Photography & styling: Hussain Piart | Hair & make-up: Angie Marshall Wardrobe: Khan’z Designs | Coordination: Umer Mushtaq
Photography & styling: Hussain Piart | Hair & make-up: Angie Marshall Wardrobe: Khan’z Designs | Coordination: Umer Mushtaq

Does Sania Saeed ever tire of the rave reviews that tend to follow her every performance?

It is something I have often wondered while watching the greats — Sania is indubitably one of them — bring a character to life on the television or cinema screen. Do they start regarding the accolades as an inevitable part of the day’s work and cease to get excited by them?

It’s one of the first questions I ask her when we meet for this interview. I have been fortunate to wheedle an interview with Sania at a time when she is relatively free, and not in the midst of a hectic drama or film shoot. This is also a good time because Shanaas, a drama starring her in a pivotal role, has only just started airing on the fledgling Green Entertainment channel.

I know from experience that Sania always asks before an interview, ‘But what will we talk about’? I have my answer ready: we could talk about Shanaas as well as her many past projects. She agrees.

Shanaas has an interesting story but the plot is yet to thicken around the time that I meet Sania. The initial reviews, though, have invariably mentioned her sensitive, intelligent portrayal of an adoptive mother. But, generally, do reviews matter to an actor like her, who always — deservedly so — gets appreciated?

The actor extraordinaire and one of Pakistani entertainment’s most powerful names for the past 30 years, is very averse to blowing her own trumpet. What keeps her so grounded? What does she fear? And what is her fascination with Lego?

She muses upon this. “I don’t particularly keep an eye out for reviews, but I feel that sometimes the intricacies of the character that I am playing end up getting ignored,” she says. “There will be two lines about me, praising my work and, then, much more detailed analysis of the other performances. Of course, it’s also always flattering.”

Perhaps it’s because reviewers consider your performance a benchmark that others have to strive to reach? She shrugs this query away — Sania Saeed, actor extraordinaire, one of Pakistani entertainment’s most powerful names for the past 30 years, perpetually praised, is very averse to blowing her own trumpet.

Instead, she goes off on a new tangent. “Even when a character gets praised a lot and becomes very popular, it is very important for me as an actor to start afresh with the next role. Playing the same character again and again can get boring and makes me quite sad.”

A cursory glance through Sania’s career graph does not reveal too many typical roles. Scripts in Pakistan rarely feature nuanced, unique, middle-aged characters, but the few that there are, often get played by Sania. I mention this and she laughs.

“I have been playing middle-aged characters all through my career. People say that they are limited by maternal roles, but I have been playing a mother from the time that I was very young.

“Usually in dramas, we tend to get fixated with a certain age group and also, people like to relive their youth and their emotions through characters. There is no harm in this, but there are also so many other stories that can be explored, so many aspects and variations to a mother, to a family, a culture. It just depends on how the character is written. Even when I was young, I would find heroine-type roles very boring, in contrast.”

We take a moment to reminisce upon the maternal roles that she has played in the recent past: the subdued, poignant layers to the mother that she played in Raqeeb Se; the fierce, daunting mother of Sang-i-Mah; the crazed, blind woman of Kamli; and, most recently, the mother battling her emotions as she gets caught up in a web of mystery related to her adopted daughter’s past in Shanaas.

“There isn’t a single extra character in Shanaas,” Sania describes. “Every character has shades and is pivotal to the story. It’s the sort of script that you want to read again once you’ve read it the first time around. Yasra Rizvi, the drama’s director, has really worked on developing small nuances to the story. It’s not just a mystery. It’s a story about relationships, about love and what a person’s identity truly means.”

TV, then and now

“If you look at my career trajectory, you will see that my script choices have almost always been based on the character,” Sania says. “I was just thinking back to this one year, where I did four completely different roles. First, I worked in Qaatil, directed by Sarmad Khoosat and produced by Mehreen Jabbar, after which I immediately landed on the set of Jhumka Jaan. Then, I flew to Scotland and shot The Ghost and Khamoshiyaan one after the other.”

She continues to recall: “Then there was the time when Sarmad [Khoosat] called me and asked me if I wanted to play a seductress. I was incredulous and asked him to tell me the story. He narrated the plot of Kalmoohi to me and I was immediately on board. I then proceeded to plan out my look for the drama.” She smiles fondly at the memory.

“And then, in Aao Kahani Buntay Hain, I played about 16 characters, one after the other. I didn’t go off searching for these characters but, fortunately, writers and directors saw these characters in me.”

Many of her peers consider her lucky for getting the acting opportunities that come her way. However, in an industry that is very inclined towards commercial, cookie-cutter scripts, are unique roles rare to come by even in her case?

“Yes, and all actors, including myself, sometimes have to make do with run-of-the-mill roles for the sake of earning our bread and butter. In such cases, I have tried to opt for the ‘kum kharab’ [less bad] storylines. Even then, I have been lucky to have always ended up working with directors who want to develop the character with me and allow me the margin to perform.

“Mehar Posh, for instance, was a drama that I acted in which had a run-of-the-mill story but the director, Mazhar Moin, improvised with me on the script and made changes to my character and even the character of the main lead, played by Ayeza Khan.”

She continues: “Having said this, I have never walked out of a project empty-handed. I earn in the form of experiences, or having learnt more about what roles I can or can’t do and, of course, in the form of money.”

I point out to her that perhaps there is more money in working in a plethora of dramas rather than picking out the ones that are unique but harder to come by.

“Yes, but how many luxuries can one need?” she shrugs. “I understand from a business aspect that producers create plays that will bring in ratings but, as creative professionals, should they be feeding people only what is popular? Maybe one or two plays can be like that, but not all of them!

