Photos: MindMap Communications
Photos: MindMap Communications

Ayesha Omar meets me in a three-piece embroidered cotton suit. Little jhumkas dangle from her ears and she’s wearing kolhapuris. Her ‘desi’ look is quite in contrast to the way she was dressed the last time we met — at a fashion show — where she carried off a slinky off-shoulder number with complete ease.

Ayesha Omar is, irrefutably, one of the most stylish actresses in the country. Unlike so many of her peers, she knows just how to wear a gown, has a knack for putting together accessories, and is a pro at posing for the cameras. Pick any ‘Red Carpet Best Dressed’ list for the past 10 years or so and you’re likely to see Ayesha topping the charts.

Today, though, she’s far from the world of red carpets in her traditional shalwar kameez. It is one of the many days that Ayesha is ‘Khoobsurat’, the character that she has been playing in the hit TV sitcom Bulbulay for over 10 years now. An episode of the show is being shot in the house where I meet her, and while we sit in a comfortable, quiet sitting room, there’s plenty of activity taking place right outside. Huge lights are wheeled back and forth in the shooting area which, by the way, looks extremely familiar. Bulbulay, after all, is aired four times a day, every day on ARY Digital and every room in this house — the passageway, the lounge, the bedrooms — is instantly recognisable.

During the course of our interview, Ayesha leaves the room often to shoot different scenes. I trail after her, transfixed with the way she and her fellow actors switch to their characters within a split second: Nabeel suddenly bellowing in his gruff on-screen voice, Hina Dilpazeer waddling on to the screen, Mehmood Aslam as the befuddled Mehmood sahib and Ayesha as the frazzled bahu. There’s plenty of running around, hollering and corny, kooky humour. Classic Bulbulay.

Ayesha Omar stands out as one of the very few Pakistani actresses who refuse to conform to societal norms, opting to live life according to her own set of values

“Bulbulay is truly a blessing in my life,” Ayesha tells me. “People know me as Khoobsurat, and they shower so much love upon me wherever I go. If I’m shooting for some other project, they will sometimes bring food for me. They want to take pictures. I love it.”

On social media, though, there’s a burgeoning crowd of trolls that acts completely in contrast. Ayesha stands out as one of the very few actresses who have refused to conform to societal norms, opting to live life according to her own set of values. Pakistani social media, innately antagonistic towards free-thinking, independent women, has not taken kindly to this.

Social media battles

“It’s so unfair. Who are all these people to judge me?” Ayesha says. “I have never retaliated to their comments but they do sadden me. As a celebrity, I have a public life and a personal life, and people are free to comment on my public persona. But what I do in my free time is up to me. I just want to ask all the people who pass cruel comments so easily, how would they feel if their own private matters were aired out for public judgment? If they feel that I have done something wrong, they should take solace in the fact that I will pay for it — either through karma or before God. They have no right to pour poison towards me.”

She continues, “I do believe in living a life where I’m constantly pushing the boundaries that society has foisted upon Pakistani women. But now, more and more, I’m beginning to feel insecure. I don’t think I’m safe. My mum worries about me. She tells me that I need to watch out for myself. It’s sad but, in Pakistan, women do not feel safe, even when they are within their homes. I see all these men making statements that they are there to protect women and yet, we hear about so many cases of harassment and abuse on a daily basis.”

“I have made eight international trips over the past year-and-a-half and, yes, this means that I have missed out on a few work projects. But honestly, I needed to do it in order to stay peaceful mentally. I feel safer when I’m travelling — when I can walk, breathe and eat in peace.”

Has the social media bashing leveled towards her so frequently made her more careful about the pictures that she uploads on her Instagram? “Yes, I have become more careful,” Ayesha admits. “When I’m travelling, I don’t feel like getting photographed too much. I tell my friends not to upload pictures and videos of me. But for how long can you keep up pretences? Do you end up succumbing to the pressure and stop being yourself?”

