was a whirlwind romance, one that culminated in marriage after only a week of courtship. The pair have all the makings of a power couple, although this doesn’t come without its challenges.

We danced around the topic of rumors and speculation regarding the marriage, when social media statements about the pair began to make rounds, and news outlets were quick to fan the flames of a celebrity feud. Sariful Razz, who has chosen to remain as private as possible with regards to his personal life, says “I don’t really care what people say about rumors. I know myself. Pori herself is a film star. I think it’s considered normal for people to be overly invested in her personal life. I prefer to stay private in my personal life but those rumors and headlines sometimes can actually cause harm. All I can say is that I know who I am.” 

Razz is careful not to join in the mudslinging by adding more speculation and/or name-calling the other parties involved. He has maintained this stance in all press interviews involving the story, saying that the active parties are welcome to clarify their stance if they see fit.

“Probably the greatest disadvantage of being famous is that celebrities have no privacy. Fame brings a lot of stress, I guess. Whatever. I choose to focus on enjoying the fact that people liked my movies. They appreciate me and motivate me. A few years back, I didn’t have the recognition. Of course, back then I had more freedom to roam around here and there. It’s a trade-off,” he muses. How does he deal with the toxicity? “I practice self-compassion and forgiveness” he answers, moving on from the topic. 

Down in the ambient red lighting of the billiard room, our protagonist is dressed in all black, an elegant, suave, dangerous look. We change gears to talk about the biggest gift he received in 2022. And it’s a hard one to beat.

 Dhallywood’s power couple Sariful Razz and Pori Moni became parents of a boy, Shaheem Muhammad Rajya, on 10 August 2022.  

“It’s completely changed my whole life!” he gushes, adding “Becoming a father changed not only my perspective on life but also changed the way I face challenges. It is a good time to assess every aspect; what is good or bad and what is healthy. I am not the man that I used to be. In fact, I am better, much better. Becoming a father may be the one thing that has changed my life more than anything.”

5 questions with Sariful Razz

Your first web film Mainkar Chipay gave us one of the most stylistic characters you portrayed on screen. How did that happen?

“I hate normal people. I don’t know why. But these out-of-the-ordinary personas attract me somehow and I feel great that I am working with them on their project,” Razz said. 

“I like Abrar because he has that disco vibe to him. His stories are absurd yet authentic and always have an inner message that connects with our generation. Mainkar Chipay was just like that,” he added. Razz also enjoyed that the entire story revolved around one night and just three characters in a car. He never wants to miss the opportunity to be a part of exceptional stories like these. 

Each character you played onscreen is completely different from the other. Why do you enjoy this challenge?

Razz had decided this right from the moment he chose to shift his focus to acting. He explained if he starts acting 25 days out of 30 days in a month that will not bring anything new out of him. “After Poran and Hawa, doing similar characters like the ones in those films won’t be enjoyable to the audience nor will it be fruitful for me as an actor,” said Razz. He also mentioned after doing these films he became extra careful about choosing each of his next projects where Razz won’t be the central element of the story. 

What was the difficult part of shooting Hawa in the deep sea?

Razz fondly recalls a previous job at a real estate company, which he had during his modeling days. The job once took him to St Martin’s Island for a scouting project and his attachment with the sea started to grow from there. After that, whenever he had any spare time he would visit the sea and spend hours alone just watching the waves. He also mentioned that the enjoyment of working on the set of Hawa is hard to describe in words. Every day the entire unit started out before dawn from St Martin’s Island and got into a small boat. It took them to a larger boat and then they went 30-40 miles deep into the sea and did the production each day till sunset. 

“But what Hawa did was improve me greatly as an actor. The entire cast was marvelous with brilliant actors like Chanchal Chowdhury. I first got the chance to closely work with veteran actors of such high caliber and learned how they prepare for a scene and how their mannerisms work on set.” 

Hawa even made into the US top chart during its opening week. Did you anticipate such a response?

Razz emphasizes that he doesn’t choose projects on the basis of an expected commercial success. The vibe of the film’s story, its team, and his role helps him decide what films to work in. Razz also said that if he ever works in a project that completely flops at the theaters, he will not have any regrets. “Right after the film’s local release it was all over social media. After that, when it hit the US top 30 chart during its overseas release, that was even harder to imagine for us,” Razz said. 

“But there are hundreds of agencies in this business all over the world and it is now easier than ever to distribute content. If the content is good enough, people will accept it no matter what. And Hawa has set a great example of that in our film industry. Though it is not a commercial film, it became one of the highest grossing films,” he continued. 

Your first Liberation War film Damal is also running well. How are you feeling about that?

Razz said that he was very curious about the Liberation War of Bangladesh since his childhood. He always used to ask his grandparents for stories about that period and learned how different family members were involved in the war for independence and how others had to flee their homes for safety. These always inspired him to learn more about the war. “And the most interesting thing about Damal is that it is not only a Liberation War movie. It is inspired from the true events of the legendary Shadhin Bangla Football Team who did not directly fight in the war but played football matches to raise funds for the war,” said Razz. He also explained how in one of the matches the team marched into an Indian stadium with the Bangladeshi flag to generate international media attention though the country was not liberated yet. This was a violation of international regulations. He felt that this is a story that would inspire the younger generation. All these factors intrigued Razz to sign this project. He talks about how the national flag of his country means so much to him. Whether it is the Bangladeshi cricket team winning a match or the women’s football team winning the South Asian title, everyone wants to hold the national flag up high from their own respective place.

Fashion Direction & Styling: Mahmudul Hasan Mukul
Photographer: Rony Rezaul
Cinematography & Direction: Ashrafuzzaman Shakkhor
Make-up & Hair: M.K Hossen
Assist. stylist: Arefin Jihad
Location Courtesy: Radisson Blu Dhaka Water Garden

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