I met Rabya Kulsoom for the first time feeling as if I somewhat knew her already. I realised later that this was just part of Rabya’s charm.
She may not be the quintessential lead actress in a drama but Rabya has the rare talent of adding a realness to the characters that she enacts. She emotes with her eyes, delivers dialogues effortlessly and smoothly slips into the skin of her characters, so convincing as the friendly girl next door or the spunky younger sister that you connect with her.
So what if she’s not the main lead, the girl who will eventually sail off into the sunset with the leading man? The character she plays often ends up being equally interesting, if not more.
She may be the hero’s sister but she won’t just be any sister — she’ll be the forthright one, with opinions and the wherewithal to take the plot into new directions. Or, she’ll be the opinionated best friend or the bereft young widow struggling with her mental health. She will cry and fight and make icy declarations, to the extent that you will begin waiting for her to come on screen.
But why is Rabya always playing the significant lynchpin in the story rather than the main female lead? It is something that she and I discuss extensively when we meet.
Rabya Kulsoom is the daughter of character actor Parveen Akbar. But nepotism never figured in her rise as an actor herself, she points out. What she does feel weighed down by, however, is being typecast as the perennial sister to the leads and the similarity of roles on offer. Can she break out?
In person, she looks even younger than she does on screen. She smiles often, quips constantly and is very pretty. There is no plausible reason why mainstream lead roles have evaded her so far, but Rabya tells Icon that she has learnt to look at the bright side.
The brighter side to sisterhood
“Before playing the lead, you have the option to play a variety of roles, but once you’re categorised as a main lead, you can’t usually go back to playing a supporting character,” Rabya says. “And lead roles mostly tend to be the same.”
But don’t the younger sister roles that she usually plays also tend to be the same?
“The younger sister can easily be made disabled. You can add character traits to her. There is more margin to perform.” She adds, with a slight grin, “This is how I stay optimistic.”
Very commendable but, still, does she feel that she has been typecast as the friend or the sister?
“Yes, since forever!” she exclaims. “I made my acting debut in 2017. I have worked in two films, but it was just my luck that one’s release got delayed extensively and the other is yet to release. Ever since, I have constantly been working in TV productions, playing forgettable roles as well as good roles. There have been times when I have felt very discouraged, because I am playing the same character again and again.”
She recalls, “There was this one time when I was shooting two dramas simultaneously, Bharraas on ARY Digital and Ghamandi for Express Entertainment, and I just came back home and broke into tears. My husband asked me what was wrong and I said that I hadn’t joined this industry to play similar versions of the little sister in multiple productions.
“I had thought that things would be different, that I would be playing experimental roles, working on exciting scripts. My husband calmed me down. These were the days when the coronavirus pandemic was still going on and he pointed out that at least I had work while others did not. I realised that I should count my blessings.”
Her most recent TV drama roles have been noticed extensively — she held her own in the drama Fraud last year, playing Saba Qamar’s younger sister and her enactment of Wahaj Ali’s younger sister in the currently on-air Mujhe Pyaar Hua Tha has been one of the drama’s main highlights. Does she feel that more impactful roles are coming her way?
“Yes, I feel that my work is finally getting registered,” she says. “I am getting roles that have longer tracks and are more memorable. Credit for this largely goes to the journalists who critique dramas and highlight not just the work of the main leads but also of the supporting cast. There was a time in the past when supporting actors would go unnoticed, even if their work was exceptional, but critics have actually changed the audience’s perception.
“Also, many scripts are now constructed with proper arcs for the supporting characters. And even when a character isn’t very interesting on paper, sometimes an actor enacts it in such a way that the supporting role ends up being even more interesting than the lead. It depends on the actor, the writing, the content, and on how well the supporting cast manages to shine.”
Stories from the TV drama set
Which project of hers does she think was a turning point in her career? “I think my role in Fraud really got people’s attention, followed by Mujhe Pyaar Hua Tha, in which my work has also been appreciated a lot.”
Rabya also recounts Fraud as the drama which gave her the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with the ‘finest actor’ that she has worked with so far: Saba Qamar.
“When I was offered Fraud and I heard who was in the cast, I signed on without bothering with the storyline or my character,” says Rabya. “I was willing to play a tree as long as I could share screen space with Saba Qamar! It was a truly wonderful experience. She is insanely supportive and so professional. She would be on set on time and I would think that if she, Saba Qamar, could be so punctual, a new actress like myself had to make sure that I was too!”
She continues, “I also really enjoyed enacting my character in the drama. She had a long track, starting off a certain way and ending up completely different. I was working with a great director and a brilliant cast.”
She similarly reminisces fondly about her work in Mujhe Pyaar Hua Tha. “It was a long drama and often we would all be exhausted. I would actually argue with director Badar Mehmood when he would add additional scenes between me and Wahaj. I couldn’t understand why he was elongating the duration, but he would remain quiet.
“I think he realised that we had a great chemistry as brother and sister, and that’s what was eventually really appreciated in the drama! In fact, I signed on to the drama at the 11th hour and it was on Badar bhai’s insistence. He was so convinced that I came on board without even seeing the script, and now I understand that he had a certain sense about how I would fit into the role. He is Badar Mehmood for a reason, after all! When was the last time that a brother-sister duo in a drama was noticed so much?” she smiles.
