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Zeba Bakhtiar: Deconstructing a legend

Updated November 09, 2014

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Family ties: Zeba with son Azaan, Photo: Mohammad Farooq
Family ties: Zeba with son Azaan, Photo: Mohammad Farooq

While driving down a street in Karachi, I asked a man vigorously sweeping dried leaves if he knew where a particular address was. He hollered across the street to another man and confirmed from him if the address in question was indeed where Zeba Bakhtiar lived. The other man nodded and pointed her house out to me. It reminded me of how in Mumbai, people give directions mentioning film stars’ houses. This was fame at a totally different level!

After her debut in PTV Quetta Centre’s Anarkali (1988), she became the first Pakistani actor to venture into Bollywood and star in Raj Kapoor’s Henna (1991). She later acted in the Pakistani production Sargam (1995). What followed was a highly-publicised marriage and subsequent divorce from Adnan Sami Khan and the ensuing custody battle for her son. Now, Zeba Bakhtiar is back in the limelight for co-producing O21 with her son, Azaan Sami Khan.

The film has received mixed reviews but for Zeba, O21 is an eye-opening experience in many ways, “The subject of the film is about a very harsh reality that is already facing us and has been affecting us since the ’80s, like the Afghanistan situation. Research shows that the time ahead is going to be even more difficult for Pakistan,” she said, “Some people simply loved it. It was very heartening the way people called me and appreciated it, to a point that I never expected them to, along with about the 10 per cent who hated it.”


Up close and personal with the beautiful and rather fierce Zeba Bakhtiar


Zeba believes that O21 is a film that demands focus. “You have to fully concentrate while watching it. I have probably seen the film in its entirety at least eight or nine times. All of our lives we have been facing problems because of the situation around Pakistan and what is happening in the region. Most of us love conspiracy theories because we love to politicise everything. When reality stares you in the face from the big screen, in the name of entertainment, then you think that maybe you didn’t want to know so much, because the impending doom is just too much.”

In response to allegations that while the film is beautifully produced it lacks a strong or coherent storyline, Zeba disagrees, “It has a very serious story.”

What about reports that when after Summer Nicks, who was the original scriptwriter and director of the film left the country and Jamshed Mahmood (Jami) took over, he changed the script — changing the plot and slashing characters and roles? “We are in touch with the writer to date,” she said, “He had a visa issue so had to go back to Australia within two days. After Summer left, Azaan and Jami wrote the script. The script had to be changed after Waar had been released because we didn’t want striking similarities between the two films. Shaan was in both films, and he being who he is, tends to look and act like Shaan.”

 Photo: Mohammad Farooq
Photo: Mohammad Farooq

Had Shaan always been the first choice for the male lead in O21?

“Shaan is wonderful to work with as long as he knows that you know what you are doing, and if you are clear about what you know,” she said, “There is no other another actor like him in Pakistan, someone who understands the camera and the technicality of the screen, with every move perfectly crafted.

“If you look at the options we had, you’d see Shaan way up there and the others down here. Why Shaan is Shaan is because he has not over-exposed himself. People don’t like to watch TV stars on the silver screen. Why should they buy a ticket to go and see the same people who they can see on TV at home?”

While the query about what it was like to work with Aaminah Sheikh got little or no response from Zeba, she had plenty to say about Azaan as a producer. “It was the best production that I have seen happening and I’m not saying it just because Azaan is my son. When the film was being planned, I had gone for a fellowship. When I got back, I was told that the shoot’s going to start on such and such date and that I was going to handle production. There were all these young interns from colleges with their laptops; a breed that I had never worked with before. I have fought the old school mentality — a bit of a nightmare where you put on a suit of armour because of the kind of things you may have to handle.”


“We wanted an Eid release, so we stuck to our schedule and Dukhtar went for an Oscar nomination. I haven’t seen it but as long as Pakistan is being represented, that is important to me most of all. It would have been nice of course if O21 had been nominated, but it can always go next year.”


On the lessons learnt from O21, Zeba’s reply was quite diplomatic, “A project or a film of this magnitude is a sorting experience with people and organisations, and you realise who you do and don’t want to work with in the future.”

Talking about Dukhtar’s Oscar nomination, she said, “We wanted an Eid release, so we stuck to our schedule and Dukhtar went for an Oscar nomination. I haven’t seen it but as long as Pakistan is being represented, that is important to me most of all. It would have been nice of course if O21 had been nominated, but it can always go next year.”

Although the legendary Raj Kapoor picked her to act in his film, acting isn’t Zeba’s passion. “I have nothing against acting but I enjoy being a part of the production unit far more,” she responded, “To put make-up on and go in front of the camera is a bit of an ordeal. People keep telling me that they wait for me to return in front of the camera, but Henna was an entity much bigger than me. If something came up and intrigued me, I would do it but there’s been nothing so far. I have to be able to connect with it. I feel that I have done the same role over and over again for 26 years — the submissive mashriqi aurat being able to absorb everything and who keeps sacrificing while people take advantage of her — the crux of the character is the same and it does not interest me.”

She escaped Raj Kapoor’s predilection for exposure by being ultra careful about everything. “Henna wasn’t meant to be obscene or vulgar. Randhir was also very careful because he didn’t want a problem. I was literally carrying Pakistani aurat ki izzat on my shoulders. I would hold every single garment up to the light. In one of the last scenes, I had to wear off-white so that was a big issue and eventually I wore three layers of fabric and in the heat of Bombay, it was hell. To be able to come back to my family with dignity was most important for me.”

Why don’t our girls in Bollywood feel the same way today? “Because all they want is to become ‘Number One’.”

I couldn’t help asking her why she never remarried. “When you have an exceptional father, it is very difficult to find any man who can measure up. If I find a man with such a personality, stature, integrity and principles, I will marry him in a heartbeat.”

While she wishes things improve in Pakistan, Zeba feels that our people have huge egos that come in the way of learning and development. “Why are people so delusional about their grandeur?” she stated, “We love mediocrity and anything beyond that disturbs us. I stopped watching Pakistani plays a long time ago because I couldn’t deal with them anymore.”

“Take the commotion against Turkish plays, for instance. I watched one random play and saw that there were good-looking people, little make-up and technically-sound productions. So all we had to do was to improve our quality of drama. Instead, there was a furor and people said ‘Itna kharcha’? Soch par kharcha nahin lagta, dimagh laganay se kharcha nahin hota! And now they have been forced to improve themselves.

“We are basically very lazy people and don’t want to put in a day’s hard work. People say, Aap ne film banai, bari mehnat ki. Where in the world can you do a project which doesn’t drain you physically, mentally and emotionally, and how else will it become a success? You don’t just sit in your air-conditioned office on a revolving chair. That is not how you make a film unless you are doing a lot of serious brain work.”

But despite all the hard work, Zeba’s future plans are still all about “the next film and the next …”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 9th, 2014