The trick to good acting is … don’t act!” Saba Hameed shrugs.
It’s a trick that the veteran actor has honed over a span of 40 years, from back when a single national channel, PTV, reigned supreme, to the present-day motley crew of private channels.
“I wanted to be a pilot, really,” she tells me, “but back then, women were not allowed licenses to fly. So, I began acting as a hobby and, soon, it became my full-fledged career. I am very thankful for all that acting has given me — appreciation, fame, respect, money… Perhaps, I wouldn’t have got all that if I had been a pilot!” she deadpans.
Sitting across from Saba Hameed, I think that she would have soared high even as a pilot — literally and figuratively — or really, in any career at all. She has a natural self-confidence, a practical perspective towards life and a wicked, often self-effacing, sense of humour that surfaces frequently.
She tells me, time and again, that she is nervous because she hardly gives interviews, but even when Saba Hameed is nervous, she’s far more poised than many of us. She will say what she wants to say, stick to her opinions and make sure that I understand what she means. The time just flies by while we talk!
While the actor and new director’s 40-year-long career experiences are interesting in themselves, the many layers to her persona are even more so. How did she get to be who she is? And does she ever feel she’s Wonder Woman?
Forty years is a long time to dedicate to a single profession, I muse — where does she see herself a decade from now?
“If not dead, the same!” she laughs.
The acting — directing juggernaut
‘The same’, at this point in Saba’s career, denotes a choc-a-bloc acting schedule and occasional directorial projects. Her second drama as a solo director, Jaisay Aapki Marzi, is currently on-air on ARY Digital, narrating a story that hits hard, making some very prescient observations regarding societal norms that work towards quelling the independence of women.
I tell her that while the drama is riveting, it also stresses me out endlessly. She is pleased to hear this.
“It’s supposed to stress you out, because the story is very realistic. I have tried to show the sequence of events in a very normal way, so that they appear to be close to life. All the characters in the story are grey, they all have reasons for doing what they do. There is no black and white.”
She continues: “When I read the script, I immediately connected with it. The producers and I brainstormed over the cast and then we actually waited for the actors who we felt fit into the script to get free. I also decided that I wouldn’t act in the drama. I wanted my entire focus to be on directing it.”
She adds: “As an actor, I don’t have a very strict criteria about the scripts that I sign on to. The subjects in dramas are so limited that, should I start being too selective, I would be sitting at home for months with no work! As a director, though, I need to believe in the story.”
It is very important that I understand the logic behind the story and my own character,” she explains. “Sometimes, I’ll call the writer and have lengthy discussions with the director in order to understand different scenes.”
Does she prefer acting or directing? “Directing, any day,” she says. “I have really enjoyed directing Jaisay Aapki Marzi [As You Wish] and, maybe, if the audience’s response is good and the producers like my work, I’ll be directing more in the future. With directing, I have control over the story.”
Don’t the producers have any say in how the story is told? “Of course, a lot of things are decided mutually,” she agrees, “but there are many times when you have to fight, in order to make sure that your story is told your way.
“Sometimes, you listen to them and, sometimes, they listen to you. Usually, I manage to get my way. Only yesterday, I found out that my team in the drama have a name for me, inspired by the drama: Jaisay Apa Ki Marzi [As Big Sister Wills],” she laughs.
And how far does her ‘marzi’ [will] go when she is playing a character? Evidently, quite far!
“It is very important that I understand the logic behind the story and my own character,” she explains. “Sometimes, I’ll call the writer and have lengthy discussions with the director in order to understand different scenes.”
What does she think has been her most famous role to date? She replies promptly, “Sumbul in Family Front.”
The comedy drama aired back in the ’90’s — do people still remember it?
“It aired for five years,” Saba reminds me. “People love comedies. It’s just that we usually don’t make them very well in Pakistan. People loved Sumbul and, for myself and my co-actors Waseem Abbas and Samina Ahmed, it introduced us to a new, younger audience.
“Young children would watch the show with their parents and became familiar with us. With Family Front, I also started regularly working in the private sector. It was like a job where we would get paid every week and, compared to what we had earlier earned from PTV, it seemed like a fortune!”
I ask her what her most popular recent role has been, already knowing the answer. She replies, “Shahjahan”.
There is no denying that Saba’s performance as Shahjahan, the Machiavellian mother-in-law in the hit drama Mere Humsafar, was extremely memorable. Did she ever have doubts, though, about playing a character who cursed, schemed and slapped her daughter-in-law with abandon?
“I didn’t have doubts because the script had a logic to it,” she says. “I will never agree with glorifying violence but, if we don’t show what is happening in today’s world, how will we pinpoint it as being wrong?
“To show crime, you show a murder and then, the story proceeds to how the murderer gets caught and suffers. The bottom line is, Shahjahan was the villain in the story, which is why she did all that she did.”
She continues, “I think this was one of the main reasons why Mere Humsafar was so popular. The cast was huge and everyone did their job well. The spineless appeared spineless, the helpless looked helpless, the evil was evil and the one who took a stand looked strong. It all came out on screen very convincingly.”
Did she get hate for playing Shahjahan, the primary nemesis of the sweet love story which was the drama’s focal point?