“TV in Pakistan wasn’t like this in the past,” she says. “It used to be about engaging people and initiating dialogue, even after privatisation took place. Then, suddenly, everything became completely commercial.

“Most TV dramas have now become a means to kill time. The TV is blaring on while everyone in the home is going about their various tasks, casually just tuning in to the drama’s story. But a truly good story in a drama needs to be one that grips you, so that you don’t feel like missing even a single scene!”

She adds, “Now, though, we are beginning to see one or two dramas that are trying to be different. Kuchh Ankahi and Sar-i-Rah, both dramas that aired recently, told extraordinary stories. And I am looking forward to catching up on Kabuli Pulao, which is directed by Kashif Nisar and stars Mohammad Ehteshamuddin, who is also a director.

“Imagine how much fun this drama’s shooting would have been, although knowing Ehtesham, when he is acting, he completely switches off his directorial instincts!”

The acting process

Given her experience and expertise, does she ever feel intimidated when a particularly complicated character comes her way? “All the time!” she exclaims. “I can be a director’s nightmare, constantly asking if I did it right.”

I am surprised: even at this stage in her career?

“At this stage, particularly,” she replies. “I have already done so much work and explored so many different personalities that I am very afraid of being repetitive. That is something that I just can’t allow.

“Acting is a lot like playing with Lego. You have all the pieces with you but you have to decide how to put them together. And you simply can’t put them together the same way the next time.”

So how does she go about building with her particular set of Lego?

“A lot of times, I draw from impressions that I may have got of people that I have met, saved away into my subconscious,” she says. “Also, sometimes a script is written so well that all you have to do is read it a few times and absorb it so that the character connects with you.”

Who is her favourite co-star to date? “Faisal Rahman,” she replies without hesitation. “Particularly when he is playing an interesting character and not one that is run-of-the-mill. We have worked together in Khamoshiyaan and then in Zard Mausam, among other projects. We were also part of the cast of Aur Zindagi Badalti Hai, although he was paired opposite Nadia Jamil while I was opposite Humayun Saeed.”

This leads me to ask her if the fact that Humayun is still playing hero while female actors of the same age are sequestered into maternal roles is an indication of gender biases in Pakistan’s acting industry.

“Of course,” she agrees. “It’s an extremely ageist society and, while the imbalances in roles offered to different genders hasn’t affected me much, it has influenced the careers of many of my friends, who are all very talented actresses.

“In fact, I think that it has even affected Humayun in some ways — and I know that he’ll understand what I’m trying to say here — because he is an extremely good actor who hasn’t had the chance to explore all these other roles that he could be playing. I think it has a lot to do with the kind of roles that he personally likes, the movies that he watches. He naturally gravitates towards certain kinds of roles.”

And what kind of movies does she watch? “The Kamli type!” she smiles.

The ‘normal’ side

But not every script that comes her way is, of course, as remarkable as Kamli. Does she still feel excited about acting 30 years down the line?

“It depends on the role, but I have now brought myself to the point that I want to divide my time between work and actively volunteering at different organisations.”

She tells me that she is currently regularly visiting a number of organisations — namely, the Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation dedicated to rescuing animals; the Kiran Foundation, which is focused on the education of marginalised communities; and the Indus Hospital, where she tends to frequent the oncology and paediatric wards.

Can it be emotionally gruelling seeing so much pain first-hand on a regular basis? She pauses, very evidently wrestling with her emotions.

“Yes, it can be,” she says. “There are times when you can’t sleep at night. And there have been times in the past, when I was much younger, when I couldn’t take the pain and I withdrew from volunteering for some time. But I have always gone back and I give credit to my parents for this. They started making me volunteer back when I was 15 and I never stopped.

“There is a lot of pain, yes, but the one smiling child who manages to get better and is going back home or the one playful dog who had had his head smashed some weeks ago and recovered, can make you come back over and over again.

“Also, the people you meet, who believe that life, every single life should be fought for — the teachers, the children battling disease and not losing hope, the young women visiting all sorts of places trying to convince people not to hit the dog, the donkey, the cat — they make you want to go back, despite the pain.

“At 51 now, I have learnt that it is very important to walk away from environments that are painful and walk into environments that feed your soul.”

Does she think that one of the reasons why she is such a good actress is because she is so tuned into her emotions? She muses upon this.

“I don’t know whether it has made me a good actress or not, but I feel that it has kept my heart soft. For that, I am grateful that I have encountered so many people who keep showing me that there is so much more to life.”

I observe that there is such a sharp contrast between the two ends of the spectrum that define Sania’s routine: the glitter and glamour of show business and the painful realities within an animal shelter or a hospital.

She nods at this, pointing out, “Yes, but then again, my life has always been a very normal one. My morning is spent taking care of the house and my children — my cats — and then I am off to work. On particular days, I am volunteering. It’s all quite ordinary.”

She continues: “My family and my friends all treat me the same way. I am lucky that way. If I surrounded myself with people who kept telling me how good I was, my ego would eventually get bloated and complacency would settle in.”

I tell her that I can’t really associate her with a bloated ego. “Oh, but it does happen,” she says. “There was a time when I was newer to the field, when I realised that I was getting overconfident. I immediately corrected myself. I am so scared that, one day, I will go on set thinking that I could just play a character. I can’t allow myself to ever be that way. I want to discuss the arcs of the character, the whys and hows. I need the director to tell me if I have said my lines right.”

Who would have thought that Sania Saeed, after three stellar decades as an actress, would still have doubts about her performance. Then again, these very doubts make every role that she enacts so memorable and keep her passion alive.

“I am just very thankful,” she smiles, “for the people that I have got to work with in all these years, the environments that I have experienced, the stories that I have got the chance to be part of.

“I don’t know if I have done justice to every one of the characters that I have played, but just these opportunities that I have got make me very thankful.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, Aug 6th, 2023

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