Photography: Kashif Qadri|Styling: Aneela Murtaza|Hair & Make-up: Rhyan Thomas
Photography: Kashif Qadri|Styling: Aneela Murtaza|Hair & Make-up: Rhyan Thomas

A two-second-long moment of realisation hits Amna Ilyas in the middle of our phone conversation. “You know what, now that you’ve pointed it out, you’re right, I’m being typecast,” she says, her voice — and her mind, I gather from her tone — putting the pieces together. “Yes ... yeah, you’re absolutely right! I’ve done a lot of girl-next-door from middle-class backgrounds ... girls [from Good Morning Karachi, Zinda Bhaag, 7 Din Mohabbat In, Baaji, Ready Steady No] coming from humble beginnings who have a lot of dreams, or want to bring about change. I wouldn’t mind doing an action film actually,” she adds a second later.

Ilyas stops often as we speak, back-pedalling her train of thought, comprehending something, and coming back with a slightly astonishing insight about herself that she may have just discovered.

“Maybe I’m picking up the same type of scripts,” she continues. “It’s not like I don’t like stepping out of my comfort zone,” she attests.

“But [come to think of it], I think have a major malfunction as well. I find no substance in overly glamourous characters. But I think I should do those as well,” she adds.

Few models ever become good actors. Fewer still abandon multiple offers for films and television to face the anguish of a live audience. But Amna Ilyas is one that has bucked that stereotype. Is it because she is deliberately out to challenge herself?

Icon’s conversation with Amna Ilyas has been long overdue. In fact, it was rescheduled twice. Very few people know that a few weeks ago, Ilyas’ Instagram was hacked. It was a devastating moment for the actress, who was, at the time, travelling between Islamabad and Karachi by road.

“It was four in the morning, and I was tired and sleepy when I got a message on my WhatsApp that said that I had violated the terms of my Instagram account, and that my ID would be closed if I didn’t respond back.

“It was a dumb moment, and in that dumb moment, I clicked the link in that message that led me to a website that really looked like the Instagram site,” she narrates. “I put in my login details, and within five minutes my account was hacked. I changed my email password immediately, so that was saved. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, everything was shut down and I kept blaming myself.”

Amna Ilyas in Ready, Steady, No (2019)
Amna Ilyas in Ready, Steady, No (2019)

For the next week or so, Ilyas pulled every string possible to get the account back. From the way I see it, there are two morals to the story: one, don’t be an idiot and give out your security details on an unknown site or person; two, not everyone has the luxury of being Amna Ilyas, who can get their account back.

There are two other aspects to Amna Ilyas that I became aware of in the midst of our conversation. One, she is deliberately looking for challenges; and two, she isn’t very keen about talking about stuff other reporters routinely ask her. So, forgetting questions she may have been dead tired of answering, we discuss her dead-serious concentration on her career, and why she is hellbent on doing theatre at a time when she is constantly bombarded with film and television offers (her latest film, Mastani, is almost complete, I’m told — but that is a story for another day).

First a little flashback: Ilyas’s journey began with a heaven-sent role in Good Morning Karachi (GMK), by the acclaimed indie director Sabiha Sumar. Ilyas auditioned for the lead character Rafina (which was, incidentally, also GMK’s under-production title at the time), and Sumar, seeing the actress’ potential, called back two day later with a ‘yes’.

Ilyas tells me that Sumar played a big part in making her the actor she is today. “She was the one who coached me as an actor from zero. We did acting workshops, improv, observation, she even gave me a speech instructor. That was an intensive course, and I think I’m lucky that I had the opportunity. Up until then, I had no experience whatsoever. However, what really made it easy was the fact that I could really relate to Rafina,” she explains.

In GMK, Rafina is a young, intelligent, middle-class girl who aspires to be a successful model.

“Like Rafina, I come from a middle-class background. The only difference is that Rafina’s family wasn’t supportive of her career. Mine is. That was the only aspect I couldn’t relate to, other than that we both had a lot in common. Rafina had the drive, she wanted to become famous, she wanted to become a model, at that time I was also modelling. Meray andar se nikla tha sub kuchh [Everything about the character came from the inside].”

Talking about her beginnings, Ilyas says that she started modelling years ago because of her elder sisters Salma Ilyas and Uzma Ilyas. “I was 17 years old when I started. At the time, I wasn’t interested in the profession.” But being in college, the career was a good source of pocket money.

“I was studying commerce, and would have done something in the corporate sector, maybe something in banking ...” her voice trails off, “... actually, I was a very confused teenager, who didn’t know what she wanted to do in life. But because I was studying commerce, main ussi ke saath kuchh karti [I would have done something in that line of work].”

Like Rafina, I come from a middle-class background. The only difference is that Rafina’s family wasn’t supportive of her career. Mine is. That was the only aspect I couldn’t relate to, other than that we both had a lot in common.”

Modelling had no allure for her, she says. “I used to hate it for some reason. I was a big-time introvert then. I’m still an introvert.”

Coming back to the present, Ilyas tells me that she has auditioned for every role she’d done since then. “I don’t mind auditioning. Audition kar ke hi pata chalta hai ke aap kitnay paani mein hain [You find out your own worth after auditioning],” she says.

