Photo by the writer
Photo by the writer

The Pakistani film industry of the 1990s and 2000s was in a class of its own. Things were going downhill fast though you wouldn’t have known it hanging around the film centres of Lollywood. But while many starlets settled for meaningless fluff to put bread and butter on the table, there were others who opted out at the height of their rise.

Zara Sheikh was one of the few glamorous actresses at the time to refuse questionable offers and, as a result, suffered an extended lull in her career post a brief, yet impactful, innings with hits such as Tere Pyar Mein (with Shaan Shahid), Laaj and Salakhain.

I had spoken with Sheikh when she had made a guest appearance in last year’s forgettable comedy/crime caper Jackpot. Although the film was taken off screens nationwide within a week or two, Zara’s return to the silver screen after a gap of more than a decade had still managed to attract a buzz, which put her on the road to her present comeback. She can now be seen in Hareem Farooq’s forthcoming Eidul Azha family drama/romance, Heer Maan Ja (HMJ), also featuring Ali Rehman Khan, Aamina Sheikh and Faizan Shaikh.

“You know, when there weren’t a lot of cinemas, Zara Sheikh, Meera and Reema were such a big part of Lollywood,” says HMJ producer Imran Raza Kazmi while speaking to Icon about bringing Zara on board for an extended cameo. “I think the quality of acting and filmi-ness that they exuded back in the day is something we need to witness in this new age of cinema as well. Zara is a legend, and so it’s our way of paying tribute to her and her contemporaries. The aura she brings, not only behind the scenes but even on set, is brilliant. We had a blast filming her track and I’m sure when you see her, you’ll really enjoy it.”

Out of sight but never out of mind stands ever so true for Zara Sheikh, the yesteryear star of hits such as Tere Pyar Mein. She will be seen again in an extended cameo in the upcoming film Heer Maan Ja

Sheikh is ecstatic as well. As we sit down to talk about her latest offering, she’s more keen to know how the press is responding, how relevant the ‘news’ of her comeback is being considered. She’s rightfully concerned.Going by actor Dave Wilson’s quote ‘it’s what you do with second chances that counts’, she seems to be making the most of it. Opening up about what kept her away, Sheikh reveals how a traumatising incident hampered her choices, more than anything else.

Photo courtesy: Guddu Film Archive
Photo courtesy: Guddu Film Archive

“Somehow, I never had the right offer before HMJ and, to be honest, I was involved in a terrible accident after which the doctor had prescribed complete bed rest for me. I wasn’t able to work as much I could have,” she discloses. “I think Imran is one of the very few consistent producers we have today, somebody who’s been producing films one after the other. He got in touch with me for a special appearance in HMJ and I said yes. It’s a very fun character. Both Hareem and Ali look great on screen, and it feels great to star in a movie with young blood.”

Though she keeps tight-lipped about her role in HMJ, from what one can figure out, Zara will primarily be seen shaking a leg to a dance number in the movie. Times have evolved and so have the roles being written for women. Is joining a movie just for a musical track justified, I ask Sheikh.

“It’s not the kind of item song that families will be uncomfortable watching with their kids,” says Sheikh. “I’ve seen some and I feel they could’ve been done better. But HMJ is very traditional, it’s about Pakistan and our culture, and song and dance is something I haven’t really done before. And if I continue doing what I’ve already done in the past, I wouldn’t enjoy it as an artist. I think Imran and Hareem are very particular about how they project women in their movies.

“I think all I was conscious about was whether I can do justice to my fans’ expectations. They’ll be seeing me on screen after a huge gap and I want to surprise my audiences with something new. I’m somebody who will only work when I want to, which is why I have this image of being ‘moody’. I’ve rejected projects that have come my way over the last couple of years for innumerable reasons. But HMJ, I want to be a part of.”

Photo courtesy: Guddu Film Archive
Photo courtesy: Guddu Film Archive

To her, now seems like a good time as any to be in the movies. She says she’s open to working with anyone and anywhere, as long as she’s able to entertain the lowest common denominator of society. “I, for one, work for therickshaw-walas who made me a superstar. I don’t work for the elite,” she asserts. She’s already shot two more projects, Honour Killing and Adeel P.K.’s Jung, both of which have been indefinitely delayed till last reports came in.

For now, however, there seems to be no stopping Zara Sheikh, “At the end of the day, I’ve been here throughout but filmmakers seem to have turned a blind eye towards me,” she chuckles. “To me, the role and the director matter the most. Of course, I’d love to play a leading role, but that again has to suit me. Artists cannot be restricted by age. If Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini can star in Baghbaan, why can’t we create such storylines? The roles I want to play are not being written, but I’m hopeful they will be sooner or later,” she says. There’s no substitute for a determined star.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 26th, 2019