ESSAY: WE’RE READY FOR YOUR CLOSE-UP NOW

Published May 12, 2024
Illustration by Sarah Durrani
Illustration by Sarah Durrani

JUNE 13, 2014

I am excited to be here, thrilled to have the opportunity to audition. Despite being on the verge of throwing up, I walk into the audition room assertively.

The male and female casting directors size me up. They study the way I carry myself. They ascertain my charisma, assess my brand potential and evaluate my attractiveness. I am conscious of all of it and yet, I allow them to continue doing it.

I am a willing participant in this game, voluntarily choosing to subject myself to constant rejections. Perhaps all artists have masochistic tendencies and perhaps these are mine.

The casting directors thank me for coming in and I thank them for their time. I notice that I am trembling as I grab my bag from the floor. Before I have even stepped out of the room, the whisperings have begun.

As I stumble out into the waiting room, the other actresses peer closely at me, attempting to decipher whether I blew it or bagged the role. I remain stoic and they hastily return to rehearsing their monologues. We are all clones of one another. We hold out hope, waiting for that singular break, which will catapult our lives into a growing trajectory.

Diary entries from a former actor reflect on how the desire to conform to the norms of the entertainment industry allowed her to lose her own sense of self and how words helped her rediscover it

The room reeks of desperation and throbs with want. I walk out.

Upon returning home, I tactfully avoid my mother, who will undoubtedly want to know how the audition went. I loiter aimlessly in the kitchen, before finally grabbing a glass of water and heading to my bedroom.

I feel restless and out of control. I need to reaffirm my beauty. I pick up my phone and select a desirable photo of myself from my camera roll. In it, I’m half-smiling, caught in the ‘golden hour.’

I post it to my Instagram and, within a couple of hours, 192 people like it. The comments roll in slowly: ‘stunning!!’, ‘OMG, so beautiful.’ I’m moderately satisfied.

I move over to my Instagram mailbox and scroll through a handful of DMs from random men. This, in a way, also reaffirms my beauty. I’m living in the male gaze and I no longer mind it. I’ve done good.

JULY 15, 2015

Across my teenage years, I work sporadically as an actress in Karachi. I scour Facebook pages of production houses and advertising agencies and bookmark audition callouts. I, then, eagerly drive to audition at rented bungalows in Defence and Sea View.

I carefully curate bits of work in commercials, short films and plays — the only mediums where I am provided a larger margin to experiment as a female performer in Pakistan.

I am cast as the ‘feminist, middle-aged woman whose husband is cheating on her’ in a contemporary play or as the ‘galvanising, empowered 20-something Pakistani woman’ in a commercial.

I stare into cameras, grim and unsmiling. I find comfortable homes on stage and sets. I revel in the camaraderie of grown-up adults playing make-believe. I don’t mind the long hours or the protracted time it takes for the shots to be lit up — this is all worth the wait.

The stage, for me, has become a safe space to be vulnerable, without judgement. In a way, it is a refuge from the hardening of the soul that comes with growing up as a woman in this world.

Though I am pleased with my work, a part of me remains discontent. There is a scarcity of roles in Pakistan. Playing the traumatised daughter-in-law or the scorned woman are unappealing options. In auditions, I am still patronised by casting directors, who tell me to ‘be less angry.’ Yet, I play along. I be what they need. I wear make-up, albeit horrendously. I try to appear striking.

And then, I am mortified when I am not given a callback.

My parents are nonplussed. They cannot fathom why their academically gifted daughter prefers a profession where she is commodified and where her youth is a currency. They cannot understand why I have promised loyalty to a media machine that still operates on patriarchal benchmarks of beauty.

Unsurprisingly, by my early adulthood, I fail to carve out my own identity. I forfeit my voice. I become an extension of something else and nothing more.

FEBRUARY 25, 2017

There are specific moments on set when I am hyper-aware of my gender. I spend hours suspended from reality, with a cast and crew who are strangers I am introduced to just a few hours earlier.

We all attempt to foster greater intimacy for a worthier creative breakthrough — this is within the acting job description, after all. But there are times when this faux closeness is exploited by those with far greater clout than me and, in those moments, the onus of protecting myself falls on me alone.

So, I grudgingly laugh along to misogynistic jokes. I do my best not to appear over-friendly. I refuse to prolong conversations beyond work on WhatsApp with casting agents. And after shows, I head straight home, avoiding the spaces where things get murky.

Because, who will believe me?

