A kindly veneer and an impish look define Bushra Ansari’s persona well. But through her mirthful quips and animated conversation, there is also a glimpse of sadness. Though imperceptible, it feels as if the problems of the world and its sufferings have left an imprint on her being. The sensitive side becomes more obvious in her writings. But then good artists are born sensitive — it would be difficult for them to portray the characters they play.

A consummate actor who performs with an ease that leaves onlookers in awe and admiration, Bushra has played a number of diverse roles, each with a different colour and flavour. Her most recent one was the role of an Indian woman in a video on social media that went viral. Titled Humsaye Maa Jaye, it was a song performed by Bushra Ansari and one of her sisters, Asma Abbas, presenting a topic that touches the hearts of people on both sides of the Wagah border, even if the governments are at loggerheads with each other. The sisters play neighbours divided by a wall built through animosity. The delightful song, colourful get-up and lively performances became an instant hit. The lyrics, written by Bushra’s poet sister Neelum Ahmed Bashir, emphasise that the average person does not want war-mongering.

“My sister Neelum Ahmed Bashir wrote this poem and, moved by its message, I thought of presenting it with music and a positive attitude to send the message across along with Asma. The poem has a lot of emotions in it to move the people of both sides. The feedback has been very good and, though social media has never really been my cup of tea, the countless messages from both India and Pakistan have left me overwhelmed. There has been very little negative reaction as we have not said anything bad, as we want people from both sides to become friends.

She’s an actor, a singer, comedienne and playwright. It seems Bushra Ansari can do just about everything. But the only thing she doesn’t want to do is dwell on herself

“Kanwaljeet Singh, the Indian actor, also loved the idea and we have received happy vibes from our friends in India. The exchange of dupattas delivered a strong message and we did it to give respect to each other. Negativity must be done away with, we should live in harmony. There have been other reactions too, but I refuse to hear criticism for the sake of criticism. Pakistan’s dispute about Kashmir is political and will continue one way or another. But we have to do away with this animosity. President Pervez Musharraf took the lead to make things better. We have to understand that when army personnel die, families suffer on both sides but we don’t get to see each other’s pain. The Pulwama incident and the Kashmir issue has again put a brake on exchange between artists. But one hopes that the people at the helm of affairs realise that life is much easier when there is positive cooperation, and artists play the role of ambassadors for their country.”

Bushra’s greatest strength, perhaps, is her versatility. The first character that brought recognition for Bushra Ansari was Kaliyaan’s Sharmeeli, a puppet created by Farooq Qaiser, way back in 1977. Bushra then came to Karachi in 1981 and did the delightful role of Bijli (personifying the electricity that often disappeared) for the PTV programme Shosha, written by Anwar Maqsood. Aangan Terrha’s Jahan Ara Begum followed in 1985-86, but her real crest of popularity came when she brilliantly mimicked Tahira Syed, Musarrat Nazeer, Madam Noor Jehan and Salma Agha for Showtime, which Anwar Maqsood and Moin Akhtar hosted.

“I did single plays but no sitcoms because I didn’t like them, but later I did the Baraat series, playing the upstart Begum Saima Chowdhry,” she recalls. “The serial Bilquis Kaur had a title character who runs a dhaaba. After that came Udaari’s Sheeda, a village singer. A few characters that I did in the past became very popular and Udaari opened up the Pandora’s box as far as the story was concerned. Sheeda was a meerasan singer and a strong character, helping the character on which the story was based. The masses gained awareness about child abuse through the story and the serial became a hit with the masses by focusing on this extremely sensitive issue.”

But what about her mimicry for which she is best known? Bushra is modest about her remarkable talents. “It just comes naturally to me. Unfortunately, there are no institutions to teach you the arts here. I did ‘Hai meri angoothiaan’ for Showtime by mimicking Tahira Syed, which was a huge hit.” That was of course a parody of Syed’s and her mother Malika Pukhraj’s famous ‘Abhi tau main jawaan hoon’ and its success was helped by the fact that Bushra has a good singing voice. I get the feeling Bushra would rather talk about that than the satire.

Bushra and Asma in ‘Hai meri angoothiaan’ for Showtime
Bushra and Asma in ‘Hai meri angoothiaan’ for Showtime

Bushra feels lucky to have gotten good characters which she was able to essay well, but admits that such characters are a thing of the past as ratings control everything these days. “In our time, we emphasised on characters. I played Rahat Kazmi’s grandmother 25 years ago, and enjoyed doing it. Today, girls want to look great and that’s all.”

“I got into PTV at the age of nine and sang for Kaliyoon Ki Mala in Lahore with Khalil Ahmed in the 1960s in Lahore, and Amir Hyderi made me sing pariyoon-walay songs while dressed up in costumes. I received many awards from just about everywhere. Then there was a gap, as I was growing up and my Dadi didn’t like my coming on television. So Abba made me sing on radio, as he knew classical singer Ustad Fateh Ali Khan. We shifted to Islamabad, as Abba had been transferred there, and got permission to act in Kaliyaan. Then I got married and could act and do whatever I wanted,” she says nostalgically.

