So, where do you see yourself at this particular point of your career?” I asked Nimra Bucha, hoping against hope that my timing and tone did not sound as flat and abrupt as it did to my ears.
Taking a moment that lingered between being too long and nearly too short, Nimra answered, “You know what … you ask me that very question every time we speak and, quite frankly, I don’t know what to say!”
The question, admittedly a regular one in her case, was never meant to throw Nimra Bucha off. Here’s why:
At that moment in time (our conversation happened in March), Kamli was quietly beginning its international run in festivals, while Ms. Marvel had just finished streaming on Disney+. Just days before, the trailer of her new film, Polite Society, a Focus Features/Universal release, began trending on YouTube, while her next film, Me, My Mom and Sharmila, a Canadian adaptation of a stage play of the same name, had gone into post-production.
While her work was gradually being polished and publicised in different corners of the world, Nimra had flown to Karachi to do a one-off dramatic reading of Intizar Hussain’s short story Kaaga Tantra, at the British Council’s Women of the World Festival.
She lives in London but will do stage readings for friends in Karachi. She is known for her dramatic intensity but wants to do more action work. She may have not fit into television but ia rising international star with multiple celebrated film and series productions now under her belt. Can she be pigeonholed?
Her co-reader-cum-actor in the story was Sarmad Khoosat, and the two had been rehearsing — well, more like giddily playing like carefree children — when I arrived at her place a few hours earlier. Given the happy-go-lucky mood of the reading, it was a wonder they ever got any of their notes in order.
As I moved around the room, documenting their practice with snaps from my camera, the thought of them bungling their lines didn’t cross my mind for a millisecond.
“I love bossing Sarmad around,” Nimra laughed as they fine-tuned their rehearsal with scribbles.
Nimra had just flown to Karachi two days ago from the UK, and her return flight was mere hours after she would finish the play the next day. It is remarkable to think of the lengths Nimra goes to for her friends.
(FYI: Now that I know this open secret, it is safe to attribute some of her perplexingly, less-than-stellar films, such as Jeevan Haathi and Azad, to her company of friends as well).
Nimra has been sporadically shuttling between Pakistan and the UK for years. Her house, a homey, lived-in place stacked with books and furniture, but void of life, is a living testament to that.
To be fair, and not to sound ungrateful, but I didn’t fit in as a television actor. People [in television] used to tell me that in the beginning — that I won’t make it in mainstream dramas, or that I’ve come too late. They felt like they were being helpful. They said this with all kindness, and I agree. I don’t fit in…in ‘those ways’,” Nimra explains, stressing her last two words.
Her husband, noted journalist and celebrated author Mohammed Hanif, similarly spends long stretches of time in London, punctuated by short trips back to Karachi. The only thing — or rather living being — they left behind in Pakistan (other than immediate families) was a 12-year-old pooch named Paco, who was, as I saw, too lazy to get off the couch. (I’ve since been told that Paco is finally in London, and that he drags away Nimra on long walks).
It has also been years since Baandi, Manto and Aakhri Station, Nimra’s last serial credits in Pakistan. Her last faux-Pakistani productions were Zee5’s Churrails, Zee Theatre’s Yaar Julahay and Mushk, and the international production Altered Skin (all of these projects, by the way, were shot in Pakistan).
None of her career choices are deliberate, and almost all of them are surprising, hence my repeating question.
“The truth is, television came very late to me,” she sighs. If memory serves, her first recognisable role came from the Mehreen Jabbar serial Daam, in 2010.
“To be fair, and not to sound ungrateful, but I didn’t fit in as a television actor. People [in television] used to tell me that in the beginning — that I won’t make it in mainstream dramas, or that I’ve come too late. They felt like they were being helpful. They said this with all kindness, and I agree. I don’t fit in…in ‘those ways’,” Nimra explains, stressing her last two words.
“Still, there was a time, at the peak of my television career, when I had four plays — Mere Yaqeen, SabzPari, LaalKabootar, Baandi — running all at the same time.
“I don’t believe in what’s going on in television [storytelling-wise]. [I think when I act] I come across as a non-believer. I can’t make myself believe [in the realities that the show chooses to depict],” Nimra continues. “Woh wali jo television ki acting hai [the type of acting that’s routinely done on TV], that I think, I can’t do. If there is no reason to take a pause, I find it very difficult to hold that emotion,” she says.
