Photography & styling: Raza Jaffri | Hair & make-up: Nighat Misbah @ Depilex | Designer: Natasha Kamal | Coordination: Umer Mushtaq
Photography & styling: Raza Jaffri | Hair & make-up: Nighat Misbah @ Depilex | Designer: Natasha Kamal | Coordination: Umer Mushtaq

i don’t think that I am beautiful,” Hina Khwaja Bayat tells me.

Her statement has me laughing incredulously. It is unlikely that, throughout her nearly three decades-long career, Hina hasn’t been complimented countless times for her regal visage. I had just asked her whether her looks had helped her land certain acting roles over the years, simply because I felt that her looks must have probably made it easier for her to get more opportunities as an actor.

Hina, sensing my skepticism, adds, “I am lucky that I come from a family where everyone is very beautiful, and my mother made sure that my sisters and I were never conscious about it. She would downplay our looks and, now, my sisters do the same — they’re always pointing out when the lines on my face are showing, or my skin is sagging!

“I am not very camera-conscious but, at the end of the day, I feel that it’s important that my work speaks for itself. And I have played a lot of deglamorised roles throughout my career, where I haven’t been allowed to put on even a bit of make-up.”

Her answer makes me muse over the catch-22 faced by beautiful people; a lot of times, their looks and their talent become opposing forces, the latter getting undermined because too much focus is placed on the former.

Actor Hina Bayat radiates the kind of glowing, inner beauty that transcends mere looks and comes from deep beneath the surface. She opens her heart out to Icon about the trials and joys of her life,all she holds near and dear, and how she is able to take everything in stride

Hina need not line her beautiful face with a frown over this: a quick glance through her repertoire reveals a plethora of roles in some iconic TV projects, which she couldn’t have managed simply by looking great.

Awards and rewards

“I have been very lucky,” she tells Icon. “I have been part of many projects that I am proud of.” She proceeds to discuss a slew of these projects and it’s a nostalgic journey through a range of exceptional TV dramas, some that I had forgotten about and that I now intend to find on YouTube and watch yet again.

“There are two awards that I have received in my life that I feel are truly precious,” recounts Hina. “I was at an awards ceremony hosted by the Hum TV Network where I was being awarded for my work in the drama Humsafar. It was kind of them to do so but the award didn’t feel like a personal victory, because the entire drama was getting recognised. I had been told that, because I had been nominated for Humsafar, I was not getting nominated for another drama I had done the same year — Talkhiyaan — which was more underrated but I felt was also more deserving.”

She continues: “I was there at the awards event and the late actor, Shakeel sahib, came up to me, put his hand on my head, and said, ‘In your life, a lot of Humsafars will come and go but if, to date, anyone will remember you as an actor, it will be for Talkhiyaan.’ He added that, in 25 years, this was the first drama that he had waited for every week.

“When he said this, I started crying. After this, I felt that I didn’t need any award. I never got to work with Shakeel sahib but I had grown up watching his dramas. For him to come and say this to me was an honour.”

Hina proceeds to discuss her second ‘award’: “Back when I was primarily working as an anchor, I was at an event and I saw Anwar Maqsood and the late Moin Akhtar coming in. I did not know Moin Akhtar personally but I did know Anwar Maqsood, and I said salaam to both of them.

Moin Akhtar suddenly came to me and told me, ‘I have come from across the room to tell you that, right now, there are many hosts on TV, but you are the only true anchor and you know this difference.’ I told him that what he had just said was nothing less than a Lifetime Achievement Award for me.”

She smiles. “These are memories that I will always treasure. Now, I feel that those people, that appreciation, that motivation just isn’t there.”

Is this because TV content today has deteriorated?

“There are all sorts of projects — good, bad, lighthearted and weighty — but I feel that, nowadays, a lot of content gets derailed. It hasn’t just become meaningless, it has fallen below the parameters of basic ethics.”

What does she do when such unsavoury scripts get offered to her? She replies, “I try my best not to sign such a script. Sometimes, the script is still being written when the drama is offered to me, but at least the storyline is defined and I make sure that I am comfortable with it.

“There are times when I have dug my heels in and insisted that certain elements get rewritten. In the drama Mata-i-Jaan Hai Tu I refused to act in the last episode unless it was changed. I felt that the woman that I was playing needed to say more and, thankfully, Farhat Ishtiaq, who is a lovely writer, understood my viewpoint and rewrote the episode.

“I do think that the final episode’s ratings shot up particularly because of these changes. I remember saying my dialogues and Javed Sheikh, who was acting with me, started crying.

“One of my first questions when a drama gets offered to me is, who is the director. Even if a script is not very good, a sensible, intelligent director can improve it through execution. An example of this is the drama Humsafar. The story was a typical one and, when it came to me, I told the director, Sarmad Khoosat, that my character was too flat. He told me that this was why he had offered it to me, he wanted me to give her life.”

She expands on this: “Working with a production team and writer who are on the same page as you is also important. Still, there was this one drama that I refused to be part of even though the producers, director and cast were all great. The girl in the drama gets raped and then falls in love with her rapist, and her mother — that I was supposed to play — was an educated university professor who couldn’t understand what was happening. I just couldn’t accept that the story was normalising rape without even putting in the angle of mental illness.”

Don’t producers end up considering her difficult when she nitpicks at storylines? “No, the producers that I work with know that I am a team player. Some of my most successful recent projects have been with 7th Sky Entertainment, because they know that I would never object to something unless I seriously thought that there was a problem. They trust me.”

She reminisces yet again, “When I was asked to be a part of Mera Naam Yousuf Hai, the writer Khalil ur Rehman Qamar did not agree with the producers and told them that I would ruin his favourite character in the drama. Even though I think that he’s an amazing writer, I got offended and said that I wouldn’t do the role. The producers and director Mehreen Jabbar convinced me and, once the drama was on air, Khalil sahib called me and thanked me.”

