A few years ago, Sarwat Gilani had a change of heart. She no longer wanted to make do with repetitive roles in TV dramas. She didn’t want to play the suffering woman, who inexorably surfaces in every drama script. She didn’t want to agree to a role simply because it would click with the masses and trend. For a little less than 20 years, she’d played to the tune of what the Pakistani TV audience likes to see.

Sarwat wanted to play a different kind of music now.

And so, she waited; for the unconventional role, the unique story, the script that may not appeal to the masses but would appeal to her as an actress.

She became a churrail [witch], righteously wreaking revenge, and then, a qaatil haseena [femme fatale], hopelessly in love and caught in a web of betrayal. She switched from an 80-year-old woman to a 12-year-old boy, through her voice and body language, while part of the dramatic reading series Yaar Julahay.

She hasn’t acted in Pakistani television dramas since 2018. She turns a deaf ear to the trolls. And she’s willing to refuse lucrative projects and exposure. So how is Sarwat Gilani still riding high?

In her most recent project, Saim Sadiq’s critically acclaimed, award-winning Joyland, she became the woman in a household within androon [inner city] Lahore, displeasing her in-laws because she was yet to give birth to a son. The movie paved a path to this year’s Cannes Film Festival for Sarwat and the rest of the Joyland cast and crew, where it got a standing ovation and won a jury prize.

Back at home, a slew of social media trolls pointed out that Joyland, with its ‘bold’ story, had been lauded by the ‘big bad’ West because it misrepresented Pakistan. Similar allegations have been made regarding Sarwat’s other recent projects; how the strongly feministic, no-holds-barred narratives of Churrails and Qaatil Haseenaon Ke Naam were formulated around an agenda of popularising (allegedly) “indecent” content.

I sit across from Sarwat, this supposed perpetrator responsible for infusing bold, evil content into our land. She is petite, pretty and speaks with conviction. She doesn’t quite look like a vehicle for spreading agenda-based notions — Sarwat is sure that she isn’t one.

Power player

“All these criticisms are indicative of the double standards that prevail in our society,” she says. “Our dramas show women getting slapped about and insulted and no one takes offence to that. There are multiple TV scripts based on illicit relations. But if a series depicts a woman being violent or cursing or having an affair, we suddenly have a huge problem.”

Referring to Joyland, she continues, “The movie addresses the pressures faced by women and one tangent of the story focuses on the trials of a trans-woman. Somehow, we can’t come to terms with this. We’d rather ridicule transgenders in our TV talk-shows or make fun of them on the roads, but a story that seeks to elevate them and talk about their struggles is considered offensive.

“I am just not interested in these opinions. They don’t count for me. These people are not my audience,” she finishes.

The implication is that her present audience is more niche; a relatively small fraction of viewers with a taste for stories that try to push boundaries. But how is this select crowd even getting to see her work considering that the Zee5 OTT (over-the-top) platform, where most of her recent work is available for streaming, is banned in Pakistan? Even Joyland is yet to officially announce a local release date, although there are rumours that it will air in cinemas by the end of this year — should the censor board even allow it.

“People who want to see my work have their ways. They find sites through which they can watch the series,” she shrugs.

Yes, but that’s not an easy, user-friendly route to take, I insist. “It doesn’t matter. This part of the world saw my work for so long, now the rest of the world can see my work,” she responds.

We backtrack to her past projects. The last TV drama that Sarwat acted in was Khasara in 2018. Her role had been a powerful one and had convinced her that she needed to chalk a different career path for herself.

“Around the same time, I had started participating in causes that mattered to me,” she recalls. “I was raising my voice for the rights of children and women, speaking out on platforms for Special Olympics Pakistan [SOP], the Kiran Foundation, Indus Hospital, among others. I realised that I wouldn’t be doing justice to these causes if I was going back in front of the camera and playing the suffering, helpless woman. There are so many brilliant, strong women in Pakistan. We needed to tell their stories as well.

“I knew that dramas needed to change their track but, until they did, I just changed my own track,” she smiles.

Considering that her latest works have predominantly been with Zee5, an OTT service with its base in India, and given the volatile nature of cross-border politics, did Sarwat ever worry that her work may abruptly get banned in India? Or, that she could face backlash within Pakistan for collaborating so frequently with the ‘enemy’?

