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SPOTLIGHT: THE BIG COMEBACK

September 10, 2017
Atiqa Odho and Sania Saeed - Photos: Adnan Ali
Atiqa Odho and Sania Saeed - Photos: Adnan Ali

In pin-drop silence, Mazhar Moin cues for a scene being shot for his new serial Piyari Bitto (PB) in an old house in the PECHS locality of Karachi. It is the end of May and as Karachi sizzles at 37C, without fans or airconditioners, it feels like 45C.

In artfully-created mellow light, Kaif Ghaznavi hands her husband (played by Fawad Khan) a cup of tea. Putting her own cup down, she confronts her husband for giving undue attention to another woman. Suddenly the scene erupts into a full-blown argument, but Kaif signals time out and pauses to delicately wipe the sweat off her brow with the pallu of her starched cotton sari. Mazhar cuts the scene and cues again to restart.

As Kaif delivers her fiery lines, a little kitten darts behind the door to meet his siblings and knocks over a lamp. Mazhar cuts again and walks over to an assistant, insisting on putting a cola drink in tea cups or whatever it is that his actors like to drink as long as they are actually sipping. He is as well known for his attention to minute detail as he is for shooting in real locations. In the oppressive heat, he sounds slightly edgy but Kaif softly reminds him that she is fasting and won’t be able to sip anything at all.

With thick, bound scripts on their laps Fawad Khan and Kaif Ghaznavi return to the dressing room to rehearse their lines. Fiddling with her hair attachment, Kaif sits with her dainty feet perched on the edge of a bed strewn with vanity cases, water bottles, wires, half-eaten biscuit packs, and water rations. Outfits on hangers hang across the open door. Farah Shah walks in, squeezing her petite frame past the noisy portable AC which blocks the narrow walking space in the small dressing room. The stylist approaches her and starts to work on her hair style for her upcoming shot.

Icon goes behind-the-scenes on the sets of television serial Piyari Bitto which reunites Sania Saeed and Atiqa Odho 25 years after Sitara Aur Mehrunissa

Outside in the lawn, wiping the sweat from their foreheads, the crew members are running around with lights, tripods and other props where a birthday party scene is being arranged. A van-load of women and children arrive and sit on the organza-sashed chairs, fanning themselves in the muggy sunshine. They will act as the guests in the party.

Running his hands through his hair, Mazhar laughs about how easily he had broken an earlier promise made to himself about not working again during a heatwave. But here he was on the sets of PB. With a powerful story by Saji Gul, this serial was going to make a bit of history as it reunites Atiqa Odho and Sania Saeed after a gap of 25 years.

“PB is a far cry from doing Anwar Maqsood’s Sitara Aur Mehrunnisa in 1992,” says Moin. “PB is the story of two women who are poles apart in their approach to life. One wants to change her life and break her boundaries and when she does, there are repercussions that she has to deal with, while another will spare nothing to keep a commitment in her life, but ends up with nothing.

“I choose stories with difficult situations. When people ask me why don’t you do something else, I always say ‘how can I change my signature?’”

Fawad Khan and Kaif Ghaznavi filming a scene from the play - Photos by Mohammed Ali/White Star
Fawad Khan and Kaif Ghaznavi filming a scene from the play - Photos by Mohammed Ali/White Star

The casting of Atiqa and Sania together just happened by chance, says Moin. “Atiqa has worked with me earlier too,” he explains, “but after we had decided Atiqa would play Bitto’s mother, Saniya seemed the perfect choice for playing Shakira. When Sania agreed to the role, we realised that they would be working together after such a long time.”

The casting of Atiqa and Sania together just happened by chance, says Moin. “Atiqa has worked with me earlier too,” he explains, “but after we had decided Atiqa would play Bitto’s mother, Saniya seemed the perfect choice for playing Shakira. When Sania agreed to the role, we realised that they would be working together after such a long time.”

Sania arrives with food and water rations for everyone and passes chocolate around, warning that if it isn’t devoured soon, it would melt. “I didn’t realise the long gap,” she says of working with Odho again, “because we are friends and often speak to each other.”

Their roles are way different from their previous work. “I play Shakira and there are three phases of her life, this being one of the few characters in the play where we see progression and it is quite a strenuous character. Shakira adopts her niece and the relationship completely consumes her. In her will to do good she doesn’t know where to stop, so apparently being good isn’t always right!”

