Alizeh Shah doesn’t like giving interviews. She tells me that it’s because she has social anxiety. “There’s always so much that I want to say that I end up not saying. There have been too many times that my words have been misinterpreted.”
She says this emphatically, her eyes wide, looking more like a distressed 21-year-old (she claims she’s only 19) than a well-known starlet who trends on Twitter every few weeks and is perpetually talked about on social media.
I suppose that there are certain preconceived notions that one ends up having about Alizeh Shah before meeting her. I had heard often that she was difficult to work with and was inclined towards throwing tantrums. It was commonly conjectured that she must deliberately stir controversies about herself in order to remain in the public eye.
What I hadn’t expected was for Alizeh to come off as a young woman trying to pick her way through a highly competitive world, second-guessing herself, often musing off-tangent and saying far too much that she insists is off-the-record.
Alizeh Shah is constantly being talked about, often for things other than her acting. Some think she courts controversy for fame. But could it be that she’s just a very young woman with social anxiety, trying to pick her way through a highly competitive and sometimes bullying world?
I also hadn’t expected her to be petrified of meeting me. “It isn’t about you,” she tells me time and again, “I just don’t like interviews.”
I’m glad, though, that Alizeh manages to turn up for our meeting. Her publicist sits with us initially because she is afraid that she will say something wrong. He leaves eventually as she unwinds over the course of our two-hour-long meeting, criss-crossing her legs, relaxing in the fluffy pink coat that she’s wearing, laughing over personal anecdotes and exclaiming at one point, “Why was I worried? This is such fun!”
It’s good that you think so, I tell her, but when you first started out as a child artist — she first acted as a six-year-old in a commercial featuring Wasim Akram — did you ever expect that, one day, you would be asked more questions about your social media controversies than about your work? “No, and it’s not fair,” she says, “but that’s how it is. That’s why you and I are sitting here, right?”
But I do want to know more about your work, I tell her. What do you think has been your most successful project to date? “Ehd-i-Wafa,” comes the expected answer. “But even before I acted in that drama, there were people that loved me.” She was, of course, also widely appreciated for her supporting role as Mahira Khan’s bubbly younger sister Chutki in the 2019 film Superstar.
“I remember shooting in a mall for my first big project, Kun Fayakun, opposite Imran Abbas, and these girls came up to me and they were so excited. One of them had an entire photo album in her cellphone with my pictures. I was amazed. They hadn’t seen my acting but they knew me from Instagram. I think I had a really small following of about 300,000 at the time.”
Alizeh smiles. “There have been times when little girls come up to me and they’re just transfixed. And older women who watch dramas really love me. I’m their favourite!”
The vitriol directed towards her on social media, though, is in complete contrast. Alizeh mulls over this. “I think that a lot more people joined Instagram during the coronavirus pandemic. Also, there has been a lot more mental depression and people take out their frustrations on social media. In my case, they like me when they see me on TV playing a typical daughter or daughter-in-law. If they see me behaving differently in my personal life, they take offence.”
A very recent case-in-point is a video that surfaced on Twitter which showed Alizeh smoking in a car. Alizeh nods. “Do you know I was with my family in that car? If my family does not have any issues, who are these nameless, faceless people on social media who decide to judge me?”
But why didn’t you say so when people were trolling you incessantly, I ask her. “I have realised that it’s wiser to stay quiet. Often, when a woman takes a stand and decides to defend herself, people make life even more difficult for her. It’s easier for me to just disconnect from social media. I know that controversies don’t last for longer than two days and, after that, these very people will be watching my drama and getting excited about it.”
Her eyes twinkle. “You know, I even got offered an item song right after that video got leaked? One video with a cigarette in it and it was assumed that I was ready to be an item girl! The song had some crazy lyrics, about kalashnikovs for eyes. My friends and I were in hysterics when we heard it!”
We switch off from the interview to listen to the said song and it’s certainly masala-laden to the core. So you won’t be appearing in an item song, but are you working on any exciting new projects, I ask Alizeh.
“I do have a very exciting drama that’s about to begin shooting. The cast includes Sami Khan and Shahzad Sheikh, and half of it is going to be shot in Kashmir and the other half in Lahore. I’m really looking forward to it.
“I love my work. I enjoyed being part of Taana Baana last Ramazan,” she recalls. “Daniyal Zafar remains my favourite co-star to date. He was so professional and we would practise our scenes endlessly before they were filmed. I think that’s one of the reasons why people loved our pairing and loved the drama.”
I think that a lot more people joined Instagram during the coronavirus pandemic. Also, there has been a lot more mental depression and people take out their frustrations on social media. In my case, they like me when they see me on TV playing a typical daughter or daughter-in-law. If they see me behaving differently in my personal life, they take offence.”
She adds, honestly, “I can’t profess that every project that I take on is exciting and unique. Very few scripts try to tell stories that are different. For instance, almost every script being written in Pakistan right now delves into rape or marital abuse. I’m a little tired of that, but I do have to earn, so I have to occasionally act in typical roles.”
