Uzbek actor Daler Yusuf will never forget what his grandfather did for him.

Born and raised in southern Uzbekistan, Daler, who is of Uzbek-Malaysian parentage, would dream of a better life for him and his family.

“Growing up, I only had one or two TV channels and I remember seeing kids going to study in Harvard or Oxford. Since then, I’ve always wanted to study abroad,” he recalls with a smile during an interview with Star2.

“When I was 18, I convinced my grandfather to send me to Malaysia to study. I told him I would work hard and I wouldn’t ask for money when I got here.”

Daler’s grandfather, a cotton farmer, agreed to pay for Daler’s plane ticket and his first year in college.

But buying into Daler’s dreams meant selling off a prized possession – the family car.

“Even though my uncles and aunties were against the idea, he told them, ‘it’s my car and it’s my grandson. I want him to study and be someone, someday.’”

It has been eight years since Daler left home. Now 25, not only does he have a degree in business administration, he is a rising star in the Malaysian entertainment scene.

Difficult beginnings

Daler Yusuf Khamrokulov Muhammad was only six when his Kelantanese mother passed away.

“I would see the other kids going to school with their parents and although my grandparents took care of me like how a parent would, you want your real mum sending you to school,” he talks about how the experience shaped who he is today.

“It made me sad but I think it encouraged me to be a stronger person.”

He grew up mostly with his grandparents and 15 other family members on a farm in the Surkhandarya Province, a 10-hour drive from capital city Tashkent.

Daler’s grandfather was a cotton farmer whose yield fluctuates according to the weather.

“There were times when I only had bread to eat during lunch time,” he remembers.

Daler Yusuf

Daler Yusuf couldn’t speak a word of Malay when he first came to Malaysia but now acts in Malay dramas.  Photo: The Star/Azhar Mahfof

Daler loved the farm life though, helping to take care of horses, cows and turkeys, except for one thing: going through winter without electricity.

“During winter, Uzbekistan is very cold and you have a few hours of electricity in the morning, maybe 5am to 9am, and at night, 7pm to 11pm.”

“I told myself, I want to study hard, I don’t want to stay in this environment forever. One day, I want to bring my grandparents to live in a better place or install solar panels where they are so they can have electricity all the time.”

Daler was determined to change his life when he first arrived in Malaysia in 2010. But it was harder than he had imagined.

The money from the sale of his grandfather’s car wasn’t enough to cover his daily living expenses and tuition fees beyond his first year of studies.

“For the first three months, I went to restaurant after restaurant but I couldn’t get a job. I was out of money.

“A lot of people asked me to go back. It was a tough situation but I never thought of going back. My grandparents were telling everyone back home that their grandson was studying overseas and how they were so proud of me. If I suddenly went back, I would feel ashamed of myself and it would make them really sad.”

Daler dug his heels in and eventually landed a job as a waiter. “I would go to classes from 9am to 3pm then go to work from 4pm to 10pm. Weekends were full working days.”

While waiting tables, customers took notice of Daler’s striking good looks and even offered him modelling opportunities.

“When I first went for castings, I always failed. I was very nervous. I used to blush a lot,” the porcelain-skinned actor admits.

“And to get to those casting agencies, because I didn’t have money for taxis, I took buses. Sometimes when I couldn’t find a bus, I would just be walking for one to two hours.”

It took six months before the 180cm-tall Daler finally scored a modelling assignment.

“I was jumping up and down and shouting and thanking the casting agent. As a waiter, I earned about RM500 a month. That first modelling job, I worked for one day and I got RM2,500,” he recalls animatedly.

From then on, the modelling jobs gradually flowed in and by 2012, he could earn a living without having to wait tables. He even took a year off from his studies and travelled around South-East Asia as a model.

It was through modelling that Daler stumbled upon acting. Working on the set of TV commercials and walking the runways at fashion week, Daler got acquainted with local actors, TV producers and directors.

Daler Yusuf

Daler Yusuf was partnered with actress Sari Yanti in his first major acting debut, Lip Lap Raya. Photo: Filepic

Learning Malay from scratch

Transitioning from modelling to acting is hard enough, but it was harder still for Daler who couldn’t speak a word of Malay.

Daler picked up the language from scratch by watching Malay dramas and films, and speaking Malay to the people around him as often as possible.

After graduating from college, he made his acting debut in a minor role in the 2015 Aaron Aziz-starring drama Tuan Anas Mikael.

Though Daler says his first acting experience was “really tough” for him, he must’ve done something right. His next role was as a leading man in Lip Lap Raya (2016) opposite Sari Yanti.

“She was someone I wanted to act with even before I got into acting. So I got extra nervous when I acted with her. There were some things I couldn’t deliver. I was disappointed with myself. She could take one look at the script and remember everything. I have to read up at home and practise on set,” he reflects on the experience.

Two more major roles later (Encik Suami Mat Salih Celup and Titian Cinta), Daler is much more comfortable acting in Malay today.

“Back then, the night before shooting, I usually took about two to three hours to read, understand and memorise my lines. Now, I spend 30 minutes to an hour reading and understanding my script. The next day on set, I just practise with my co-star. I don’t have to memorise my lines.”

In the works

Daler Yusuf

Titian Cinta, starring Daler Yusuf and Zul Ariffin, was one of the most popular local dramas last year. Photo: Filepic

Next, Daler will lead the cast of medical romance series Nota Buat Cempaka, playing a Malaysian doctor with a heavy Russian accent, having spent most of his life in Russia.

“Because I still have an accent when I speak, all of my characters so far are of mixed parentage or have spent a lot of time overseas. In the next two years, I want to brush up on my Malay and play a local.”

In recent months, a number of veteran actors have spoken up about the rise of newcomers who are given lead roles because of their good looks or popularity instead of their acting abilities.

Daler understands where they’re coming from but hopes new talents will be given a chance: “In their first few tries, they’ll look stiff and may not be able to deliver their emotions well, but if they really have the passion, they will work hard and improve themselves.”

After overcoming life’s various hardships, Daler is in a good place in his life right now. His wide grin and buoyant demeanour throughout our interview is proof of that.

Being more financially-secure, he sends a sum of money back home every month. “They took care of me and now it’s my turn to take care of them.” He will also be bringing his cousin over to Malaysia to study.

“My biggest regret is my grandfather never got to see (my success). He passed away in 2014, just as I was about to graduate,” Daler says wistfully.

“I am forever grateful to him.”