She’s also acted in two Ramazan dramas — the 2021 hit Ishq Jalebi and this year’s Tere Mere Sapne. In fact,Hina and I meet midway through Ramazan, when she has the day free and is bracing herself for the filming of an all-night wedding sequence for her drama.

She sighs. “Every year, we know the exact date around which Ramazan will begin and, yet, somehow, the drama scheduled to air during the month just doesn’t wrap up on time, and we end up shooting episodes that are going to air only a few days later.”

What took her so long in signing on to her next Ramazan drama? “I didn’t have a choice,” she says. “I was going through a difficult personal journey. My husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and I had to go to the US for his treatment. He died after 15 months and, then, I visited Turkey and Syria to help the earthquake-affected victims there in collaboration with a charity that I work with called SKT [Spreading Kindness Together].

“This Ramazan, I am here, and so I decided to sign on to Tere Mere Sapne. I like the director Ali Faizan and I had just worked in a very heavy drama — Khumaar — and needed to take a break with something lighthearted.”

A lot of actors complain that there is too much pressure associated with Ramazan dramas, with different productions and the ratings they generate getting compared constantly. Is this true? “Yes, it is,” she says. “But I think that younger actors worry about this more, maybe because they are in this rat race and we are not.”

Wise words

She pauses for a moment to gather her thoughts. “I’ve never cared about ratings and my husband’s illness, particularly, taught me that, no matter what you do, if something is not meant for you, it will not come to you,” she says.

“When my husband fell ill, I had signed on to three great dramas. And then I had to leave work indefinitely. I had already shot for a day for one of the dramas and the director waited for me for three months before signing on someone else.

“I had also signed on to Asim Abbasi’s web-series Barzakh with Zee5 and they were eager to promote the fact that it would be starring Fawad Khan, Sanam Saeed and myself for the first time since the drama Zindagi Gulzar Hai. A few scenes had been shot, where my photographs were on the walls and the VFX people had their hands full altering them. But there was nothing that I could do. Nothing else mattered at that point.”

She adds, “The battle with cancer is not limited to a single human but to his or her entire family. It is a disease which literally sucks the lifeblood out of you. My mother was a three-time cancer survivor and I also saw my sister endure the disease and get better. When my husband contracted pancreatic cancer, I knew deep down that the prognosis was not good. But still, I am human and I couldn’t give up faith in God and so, for as long as he was alive, I did not give up hope.”

Did seeing her husband grapple with cancer make her anxious about visiting hospitals? “Yes, but I am a hard nut. I face my fears rather than hide from them. After my husband died, I was back on set after a week and the first scene that I shot was at a hospital, of someone dying. I always cry naturally, without using glycerin but, on that day, when the camera rolled, I just froze. I apologised to the director that I wasn’t able to cry and he told me that there was no need, my expression had been enough.”

Did going back to work help her come to terms with her grief more easily? “Work was a blessing,” she agrees. “There was a time when I would leave the set at nine at night. I used to tell everyone around me that I had a husband and a home that I wanted to get back to. Now, I was grateful for the long hours, for being busy, because it kept me sane and focused, and made me get out of bed every morning.

“I did end up overworking, though, and my body took the toll. My shoulders and neck started hurting and, then, one morning, I felt that, if I got out of bed, my head would fall off. I wondered if I was seriously ill, but I was also adamant that I didn’t want to make multiple trips to doctors.

“I told God that I had no one else to take care of me other than Him and prayed that I would get better. Luckily for me, my niece is trained in Japanese corrective techniques and, after three sessions with her, I was up on my feet again!

“I am still working a lot but now I make sure that I take out time for myself — to read, take a walk, spend time with family, so that I unwind.”

I broach sensitive territory, asking her beforehand whether she’s comfortable with the question: does she regret not having any children with her husband?

She has no qualms in answering: “The most beautiful thing that came out of my marriage was the fact that we were there for each other. We wanted to have children and we sought treatments as well. I never conceived through treatments but I did conceive naturally multiple times, but it didn’t carry through.

“At some point, we both realised that if something wasn’t happening then maybe it just wasn’t meant for us. I always used to pray that I wanted healthy children and every time a pregnancy didn’t last, I felt that the foetus had not been a healthy one.”

She adds introspectively: “Yes, perhaps if I had children today, I would have been less lonely but, at the same time, I would have had more responsibilities. Maybe God saved me from that pressure.

“But I do have many children, on- and off-screen, in my family as well as the actors who consider me a maternal figure. Wikipedia falsely states that I have a son and a daughter and Osman Khalid Butt and Madiha Imam have always insisted that it is referring to them!” She laughs.

This prompts me to ask her whether she minds perpetually playing maternal roles on TV? “I’ve been a mother, right from the start!” she laughs. “Even when I was just 38, I was playing mother, sometimes to actors who were the same age or only slightly younger to me.

“And then, one fine day, an actor who had always called me ‘Hina’ — Humayun Saeed — suddenly called me ‘Apa’. I looked at him and smiled, and he immediately said that he had said it accidentally while the people around us started teasing him, asking him to show his ID!”

She smiles, “I actually don’t mind because, for me, the character should be fascinating. And I have been lucky enough to play so many wonderful characters.”

She may be lucky but she also has the fortitude and wisdom to look at life’s bright side, even when the going gets tough. On-screen, Hina Khwaja Bayat may be the evil mother or in contrast, the affable one. Off-screen, she’s the actress that you interview for the very first time and that you end up chatting with for hours like she’s your long-lost girlfriend.

There is so much to her that inspires and impresses — it goes far beyond physical beauty. g

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 14th, 2024

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