What makes things tougher is the fact that Pakistani actresses do not only have to fend off trolls but also often aren’t supported by the very industry that they work in.

Battling unethical work practices

A case in point is the recent Pakistan International Screen Awards (PISA) that took place in Dubai amidst much controversy. The awards were taking place for the first time, and ended up muddling flight tickets and schedules for multiple celebrities. Riled by the lack of respect, a large number of celebrities openly criticised the ceremony, questioning its credibility. Meanwhile, a considerable contingent did manage to get flown out to Dubai by the organisers and they proceeded to post images of themselves having a great time. Ayesha was among the PISA attendees — but what looked like a rollicking trip to a star-studded international awards ceremony on her Instagram wasn’t really what it seemed.

“I was one of the first people that PISA organiser Faisal Khan invited,” she explains. “I had worked with him before, performing at the T10 tournament that he organised back in 2018. When he told me that he wanted me to be part of PISA, I told him that I would help him out. He wanted me to host as well as perform at the show but I felt that I didn’t have enough time. I told him that I would only host, and we agreed to a certain fee. In addition, he would be paying for my round-trip Dubai tickets, the hotel and my meals while I was there. I arrived a few days prior to the awards and attended the radio shows, press conferences and interviews. I covered quite a bit of it on Instagram as well. And I wasn’t being paid for these extra efforts. I just did it out of goodwill.

I do believe in living a life where I’m constantly pushing the boundaries that society has foisted upon Pakistani women. But now, more and more, I’m beginning to feel insecure. I don’t think I’m safe.”

“But perhaps it was a mistake. They didn’t pay for my meals. I had to pay for my return ticket myself — in fact, I had to go via Oman and pay extra because no other flights were available at the time. They said that they would reimburse me later, but they haven’t done so yet. They also are yet to pay my hosting fee. I have been messaging them every day. At first, they replied but now they have blanked me out altogether. I have sent messages telling them about my expenses — how I pay my rent, support my mother’s home as well, pay for my brother’s tuition — but why should I have to do this? Why should I have to beg for my own money?

“In retrospect, I think I should have done what a lot of other celebrities did. They refused to come on to the red carpet until they were paid the full amount that had been agreed upon. Faisal has gone on to complain that the show started late because the celebrities did not come on time. What people need to understand is that a lot of today’s celebrities are very professional. They were ready but the PISA organisers just hadn’t paid them.”

Unfortunately, similar bad payment practices are rampant throughout the local entertainment industry. And Ayesha has endured them frequently. “A lot of people have big amounts of money stuck with major organisations. The problem is, if we make too much noise, we are termed as ‘difficult’. The Geo Network owes me a huge amount for a soap that I acted in for them ages ago. Indus Music is yet to pay me a large chunk of money. I wasted three years of my life on [the film] Yalghaar and I still haven’t been paid in full for it.”

Thinking back to the disastrous Yalghaar, she recounts, “Dr Waqas Rana, the movie’s director and producer, forbade me from working on any project other than Bulbulay. I refused roles in dramas, ad campaigns and hosting opportunities because my dates were blocked for months. But then, a night before a shoot was supposed to start, I would get a message saying that it had been cancelled. And look at what came out of all those efforts. My role was chopped up in order to appease personal vendettas.”

In her upcoming movie Rehbara, opposite actor Ahsan Khan, she also encountered difficulties. “No efforts were made to safeguard the actors’ security or even arrange for proper food or washrooms for them. We were shooting in far-flung villages and train stations and, sometimes, there would be huge crowds tugging at us. I was constantly anxious, worried about my safety. It was a terrible, very disorganised production. They would line up locations without taking proper permission. At one place, they put up a set worth 0.1 million rupees but, because they hadn’t asked the authorities, it had to be pulled down. The movie just kept getting delayed, and it served them right because they were truly unethical."

