Sajal Aly has the unique ability to light up the screen whenever she appears on it, drawing the eye and then holding you there, riveted. She’s a rare powerhouse, latent with talent, diversifying as she tries to not conform to a single character template.

But Sajal is also a young girl who just loves what she does. She is petite, with eyes that speak volumes and a complete lack of pretense. She can get emotional, her eyes slightly watery as she makes an impassioned observation about a role that she loves or a lesson that she’s learnt or an ordeal that she’s suffered in the past.

“I’m like that, I suppose,” she muses to me. “Maybe I have just been through a lot in my life and I pour all my emotions into the roles that I play, with complete sincerity. Maybe that helps me in connecting with my audience more easily.

“People often tell me that I make them cry with my performances,” she continues. “I think that I can make them laugh just as well. Perhaps they just remember the crying more vividly because not every actor is able to inspire such emotion in his or her audience.”

And just like that, my conversation with Sajal Aly begins, over hot soup and coffee on a mildly cold Karachi afternoon. The people sitting around us in the restaurant peer at our table every now and then, and some come up to talk to her.

I’m glad that we have chosen to meet on a weekday at a not-too-crowded venue. Sajal is so incredibly well-loved that, had we been at a more popular venue, we wouldn’t have been able to talk.

Is Sajal aware of the power she wields over her audience? “I think I’m very lucky,” she smiles. “Sometimes you strike lucky by a fluke.”

Really, Sajal? I counter. Does she really think that it’s merely luck, and not talent, that has enabled her to win rave reviews with every one of her performances in TV dramas, star in a Bollywood movie and land a major role in What’s Love Got To Do With It?, an upcoming Hollywood movie directed by Shekhar Kapoor and co-produced by Jemima Goldsmith?

“When I was selected for the Bollywood movie Mom, I thought that I was just lucky. Now that something similar has happened for the second time and I’m going to be making my Hollywood debut, I suppose that there is something in me that people like.”

What is that something? “I don’t know,” she muses. “To date, whenever I’m about to start working on a project, I’m petrified. I ask my director if I’ll be able to do it.”

Sajal Aly thinks she’s become the entertainment industry’s majboori — that it can’t ignore her even if it wanted to. But why would it want to ignore an actor who sets the screen on fire? Why does she continue doubting herself? And what exactly is up with her and her husband Ahad Raza Mir?

She recounts mentioning this to actor Bilal Abbas, her co-star in the drama O Rangreza and in the recently released film Khel Khel Mein. “He joked that I needed to stop doubting myself. He said that when we were acting together, he never realised how powerfully my performance would end up translating on screen!” Sajal smiles. She may count herself as lucky but she can’t deny that her acting prowess has a lot to do with her success.

Hollywood Heights

We begin talking about her international projects and Sajal reminisces about meeting the late Sri Devi, her co-star in Mom. “I asked her why they had selected me. There is so much talent in India. And she said ‘Beta, it’s because you’re good at what you do’. She had seen my work in Pakistani dramas!” Sajal beams.

Similarly, Sajal’s co-star in What’s Love Got To Do With It?, Bollywood veteran Shabana Azmi, met Sajal for the first time and immediately commented on one of her dramas. “I had been very nervous that I would be meeting Shabana Azmi for the first time and, beyond that, I would be walking with her, talking to her and sharing my screen with her. When she came in, I greeted her and she said, ‘Oh! I was just watching your drama.’ She had been watching Yaqeen Ka Safar!”

She continues, “The very first scene that we shot featured all of us. In the second scene, Shekhar Kapoor told me to improvise. He said that I had to keep talking and he would just film me.

“I knew that he had liked my performance in the first scene and so I felt confident but, then, somewhere in the middle, I got lost in thought. He immediately prompted me and told me, ‘Sajal, you’re doing great, stop doubting yourself.’ That’s the sign of a great director — to be able to catch out actors’ emotions and push them towards doing their best.”

It was rumored that she managed to land her role in What’s Love Got To Do With It? with the help of her father-in-law Asif Raza Mir’s connections. Is this true?

