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Nadia Jamil: On art and avoiding egomaniacs

January 26, 2014
Nadia with her mother Nuscie (L) and Bapsi Sidhwa.
Nadia with her mother Nuscie (L) and Bapsi Sidhwa.

The energy level seems to rise as Nadia Jamil walks into the room. All the more surprising then that Nadia’s ebullient personality doesn’t spill over into her performances and she is known instead for her seamless, understated acting skills. Be it Putli Ghar, Durr-i-Shehwar or Behudd, Nadia has proved her acting prowess in a series of roles that have firmly planted her in the public’s consciousness.

Fueling her desire to be a lifelong student of the arts, Nadia has just completed her International Fellowship at the Globe Theatre, London. “I learned new techniques and explored so much about myself, about how to act, about the cultures of the 21 other Fellows who are phenomenal actors and people,” she says. “I learned new ways to approach and experience Shakespeare with the best masters of text, movement and voice in the world, working with fantastic directors, and a superb stage manager.”

“The project I worked on was with Raz Shaw and Bill Hurst,” she continues animatedly. “They both had very different styles of working with the actors and it worked between knowing exactly what they wanted and letting things grow organically in the moment for both of them. Working with 21 actors from different countries, in different languages, was an insane challenge but everyone was so ridiculously talented, and what took shape was so overwhelming and beautiful.”

Nadia confesses to being besotted with the historical Globe Theatre. Associated with William Shakespeare, the theatre was built in 1599 by his playing company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, but was reduced to rubble by a fire in 1613. The theatre that exists today is a modern reconstruction of the Elizabethan playhouse and is said to be an approximation of the original design. “I’ve fallen in love with the Globe,” Nadia enthuses. “It really is the best stage in the world to be on. Nowhere in the world does one find an audience like the audience at the Globe — the energy and warmth of the space, the excitement of it all!”

Clearly, Nadia Jamil is on a roll and she should be, for it has been an amazing two years for her. Last year, she was picked to perform in the hotly-anticipated Urdu adaptation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, The Taming of the Shrew, initiated by the Globe Theatre as part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Titled Ilaj-i-Zid Dastiab Hai, the adaptation was directed by Haissam Hussain, and supported by a musical score by Mekaal Hasan and Valerie Kaul.

What was the experience like? “It was great fun,” she says. “I made a few lifelong friends in the troupe. There were a few egos clashing here and there, some silly politics. But it was a great learning curve. I’ve learned how to avoid autocratic, arrogant people no matter how clever they are, and to avoid messy situations that are just exhausting.” The schedule itself was quite hectic, “as it should be, to keep the energies of the actors up and about.”

With the fellowship now complete, Nadia is happy to return to her home city of Lahore as she has several projects in hand. “I’ve just finished a shoot but I can't disclose details right. There is also an exciting project coming up with NAPA that I can’t wait for — it’s going to be very challenging for me as an actor. I want to share whatever I can of what I’ve learned at the Globe with the beautiful, talented students of Sanjan Nagar Public Education Trust, where I am a trustee, with NAPA (if they invite me) and the Pakistan Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled.”

And there is good news on the horizon for her fans: Nadia will soon light up the screen again for a forthcoming film. “Mehreen Jabbar is amazing to work with,” says Nadia. “She is calm, democratic, chilled out, takes the burden of everything upon herself and has this unbelievable, unshakeable faith in her actors. Technically she is a wizard and she loves a good story. I totally fell in love with her when I worked on Putli Ghar. It was my first TV play so it will always be special to me. Imagine starting off your career with Sania Saeed and Sajid Hassan! Mehreen is understated and her humility shows in her work. It’s not about her showing off skills but telling a story — always.”

This year, Nadia has added script writing to her repertoire. “I’ve finished writing an epic love story for director Haissam Hussain,” she elaborates. “The film’s cast includes Mahirah Khan Askari and Fawad Khan. And I’ve also started work on my second script, this time for Mehreen Jabbar.” She adds that she has a few other projects in the pipeline, but is not at liberty to divulge details for now.

