It’s strange because you expect the actress who has starred in some of the most popular dramas in recent memory — Malaal, Meri Zaat Zarra Benishaan and Azar Ki Aayegi Barat — to be, well, different. If she was obsessed with glamour, luxury and annoying little things like poodles and shihtzus, she could easily have been grouped with the rest of her professional sorority. Instead, Sarwat Gilani likes the earth, trees and the rest of nature.
“Yes, I know. I’m a tree-hugger,” she acknowledges before she smiles. “I love the earth, art and everything in between.”
She’s a right humanist in fact and she’ll tell you all about how life is meant to be lived by smelling the roses. “There’s a much larger picture, a much bigger reason to everything that’s happening,” she says, “We only need to come out of our rooms to figure it out.” It’s a line you expect to hear from everyone else who claims to have found the way to live life. But listening to Sarwat, who speaks not dramatically but as if she is actually being taken over by emotion as the world flows all around her, you are forced to believe that she is only telling you how she experiences everything.
Take painting for instance, one of Sarwat’s two great passions, which she mentions often in our conversation. “I think I’m very blessed because I see art on paper, with colours and feel, as if I can see life coming out of it.” From the impressionism of Van Gogh to the calligraphy of Sadequain, Sarwat is filled to the brim with wonder at how art on canvas (or otherwise) can speak to you — she took great time to tell me about Sadequain’s ceiling work at the Frere Hall in Karachi and why I should go see it because it was as if a Michelangelo had lived in our midst. She paints herself as well; when I asked her why, she told me that it was something that was essential for her to be able to function, and at times she has been known to take time out from life as an actor to live for a while in her studio where the ideas have piled up.
Sarwat’s motivation for painting is a lot similar to that of acting; acting allows her to express how she sees and relates to the world. “It’s about the thought and the moment and all of that when you feel the character that you’re playing that makes you accept it. That’s why I only choose roles that I can relate to,” she says. In the five years that she’s been acting, Sarwat confirmed that she had only acted in about a dozen dramas, mostly because “you can’t budge and accept a role for a character you don’t believe in.”
Her belief in this regard goes so deep that when I asked her to name which role was her favourite, Sarwat couldn’t pick; she tried and though she named a few, including Alizeh in Ishq Gumshuda, she ended the round by saying it was too tough a question that I’d have to ask her some other time. “I’ve put a piece of me in every role that I’ve done so I can’t pick one out from the rest and say this was better than the rest. I wouldn’t have chosen the other roles if I didn’t feel they were worth any less than the rest.”
When I asked her about what it’s like to be an actor she told me it’s hard work, at least the way she does it. “My scripts have highlights and coloured bookmarks, notes and what not, it really is all a process.” She went on to tell me how seriously she takes her craft and co-workers who often see her act remind her directors of the glory days when PTV was king and actors and actresses were renowned for their desire to ‘become’ a character; compliments such as this, Sarwat holds in high regard.
They also give her the confidence to take the next step which will be on stage, a plan that “is decided”. It’s about time, she says, “It’s head-to-toe acting, right there and then. All I need is a good script.”
When I asked Sarwat what she wants for the future, she was about to tell me how she wanted to help impoverished children.
When I asked her to try again, she told me about an artist’s studio that she had in mind; where artists could come, hang out, create, talk and leave having learned something.
Whether or not that comes to pass, it’s a plan only folks like Sarwat Gilani could have. A place where artists could unite. A speak-easy artists forum. Sounds like San Francisco in the ’60s.