Sajal reminisces about meeting the late Sri Devi, her co-star in Mom. “I asked her why they had selected me. There is so much talent in India. And she said ‘Beta, it’s because you’re good at what you do’. She had seen my work in Pakistani dramas!”

“No, I have a manager who lines up potential international projects for me,” she corrects. Her husband, actor Ahad Raza Mir, filmed her audition and, once it was emailed to the movie’s team, it got approved.

Pakistani actors who have gained international experience have often, in the past, commented on the lack of structure and professionalism back home. Does Sajal, with her experiences in Bollywood and Hollywood, also feel that Pakistan’s entertainment industry has a long way to go?

“There is really no difference except that, in Pakistan, we are working with smaller budgets,” she says. “This means that we may have to make an extra effort and, sometimes, I may have to extend favours by working a few extra hours. That’s the only difference.

“If an actor is lucky, he or she gets offered more international work but, regardless, I would never turn my back on my own industry. All the international work that has come my way has been because those filmmakers had seen my work in Pakistan. And when I go abroad, I do so as a Pakistani. I want to keep contributing and giving back to my industry with the work that I do.

“I was also offered the title role in another Hollywood movie and the story was very exciting,” Sajal reveals. “However, there was a single, very bold scene in the movie that I knew I couldn’t do.”

You could have used a body double, I comment. “Even if I managed to do so, the people of my country would have connected that scene with me. I wouldn’t want to disillusion them like that.”

Khel Khel Mein
Khel Khel Mein

Sajal may be deeply committed to Pakistan’s entertainment fraternity but this does not mean that she isn’t aware of the politics that simmer just beneath its glittery surface.

I ask her if attitudes changed towards her once she had starred in Mom back in 2017. “Yes, suddenly I was moved to the front row at events,” she states matter-of-factly. “There was conjecture on ‘how could Sajal Aly have been selected for a role opposite the legendary Sri Devi.’ I found it sad, because I had already worked with actors such as Sania Saeed and Nadia Jamil and, for me, they are just as illustrious as Sri Devi.

“India had selected me because of my work in Pakistan, whereas Pakistan only moved me to the front row once I had worked in India. It’s high time that we start valuing our talent on its own merit!”

“I’m this industry’s majboori”

Did the industry’s perception of her change substantially after the release of Mom? Sajal’s acting prowess was widely acclaimed in the film. “I think opinions started changing before that, after my dramas Gul-i-Raana and Chup Raho,” she reflects.

“I have never been afraid of taking on unconventional roles. Even in the earlier years of my career, I took a risk with my role in the drama Quddusi Sahib Ki Bewa. I have literally built my career little by little, on my own merit. It isn’t as if I haven’t been snubbed in the past or even now. There’s a lot of favouritism but I have worked very hard and, now, people can’t ignore me. I have become this industry’s majboori, someone they can’t avoid.”

I find this difficult to believe — how could anyone even want to ignore an actress as powerful as Sajal? “Yes, they can’t anymore. I’m considered for so many difficult roles,” she confirms. “But I sit with many of these industry power players and I know that they don’t want to give anyone a chance beyond their own network of friends.

“I know that, a lot of times, they are just obsessed with people with social media followings. I have managed to weather the storm, but I think that there are so many other talented individuals waiting for their big break. Our directors and producers need to stop playing favourites.

Ishq-i-Laa
Ishq-i-Laa

“There was this one time when I was nominated for my work in two major dramas, O Rangreza and Yaqeen Ka Safar. The show’s organiser at the time called me and invited me, and asked me if I was nominated for Best Model. I had been nominated for acting in two of the biggest dramas of the year that had been the talk of the town and I was shocked that she couldn’t have done her research before calling me up.”

To date, Sajal hasn’t won a Lux Style Award — I find this very surprising. “I have been nominated many times and, honestly, it all gets balanced out because I get so much love from my audience,” says Sajal. “I also don’t have a social circle that obsesses over awards, so that helps. Of course, it would feel great to win. The only time that I felt a bit bad was when Chhammi, my character in Aangan, didn’t win. That girl deserved an award.”

