Photography: Ashna Khan & Rizwan Dar | Hair & make-up:  Shoaib Khan | Coordination: Faisal Quraishi
Photography: Ashna Khan & Rizwan Dar | Hair & make-up: Shoaib Khan | Coordination: Faisal Quraishi

Sitting next to director Asim Raza on the last day of Parey Hut Love’s (PHL) shooting, it seemed obvious to me that Maya Ali had learned a lot on the job. I could see her on the monitor as she, jigging to the beat thumping hard from the speakers behind us, turned around and faced Sheheryar Munawar with a soft earnest expression in take after take. There were perhaps four or five takes in all and she got that specific expression and movement right each time, with fluid perfection.

“Dancing and nailing expressions are the hardest thing,” she tells me months later on the phone late one night. “I can’t personally say of how much I’ve learned as an actress, I just want to do good roles,” she tells me. Preferably ones that have all the ingredients one expects from a good commercial movie.

The conversation we are having has been a long one — and it always starts with my interview, not hers. In fact, this is probably my third or fourth interview.

Maya always has questions for me about how the industry works, about how to choose the right roles, about figuring out how characters develop and find their place in stories. And it’s probably a good thing for her… but not so much for the industry she works in. Creatives making movies don’t like the inquisitiveness.

Maya Ali is on a never-ending quest to find good roles and better scripts. Above all, she wants to be herself. But who is she exactly?

The actress has been blessed with a string of crazy successes — the TV drama Mann Mayal (opposite Hamza Ali Abbasi), followed immediately by feature films Teefa in Trouble (with Ali Zafar) and PHL. If anything, they have made her more alert than complacent.

As we continue to talk, it’s apparent she can smell a bad script coming a mile away.

Even good writers have bad scripts, and she certainly won’t be signing anything less than ideal, she assures me, as we talk about the state of the industry.

The Icon feature Cinema is Dead, Long Live Television? (December 29, 2019) on the state of the film industry has scared her off, she says.

As bad as it is, it’s probably a great time for actors, I say. Especially for those who have back-to back-hits like her.

“I don’t think so,” she counter-argues, and goes specifically on about not having seen anything worthwhile since we last spoke months ago. “I’ve been waiting for good scripts, content, but it’s been turning out to be a long wait. It could be a film, or a drama, depends on what matures first.”

In the meantime, R&R at home isn’t that bothersome to her, I sense. Maya — whose real name is Maryam (Maya was just a pet name that stuck) — is easygoing and straightforward. Considering the industry she works in, where over-ambition and an extravagant, showbiz-y personality is the norm, her uncomplicated-ness is a stark contrast.

“I have a beautiful heart,” she says in the middle of our conversation.

Maya had been in ishq once — not pyaar, but ishq (the passionate kind); the heartbreak she says has made her wiser. As the eldest of two children (her younger brother is getting married next month), she is now more mature than she was two or three years ago. Still, she gets overwhelmed by emotions within seconds, especially since the death of her father who wasn’t keen on her joining the media industry.

“It was luck by chance,” Maya tells me about her getting into acting. She was scouted as a VJ when she was doing her Masters in mass communication and, within a year, she was offered a role in director Haissam Hussain’s Durr-e-Shehwar (2012), as the second lead.

Right now, unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of choosing which director to work with in the industry. If just a handful of competent filmmakers are making films, then one can only choose to do dramas for bread and butter.”

“I lied to my father, and completed the serial’s 20-day shoot in secret… after that my father stopped talking to me,” she tells me. A few years later, just before his death, her father — who had by then come to terms with her career — had predicted that she would win the award for Mann Mayal.

Picking up a thread we had left off at our last meeting — of the need for actors exclusively for film (an idea I’m myself starting to seriously doubt) — Maya says that it’s not really feasible, no matter how hard one wishes for it to be true.

“Someone had asked me this very question two years back, and I promptly chose television over film. Ali [Zafar], later told me that ‘Maya, television bohat hogaya, abb film karo [Maya, enough of television, do film now]. I understood that two years back, that I cannot do justice to either medium at the same time. It’s not like I wouldn’t do television. But it was just luck that mujhay Parey Hut Love Teefa ke foran baad mil gai [I got PHL immediately after Teefa in Trouble]. For films, you need to take a break from television.

“Right now, unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of choosing which director to work with in the industry. If just a handful of competent filmmakers are making films, then one can only choose to do dramas for bread and butter.”

