Faith and film: Actor Ashley Chin’s balancing act
In recent years, the British urban film scene has enjoyed a growing popularity, owing largely to the cultural influence and success of films like Anuvahood. One of the rising stars in this genre is British actor and convert to Islam, Ashley Chin, a.k.a. Muslim Bilal. Recently, we met at The Grosvenor Hotel where Ashley spoke about the clouds on the horizon, when clamouring for industry status and opened up about remaining faithful in the path to motion picture success.
After converting to Islam in 2002, Ashley’s flair for theatre saw him grow into a successful actor and screenwriter, a feat he thought beyond his reach growing up on a deprived South London council estate. Since then, he has embarked on a journey which has scoured poverty, hardship and adversity.
With limited opportunities and a feeling of being neglected by the ‘system’, many of Ashley’s peers resorted to a criminal lifestyle to make ends meet. But the 30-year-old actor convinced himself that treading the same path would leave his potential unfulfilled.
“Growing up and witnessing all this crime which my friends were being swept up in did nothing to dampen my natural gift for performance and the big screen,” Ashley said. And there’s no doubting his determination. Today, he boasts an impressive acting resume, starring in popular urban action flicks like Anuvahood and Skit, as well as episodes of The Bill and Law & Order. His latest crime thriller Victim, sees him leading the cast as Tyson, starring alongside David Harewood (Blood Diamond, Homeland), which tells the story of a young man desperate to pack in his criminal past and live a clean life, while parenting his younger sister.
Despite his fortunes suddenly overturned, Ashley is aware of the potential pitfalls and fault lines his work can present to any young man landing that successful break. It reminded me how at times, it can be compromising to be a teetotal Muslim actor. A devout Muslim, he prays five times a day, believes in the Qur’anic maxim of lowering the gaze in front of women and says his every step as an actor is “accountable to Allah”.
Ashley tries to strictly conform to the “Salafi” strand of Islam, which is commonly known in western circles as the official religious stance adopted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Being the most puritan and abstemious branch of Islam, it requires a literal and totalistic application of the Quran’s verses and Prophet Muhammad’s practices, on a wide range of issues, from the etiquette of eating and drinking, to the proper relationship between men and women.
Central to the Salafi code of conduct is the prohibition of any free mixing and interaction, unless deemed necessary by Sharia law, between men and women are were not ‘mahram’ – in the category of unmarriageable kinfolk. Ashley remarked that as a committed Muslim, his profession does not always lend easily to someone bracing the “lights, cameras and action of a film set with uncovered actresses” and that he has to “hold firm” to his religious principles while filming.
After declining numerous requests by producers to strip down to his skivvies for a steamy sex scene, he was dogged by the thought of doing the legions of Muslim followers a disservice by having to act out some intimate scenes with female co-stars. This came as no surprise, as he explained that according to Salafism, a gentle embrace with the opposite sex, let alone an erotic gesture can prompt a flurry of condemnatory fatwas. But there was no doubt where Ashley’s allegiance lay and he insisted he would never purchase the trappings of success by compromising his Salafism.
Although acting felt at times like skating on thin ice, it could never drive a wedge between him and his Lord. If there was a price to be paid for parading before the camera, relinquishing his faith and “playing to the gallery” as he put it, was not it. There were moments in Ashley’s career that suggested his spiritual yearnings could resist the temptations of stardom. As we grumbled about Bollywood stars whoring themselves to the cultural terrains of western cinema, Ashley insisted he would never follow suit.
“Keeping afloat in cinema does not require selling out. Islam is what makes me the person I am today and letting my career get in the way of my faith would be a disservice to God”. Those words were enough to prove that Ashley is not chucking his roots to mindlessly ape the crude westernisation which the filming industry can demand. Wrestling to preserve his Islamic character, amid the ambiguities that his career presented was just another circle that needed squaring in his mind.
Since his conversion to Islam, Ashley has lived with a different set of priorities, and has never thought of revisiting his “jaahil” (ignorant) past. After becoming Muslim in 2002, the knack for poetry, which he developed as early as 12, suddenly acquired spiritual and political dimensions. He adopted the pen name ‘Muslim Bilal’, helping to increase his Muslim fanbase which he saw as crucial for keeping him in good stead for the years to come.
“That was the impetus which drove me to offer live performances in universities, public exhibitions and gigs and something which rekindled my love for film”. Forever grateful to the energy of converts and co-religionists for harnessing his artistic potential, Ashley saw this as a precursor to a breakthrough in film. It was a matter of “qadr” – predestination – that becoming Muslim would spur him in a direction he never anticipated.
He feels as a result, obliged to maintain an acting career in tandem with Islam and is confident he can carry the moral teachings of his faith as a glimmer of hope against the grim backdrop of gang crime which affects scores of youth. As an actor, he told me he had an instrumental role to “give back to his community” and “de-glamourise youth violence” using the medium of film, reminding his peers and followers of the perils of a criminal lifestyle.
“Being Muslim has helped me decide which roles I can take up. I try to draw up characters which relate to people I knew in my early youth and this is the inspiration behind the character Tyson. He is plagued by a guilty conscience and tries to escape the bondage of gangs and crime. He’s a good person at heart”.
With plenty planned for his calendar in the upcoming months, there was always a need to “escape from the madding crowd,” according to Ashley. “Live on this earth as you are a traveller,” he quoted, as one of his favourite sayings of Prophet Muhammad.
And that’s exactly what Ashley does when not acting, nurturing the spirit and availing himself from life’s predictable cycle. He currently lives in Kuwait and has done so for the past year. The retreat to Muslim countries for prolonged periods of meditation allows a moment for “Ashley Chin and Muslim Bilal to trade places”, and serves “a righteous purpose”. When he has no script, schedule or rehearsal to attend to, Ashley finds comfort in being thousands of miles from home, revelling in the atmosphere of sojourning Muslim pilgrims and religious study circles.
Listening to him marvel at the splendours of Muslim society and the peace he felt socialising with the native Arab peoples during his travels got me thinking whether filming mediocrity was Ashley’s best choice, if it meant safeguarding his God-fearing ways? But he’s willing to prove doubters wrong and carve a way to building his brand, beef up the potential for international distribution and attract big investment, without shifting the signposts of his universe and compromising Islam. And if he can survive the culture baggage of cinema, then that is a tremendous feat indeed.
‘Victim’ is out now on DVDTagged in: Anuvahood, Ashley Chin, Blood Diamond, David Harewood, homeland, islam, Muslim Bilal, Salafi, victim
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