The one thing that I can always guarantee is authenticity,” Yasra Rizvi tells Icon before the interview begins. By the time we wrap up, I can vouch that this is true.
Yasra Rizvi — actor, writer, poet and debutant director — is as real as it gets. She’ll lean forward, her eyes widening, as she makes a confession. She’ll throw back her head and laugh loudly at a joke that will often be self-deprecating. She’ll sigh deeply and recite a few poignant verses of poetry. She’ll shake her head sadly as she talks about career setbacks.
She’ll smile emotionally, talking about her son. She’ll grin at you conspiratorially when you compliment her make-up, telling you that her manager insists that she dresses up for interviews, after she simply walked into a few events without bothering with the tedium of blow-dries and wardrobe selection.
Fiery, tempestuous, mercurial and very honest; Yasra is an artist, a dreamer, a workaholic, and an enigma of a woman. Sometimes you feel like you’ve known her all your life and, then, she’ll surprise you. That’s part of her magic.
Her work casts a spell of its own. You have so much to show to your grandchildren, I tell her, referring to her dazzling repertoire, and she nods, and laughs.
Fiery, tempestuous, mercurial and very honest, Yasra Rizvi is an artist, a dreamer, a workaholic, and an enigma of a woman. Is that why she feels nobody wants to work with her?
“But I am no maestro,” she tells me. “I am messy. I make so many mistakes. I have endured failures. In fact, my life is more failure than success on any given day. But in the process of doing it all, I have got to know so much about my work. There are times when I have put in hours into something that didn’t even end up airing, but I have learnt from it.
“Still, I think about leaving this business every two weeks,” she confesses. “I mean, I have fought with almost everybody. People talk about evolution and about wanting to do things differently. But when the time actually comes to take a risk, they prefer to play it safe.
“How are we ever going to change the game without putting in the work, questioning, fighting, challenging the status quo? And when I say that I want to do things differently, my concerns are brushed aside. I am told that I fret too much, or to relax, because this is just how things are done! I can see the disdain in their eyes, even if they don’t say it out loud, in words.”
This is obviously a passionate issue with Yasra.
“It’s not that I don’t want to work,” she continues. “I want to do good work. And good work does not mean doing the same role again and again, just because it has been a hit once. It’s so rare to find work like that, to find scripts like that.”
Nevertheless, such scripts do tend to find their way to Yasra. At the time at which we meet, her solo directorial debut, the drama Shanaas — in which she is also acting — is airing on the fledgling Green Entertainment channel. It’s an emotional thriller, winding through mysteries, revelations and the occasional cliff-hanger.
She has also recently directed another drama for the same channel, Working Women, penned by Bee Gul.
“Scripts like these two don’t come along every day and I loved directing both dramas,” she says. “I feel that directing gives one the opportunity to introduce diverse narratives. It’s anthropological in nature. We’re actually archiving the way people talk, dress and live in the present era. People in the future may watch this work to understand how things once were.
“It also gives me the chance to show the audience that people, their reactions, their ways of living, can be different and still be very real.” She elaborates on this: “On TV, we’ve got accustomed to certain behavioural norms. We expect characters to cry, laugh and shout at particular points. An actor that people consider to be good is often one who has cried very well or shouted believably. People say that there is so much talent in Pakistan but the people regarded as talented are, usually, just playing the same characters, in the same tone of voice.
“No one considers that there could be alternate routes to storytelling. Haven’t we all seen people who start laughing at funerals because it is their way of coping? Does that make them less human?
“In Shanaas, a 27-year-old girl and boy are shown handling a complicated situation maturely, while a 50-year-old woman hits her 55-year-old husband with a pillow because she is so frustrated and angry with him.
“There are scenes in which the characters cry and other scenes where they express their anger simply through dialogue. There are entire scenes that I have not overloaded with background music, something that is rarely ever done here, letting the dialogues and the performance build the ambience instead.
“The script by Adarsh Ayaz is layered and very sensitive, touching upon themes like interfaith marriage, adoption, and parent-child relationships through conversations and impactful moments.”
Shanaas’ cast is a very powerful one — was the selection of actors completely according to her own choice?
“Yes,” she smiles. “I really wanted Sania Saeed to be part of the drama, but I had to ponder over who to pair her with. She’s acted with so many actors but the audience was yet to see the father-mother pairing of Sania with Shahzad Nawaz.
“I actually had to work very little on Shahzad’s character because he epitomises the role so easily. He effortlessly exudes the pomp and privileged indifference that was required. And then, for Hajra Yamin to play their daughter and Shamim Hilaly to play Sania’s mother-in-law. When have you seen this particular mix of actors together on TV before?
“You know, there is this one scene, where Shamim Apa makes threats, like a mafia don and, as soon as I yelled ‘Cut!’, she exclaimed that she was having so much fun. ‘No one makes me say dialogues like these,’ she told me.”
How are we ever going to change the game without putting in the work, questioning, fighting, challenging the status quo? And when I say that I want to do things differently, my concerns are brushed aside. I am told that I fret too much, or to relax, because this is just how things are done! I can see the disdain in their eyes, even if they don’t say it out loud, in words.”