“But the most important project I've resumed since returning home is taking over my kids,” she quips on a light note. Married to Ali Pervaiz for 13 years, Nadia Jamil is mother to 11-year-old Rakae and 7-year-old Mir Vali. “I thank God for the incredible support system of cousins, parents, friends and a very supportive husband. I feel truly blessed.”

Revolutionary music, she says, was an integral part of her education at home, including mushairas with Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Zehra Nighah, baethaks with Farida Khanum, Iqbal Bano, Pathanay Khan, Sabri brothers, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen. “I had a beautiful childhood,” she reminisces, “full of poetry, philosophy, discussion, dogs, books and lovely family get-togethers.”

Today, life has come full circle for Nadia and she is mentoring eager young minds at Sanjan Nagar Public Education Trust, the Pakistan Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled (where she is an Ambassador for Education), and other projects she either spearheads or is a part of. This year she also participated in the Children’s Literature Festival in Islamabad, and more recently conducted a story-telling session at Shaukat Khanum Hospital in Lahore.

Nadia also serves as an ambassador for Girl Rising, a project to raise awareness and empower education for girls. “Check out our Facebook page and hear the stories,” she says with conviction. She is an ambassador for the Children’s Literature Festival, as well as for the second edition of the Lahore Literary Festival, scheduled to take place February 20-23 2014. “It’s going to be more exciting than ever!”

As a wife, mother, actor, anchor, and educationist, Nadia wears many hats. Although she might seem to juggle the roles with alacrity, she confesses to being “hideous at time management. My only rule is to give 100 percent focus to whatever I am doing and blocking out everything else. Otherwise, I don’t do it.”

Her work, of course, speaks volumes about her intense focus. Her most recent project Behudd became one of the most talked about tele films and garnered a great response. “Behudd was extra challenging for me because I had been rehearsing for The Taming of the Shrew for over a year and was totally in the Shrew’s frame of mind. I had only a few hours to grab the essence of Masooma, the character ofBehudd...I had to trust Asim Reza completely and vice versa and he proved to be true to his word, when he said he would get it out of me. He is a joy to work with as a director.

“Masooma herself was not a difficult woman to understand,” Nadia continues pensively. “She was a gentle, simple woman and overly protective about her daughter. I’ve mostly encountered strong, amazing women in my life from Pakistan, and it’s about time they entered our stories and are written about. I’ll soon be creating what my kids call ‘epic’ and ‘awesome’ characters for women, writing about the women I see all around me.”

Nadia is all praise for Sania Saeed, Sanam Baloch, Humayun Saeed, Faisal Rahman, and Yasser Nawaz. She is slated to appear in several new projects and the Pakistani audience can look forward to her creative offerings as early as next year.

“I’ve been really lucky with my directors and co-actors so far,” she continues in the same vein, adding that she has enjoyed working with great teams on Aur Zindagi Badalti Hai, Mere Paas Paas, Raat Chali Hain Jhoom Ke and Kaali Shalwar. “Mehreen Jabbar, Haissam Hussain and Asim Raza are among my favourite directors. I want to work with Misbah and Faisal again as well. And I’m dying to work with Sarmad Khoosat — I missed the opportunity of working on Manto due to ill health. Raz Shaw and Bill Hurst from the Globe are wonderful directors to work with. They have both committed to coming to Pakistan to do a play with us soon — that would be exciting. And I want to be directed again by Zain Ahmad and Hameed Haroun! What a genius he is!”

With so much going on for her, Nadia makes sure she keeps her focus and works harder than everyone else. “You’re on a tightrope and if you go down you take everyone else down with you,” she says.

She is also concerned about passing on the torch to the next generation. “The future of the world is its youth,” she says. “Invest love, a good education and good times in it. Teach the youth to love the planet we live on and all life on it, and do so yourself. Be responsible for yourself and remember we are all responsible for each other…” And as the interview draws to a close, she says impishly: “Avoid people who are egomaniacs with expensive smiles — they are boring and will only end up exhausting you. Come climb a tree or have a cup of coffee with me instead!”