“Someone told my sister that she will come and kill me,” she says, slightly smiling. “And there would be hateful comments on YouTube. People would come and say, ‘Why do you do this on screen? We feel scared of you …’ Still, most of them knew that I was just playing a character.”
Would she rather play roles of good mothers rather than evil ones? “What does a good mother do in a drama? Ask ‘Beta khana kha liya? Time pe soo gaye?’ [Son, have you eaten? Did you sleep on time?] If there is a performance margin in playing a good character, I would be very happy to do it. Usually, though, the evil characters have much more meat on them.”
And isn’t she tired of playing mother, in general? “I don’t have any particular philosophy regarding this,” she replies. “Sometimes you may get irritated by a role that is repetitive and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes a role is cliched but the director, production team or cast is so good that you know that the drama will do well.”
What’s her criteria for refusing a script? “If a script is badly written, then I sometimes back out. I can try to correct scenes and dialogues, but only to a certain extent. I can’t take on a role that I know will end up being a headache.”
I probe, what if the subject of the story is problematic?
“Yes, a long time ago, there was this one script that was offered to me, which had black magic in it and the slaughtering of a child. I felt so depressed just reading it that I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do the role. Someone else did it and did it quite well, but it wasn’t for me.”
My questions continue: does she ever refuse because there are certain actors in the cast that she has had bad experiences working with? “I won’t name names,” she says.
I am not asking you to, I tell her. She shrugs. “Everyone has good and bad experiences.”
What if a drama includes actors who are known to have very problematic personal lives? She grins, squarely replying, “Now you’re getting specific.”
It is actually not so specific, since there are at least three such actors that I can think of, if not more, I point out.
“It’s still three out of 20 others,” she says, “but yes, I would prefer not to [work with them]. A lot of my peers in the industry say that this shouldn’t be the case. Why should I have to give up on my own work and earnings because of someone else? But I can’t really dictate what the casting teams and producers decide. All I can do is opt out myself.”
The personal front
In her personal life, is she just as adamant on taking a stand when things go wrong?
“I think that I was conditioned a certain way by my father,” she muses. Her father was, of course, the legendary journalist and leftist intellectual, Hameed Akhtar. “He was a big feminist and believed in equal treatment of both genders. For the longest time, I didn’t even know that the world functioned differently. I didn’t know that a person had to ask his or her spouse before doing anything. I always just did, and continue to do, what I believe to be right.”
So she has never let her gender be an obstacle in getting things done? “I just never thought that way, so no,” she says.
“We are four sisters and a brother, who is the youngest, and we never felt that one was treated differently from the other. If he learnt to drive, so did I. If he stayed out late so did I. And then, I got scolded for it just like he did. I could talk to the plumber just the way he did. In retrospect, perhaps a lot of issues did come into my life because I was conditioned differently,” she laughs.
I broach a tricky topic — one that I know she doesn’t want to discuss in detail, like marriage. “Marriage is difficult, no matter what. Yes, but perhaps the way I function is not a very successful model for marriage,” she says this matter-of-factly, not perturbed by the notion at all.
Is it particularly difficult for someone from show business to be married, considering that one spouse may constantly be in the limelight and travelling for work and the other may feel sidelined?
“No, marriage is difficult as it is, regardless of your career,” she insists. “Relationships vary from person to person.” She pauses, adding, “I think some research needs to be done on how this institution will work because the age-old beliefs that the boy will dominate and the girl will mould herself don’t apply anymore. Marriage today is between two adults who are educated, know their minds and who should know how to co-exist.”
We move on to her children; two of today’s brightest young stars, Meesha Shafi and Faris Shafi. Is she critical of their work being a veteran herself?
“I am very proud of both of them. I love all of Meesha’s songs, particularly Dasht-i-Tanhai and Boom Boom,” she says emotionally. “I really like her voice. I like powerful voices and then she takes it to a high note and I get teary-eyed.”
How many times has she seen The Legend of Maula Jatt, the blockbuster movie which marked Faris’ acting debut? “Three times,” she says.
Was it distressing seeing the character enacted by her son die such a bloody death on screen? “Not really, because my friend Nadeem Baig had already given me a spoiler that Faris’ character was going to die.
“Everyone in the cinema was gasping during the scene while I just rolled my eyes, because I knew that it was going to happen.” She rolls her eyes in demonstration.
Her children were very young during her initial years of acting — was it difficult balancing her career with motherhood? “I was actually living with my parents at the time,” she says. “My sisters were also not married, so I had plenty of babysitters to help me out. My parents truly raised my children. I can never repay them for it.” She smiles.
Can we ever repay our parents, I ask her rhetorically. “No, we can’t,” she shakes her head. “There is a lot of comfort and security that they gave me so that I could go and pursue my career despite having two small children.”
She’s a bit teary-eyed as we wrap up. And I muse over how I could write a few chapters on Saba Hameed rather than a single cover story. Her extensive career experiences may be interesting, but just as riveting are the many layers to her persona: forthright, confident, sensitive, a veritable Wonder Woman functioning in a patriarchal society.
“Don’t write the things that we discussed off the record,” she tells me, referring to the much more juicy conversation that will never make it to print.
‘Jaisay Apa ki Marzi!’ I assure her.
Published in Dawn, ICON, September 24th, 2023