“Over the years, I have gotten very thick-skinned,” she says. “It’s not my problem if a project gets banned. As long as I know that I am not saying anything wrong about my country, I am not worried.”

She continues: “Even at Cannes, all the movies that we saw told real-life stories about the countries from where they originated. It’s sad that a certain segment of people over here don’t have the honesty within them to see what is wrong as well as right amongst us. They’d rather just ban a project altogether.”

It’s commendable that she chooses to walk off the beaten track, shrugging aside lucrative TV options and the all-prevalent ban culture, all for the love of her craft. However, could Sarwat really have had the liberty to be so selective if she didn’t have a strong financial backing? After all, her husband, Fahad Mirza, is a cosmetic surgeon (who also moonlights as an actor). While many of her peers profess to take on repetitive roles because they have to keep earning, is she picky simply because she can afford to be so?

All these criticisms are indicative of the double standards that prevail in our society. Our dramas show women getting slapped about and insulted and no one takes offence to that. There are multiple TV scripts based on illicit relations. But if a series depicts a woman being violent or cursing or having an affair, we suddenly have a huge problem.”

“I feel that I was picky even when I was working in TV dramas,” she replies. “The actors who started out around the same time as me worked in a lot more dramas than I did. I would always try to focus on quality rather than quantity. A role needed to convince me as a person for me to be able to convince my audience.

“Yes, that meant that I earned less, but I am an art graduate from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture [IVSAA] and I would sell paintings in order to make do. It’s very important to maintain a separate avenue for income. I have often advised other actors to do so who, like myself, have been frustrated by the limited roles offered to them.”

I persist: would she still pick and choose between roles and give up on the designer-wear and the glossy celebrity lifestyle if she didn’t have a financially stable background?

“Yes!” she laughs. “I am an artist. I am willing to struggle until I find something that satisfies me internally. I will keep painting until I am satisfied with my canvas.

“And the designer-wear is usually just borrowed from friends anyway. It’s a waste of money buying clothes when you can just borrow and return them!”

It’s a very honest admission — but while Sarwat may often rely on her designer friends, unlike most celebrities, she doesn’t just wear anything that comes her way. Her personal style is understated and elegant and she knows precisely what works for her.

About a year ago, she took to the stage of Fashion Pakistan Week as brand ambassador of the SOP in an elegant black cloak. Later, she had told me that the clothes that she had planned to wear hadn’t been ironed properly, so she had just stepped out in her sister’s abaya, complementing it with chunky jewellery!

Sarwat smiles. “I do plan out my wardrobe. For me, less is more. I’ll wear a Rizwan Beyg or an Omer Saeed outfit because it just goes with my personal style. I wore an Elan sari on the Cannes red carpet because I felt it would make the right statement.”

The Cannes Experience

Sarwat’s sartorial style at Cannes may have ticked the right boxes, but the rest of the cast and crew was severely criticised for the clothes they wore to the festival. Was the team hurt that, instead of celebrating their presence on an internationally acclaimed platform, Pakistani social media was making fun of what they were wearing?

“No, we weren’t hurt. We were in Cannes!” Sarwat laughs. “We, as a nation, rarely pass compliments. We’re more interested in leg-pulling. The trip to Cannes was a complete surprise for all of us. I remember that I was in Karachi’s Urdu Bazaar, buying art supplies for my newly launched art school for children, Art House, and was wishing Saim [Joyland’s director] a happy birthday in a group call. Suddenly, he said that I have a surprise for all of you, and it turned out that we were going to Cannes!

“It was like we were in a dream — in fact, this wasn’t even something that we had dreamt of! Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy had paved the way to the Oscars, so, as actors we could sometimes aspire to be there. But we hadn’t ever imagined that we could be part of a world-famous festival like Cannes!

“Since it was all so sudden, we couldn’t plan our wardrobes properly. Also, our designers like to be cool. They will ask who will be wearing the clothes. If it isn’t people they know, they won’t want to create clothes for them. They will offer to dress just two of the celebrities in the group. They don’t actually pause to think that this is a group of actors that is going to be representing Pakistan at the Cannes Film Festival.”

She continues: “We all planned our wardrobes ourselves, relying on our personal contacts within the fashion industry. Regardless, we all wore Pakistani clothes and we stood out from all the other people at the festival. Besides, if everyone had liked our clothes, that would have been quite non-dramatic. It would have been boring!” she smiles.