Dramatic Directions

We rewind in time to recall the firebrand called Chhammi — a garrulous, emotional character from pre-Partition Pakistan. There was a certain scene in Aangan that particularly stands out in my memory: a letter is read out to Chhammi that moves her and, within a span of 30 seconds, Sajal’s face undergoes a wealth of different emotions.

I recount this scene to Sajal and she says, “I don’t know what happened to me while I was playing Chhammi. It was as if someone were holding my hand and I just kept sinking deeper and deeper into the character. There was a lot that I learnt from my role in Aangan.

Yaqeen Ka Safar
Yaqeen Ka Safar

“Ahad had told me that it was a great role and I didn’t read the script properly before signing on. When I did read the script, I realised that my scenes were much fewer than that of the other characters. I was also not very social media savvy and I barely put out any pictures of myself from the set. I worried that I would get lost in the story.

“Somehow, though, my audience simply gravitated towards Chhammi. I got so much love for the role. It was proof that the length of your role and how much you promoted it on social media didn’t matter.”

Another project that she worked in with Ahad — Sahad, as they are called, have been a favourite pair on-screen as well as off it — was the drama Yeh Dil Mera, a thriller with a very strong story which suffered at the hands of long drags and multiple flashback scenes.

Does it hurt when a drama that she is deeply invested in deteriorates due to tropes used to prolong viewership and haul in more profits?

“It does. As an actor, you have created a character — the way she talks, her body movements, her facial expressions. It’s like nurturing a baby and, when you see that character’s journey getting ruined, you feel dejected. There have been times when I have insisted on changes and the producer and writer of the drama have not liked it. But I have to try.”

O Rangreza
O Rangreza

She pauses. “Sometimes actors and directors work with the writer and get changes made in the story. Sometimes, when a story is weak, production houses deliberately choose a strong cast that will be able to enhance it. But there’s only so much that we can do. If a script is bad, it’s bad and now, many actors just don’t sign on to a story that they don’t believe in.”

She may have the lion’s share of good scripts coming to her now, but was there a time when Sajal accepted mediocre roles simply so that her career could move forwards?

“In the first six, seven years of my career, I did. I was the sole breadwinner of my family and I had to keep earning. Now, though, there are times when I end up refusing good scripts because of a lack of dates or simply because I take up too much time thinking over the role.”

Does she regret that? “I regret having missed out on working with certain directors on certain projects. People say that it’s very important to have a good chemistry with your co-actor, but I really don’t think it’s necessary for you to be prattling away with your co-actors. It’s more important to have a good chemistry with the director. I’m completely a director’s actress.”

TV OR FILM?

Coming to the present, she’s working with multiple directors. Her movie with Filmwala Pictures, Khel Khel Mein, was criticised severely although her acting won accolades. She’s also currently starring in two major TV dramas, Ishq-i-Laa with Yumna Zaidi and Azaan Sami Khan, and the multistarrer Sinf-i-Aahan, directed by Nadeem Baig.

What prompted her to take on a script such as Sinf-i-Aahan, where she is playing a relatively uncomplicated role and is accompanied by an extensive ensemble cast? “It can actually be very difficult to play a relatively normal character and make it interesting for the audience,” she says.

“That’s why I signed on to Sinf-i-Aahan. It also gave me the opportunity to work with Nadeem Baig. He is a very intelligent director and I think that he needs to keep working with new people and give them opportunities.”

Her drama Ishq-i-Laa recently came under scrutiny when certain scenes were considered to be more romantic than what is usually shown on TV. Did she not feel that the intimacy shown in the drama was pushing boundaries?

“I think that a certain element of romance had to be incorporated into the drama, because it fits into how the story will proceed. It had to be believable, but we did stay within limits.”

Khel Khel Mein’s flaws may not be something that she can comment openly on, considering that it is only her second cinematic release, but they could not be something that she wasn’t aware of. I sidestep a point-blank question and ask her if she prefers TV or cinema?

“I think cinema allows the actor to move into more of a fantasy world while TV is closer to reality,” Sajal observes. “I’m attached to TV more at this point, and I think that our cinema needs to improve. I also think that professionals who know the craft need to start focusing on Pakistan’s film industry rather than people who are just dabbling with it for fun.”

