Rarely does one come across a young woman who is fiercely independent and yet firmly rooted to the ground, a person who has a sane opinion but gives others a fair chance to voice their thoughts. She is Maria Wasti: short, petite and sans any pretentious airs. Undoubtedly attractive, what makes her all the more appealing is her wit and intelligence.
Unlike the fair and lovely persona that has been a de rigueur of actresses in Pakistan, this earthy-complexioned girl debuted around the time Iraj, another dusky charmer, was setting the bar high in fashion. Fifteen years on, Wasti has defied the odds and continues to be the most celebrated actress on television.
When we meet on a balmy late October evening, she is dressed in a red floaty summer dress with barely a hint of make-up or any distracting jewellery. Wasti comes across as a person who is comfortable in her own skin.
An unlikely disposition given that she is an actress, and a top most one at that.
Known as a thinking man’s actor, she has given one riveting performance after another over the years. From debuting as a headstrong girl in Sarah aur Ammara, a mid-90s PTV production that dealt with the issue of non-resident Pakistani girls and arranged marriages, her TV debut made people sit up and take notice.
Over the years, she has played one strong role after the other and tackled the indie scene with Ramchand Pakistani. With Indian actress Nandita Das in the lead, it was Wasti’s portrayal of the policewoman Kamla that won her accolades.
Her latest offering, however, required her to tread on dangerous ground. Playing the role of Maya, a single girl in her late 20s/early 30s, who becomes the love interest of her adopted brother, Bilal, in drama serial Behkava, she proves that she has indeed come a long way.
When questioned about Maya and the ‘odd’ relationship with her adopted brother, she says, “The relationship shown on screen is very true to life. We all have people around us who will call someone around them bhai and then one day their families decide that they have to get married. So, one minute you call a person bhai and then you end up being married to him. Feelings change because of the situation one is in, and to an extent what those around us dictate. In the case of Bilal, he is emotionally traumatised and hence ends up confusing Maya’s affection for something else.”
Commenting on the feedback received for her performance and the serial that shed light on the dark side of relationships, she says, “The response was quite nice. While the serial touched on taboo themes, it never crossed the line to end up as crass.”
As she talks about the layers and gray areas that the characters in Behkava offered, she also points out the hypocrisy that has become, according to her, “inherent in Pakistani society where we have double standards for everything. Our audiences are fine with Hollywood or Indian soaps, but the minute a local production shows extra-marital affairs or domestic violence, they get all worked up. These issues exist in our society and we need to acknowledge their presence.”
Broaching on the subject of hypocrisy, I ask her opinion on the scandal that played out in the public sphere after personal photos from a trip went viral on the social media. Wasti says she never expected to see the photos on all sorts of sites with some really weird captions. “The commentary on those pictures was horrible. How do people behave on beaches? What do they wear? It saddens me to see how people twist things to fit their limited vision,” she says.
Brushing aside the incident, she says, “One must not go by the comments on YouTube and Facebook. It’s the anonymity there that brings out the best/worst in people.” As she moves on to discuss other issues in life, she barely allows one to peek inside her head, sharing only what she wants to share. And maybe it is this barrier that adds to her persona since very little is known about her personal life.
On the subject of marriage, she points out that marriages in her family are following an odd order. “My brother, who is the youngest, is married. Next in line is my younger sister. Once she is settled, it will be my turn. Till then, I am not even thinking about it!”
Dispensing advice on how to survive as a single girl, she says having a thick skin is important and so is the belief in oneself, “No person is one dimensional. Testing our limits is what makes us get through things, especially as women.”
On her growing up as an actress and sampling roles that many actresses might be scared to try or would not be able to do justice to, she says: “It’s often that girls identify with the characters I play. I pick up things from my surroundings, I observe how women are. I make an effort to see how the lives of people are. For instance my character of Razia in Baandi is that of a middle-aged woman who suffers abuse at the hands of her husband. I had to immerse myself in the soul of a woman who takes a beating everyday and then steps out to earn a living.”
Wasti says her journey as an actress has been a process of professional and personal growth. “I have changed and become a different person since I started out. What was good 10 years ago might not be so now. Things change. People change.” However, she is quick to point out that being an actor is not an easy job in Pakistan. “Don’t forget the fact that we don’t have acting schools here. We learn on the spot. I’m a full-time actor now and this is my bread and butter.”
Though she says she is a person with fixed habits and rituals, there are times when she comes across as very bohemian. A look at her home reflects her impeccable taste but when it comes to her ideas about ‘this and that in life’, she comes across as an idealist.
When asked as to what her plans are for the future, she doesn’t rule out productions and goes on to add, “Politics and social work is something I’d like to try. It would give me a chance to improve things in Pakistan.” Had someone else said it, one might have scoffed off at the comment but coming from her it doesn’t seem odd. “These are the worst of times. Our country is so polarised and the way things are going, we need to find a way out.”
Sharing her opinion on the strife that Karachi and other parts of the country have been going through, she says, “Our society has no tolerance. We call ourselves Muslims but we have forgotten the basic lesson that Islam gives us. It’s called salaamti, well-being and tolerance for fellow beings. We have to question this status quo.
“The only way out is if we give our people education and knowledge so that they are able to think critically and logically,” she says in a voice that shows she believes in every word that escapes her lips.
Here, I am reminded of a quote by T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia): “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.”
An apt quote in Wasti’s case, as given her conviction, she might as well do whatever she says.