I’m curious: has work ever stopped coming her way because of her constant tussle with controversies?
“Work has never stopped coming my way,” she professes. “The only time when I started getting less work was when I had gained too much weight and my face had gotten red with acne. It was because of a hormonal imbalance and it took time for me to get better.
“I do remember how there were people who insulted me out loud at the time, asking me what I had done to myself, in crowded places where everyone would turn to scrutinise me. I would be on the verge of crying. Why would I deliberately do anything like that to myself?” She shrugs incredulously.
“There are always two sides to a story,” she continues. “There have been times when I have refused to work with an organisation because I had pending payments due from them. I don’t misbehave on a drama set. I eat with everyone else and try to be helpful. However, if I have to get my make-up done in sweltering heat in a room that is not air-conditioned, isn’t it my right to ask the producer to make me more comfortable? If my make-up melts in the heat, I’ll only end up looking bad on the TV screen.”
It all sounds pretty sensible to me — and yet again, I’m compelled to point out that Alizeh has never extended these explanations before.
“You have to understand that I don’t come from a media background,” she points out. “I don’t have an entire battalion of supporters from the industry who will stand by me. I just don’t want to invite more taunts and bullying.”
Bullying, sadly, is something that Alizeh is very familiar with — perhaps more than any young woman should be. “I was bullied in school constantly and in college, and when I started building my career more seriously, things only got worse,” says Alizeh.
“People were constantly judging me, wondering why I wasn’t pursuing a more conventional path in life. Now those very people call me and ask me for shout-outs and selfies.”
The bullying has now switched base to the social media playground. Recently, Alizeh got very upset when she was ridiculed after having fallen on the catwalk at the Bridal Couture Week (BCW). Falls on the BCW stage are quite the norm actually, with models and celebrity showstoppers often taking a tumble while balancing heavy-duty bridal-wear. But the video of Alizeh’s fall went viral, perhaps because it was particularly ridiculous.
She had been walking quite easily when singer Shazia Manzoor, who was on the catwalk with her, swung her in the opposing direction. Alizeh fell and Shazia tried to pick her up in a very comical way.
Alizeh laughs. “At that time I didn’t know whether to cry about falling or what happened afterwards. It was all an accident and I think Shazia, in her excitement, had just pushed me in the opposite direction. Everyone is scared of falling at Bridal Couture Week, but the clothes I was wearing were very comfortable and I was wearing sneakers under them!
“I even danced a bit when I was initially on the catwalk. Still, what hurt me was not that I had fallen, but the way people on social media took pleasure in it. I read cruel comments that, after my song Badnamiyaan, I had had it coming.”
This brings us to Alizeh’s somewhat half-baked singing debut in the said song, sung in collaboration with composer and musician Sahir Ali Bagga and released with a video that brought on a deluge of comments on the black tank top that she was seen wearing. Had she expected such a response from her audience?
“Honestly, no. I love singing. One day, I want to take a brief break from acting and just focus on singing.” Pausing, she adds, “I did want my singing debut to be different, though. Badnamiyaan got recorded spontaneously. I was at Sahir Ali Bagga’s, and he asked me to sing the song and he liked my voice so much that we just recorded it there and then. Even the video was recorded soon afterwards, within a day, and the next month, it was released.
“The song did end up becoming popular but I had just wanted my first song to be different. I had thought that it would be a slower song, more romantic.”
And then, sometime later, Alizeh took to her Instagram and decided to sing Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s O Re Piya unplugged — trolls had a field day again. “People kept saying that I was putting on an accent. What accent? This is how I talk in my daily life. They can’t compare it to the way I speak when I’m playing a good bahu on TV,” she exclaims.
“The thing is, people can say what they want to say. They can’t stop me from doing what I love. I’ll sing when I feel like it, I’ll wear what I want to. If my family doesn’t have any issues about the way I dress, why should I be bothered about what people say?” There’s no shortage of youthful spunk in Alizeh.
I try to steer her towards the — somewhat murky — silver lining: the fact that people are constantly talking about her, even if it is to criticise her, is a sign that she remains relevant. Not everyone trends on Twitter quite so easily. But is there some truth to the notion that Alizeh’s constant run-ins with scandals are publicity stunts?
“People who say that are just being mean. If I needed to gain publicity and popularity, I would have done all this before Ehd-i-Wafa came along and people hadn’t known me. Why would I deliberately do this to myself now?
“Fame has never attracted me from the onset of my career. I just always wanted to be an actress, to see myself on screen, to tell stories where I’m dancing or falling in love.”
She is doing that too, of course. At this fledgling stage in her career, Alizeh Shah is extremely famous and, while she may have some very vicious trolls on her case, she also has her fans.
Not every 19-or-21-year-old trends on Twitter quite so easily. Not every actress gets talked about so frequently. Her schedule is lined with work and she’s got the heady optimism of youth spurring her on. A few right moves — and a few less leaked videos — and the world’s her oyster.
Published in Dawn, ICON, January 23rd, 2022