Are you afraid of dogs?” asks the young guard at Ushna Shah’s residence. “Not in the least,” I say. And in this particular case, who would? Her supposedly ferocious Staffordshire Pitbull named Narco had its head in my lap in two seconds.
A seemingly preoccupied Ushna goes in and out of the room, perhaps 10 times, while I wait for her. This is, technically, my third meeting with Ushna — that is, if you count the brief ‘hi’, ‘hello’ we exchanged at last year’s Lux Style Awards, or the five or six messages in our Facebook Inbox (Ushna had texted me after reading one of my film reviews).
Sitting a respectable distance away is her public relations (PR) manager. “He’s just here for support,” she tells me. The last few days have been a little tough on her, I’m told.
And indeed, they have been. In a woozy, self-confessed insomniac state one night, Ushna had unthinkingly blurted out that she would have preferred if another singer had sung the OST (original soundtrack) of her upcoming serial Bandhay Aik Dor Se, a love-triangle starring Ahsan Khan and Hina Altaf.
As if that weren’t enough, Ushna later tweeted: “Unpopular Opinion: Why are #aimabaig [Aima Baig] and @Quratulainb [Quratulain Baloch], the only incredible female vocalists we have. Their voices/skills are mesmerising, everyone else sounds mediocre at best.”
Her pointed opinion spread like wildfire on social media, until someone tagged Hadiqa Kiani, the singer of the OST Ushna had dissed. To quote the press, Hadiqa then “schooled” or “educated” Ushna by listing great female singers from Pakistan. The topic promptly turned into a series of headlines across blogs and news sites.
Strange as this whole case has been, this is not the first time Ushna has had a target painted on her forehead by news and social media. Last year, she had been attacked on social media for allegedly being classist and making light of a delivery boy’s fear of the dog whose head is now in my lap. It becomes apparent that this bad publicity is precisely the reason I’m invited over for this interview.
When Ushna finally plops on the couch a few feet away, catching her breath, I tell her that since this is our first, proper, face-to-face meeting that is not limited to cordial greetings, it’s best to start at the very beginning.
“Oh, those kind of interviews have been done to death,” she says with exasperation.
I guess understanding who she is would have to be done on the fly. No problem.
Ushna is a living, breathing contradiction to the airhead image of hers that I’ve been hearing about. The person I’m sitting with is an intelligent, educated young woman who, quite evidently, has no filter on her tongue.
With a live haywire connection between her mind and mouth, this very vocal girl spurts out her opinions with the ferocity of a gatling gun and, in cases of misfires, usually realises her folly 10 minutes too late.
Our conversation is giving her manager ulcers, I’m sure.
“I think, because our lives are so exposed, that when people see you so much on-screen, they form a sort of relationship with you, and your lives start to entertain them and they claim ownership of you, [and] you become a commodity, you become a source of entertainment off-screen. You become a sort of punching bag — on whom they can vent out their frustration. So, if they are feeling loved, they express it to you, and if you do something they don’t like, then they come at you ten-fold with a strong opinion — that’s one way to vent their anger,” Ushna bursts out without taking a breath, as if we are continuing the brief phone conversation we had two days prior to this interview.
“This is not to negate the amount of love one gets,” she continues without losing her stride. “There is so much love, and with love comes hate. Because of that ownership, if something goes wrong, they come at you with pitchforks!”
Apparently, her latest controversy has struck a nerve even with her.
That’s the price of fame, I tell her — and it has been the same since time began, figuratively. Didn’t she know she would eventually find herself in this position when she entered this career?
“No, not to this degree,” she begins. “Not at all. My family knew. They also know that I’m the most undiplomatic person ever. I’m very brazen about the way I am, and I don’t create a [fake] image of myself. I present myself the way I am — as a very opinionated person. So, my family knew I was setting myself up for this. I didn’t. I didn’t realise that it was going to be this gross invasion of privacy in my personal life,” she exclaims.
Not everything she says is serious, she tells me. Half of it lies squarely within the bounds of witticisms, like her reply to Kiani, which she says, was written as a humorous way of accepting and apologising for her mistake.
“Oh, Allah! Please keep my Twitter away from me when I’m delirious and opinionated late night. Please cure me of my foot-in-the-mouth disease” and to “Please lock me out of Twitter late night” she had tweeted.
Later, she added, “tweets between 2AM - 6AM do not represent me & are off the record” to her Twitter bio.
Amends have been made, she tells me. Even the song has grown on her now; in fact, she’s been playing it on loop for a while now.
“[My biggest problem is that] I don’t filter,” she says, a fact that a handful of her celebrity friends agree with.
But then again, as she says, she has always been like this.
“I’m either grossly misquoted or what I say is extremely exaggerated, or there’s a huge overreaction to it. These three things happen to me a lot,” she says.
Ushna speaks her mind with such nonchalant alacrity that it almost comes out as an impediment. Any slick journalist would be able to steer her into giving out flashy, headline-worthy quotes that would, unsurprisingly, land her in hot waters.