Moin pipes in. “Instead of random casting, either the roles should be written with actors in mind, or actors should come to mind when roles are being written,” he says. “Working with Sania is a truly amazing experience, kya kamal khatoon hain, doob ke kaam karti hain [what a great woman she is, totally immerses herself in her work]. Very few artists can match her talent.” This is the first time Moin is working with Saeed. “On the other hand, Atiqa will be seen in a completely new role and never-seen-before look.”

Director Mazhar Moin keeps an eye on the script - Photos by Mohammed Ali/White Star
Director Mazhar Moin keeps an eye on the script - Photos by Mohammed Ali/White Star

For someone who has mostly done glamorous portrayals of modern, urban women, Atiqa plays a middle-class woman in PB. Despite having to wear a fitted, jersey abaya with lots of work on it during the heatwave, Atiqa enjoyed her role. “Bitto’s mother is a calculated and manipulative person who goes through three transitions,” Atiqa explains. “It is a type of woman that we don’t usually talk about but is very much a part of our society. She makes a bad choice and suffers and there are many layers to this fantastic role that I’m curious to know how the viewers will respond to.”

In the back drop of a hair-dryer whirring loudly, Sania shares what she calls an “in-house” joke with Kaif and Fawad. “We are a very well-gelled off-screen family here,” she says. “It is hot, we are still having fun. I have been following Mazhar’s work and this serial has been quite an experience. I am so glad we are out of the drawing room location. We have worked with some popular Potohari actors, some of us have come up with skin rashes because of the heat after shoots in locations where no one would dare to go. We have shot in public hospitals, police stations, railway stations. We have done stunts on motorbikes that don’t move. Saniya Shamshad [who plays the title role and was being treated for skin allergies because of working in filthy places in hot weather] and the young support actors in our team are brilliant because usually when support actors are not good, you want to throttle them,” she laughs.

Farah Shah is also working for the first time with Mazhar. “There are no loopholes, no compromises, no ‘doesn’t matter, people won’t notice’ attitude,” she says. “Mazhar puts life in all the characters because just one character cannot pull this off. My role, of Sania’s manipulative bhabi, is relatable and it’s the type of character that is rampant in our society — a strong-headed woman responsible for all the pangas [trouble] in the serial. I raise hell about everything. I will do anything to prove my point. My main agenda is hiding things from our khandaan [family]. Atiqa plays my sister-in-law, the complete vamp, the ‘out there’ evil woman but with justification for whatever she does and we both exploit Shakira who is a confused, docile but stubborn woman. She is also a broken woman who faces psychological issues later in life because she has never been appreciated for what she does. Bitto is Atiqa’s daughter in the play and she has major evil streaks and is very problematic.”

Atiqa Odho and Saniya Shamshad in a scene from Piyari Bitto - Photo: Adnan Ali
Atiqa Odho and Saniya Shamshad in a scene from Piyari Bitto - Photo: Adnan Ali

Talking about her role of the woman who marries a divorced man [Shakira’s ex-husband], Kaif says, “Like all my other roles, this one is also intense. This woman goes through many high and lows but she has self-control so not much can be shown on the face, only her eyes can express the turmoil. She is an educated woman stuck in a vicious cycle. As her husband is unfaithful to her, the character questions as to why must a woman stay in a marriage contract which offers no emotional support.”

Fawad Khan who plays Kaif’s husband, a mature man with a mind of his own in PB is very excited about working with Sania Saeed. “I have learnt so much from her. Generally feet are not visible in scenes but in one scene, Sania was so absorbed in her role that she wore her slippers the wrong way and Mazhar later added the nuance to the serial. Working with Mazhar is another first, his work reflects a certain era in time with a nostalgic air.”

Kaif agrees about their director. “Mazhar knows his set and is in full control,” she says. “He has a clear-cut idea of how his characters will dress, move and talk, and he does lots of takes till he gets the right shot. I have worked with him previously and it was quite taxing because I was learning to work with him. But now I know exactly what he wants me to deliver. There are few directors who can surprise or challenge me, and he is one of them. He does not compromise even on the tiniest detail. While he is the ghunda of the set, Saji Gul is a rare kind of writer just like Zafar Mairaj or Faseeh Bari. Their scripts need to be celebrated and understood of course. The characters are very real as Saji gets his inspiration from people around him. Pyari Bitto is a serial to be enjoyed at leisure,” she concludes.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 10th, 2017