Rabya adds, “I had heard that Hania Aamir was very difficult on set so, before working with her in Mujhe Pyaar Hua Tha, I had had my apprehensions. When I did work with her, I was pleasantly surprised. She was extremely professional, knew all her lines and even knew everyone else’s scenes!
“Sometimes, I would ask her details about the scene that I was shooting and she wouldn’t just know the scene, she would also instruct me on what kind of mood I was supposed to have in it! She just made us all so comfortable, helping everyone out. It just goes to show that we cannot believe random gossip.
“It’s strange. We would get so exhausted during the shoot of Mujhe Pyaar Hua Tha that we were desperate for it to end. But when it did, I suddenly didn’t know what to do! It had all been so much fun. We would be bonding over food and cracking jokes and there was just such great energy on set!”
Acting in the blood
She very evidently loves shoots and acting. Has she, perhaps, inherited this love from her mother, veteran actress Parveen Akbar?
“Yes, when I was young, I would cry and insist that my mother take me with her to work!” Rabya confesses. “I loved the whole process, of actors standing around, surrounded by dramas, and then ‘Action!’ getting yelled at and everything coming to life. My family insisted that I complete my studies and, right after that, I got married. After marriage, though, I made my acting debut and never looked back!”
Her husband, Rehan Nazim, is also a struggling actor and singer, slowly making his mark. Is he just as optimistic as her?
“Yes, he is a very positive person. He has only recently graduated from Napa [the National Academy of Performing Arts] and he doesn’t get disheartened, nor does he let me lose hope. Everyone gets their chance to fulfill their dreams and so will we.”
Nevertheless, acting can be very competitive. Does Rabya feel that she has been better prepared to brave the highs and lows given that her family is entrenched in show business? Aside from her mother and her husband, her brother Muhammad Faizan Sheikh and sister-in-law Maham Aamir are also actors.
“Our mother always used to tell us that our journey would be a long one, so yes, my brother and I were always prepared,” she says. “She had struggled back in her time and she was always insistent that we needed to experience our own struggles before we met success. And so we have.”
She laughs, adding, “When anyone mentions the word ‘nepotism’ to Faizan Bhai or me, we find it ridiculous. Our mother has never vouched for us anywhere, or made any effort to get us work. She says that she never relied on connections in order to get work back in her day and we needed to do the same.
“If we had had our mother putting in a good word for us, perhaps our careers would have started at the very top, playing lead characters. Instead, we’ve had to hit the grind just like everyone else, doing side roles, good roles, bad roles, everything!”
Did getting married and having a child affect her career?
“Actually, I feel that, after his birth, both my husband I started getting more work!” she says. “Both Rehan and I have never looked upon our son as an obstacle to our work. I have always had my husband, my mother and my mother-in-law to help me out with my son and one or the other is always available to take care of him.
“Rehan and I have always just managed, if there is any problem. There was this one time when I was shooting a TVC at night and I was worried about how he would sleep, because he always used to sleep while hugging me. Rehan and my mother-in-law just brought him on set, I hugged him and he went to sleep and then they took him back home with them!
“On the other hand, there are people in the industry who just assume that when a girl gets married and has a child, she will no longer be working. My sister-in-law Maham and I both experienced this after giving birth and would laugh about it, wondering if we needed to call people up and tell them that we were still working.
“Overall, though, the industry is very supportive towards working mothers. There have been a few times when I had to take some days off because my son was unwell. Since I never take breaks unnecessarily, everyone supported me and was very accommodating.”
The dancing angle
We switch gears to discuss her other passion: dancing. In a recent viral video, she and her brother Faizan Sheikh shook a leg at a family wedding to the song Calm Down. She and co-actress Srha Asghar also frequently post videos on social media, dancing to popular songs.
“We try to put up new content regularly, but we often fail miserably, balancing motherhood, family and our careers,” laughs Rabya. “Also, Srha has been travelling so extensively that I think we will eventually have to shoot a video in an airplane! Regardless, we love doing it.”
Do they also gain monetarily from the dance videos? “We don’t monetize the videos, because we don’t want to get embroiled in copyright issues. Even though we only use Pakistani music and always give credit, there was this one time when we had a copyright claim slammed upon us. So now, we monetise the behind-the-scenes footage but not the main video itself.
“Our main long-term goal is to promote ourselves as choreographers. We want to collaborate with artists in the future and choreograph at events.”
“Like acting, dancing has always been my passion.”
What is Rabya planning to do next? “My drama Mannat Murad is coming soon. I’ve also just signed on to a long serial with Big Bang Entertainment.”
Is it a different character? “Yes, it is a very significant role. It’s taken its time but I am taking baby steps towards the roles that I have always wanted to play!”
And when she does get the kind of role that allows her the space to perform, Rabya Kulsoom has proven that she can do wonders. She draws the eye, takes over the screen and connects with the audience. It’s a one-of-a-kind talent.
Published in Dawn, ICON, July 16th, 2023