In a career spanning over a decade, Sajal Aly has managed to make a mark with almost every appearance on the small screen, even when she wasn’t as popular as she is today. Whether it was the vocal Afreen in Mehmoodabad Ki Malkain (2015) or the cunning Shifa in Mere Qatil Mere Dildar (2015), the mentally challenged Nanhi in Nanhi (2015) or the petrified Rameen in Chup Raho (2015), the outspoken Sassi in O’Rangreza (2018) or the unconventional Chammi in recently concluded Aangan (2019), she has a credible body of work behind her.
So, this comes as no surprise that Sajal is receiving great feedback for her performance in new drama serial Alif that went on air earlier this month. She stars as a struggling actress, Momina Sultan, who is not only bound by her circumstances but also by her own mind that is never at ease.
One caught up with her in Karachi last week, after the first episode of Alif went on-air and before she left for Islamabad to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at the special reception hosted by the British High Commission. In this interview, she shares whether she relates to Momina or not, what other projects she has lately been engaged with and how does she look at things around her.
“An actor doesn’t always need to relate to the character he or she is playing onscreen,” Sajal explained as we sat down, over a cup of tea at her apartment. “My reason behind doing Alif was, I liked Momina’s journey, which is written beautifully by Umera Ahmed. If I will relate to every character, it will be more of Sajal onscreen than the part I am playing. The way a character will respond to certain things, I might not respond the same way in that scenario.”
Three episodes into the drama, Alif – directed by Haseeb Hassan – has garnered acclaim left, right and centre; Sajal Aly and Hamza Ali Abbasi are winning hearts with their performances while the script is intriguing too.
When asked about the experience of working with Hamza, Sajal responded, “It was really good. He was very helpful to all of his co-stars and even used to wait if anyone fumbled. This makes the work easier. No one is a star on the set; it is for the world outside. It was a great experience with Hamza; he is not arrogant at all.”
One major reason behind all the hype around Alif way before it premiered was the onscreen pairing of Hamza and Sajal, who are sharing the screen for the first time. Earlier, Sajal has played opposite Ahad Raza Mir in dramas such as Yakeen Ka Safar and Aangan, and the couple has gotten an overwhelming response from fans all across.
Reflecting on the popularity of onscreen couples and judging an actor’s skills in relation to that, Sajal asserted, “I think highlighting about onscreen pairs is not fair with an actor. For me, it is my own journey in Alif and same is the case with Hamza; maybe viewers will like us together onscreen but judging the actors on the basis of their onscreen partner is not appropriate. It is a separate journey of every actor, not just Hamza and I but the entire cast of Alif because it is unfair to focus just on the pair.”
Sajal and Ahad, who however are a real-life pair, announced their engagement earlier this year; they have at least two more upcoming projects together that are expected to launch soon. There is a drama, written by Farhat Ishtiaq and directed by Aehsun Talish of Suno Chanda fame, which is a love story with a mystery to it. According to Sajal, “It is not a typical love story that viewers might expect out of it,” while she also confirmed that it features Adnan Siddiqui and Mira Sethi in important roles.
Another upcoming project featuring Sajal and Ahad is a cross-border web series, called Dhoop Ki Deewar, which is directed and produced by Haseeb Hassan. It has a promising cast including Samiya Mumtaz, Samina Ahmed, Savera Nadeem and Manzar Sehbai and it is going to be an interesting watch for viewers, claims Sajal.
Speaking of #Sahad, a very popular hashtag created by Sajal and Ahad’s fans, Sajal feels that it is a good thing because they didn’t do it on purpose and it just happened. “Audiences decided this and if they want to do it, why would we mind?” she admitted. “Some people might think we shouldn’t come back together again and again but if this is what our fans want, we’d love to keep doing it. We work for our people. Even #Jammi, a combination of Jameel and Chammi (reference: Aangan) became a hashtag.
However, Sajal does point out that it is not as easy as it appears to be. “More than the hype and popularity, it is a pressure and risk to come together and live up to our fans’ expectations. Ahad and I have refused so many dramas,” she continued.
How have things changed for the two of them after they announced their engagement, I asked.
“Fans have gotten very excited after we announced our engagement and they are showering more love than ever before but now that we have done multiple projects together, we would like to give it a break too unless something comes up that we can’t say no to. We don’t know what’s ahead of us so I can’t decide in advance,” she explained.
Moving on, we speak about award ceremonies, how important an award is to her and what is it that actually makes a difference to her after spending over 10 years in the industry.
“I think, today it is social media where you get to know what people think of your work rather than awards. I have never bothered about awards. People have always showered so much love on me since the beginning and I am content with the feedback I have been receiving so far. It is not in my control; it is out there and it is my fans who bring all of this up. It is not my job to promote myself; being an actor my job is to give my best shot whenever I appear onscreen,” she maintained.
However, she also feels that a lot of things have started changing.
“People and the industry know that if anyone deserving doesn’t get the award, it will become an issue,” she elaborated. “They have separate categories for ‘Popular’ and ‘Jury’ awards now because there is pressure from public and they have to be careful about who they give the award to.”
Being a public figure isn’t an easy feat in the present day and age; with appreciation comes criticism and dealing with it can be very challenging at times. Though actors receive a lot of praise for their work, they are an easy target to point fingers at because of being in the limelight.
Sharing her views on the subject on the basis of her own experiences, Sajal feels blessed that she has never really faced any controversy or trolling on social media. However, she is quick to admit that being in the public eye, they have to be very careful about certain things at this point. “It really matters what you say and how you say it,” she insisted.
“Criticism is part and parcel of our job; we are public figures and this is something we shouldn’t react to because it is not in our control,” she stressed, adding that a lot of actors respond to comments on social media but she doesn’t want to do that. “I think if you are a public figure then be prepared for whatever comes your way; we can’t stop them. Either be private or don’t blame the people for saying something you don’t like.”
Some TV commercials that Sajal appeared in this year generated a bit of backlash and were also made fun of. When asked about this, Sajal said that she herself enjoyed some of the memes that were circulated on social media and she doesn’t mind it at all. “These people don’t know my back story and why I did a certain thing. Besides, it is okay if something goes wrong, it is not necessary that everything resonates well with audiences always,” she noted.
At the end of the day, it is her craft that’s her key concern and she treats each of her roles like it’s the end of the world. “I feel I become my own competition with each role in improving myself than the previous role. I have a certain responsibility and I want to do things that people like or look up to; they watch me and learn from me. Why shouldn’t I give them something different? I wish to make a difference and take Pakistani television to newer heights; it’s high time. I don’t want to work just for myself but for upcoming actors too,” expressed Sajal, sharing that she recommends younger, newer actresses to make a place for them since the beginning rather than suppressing them.
On a parting note, Sajal hints that she is open to doing films as well but none of the scripts she has been offered so far appealed to her. Amidst the many offers she receives for drama serials, she is in talks for an exciting upcoming drama that she doesn’t want to disclose right now.