Blessed with a good singing voice, Bushra never actually pursued a career as a singer, however. “My father was into music as well but he didn’t allow his daughters to learn and practise classical music. Then I got married and became busy with raising my two daughters, home and acting. Fariha Parvez, Mahnaz etc are singers in the real sense.”

Bushra as Sheeda in Udaari
Bushra as Sheeda in Udaari

But Bushra is well aware that she is a complete package. “I can do many things at the same time. I love to act and I want to pursue creativity in whatever I do. I have written 11 serials and 65 plays in 19 years. Iqbal Ansari, Sultana Siddiqui and Sahira Kazmi have directed many of my plays.”

So what of her other acting roles? Repeating the popular characters she played in the past is not her cup of tea. Bushra believes in growing and emphatically says that she will never do a character such as Saima Chowdhry again. “That is why I haven’t done Bijli and other popular characters.”

Films Ho Mann Jahan and Jawani Phir Nahin Aani were good experiences for her she says, and with good banners and good directors, both films did well at the box-office. “And now I want to do a good, interesting character, no ammi-type roles, something that has substance and is meaty, in short no small character.”

Is anything substantial in the pipeline? “There are no current special characters in the pipeline at the moment,” says Bushra. “But one can’t predict about characters that materialise out of the blue.” She feels lucky to have gotten good characters which she was able to essay well, but admits that such characters are a thing of the past as ratings control everything these days. “In our time, we emphasised on characters. I played Rahat Kazmi’s grandmother 25 years ago, and enjoyed doing it. Today, girls want to look great and that’s all.”

Bushra Ansari (R) and Asma Abbas in Humsaye Maa Jaye
Bushra Ansari (R) and Asma Abbas in Humsaye Maa Jaye

But Bushra is not resentful about the changing times. When asked how different today’s artists are from her generation, Bushra is magnanimous in her views, “Yesterday and today are part of our lives. I enjoy today as I did yesterday. Yes, I agree there is a difference. Today’s youngsters don’t have what we had! But it’s not their fault, we can’t blame them as today’s environment is something they have inherited. We also like to go to premieres, we enjoy things that are happening today which didn’t happen in the past, so we have to accept this change with grace, to go along with it. Yes, they [The younger lot] are undisciplined and not like what we were at their age but don’t blame them. Take them along with you. They have the grace to respect us, their veterans.”

Bushra’s take on the ‘good old days’ is different from the artists of her period. “You can’t really specify days or years that were best times for you. I have achieved a lot throughout my career, all due to God’s kindness. I have good friends, fans and family who love me, and I’m not subjected to any negativity — I’m also lucky that my scripts for serials were well appreciated. Neeli Dhoop, which I wrote and acted in, was a hit and was an issue-based story. Pakeeza was another serial I wrote. It was about a working woman and the problems she faces.”

How has Bushra Ansari managed to maintain herself and continue looking young? “I’m just lucky in hiding my age,” she answers with that delightfully impish look. “I have always been underweight, and I haven’t put on any extra pounds through the years. I also like to wear bright colours, pazaib, jhoomar, choorriyaan even now, irrespective of what people might say. I like to match accessories and dress properly as I have a very good dress sense. I dress the way I want to, not the way people want me too.”

Bushra credits her family background with playing an important part in her career. Her father, Ahmad Bashir, was a well-known journalist and studied filmmaking in the US. He made an experimental film, Neela Parbat, which flopped. “It was actor Mohammad Ali’s first film as well. My father then became a full-time journalist and wrote for leading newspapers. My father’s side was literary and had humour and wit ingrained in them. So art, culture and music became part of our lives as we entertained and enjoying ourselves to the hilt with a wonderful and carefree life. We had writers Mumtaz Mufti, Munnu Bhai, Insha-ji etc paying regular visits to our house, so we inherited a rich background in all aspects. We had a lovely life with our parents,” Bushra Ansari says with nostalgia in her voice.

Bushra herself now has two grown-up married daughters and four grandchildren. “I love them to bits. I have always loved kids and my grandchildren I simply adore. I have always had a way with children and they feel comfortable with me. Nariman and Meera both have a son and daughter each. They give me extra strength.”

And what about her siblings? She discloses that she is very close to her three sisters. “Neelum is a writer and following in my father’s and phupee’s [aunt’s] footsteps. Asma and Sumbul Ansari are actors and sing as well. We sisters love each other very much and have no professional rivalry. We all sing well, and our only brother has a good voice too.”

In an attempt to revisit certain aspects of her life which have obviously left their mark on her persona, and which reflect in the brief moments of sadness during our conversation, I decide to coerce Bushra one last time to talk about it in an effort to get a look at the person behind the cheerful demeanour, but she dismisses it with a wave of her hand. Bushra maintains that she wants the interview to be more about her work and the characters she’s essayed, and less about the curve ball life has thrown at her. “I don’t like to dwell in the past,” she says. “I strongly believe we should only focus on the positive and present aspect of life. What has happened is in the past and should stay there. It should not affect one’s life on a whole,” she says.

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 1st, 2019