“Of course, that’s not always the case, and there are moments where I say, I’ve got the timing right for that shot, but then there are also times when I ask myself: why did I make my ‘M’ sound like my ‘R’, or why did I take that pause too long. [Actually], I’ve been told by Naumaan Ijaz, that I rush a lot ‘Aap bohat jaldi karti hain’,” she says, connecting an incident with her self-critique.
“I never walked out of Pakistani television. The choice was made for me, I feel. The roles sort of stopped coming,” she says.
On a connecting note, Nimra wasn’t that eager on signing long-term commitments either, I learn.
“I had my son when I did Manto, so I didn’t want to do a lot of plays at that time.” Her two children, Channan and Changez, she tells me, are aged 25 and 8. “They’re 17 years apart! I often joke that I forgot to have another child.
“After Churrails, I had got a couple of offers [from Pakistan] that wanted me to reprise a version of the character I did in Churrails, [albeit] in a shoddy script, because the role took off,” she tells me.
It was a good call to not accept those, because something ‘Marvelous’ was looming on the horizon. While her role in Ms. Marvel propelled Nimra to the big league, the shooting spell also gave her a safe haven from grief.
“My mum passed away four days before I started shooting. I was in Atlanta [prepping for the shoot], and I couldn’t make it back. I think it coloured my experience. I feel like I did a lot of work in a feeling of numbness. Turning up to work was easier [than braving the pain].”
During Ms. Marvel’s reshoots, Nimra’s manager in the UK got her an audition for Polite Society — a kinetic, Bollywood-inspired story of two sisters, marriage and kung-fu, written and directed by Nida Manzoor (she helmed the British series We Are Lady Parts and episodes of Doctor Who).
Nimra, in what could be considered a similar role to her character in Ms. Marvel, plays the overbearing, villainous mum who fights a teenage girl.
“I am being typecast,” she laughs out loud, jesting at the similarity, adding that it’s fun to pretend to bully, smart, young, kickass actresses such as Iman Vellani and Priya Kansara.
“Polite Society is funny in a 1980s Bollywood way. It’s about kung-fu, sisters, family, aunties. There’s a strong emotional core, with a strong cast of South Asian female leads.”
The film, about a Pakistani girl growing up in the UK who wants to be a stunt woman and save her sister from a bad marriage, is already drawing comparisons with Bend It Like Beckham, this writer hears.
“The response has been amazing. I’m getting over-the-top compliments that I don’t know I deserve,”
“I think it was a very thorough kind of job, from the time Nida wrote the character to the time it was refined in the edit,” Nimra praises her director. “It was her character. I wasn’t allowed to go out and do whatever I wanted to. Nida pulled all the strings on me. She is a total boss.”
While the drama bits had come easily to Nimra (the actress had honed her angry growls during her television days, she told me), it was the action bits that scared her…for about half-a-day.
“Nida said that she wanted me to do the action myself, including the wirework,” Nimra says. The director was willing to get a stunt double, but only if things didn’t work with the actress.
“I was scared on my first attempt on the wires, but I began enjoying it by my third try. Even though your life is in someone else’s hands, now I want to do it again and again.”
Nimra has been auditioning for some more action-oriented roles — if she can get them — but she is not averse to doing a good drama on Pakistani television.
“Who is Nimra Bucha?” she exclaimed on my insinuation that she had transcended the bounds of routine storytelling of Pakistani serials. “If I get a good drama in Pakistan, I’ll do it.”
“The truth is, actors have limited control of the work they do. It’s not like A-leads-to-B-leads-to-C. The work you get, it’s just so random. All you can do is increase the odds of getting good roles with every role you do. It’s true of anybody or any industry, and not just for Pakistani or women actors.”
Nimra reminds me of a time when she pressed her husband to write something from the point-of-view of the wife, after The Case of Exploding Mangoes came out. The urging resulted in the play The Dictator’s Wife.
The play was staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and Nimra says that she remembers days where she would walk over to the venue while carrying her props in two bags.
“We sometimes had three people, and I suspect two were sleeping. It was the most up-close encounter of working on a prayer,” she says.
While her acting career has skyrocketed since then, Nimra is still very much the same person.
The next day, at the culmination of Kaaga Tantra, where she and Sarmad bowled over the crowd by play-acting several animal characters (my cats should learn something from her ‘meows’, she joked), I saw Nimra still carrying her things in a big bag, after the bows and the curtain call.
While I believe Nimra loves to be self-critical of her work in film or on the stage (a bulk of our conversations are always about what she could have done better), when Nimra is performing, one sees her for who she actually is: an actor having the time of her life, no matter what medium or the country.
Published in Dawn, ICON, May 21st, 2023