“It was so much more interesting reading comments about how so and so was wearing a mayun dress and not a Cannes dress. That’s their opinion, it’s okay. Once they get to the festival themselves, they can wear whatever they think is right.”

Sarwat can offer burns with the sweetest of smiles.

Showstopper!

While we are on the topic of clothes, Sarwat is also sporadically seen in fashion shows, making an appearance as a celebrity showstopper. Does she enjoy taking to the catwalk or is it simply just an additional source of revenue for her?

“Usually I am just honoured that these designers have reached out to me and want me to represent their brand on the runway,” she says. But surely it must pay well, I ask. “It does,” she concedes, “but I do it selectively because I don’t want to be the actor who walks for every designer.”

Talking about having recently played showstopper for Kashee’s, the beauty salon chain owner who has expanded to mass-friendly bridal-wear, she continues, “I agreed to walk for him because I was so impressed with his story. He started his business with a single room and now he has a factory churning out so much more. You and I may not be his clientele, but he is raising the bar for the masses.

“Even as a celebrity showstopper. I try to tweak my look so that I am comfortable on the catwalk. The stylist team will present me with a choker, jhoomar, teeka set and I’ll tell them that I’ll wear just my studs with the choker.”

And you won’t dance on the runway? “No!” she laughs. “The most that I’ll do is give my adaab to the audience.”

That must come naturally to you, given your nawabi lineage, I quip to her, referring to a recent headline that had revealed that her maternal grandfather had been a nawab in pre-Partition India.

“Yes, it does,” she agrees.

Here to stay

We shift focus back to the business of acting. Has playing a range of heavy-duty roles one after the other had an impact on her? Does she end up carrying the weight of the characters that she is enacting long after the shoot is over?

“Yes, the sadness does continue to weigh on me sometimes. It’s something that I have to fix. Sania Saeed has taught me some breathing exercises that help in tuning out a character and they really help,” says Sarwat. “Sometimes, when Fahad and I have a fight, he says that it’s these roles that you’re playing which are having an effect on you! After wrapping up the shoot for Qaatil Haseenaon Ke Naam, it took me two days to come back to my senses.

“But this used to happen in the past too. In the drama Mata-i-Jaan Hai Tu, Adeel Hussain and I visit Qavi sahib who is playing our neighbour and he talks about how children become too busy to come and meet their parents as they get older. I went back home and called Adeel up crying and I asked him, who were these people who didn’t have the time to meet their parents? He told me to snap out of it and that we weren’t shooting anymore,” she smiles.

“That’s the fun of it though, isn’t it? To slip into another person’s life and learn from it, without having to truly experience it yourself.”

Would she consider going back to acting in TV again? “I think I would,” she says. “It will be difficult for me, though. I am no longer used to workdays that stretch on beyond 12 hours, extending for 35 to 40 days, while we shoot more than 30 episodes.

“I am a very hands-on mother and I like to be around to manage my children’s schedules. And then there’s Art House, the art school for children that I have just launched. I need to get it up on its feet before I commit to long schedules that may take me out of town.

“Also, TV drama shoots tend to be unsystematic. The three hours wasted in waiting on set for my scene to be shot could be used so much more productively with the special-needs children in the SOP program. I’ve been an ambassador for the SOP for seven years now, and it’s a responsibility that I have found to be very rewarding.”

What is her role as a brand ambassador for the cause? “To create awareness about children with special needs, for one,” she says. “I have taken the children to morning shows before they have gone off to play in a tournament. When their names would get announced on TV, they would get very excited and would feel even more motivated to return home with medals.

“After the competition, I try to take them to another morning show, where they can show the world their medals. These are young children who struggle against the odds and manage to achieve their targets while also giving Pakistan international recognition. It’s sad that a lot of people don’t even know what a special-needs child needs. It’s important to build awareness. As a well-known face, I also help however I can in collecting donations.”

There’s a lot that’s keeping her busy. “I recently refused to fly out for an audition in Canada. I just said no to a major drama. If someone really wants to sign me on to a long project, they may need to wait for five, six years.

“My husband’s a cosmetic surgeon — I am not going anywhere!” she quips.

That’s for sure. Sarwat Gilani is here to stay.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 18th, 2022

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