It’s got nothing to do with how she actually is but with some of the characters that she’s played thus far

She’s television’s latest star and has enacted the opinionated girl in her two must successful dramas to date — 2011’s tear-jerker Mera Naseeb and the currently on-air, hugely popular, Zindagi Gulzar Hai. Even I go to meet Sanam Saeed expecting to see glimpses of the devil-may-care heroine she plays so well. Tall and svelte, her make-up is minimal with hair tied up, much like her no-nonsense, on-screen characters. But that’s where the similarities end.

Sanam is easygoing, poised and youthful. We sit in her front lawn and she faces me while swaying gently on a garden swing.

Intelligent-eyed, soft-spoken with an occasional smile, she’s hardly the dominating Kashaf of ZGH. “I am firm in my opinions but I am never really as emphatic as the characters I’ve played,” she admits. You couldn’t tell it, though, while watching her on TV — which basically means that Sanam Saeed is a very, very good actress.

Of course, she has had years to hone her performing skills. Long before Sanam found her way to the all-pervasive world of TV dramas, she was acting on-stage in school plays, trying her hand at stand-up comedy as part of Saad Haroon’s comic troupe, Blackfish and VJ-ing for the newly launched Indus Music channel. At 5’8 1/2”, she also became a regular on the catwalk and in fashion glossies for some time, although modeling didn’t quite turn out to be her cup of tea. “It’s a great way to earn money but I never particularly enjoyed it,” she says.

Nida Butt’s successful musicals, Mamma Mia! and Chicago, had Sanam take to the stage, a dynamo of energy, singing, acting, dancing, basking in the limelight. And then, come 2010, she joined the famed Coke Studio entourage as one of the background vocalists.

A bit of this, a bit of that and winning accolades all the way, I ask Sanam what she likes best. “Acting,” comes her reply. “I wish I could be a professional singer. I enjoy singing but I lack the proper training to make it as a solo artist. Instead, I feel I’ve found my niche with acting. It allows me to put on a façade, let go of my inhibitions and lose myself in a character. For me, it’s well worth the long hours and the hectic schedules.”

Her extended family, however, didn’t always accept that her career was worth the trouble. Hailing from a family where nobody else had ever been involved in the media, Sanam’s parents were always supportive while other members of the family had to slowly be won over. “I remember a time when I would be watching TV with my Nani and would quickly switch the channel every time I appeared on screen,” she recalls. “Now, though, she and I watch and dissect my drama roles together.”

This is a side to her that not many people know. She may be a trailblazing, glitzy actress, starring in one of the country’s most avidly-watched dramas at the moment, but she is also a granddaughter who flits around her Nani so that she doesn’t over-exert herself. As a girl in her 20s, she has a group of mostly-married friends and is now considering marriage for herself in the near future. As a daughter, she has her share of chores to do when at home, as decreed by her mother. It makes her much more real and likeable in a profession where glamorous airs and graces are common. In fact, she tells me that she has dishes to wash right after our interview — a comment that makes me laugh. That, I tell her, is one thing she has in common with the diligent Kashaf, who can be seen on TV labouring over chores in her poverty-stricken home.

“There are many other minor similarities,” she says. “I don’t like wearing too much make-up and since Kashaf is a middle-class girl, I kept getting my make-up in the drama toned down. It actually makes me squirm now, when I see my chapped lips on television. I wonder if I should have let the make-up team have their way. On the bright side, it makes me look in character at least,” she surmises.

Having grown up in Karachi, Sanam is also not averse to hailing a rickshaw or walking on the street, a la the street-smart Kashaf. “A few days ago, I was with a friend and her car broke down,” she recalls. “We had to go home by rickshaw. My friend joked that since Kashaf in the drama often travels in a rickshaw, people would get confused if they saw me. They would wonder whether they were watching me in the drama or in real life!” she laughs.

It is testimony to a drama — and a character — well-played when audiences begin to refer to actors by their on-screen names.

For the many, many ZGH aficionados around the world, Sanam is Kashaf for now. Hers is a strong character and she’s managed to play it just right; the upright, moralistic lower-class girl who stares disdainfully at her frivolous leading man, played by Fawad Khan. Did she feel anxious about holding her own in a drama that was surrounded by hype even before it began, being touted as Hum TV’s next big blockbuster after Humsafar?

“I agree that most people began watching ZGH because, like Humsafar, it is a love story with Fawad in the lead,” she says. “But such high expectations could have easily turned against the drama, making it a flop. Instead, people have continued watching ZGH because of the direction by Sultana Siddiqui, the unique storyline by Umera Ahmed and actors’ performances.”

Of course, one other reason behind the drama’s popularity is Sanam’s co-star, Fawad Khan. Fawad perfected the brooding romantic hero in Humsafar and became TV’s favorite heart-throb in the process. The shooting of ZGH commenced a few short weeks after Humsafar ended and the sets were regularly thronged by hordes of women. “A lot of our scenes were shot at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and every day there would be long lines of girls waiting to get Fawad’s autograph. It had the school’s teachers complaining of the disruption to their classes!” laughs Sanam. “And then one Sunday, the entire cast and crew decided to have dinner at Port Grand. It was like all the women in the area were just instantly drawn to Fawad. It was truly eye-opening.”Did having such a hugely popular co-star make her insecure about her own standing in the drama? “Not really,” shrugs Sanam. “Fawad is very easy to get along with. He’s a great actor and very gracious with his fans. The drama also stars veteran actors like Samina Peerzada and Waseem Abbas. They actually inspired me to perform better rather than intimidate me.”

A greater challenge for her was to be able to speak Urdu lucidly to suit her character. With her everyday language peppered with English, Sanam would often get Urdu tenses and phrases wrong and have the entire cast break out into laughter. “I would be scrutinising the script, asking the director the meaning of certain words,” she grins.

Post-ZGH, Sanam is busy with numerous projects — a telefilm with Mehreen Jabbar, an independent film with Rehan Sheikh and yet another serial for Hum TV — halting only for the inevitable strikes, loadshedding and decrepit generators that take hours to fix. “There are times when I am supposed to get off work by seven but only reach home by midnight because of production delays.”

Does she mind? “Not really, it’s part of the job,” she says and I can tell she means it. After all, she’s the girl who would put on her mother’s clothes as a child and play pretend; who enthralled audiences through her stage performances in Nida Butt’s plays and is now winning over fans through television. What are a few delays then, when you’re doing something you love? As Sanam herself puts it, “This is what makes me happy. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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