Despite being offered roles for both notable and super-hit films (which we will not name here), Maya says that the camp system in the industry (actors, producers, directors often banding together to make movies) also creates problems for actresses — especially if they choose to say no to non-existent scripts, or ideas that sound shaky to begin with.

She tells me that one producer was taken aback when she asked to read a script. ‘Accha, aap script parrhti hain’? [Oh, you read the script?] she says he said, caught off guard.

“My reason is that if I’m saying no, then I would like to know the reason why I’m not doing your show or your movie. At the very least, it also opens the door for dialogue, where they can tell me ‘Maya, it’s not like this, but rather like this’.

Wouldn’t saying no to scripts make her appear snobbish, I enquire, especially since her film career is still blossoming?

“There is nothing wrong with being selective. When you work with good people, Ahsan Rahim and Asim Raza, when you’ve gotten a taste of what can be achieved in movies, it’s hard to go back and readjust in less-than-ideal circumstances. I cannot just blindly follow anyone. I’m not like that anymore. When I entered the industry, I followed Mahira Khan — she was selective in her work, whether in film or on television.

“Mahira nay jab bhi kaam kiya, accha kaam kiya [Whenever Mahira has done something, it’s been good work],” Maya says.

I don’t mention Verna, 7 Din Mohabbat In.

No movies then, I ask?

“I’ve said no to five film projects, two of them wanted to pair Sheheryar and me together.” Maya, though, has no problems working with Sheheryar again … in fact, she prefers it.

“I think this is because the audience doesn’t get to see many film jorris [successful pairings] on the big screen.”

She says she has been fortunate enough to have always been given projects that have good leading men either attached, or being eyed for roles. The list of actors, she says she would work with in a heartbeat, are Bilal Abbas, Ahad Raza Mir, Osman Khalid Butt, Usman Mukhtar and, of course, Sheheryar Munawar and Ali Zafar.

It is only natural that I bring up Ali Zafar and Teefa in Trouble at this time. There is a sequel in the works which, according to sources, would go on the floor later this year for, I’m assuming, a 2021 release.

Maya neither agrees nor denies her involvement in Teefa in Trouble’s sequel. Its script has yet to be written; Ali Zafar, who wrote and produced the film, I’m aware, fine-tunes dialogues and scenes until the last moment.

In the meantime (at least for the next six or so months), there are other projects she seems interested in, especially a few on television. Maya tells me that she’s interested in weighty stories, with messages, even if they fail to get ratings.

“After six months of saying ‘no’ to channels and production houses, some are actually coming back, saying, they know what I’m looking for, and that I’ll soon see scripts and roles that I would like to work in.”

What type of roles is she looking forward to?

“I like Alif a lot. I feel that it has the potential to bring about change in people. Most dramas, especially for actresses, don’t provide that margin of performance or depth. I want to do a strong character, such as Saba Qamar’s in Cheekh, but obviously, you don’t get that meaty role often. I can tell you without a doubt that I don’t want to do a saas-bahu drama.

“I want to do a character where my character has a reason for doing whatever she is doing. I can’t be deaf, blind and just act out the part. If the character is a graduate, we [often] don’t see that coming across on the screen. It’s as if she had stuffed that degree in a closet somewhere. So I want to do something that educates people, tells them the difference between right and wrong.

“There was a drama where the central character was an acid victim. Why does a female have to be an acid victim, why couldn’t it have been the other way round — that a man became the victim? It doesn’t happen, because that’s what we see all year round. It just fosters the belief that only a man can throw acid at a woman, or a man can beat a woman. When we do show women, they turn out to be badtameez [ill-mannered]. It’s either this or that,” Maya says, almost running out of breath.

But that’s just one angle to a larger thread, she adds. “There has to be romance to a story. A woman is beautiful. My mum is beautiful and she’s a middle-class woman. She doesn’t fit into any of the archetypes we see on television,” Maya reiterates.

Despite the strong sense of sticking to ideals, Maya tells me that she is no sher ki bacchi [lioness]. “I’m still a timid little cat. (But) I’m fighting for better work. People may very well be saying behind my back that she has gotten an ego after doing films but, the truth is, I want to evoke change. I cannot wait for people to realise what I have realised. By then it might be too late.”

This internal revelation came to Maya on January 1, she says — a sort of a new year’s resolution — and something that she may very well stick to for the next decade or so.

“I want to walk my own path, come hail, rain or shine. I don’t want to realise, one day, that I have to be myself. By then it would have been too late.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 12th, 2020