“Negative press sells. And it’s not just me. It’s for everyone,” she continues, still hot and bothered about the topic.
“There is a lot of positive press on me, I’m not saying there isn’t. I’m grateful for it, but negative press does sell. [From the perspective of the press] it does make sense to put words in someone’s mouth, create clickbait headlines based on something completely out of context, and our public buys into it — that is their fault. They want the new story, and then move on to the next story. They don’t want to sit there, read the article, see the context, hear the explanation, and then form a judgement. They form an opinion, and if it’s not a good one, then they’ll troll the person in question relentlessly, and then move on to the next victim. And I’m the poster girl for that because I’m not polished, I’m not filtered, my PR is not going to edit my tweets. I’m not Obama or some other big politician. I do not consider myself a star, that’s why I make half of these blunders. Because I don’t think: Oh, I’m so famous, I shouldn’t say this. I say it, then I see the backlash, and I go: Oh s***, I’m famous, I shouldn’t have said this.”
Now, since she realises this, shouldn’t she think thrice before stating opinions that may backfire.
“I think I should but, at the same time, I don’t think I can change who I am,” she replies. “Playing it safe would mean to completely gloss over who you are and lose a sense of personality — and I tend to have a lot of personality, and I accept my flaws for what they are also.
“I’m not discriminating against anyone, I’m not bullying anybody, I’m not pulling anybody down, and I’m not saying something that’s perpetuating hate. Whatever my opinions are, they’re actually shared by millions of other people. I’m an actor, but I’m also human. Can’t I have an opinion?” she asks.
Shifting gears, we eventually get to how she got her foot in the door.
Spending most of her life in Canada, Ushna was “fresh off the boat” when she joined the industry sometime in 2012. Prior to that, she had come to Pakistan for a year-and-a-half to do her O-levels, she tells me.
“Some of my family were in London, others in Lahore, and I ended up working in Karachi,” she begins.
“My family wasn’t really pro me working [in the entertainment industry]. They knew what I was getting myself into. So, when I moved here, I didn’t have anyone guiding me or warning me, telling me not to do this or to do that. I came into a country where I have a complete cultural clash, where I didn’t understand half the things.”
The first production she signed was from Canada, she tells me. “It was a lead role and I signed it over Facebook.” The drama, however, didn’t air for quite some time.
“Technically, the first drama I did was Mere Khwabon Ka Diya. It was a Hasan Zia production, who is very close to the family, I just got it off the bat,” she says.
“There was some nepotism in the beginning, I’m very honest about that,” she says, without getting a prompt for a question, “[however] to sustain it I had to step my game up and be a decent actor.”
Ushna nearly hops out of her seat when I steer the topic towards her craft. “I’ve been dying for someone to ask me this,” she exclaims.
Unlike other actors, the characters she plays don’t linger around in her psyche after the production is over, she says.
“Basically, I’m not the most talented actor, in the sense that it’s very easy for me to don a role, play it off and come out of it,” she explains. “When I’m playing something, I want to understand its background, I want to genuinely know how I feel about it, I want to be in the psyche of that character... but it’s really hard to do that when you’re doing 12 scenes a day.
“In Pakistan, our actresses are so talented,” she goes on. “Mehwish Hayat, I’ve heard, can cry on cue within, like, a second. Sajal Ali, whom I’ve worked with, zones out and comes back out as the character she’s playing. It takes me a moment to get into it. And if I don’t believe why this character is doing something, I can’t play it. So, I have a lot of fights with my directors, and they get very annoyed when I ask them why the characters is or isn’t doing this or that.”
Does that make her difficult to work with, I ask?
“I’m very particular about the teams I work with, and the teams who get me. I’m not easy to work with because I’m a perfectionist.”
It doesn’t take much work to get her to tell me, by her own accord, that her tendency for perfection will eventually lead her to the director’s chair.
Although Ushna got early success in the business, she credits Alif, Allah Aur Insaan as the show that changed everything. However, the roles I actually noticed Ushna in were in Balaa and Bewafa — two recent serials where the actress forsakes her goody-two-shoes image from the last 25 serials, by playing deliciously evil villainesses. Both portrayals have received quite a bit of critical acclaim, I’m told.
“Negative roles do create an image when you do them back to back — especially when they are successful. The role I’m doing right now, for example, is as positive as it gets. The ones I did in the first six years of my career were as positive as they could get. My roles in Balaa and Bewafa were just two negative ones, and I wanted to do those. I’m sick of playing the crying girl,” she exclaims, almost jumping out of her seat in enthusiasm.
“Is it easier playing the crying girl?” I ask.
“No. And I’ll tell you why. You ruin your tear ducts,” she says, mostly laughing, but still quite serious.
By now I have some idea of who Ushna Shah really is. She is a talented spitfire who is happy, serious and opinionated all at the same time, with a predisposition to promptly announce her feelings, irrespective of consequences. There is simply no changing that.
Thankfully, controversies, no matter how big or small, are temporary. An actor’s craft — and popularity — on the other hand, are nearly eternal.