One role she didn’t audition for, she tells me, is that of Sana Murad from the theatre adaptation of the landmark Haseena Moin-written PTV play Ankahi — but don’t mistake the production for being just a straightforward adaptation.

Directed by stage wunderkind Dawar Mehmood, this is Ankahi 2.0, she clarifies, even though she’s still not sure about the official title.

“It’s my first time doing theatre. And I’m, again, playing a character of middle-class origins,” she laughs, remembering of our earlier conversation.

“This Sana, however, is not the one people have grown up with. Everything was nice and good and happy about that one. This Sana is witty, jealous, she is geared towards the present. She has a lot of layers.”

Amna Ilyas with Meera in Baaji (2019)
Amna Ilyas with Meera in Baaji (2019)

The women Haseena Moin wrote were never as dark as this interpretation, Ilyas tells me. The originals were much more conscientous and responsible, she says. Despite being different from the character’s original interpretation, however, Sana still stays true to her core, says Ilyas. “[She is still] sweet, naik, acchi, pyari [innocent, good, good-natured],” Ilyas adds.

The story is still the same, despite the condensing of characters and situations. The show’s setting, though, has been contemporised. “It’s not the ’80s,” she says with passion.

“When I heard the story, I knew this would be a legendary project. If I do it properly, I would also be going down in history [for doing a groundbreaking play]. It would be good for my soul.”

“But,” she adds, “Theatre bohat mushkil cheez hai [Theatre is quite a difficult medium]. I thought it would be easier. It takes your sweat, your blood, it takes a toll on you. You cry on set — I’ve cried 20 times on set. I used to lose my footing. I used to get angry.

“There is a reason why I said yes to all [this anguish],” she explains. “I always wanted to do theatre. I haven’t been to acting school so, for one, you learn a lot from it. Secondly, getting paid for the learning is the best part. Thirdly, there was this curiosity. I wanted to know — to feel — why stage actors are taken so seriously.”

So, has she found the answer to why that is, I ask her?

“Oh, I’m still curious about it, because I haven’t done a single show till date,” she explains. But she leads with an anxious “Oh my God!” when I ask her how she expects the experience to be when she gets in front of a live audience for the first time.

Thousands of people watching, and no retakes — it will be hard, she tells me. Despite being assured by the director that she will have a lot of technical rehearsals, she knows she will be a mess. “That is still a stage I have to cross, but I know how I’ll be like. I won’t sleep the entire night. Mujhay drip lagaygi [I will have to be given an intravenous transfusion]. I will get panic attacks. Oh my God! I’m having a panic attack right now,” she cries out.

“I have 30-plus costume changes on stage — at most people have three or four such changes in an entire show. I hardly go off stage. This is not going to be a cakewalk. There’s action, there’s dancing, there’s singing, there’s crying. I think I’ll be doing everything one imagines doing in film, live on stage. Dawar himself has said that he hasn’t done anything like this before.”

Despite playing similar-ish roles, Ilyas hasn’t done anything like Sana Murad, nor has she been as vigilant in her research and crafting of the character before.

“I have a certain type of lifestyle right now, and somehow I’ve gotten away from my middle-class life. I’ve forgotten that. So, for this play, I wanted to come back to those things,” she says.

“I made a 15,000 rupee monthly budget for myself. I had given up my car, my credit card. I had ditched hanging out with friends. I left everything, with exception to my diet, otherwise moti hojaati [I would have gotten fat],” she laughs.

“I used to walk to Khayaban-i-Ittehad [in DHA, Karachi], take the bus to Rahat Commercial, ride a rickshaw to the place where we were having rehearsals.” It had been years since she’d travelled like this.

“I’ve travelled on buses and rickshaws for more than a week, observing girls and aunties — some would be going to schools, colleges, some I’d see every day. I had a diary with me and whatever observations I made, I would jot them down, which really helped me develop Sana into a living, breathing individual. At night, I used to write a journal as Sana, and these entries would help me find motivations for scenes as a character.”

With the coronavirus, she says, everything has come to an abrupt halt. However, when everything reopens, she is going to start the process again, she tells me.

“I think I have had more time to think about Sana now.”

The play was originally set to open in April, which added to Ilyas’ anxiety at the time. “I was really scared. I felt I didn’t have time to prepare myself,” she says.

Confined at home because of the pandemic, she is still reading the script on and off. These days, though, she says that she has a lot of time for family and herself.

“I’m reading a lot of books. I’ve just finished Love in the Time of Cholera, I’ve started working on my abs. I might start my own YouTube channel on fitness. I’m spending a lot of time with my mum — in our busy-with-work lifestyles, we often neglect our mothers. I’m also cooking a lot. Just the other day, I made dahi phulkiyan — my brother-in-law was so impressed that he thought that we had ordered it from outside. Then, I made pancakes and qeema matar, and lemonade.”

What else? She thinks for a second.

“I’ve finished the entire Marvel movie series. I’ll start the X-Men films now.” With so much time on one’s hand, and her work commitments grinding to a halt, what else should one do but wait things out … then it’s back to work and a new set of challenges.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 10th, 2020