Would Sajal be willing to play the cinematic siren? “I would love to, but I would want to work with the right script and the right director. Without them, I would just end up looking bad.”

THE QUESTION OF EXPOSURE

Doesn’t Sajal feel that she is spreading herself too thin, seen far too frequently on TV? “People have told me this but I think that there must be a reason why God has sent all these projects my way. I have the strength and energy to do all this work right now and I may not be able to do so one day. There are new people coming in and I can’t get complacent and miss out on the opportunity to work with so many great teams and directors.”

She muses, “I never see myself on screen because it disturbs me and I find too many flaws but, some days ago, I decided to watch my drama O Rangreza. I have been working so hard and so consistently that I needed to take a break and remind myself of the reason why I love acting. The drama came as such a surprise to me. I kept remarking to my sister Saboor that that was me on screen!

“It was the sort of story that told you that you couldn’t love anyone to the point of worship. If you did, God put obstacles in the way in order to shake you up and remind you that the only one worthy of love like that is Him. I’m glad I got to give out such an important message. It’s one that I have learnt in my life.”

AND WHAT ABOUT SAHAD?

The topic of love steers the conversation towards the love of her life, actor Ahad Raza Mir. The two had a romance that was earmarked by their dramas together, followed by a magical, much-hyped wedding in Abu Dhabi right before the coronavirus pandemic broke loose. To their fans they are Sahad, avidly loved and followed on social media.

But the two have not been seen together in recent times, leading to rumours that all’s not well between them. To the contrary, Sajal talks often about Ahad, and with a familiar fondness, although her reminiscences are mostly from the past.

“Ahad has talked about me a lot in his past interviews but, somehow, I’m only doing it now,” she smiles. “It’s just that I rarely give interviews and I worry that, if I’ll get asked about Ahad, I’ll just end up going on and on!

“We had just got engaged when we started working in Aangan together. He had proposed to me and I had told him that he needed to reach out to my family. The very next day, I had fallen ill and Ahad’s mother had come to take care of me for three days. My father had been very surprised but my sister told him that Ahad’s family were thinking of marriage. Once I got better, Ahad’s parents came to Lahore, met my family and we got engaged.

“I later asked Ahad why he had been in such a hurry to get engaged. He told me that he had been afraid that, if he didn’t ask me to marry him, he would lose me, and I would marry someone else,” she smiles.

Why haven’t the two been lately pairing up together for a project? Their last acting tryst together was Dhoop Ki Deewar, a Zee5 mini-series that ran into controversy because it addressed the two-nation theory in a very bold way.

“I thought that Dhoop Ki Deewar had a simple story and I would be working with a great team,” she says about the series. “But Ahad and I did decide that we had been acting together far too frequently and that we should take a break from it, unless, of course, the sort of story comes along that we can’t resist.”

She doesn’t get drawn on why the couple has not been seen together in public.

“Do you know, the most emotionally difficult times of my life have been my most successful career-wise? Like when my mother passed away, I was working on two of the biggest projects of my career, O Rangreza and Yaqeen Ka Safar,” she states, without elaboration.

I am left to draw my own conclusions about what this implies. The present time is also one where she is reaching new heights of success — I earnestly hope that it’s not a harrowing one for her personally.

But that is how Sajal is — she triggers emotions in whoever she meets or even within the audience who see her on the screen. The sincerity that she has for her craft and the nuances that she adds to her performances translate to her pesona: honest, passionate, with so much that she says out loud and a lot more that can be read between the lines and from within her eyes.

Is she the industry’s majboori like she says, someone they want to ignore but can’t? I find that hard to believe. Sajal Aly does not need awards to validate her. She does not need to post regularly on social media in order to be well-loved. She doesn’t even need every project of hers to become a hit because, regardless, her performances earn praise.

She may not be the industry’s compulsion, but she is certainly a source of great pride. There’s something about Sajal — and, despite her self-doubts, she knows it too.

Published in Dawn, Icon, January 2nd, 2022

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