Battling misogyny

The story of her travails continues with Kaaf Kangana, the production and directorial debut of scriptwriter Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar. “I didn’t really know Khalil sahib very well when he called me and offered me the movie. He told me to trust him with my role, and I did so. I didn’t even ask too much about my wardrobe. His wife and daughter got it made for me and I felt that the clothes were fine, suiting the character I was playing, of a Punjabi girl living in androon shehr Lahore.

“But from the very onset, people kept walking out of the movie. At first, Sohai Ali Abro and Urwa Hocane were playing the female leads. Then, Sohai left and Urwa took on her role while I was enlisted to play Urwa’s role. However, when I came on set, another girl, Eeshal Fayyaz, was now playing the main lead. I told Khalil sahib that I was worried about playing the second lead and he told me that I was the second parallel lead, and my role would be very much in the limelight.

“I didn’t back out and didn’t make unnecessary demands but shoots would get cancelled at the last minute. No proper production company had been hired and he and his family were doing everything by themselves. I would be told that I needed to be in Lahore on a certain date and I would pack my belongings and wait for my ticket to arrive, only to be told, late in the night, that the shoot had been cancelled. Sometimes the cameras would be gone for repairs, sometimes actors would walk out and entire 25-day spells would have to be re-shot. And on the set, there would be no place to even sit in peace. I would be working for 16 hours at length and, in between breaks, I would be taking selfies with the huge crowds that would gather there. It was exhausting!”

Was she aware of Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar’s misogynistic views while she worked with him? “No, otherwise I think I would have had long debates with him,” says Ayesha. “I was shocked when I heard what he said recently, bodyshaming others, cursing out on live TV.”

I point out that she didn’t say much against him. “Yes, because a lot of us are scared,” she replies quietly. “This man is trying to stamp a stereotype upon actresses which has persisted for years and years, and which we have been trying so hard to break. It makes me angry. But then, look at how the masses have responded to him. They are calling him a hero. It’s scary calling out someone in a world like this.”

Battles won

Looking back over the years, Ayesha adds, “I have seen so much negativity but now I have developed empathy for people like Khalil sahib, and also for people who think that it’s okay to lash out at a woman on social media. I think that they must lead troubled lives that have made them so vicious. Khalil sahib must have had a difficult childhood and terrible relationships with the women in his family, perhaps his mum or his sisters. Why else would he pass such judgments so easily?”

How does she manage to survive in a profession rife with pressures and unethical practices? “I think I have a thick skin. My mother was widowed in her early 30s and she taught me and my brother that we needed to stand on our own feet. Ever since I graduated from the National College of Arts (NCA), I have been the sole breadwinner of my family. I’m accustomed to doing my own work for myself — from maintaining my career to basic domestic tasks. So even if I’m at a tough shooting location or a promotional tour, I’m able to manage on my own.

“This doesn’t mean that filmmakers or event organisers should take me for granted. That’s what I dislike.”

At PISA, she recalls how she planned out her hair and make-up with a stylist, and then enlisted Dubai-based photographers to take photographs of her before she went to the event. The images were floated out on social media even before she reached the awards and, in the right light, wearing a gown by a Middle Eastern couture label, Ayesha Omar was, as always, the best dressed. Needless to say, the rest of the Pakistani acting fraternity had to contend with slipshod images taken in the lacklustre lighting that had been set up at the event’s red carpet.

“I work hard — on my pictures, my hair and make-up, the entire look that I want to present,” she says. “And I make things happen for myself, despite all obstacles. But sometimes I get tired.

“I’m lucky, though. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I hadn’t grown up without a father, if I had lived in a joint family that was there to support me and I didn’t have to do everything myself. But then, I look at the flip side — what if I had 35 relatives breathing down my neck, telling me what to do and what not to do, and cajoling me to ‘marry, marry, marry’!

What about that, I ask finding the opening to ask this sensitive question.

“One day, if I find the right person, I’ll settle down. But marriage has never been my ultimate goal. I’m lucky — I have been able to make my own decisions.”

And sometimes, these decisions have worked brilliantly for her and sometimes they haven’t. That’s life. There are battles won and battles lost.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 22nd, 2020