Little did Arshad Khan know, when he rose for fajr prayers at about 4.30am on a hot September morning two years ago, that this would be the day that changed his life.
After fajr, the 17-year-old had his breakfast and headed to work at his local Itwar (Sunday) market tea stall on the outskirts of Islamabad. Khan had been working at the market for four years – being one of 17 siblings, little attention was paid to his education and, as a result, he had only ever attended a few days of school.
At 8pm, as a hard day's shift of making and ladling tea was coming to an end, the sound of a camera clicking made him look up. The second his blue-eyed gaze met that camera, his fate changed. Photographer Jiah Ali, who caught the shot, posted it on Instagram a month later with the caption "Hot tea". The picture went viral and, within days, people from around the world, including his home country, Pakistan, were discussing the chai wala's astonishing good looks.
"I didn't know that my looks were out of the ordinary. I think all Pashtun people are good-looking, so I didn't think of myself as being special. My older brother says he is much more handsome than me," Khan says.
At first he thought he was in trouble
Since he was illiterate and did not own a mobile phone at the time, he was unaware of the social-media maelstrom his image was causing. When he saw some boys in his neighbourhood with prints of his picture, he questioned them and, puzzled by their answers, continued on his way. When he got to work soon after, Pakistan's paparazzi was waiting for him.
He was completely shocked and, believing that the attention was negative, he left his post and made himself scarce for a few days, all the while wracking his brains, wondering what he could have done that was so bad. "I thought maybe that somebody from my group of friends had done something," Khan says. "I was kind of the leader of our group, so I thought maybe someone had vandalised a car or something, and I was getting the blame." The photographer who took the picture, sought him out and explained what was happening. "Jiah came and found me. I remembered her taking my picture and she explained what had happened."
Reassured that he was not in any trouble, Khan headed back to the stall. What was to follow played out almost like a movie: modelling contracts, family discord, questions over his nationality and, finally, peace and success.
Issue with his conservative family
Online retailer Fitin.pk was quick to take on the unassuming star and signed him to model a range of its clothes.
The rest of Pakistan, too, was eager to get a piece of the chai wala, whose story and looks had captured the nation's imagination. Khan took on more modelling assignments, TV chat-show appearances and starred in a number of music videos. His "big break" came when he was invited to star in popular singer Muskan Jay's music video for her song Beparwai. To date, the video has more than 3.3 million views on YouTube.
Things were going smoothly until photos taken during filming were leaked. Khan’s conservative family saw the snaps, some of which showed him with his arms wrapped around the singer, and called for a meeting. “They were really upset,” Khan says. “They told me not to do such a thing again, and my mother used the word ‘vulgar’.”
Some media outlets reported that Khan’s family had banned him from any type of modelling. His current manager, Kazim Hasan, explains that this wasn’t exactly the case: “It’s true, Arshad’s family was not happy with the shoot. Arshad took a break, and after talks with his family, it was agreed that he would not collaborate on any more shoots where he was standing that close to a member of the opposite sex.”
In January last year, the viral sensation took a six-month sabbatical from the spotlight, until he felt less overwhelmed and ready to continue on his new-found path.
This is when he approached Hasan. Khan thinks that previous managers did not always act in his best interests or pay him properly. "I trust Kazim," Khan says. "He is like a father to me, and he has my best interests at heart. Even if he beat me in front of 100 people, I would still love him."
Khan entrusted Hasan with handling all of his PR and marketing, and things took off for him again. Hasan marked Khan's comeback with an 18th birthday party. Soon after, he became the face of an advertising campaign for the popular shopping destination Pehchan Mall, previous ads for which have featured the lookalike of Bollywood actor Salman Khan.
Questions over the chai wala's nationality
But Khan was once again at the receiving end of negative attention, when media outlet Geo News claimed that he was not actually Pakistani, but Afghani, hailing from Kandahar. Khan refutes this. “My great-grandfather was Afghani, but he moved to Pakistan before India and Pakistan’s partition. My mother is a native of Karachi, where all of her seven brothers still live,” he says.
Hasan confirms that the reports about Khan’s background were duly investigated by Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority, but insists he got the all-clear. “Everything was looked into with a successful conclusion. Khan holds a valid Pakistani passport.” However, the mix-up cost Khan a spot at the prestigious Milan Fashion Week, where he was invited to represent Carrera sunglasses.
What's next for Arshad Khan?
He has since filmed a pilot for a TV show, Chaiwala & Friends, which also stars Ali Fateh, Malik Aqeel and TV host and actor Mariam Salman. The show will see Khan and the team attending film premieres, interviewing actors and politicians, and visiting new restaurants and cafes.
Will we see the chai wala in the UAE soon?
"Arshad has got a down-to-earth personality, which is his strength. He is not in a hurry, but would love the opportunity to work abroad. He has heard a lot about Dubai and we are keen to explore opportunities there," Hasan says.
"Right now, he is receiving tutoring at Xanthum's PR offices in the Blue Area of Islamabad. He is learning computers. Now he is good at WhatsApp and Facebook. He's also learning English," he reveals