Yasra talks about directing with such passion that it prompts me to ask her whether she is a terror on the set.
“I am particular about what I want but I also respect the actors’ processes. I will ask the actors to maybe simmer things down by 7.5 percent or increase it by 13 percent. I talk in percentages!” she laughs, before continuing.
“I am so intent on doing things right that I’ll put my fee back into the project just to improve the art! I’m crazy like that. When you get me on board, you get all of me: my home, my furniture, whatever extra money I have, whatever contacts I have, whatever paintings I can borrow from friends. I’ll come with all of that, because I want to do my work right. And sometimes the work will be good, sometimes it might be bad. But I would have tried my best.”
Is direction more time-consuming than acting?
“For someone like me, it is,” she says. “I spend several days planning out the pre-production of an episode. Then, the episode gets shot in three to four days. And then, I take three to four days to edit it. Directing a drama can take me five, six months at least.”
She continues: “I am a debutant director. If I was an established big gun, perhaps I would have a bigger budget to work with. Right now, there will be times when I will also play stylist or be the art director. Also, I don’t want to play the woman card, but it definitely is difficult. If I insist that things get done a certain way, it is put down to the emotional nature of my gender.”
The woman card can have its perks too: for instance, are there certain stories that she feels are directed better by female directors? She muses over this.
“Not necessarily, but I do feel that some stories about women should now be told from the feminine perspective, because so many male directors have told them already. There is also a certain superiority in emotional intelligence that comes with being a woman and I think, when you add that in the mix, it can really change the game.”
And as an actress, have there been times when she has taken on a stereotypical role for the sake of money? “Rarely. I don’t usually get offered such roles.”
She pauses, before adding while laughing hysterically, “I don’t get offered any roles at all! No one calls me. That’s the reputation that I have ended up earning. I do a project a year, literally. It’s good, then, that I can do so many other things; directing, voice-overs, poetry. I do need to earn, need to eat. My son is two right now and, so, for the next 20, 22 years, my husband and I have to earn for him.”
The mention of her son prompts me to ask her how she’s managed to balance her career with motherhood. She replies, “I have a very strong support system. My sister-in-law Jinaan Hussain, who is also an actress, is always around to help me out. And I have a schedule these days where I take my son to school and then, once he’s done, I begin my day’s work.
“Still, I think this is a point in my life — I just turned 40 — that I might cut back on work for some time. My son is a very patient child but I see the difference in his temperament when I am there. I don’t want him to grow up wishing that his mother was around more often.
“These are his formative years and this is the best time for me to instil the human values that I want him to have. I have named him Ibn-i-Adam, son of a man. That’s it. That’s all I want him to be — a good human being.”
A quick survey of the comments on Yasra’s Instagram profile reveals that her journey into motherhood and before that, her marriage to a man 10 years younger to her, has been inspirational for many. Do people contact her and tell her that she’s affected their lives?
“There have been times when girls have told me that they showed the videos that I posted on Instagram to their fathers so that their sisters could get married to who they wanted. A few of them told me that it actually worked.
“Just the fact that I am a 40-year-old woman with a toddler and a husband who is 10 years younger challenges so many stereotypes. Maybe it makes a few people realise that families can also look like this. And mothers who don’t let their sons marry older women, just because they won’t be able to bear children, might end up realising that it’s all up to God.”
Does she have any qualms about letting her career take a backseat as her son grows up?
“I’ll just be doing work that is less demanding. Perhaps I won’t direct, perhaps I’ll act. I have told Kashif [Nisar] Boss that I want to act in his next serial,” she refers to the veteran director who she considers her friend and mentor, and who has also co-produced Shanaas.
“Maybe I’ll publish my poetry. I have been delaying it for quite some time. Besides, I have directed two projects and I have literally run out of people who share the same work ethic as me. Even if I take out the time, I don’t know who I would direct now.”
She says all this matter-of-factly, evidently not very perturbed at the notion. Perhaps Yasra knows that the scripts she likes, the roles she enjoys, will inevitably find their way to her, as they always have done.
What has been your favourite role to date, I ask her. Given the motley crew of characters she’s played, it’s a tough question to ask. “There is hardly any role that I have played that I haven’t enjoyed,” she says. “My favourite would probably be Baji Irshad, in the drama of the same name which aired on Express Entertainment.
“She was a Christian Punjabi maid who was relentlessly resilient and full of life. I also worked as a co-director in the drama and we showed all the nuances that were part of her culture. I also loved playing Jugnu,” she refers to her character in the Zee5 series Churrails. “I have been blessed with such diverse roles, from Mann ke Moti’s Fariha to Baji Irshad to Jugnu to Ustani Jee to Sawera!”
And while she may joke that no one wants to work with her, while she may often encounter peers who don’t see the point of her wanting to walk off the beaten track, and while many may not understand her obsession with her craft rather than commerce, Yasra Rizvi is not an artist who can be ignored or shrugged away.
“Perhaps I should open a sandwich stand?” she jokes to me midway through our conversation.
I don’t see that happening.
Published in Dawn, ICON, August 27th, 2023