Historically in Pakistan, women simply become a centre of speculation upon whom moral investigations are conducted. Society and viewers will ultimately turn the blame on me – I chose to be a pawn in this industry. I, a Pakistani-Muslim woman, have entered this ‘vulgarity’ out of my own volition.

I do what other women do. I silence myself. I relive traumas. There is no Human Resource team, there are no harassment policies read out on the first day of production, and there is no power I hold.

Everything simply goes.

AUGUST 12, 2018

It’s August and I’m cast in a commercial, which releases on Pakistan’s Independence Day. Ironically, the theme of this commercial is ‘women empowerment.’ Ironic because, as I sit in my makeup chair, artists arrive to accentuate my features, cover up my blemishes and contour my nose.

Intermittently, they drop in beauty tips on how to ‘tame my hair’ and encourage me to acquire better make-up. I nod politely, as if I’ll actually consider their advice, but all I feel internally is dejected.

For years, I had assumed that my mind, my imagination and my education were worthy devices. But in actuality, I had greatly underestimated how much of the world ran on beauty.

I slump forward in my chair and think about how I have given so much of myself to a profession where I am a throwaway, simply replaceable by the next pretty young thing who walks through those doors.

SEPTEMBER 20, 2018

I’ve decided to take a break from acting.

It’s been five years of endless auditions and unremitting rejections. Of course, discounting the notion that my self-esteem has plummeted to irredeemable depths, the decision also makes sense — I’m leaving Pakistan for the first time, to complete my undergraduate degree abroad.

In England, I periodically dabble in theatre to satisfy my acting itch. I perform in consequential plays like The Vagina Monologues. I deliver dramatic readings of passages from exiled authors in dimly lit studios. But even here, as a brown-Muslim woman, the roles I am given are scant. The leads are reserved for white people, whilst other ethnicities are relegated to the supporting roles.

Here, I face other hitches — I am seen as either too dark or not dark enough. I am either a religious creature or an outlandish woman from an exotic land. I am still seen from a white person’s perspective.

MARCH 27, 2020

The world has stopped turning on its wheels. A global pandemic rages across the globe and humanity has been ordered to stay home. I scramble to return to Pakistan and spend the next few weeks doing what everyone else is doing — baking, scrolling through social media and bingeing on television shows.

But, after a while, the days mesh into one and I am forced to sit with myself for the first time in my life. I reflect and ponder over the last couple of years, which led to me becoming the woman I am today.

One restless night, I pick up my laptop in search of an avenue for creative expression. I open up a blank MS Word document and begin to write. And after 22 years of silencing my voice, the words gush out of me, like a broken faucet which won’t turn off. These words had seemingly lived within me, waiting with bated breath, soundlessly patient.

So, I write. I write about the experiences I never had. I write stories in which I garbage social norms and where women are flawed individuals. I write stories about the spaces I wish to inhabit. I write about the women who inhabit my real life — women who fire after their yearnings without the fear of retribution.

Slowly, I begin sending out my tales into the world, hoping my lived experiences may relate to someone. I face the familiar call of rejection but, ultimately, the year of the pandemic becomes the year of writing.

Through those long months of staying at home, I use my words to reckon with the trauma of my past and the horrifying moments I allowed myself to go through. With reclaiming my narrative, I feel cathartic. By writing about the pain, I have not let it best me. I am finally the protagonist of my own story.

As I write, I relearn everything I have been taught. I purge all the venomous psychology, instilled in me as a young girl. I begin to closely understand my womanhood. In my essays and stories, my beauty and physicality are no longer determining factors in my worthiness. My mind is my weapon and, unlike my beauty, it doesn’t have an expiration date.

OCTOBER 30, 2021

My heart feels irritated. Today, I have nothing to write on my computer. My fingers flick over to the old, bookmarked link of my acting portfolio. As the website loads, my heart starts pounding.

The pictures appear one at a time. I scroll down and see old headshots and performance screen grabs. I am 17, 19, and 20. I am smiling, poised, concealing the hurt. I am being what they need me to be — their thoughts, opinions and desires. I inhale shortly and close my laptop.

I am remorseful that I couldn’t protect that little girl. That girl who fell in love with the stage. The girl who learnt how to finesse technique, to hit the mark consistently, to access unknowing depths within her.

But writing about that girl and restructuring her narrative, I have a greater agency over my past and present. I have allowed myself to gain autonomy through creative expression. These words have saved my life.

Neha Maqsood is a writer and poet.
Her work can be read at nehamaqsood.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 12th, 2024

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