Motorcycle Girl has put Sohai Ali Abro, best known for her glamorous, comic role in Jawani Phir Nahi Ani, in the league of Pakistan’s top actors. But how will she stay there since substantial roles for women are few and far between? She talks about life and work in this Instep exclusive…
Sohai Ali Abro comes across as a lively firebrand of a person. She’s full of energy and reminds one of the Energizer bunny that goes on and on and on…until its battery runs out. That was Sohai for the first few years of her career; it was all about looking good, performing well, song and dance. And she went on until one day her battery ran out. The stop-sign came after Wrong No and Jawani Phir Nahi Ani, two feature films that were declared hits at the box office and put Sohai on the map. Zoya, her character in JPNA, made quite the impression, #Mashallah she would say. But this crackling girl disappeared once the hype around JPNA died down. It was quite ironic.
“JPNA did give me room to perform as an actor,” she said when we sat down to chat a few days after the release of Motorcycle Girl, the film she took on as a challenge to change the perception people had of her as an actor, which it did. “A lot of people felt that I was pictured as arm candy but I don’t think so. You know why? Because I had a character to play. And I was really overwhelmed with the response I got. I really enjoyed playing that character, but then I wanted some kind of a challenge. If I’ve done something once and if it has worked then I’m like, okay this is done, what’s next?”
Sohai has already done the tears and the tragedy on television, she then did the the song, dance and comedy in film. And a very predictable set of ‘nexts’ is what Sohai encountered after JPNA, which released in 2015. She was offered to perform at award ceremonies, which she at times accepted and at times turned down. She was offered cameo roles and item songs in several films, which she also refused to do. She was also offered the role of Durdana in Punjab Nahi Jaungi, which she turned down because she didn’t want to be stereotyped as either an item girl or a comic.
“I don’t want to become a Johnny Lever, I want to be known as a serious actor,” she said, reflecting on her resolve. “I’m not a Malaika Arora! I didn’t come to become just an item girl. I don’t find it graceful to say oh, I rejected these many roles; I didn’t do this or do that. I had my reasons. I did not plan a hiatus after JPNA; I was reading scripts, I was doing projects out of which some things worked and others didn’t. I was at every award show, I was performing; yes, in terms of acting I didn’t take anything up. What can we actors do if we don’t get the right scripts? As an actor, I felt frustrated because I wanted to act! I wanted to be a new character. And since that wasn’t happening, I decided to wait.
“It isn’t easy to turn down projects and say no,” Sohai continued realistically. “You lose out on money and work. You lose goodwill, people don’t like you. They start thinking you’re just being difficult. They started saying keh ek film ker key iss ka damagh kharaab ho gaya hai (she’s gone crazy after doing one film). I’m not the damagh kharab type. I did not come here to become a celebrity. I came here to become an actor. I just wanted to be taken seriously as an actor. I wanted to create magic.”
That opportunity came when Sohai met Adnan Sarwar at the ARY Awards in 2017. She had a “fan girl moment,” she says, and she told him how she had watched and loved Shah, his first film. He called several days later, with a role she couldn’t say no to.
“He said ‘I’m making a film and I want to cast you’ and I asked, ‘are you sure?’” she said with a laugh. She couldn’t believe her luck. “I was like, are you sure? Are you sure you want me to do the role? A few days later Adnan sent me a video of Zenith (Irfan) and that moment was unbelievable! It was exactly the kind of film or role that I wanted to do.”
The task was not easy as Sohai was set to portray Zenith Irfan – the girl who made a solo motorcycle journey from Lahore to Khunjerab – whereas Sohai could not even ride a bicycle, let alone a motorbike. She had to learn from scratch. But as she explains, the challenge was more emotional than physical, something evident from the fact that she cried through the premiere and wept each time she watched the film.
“Adnan was like, you’re watching the film for the third time and still crying and you’re in it!” she shared with a laugh.
Truth is, there was a lot more of Zenith Irfan in Sohai than she had expected.
“I met Zenith and realised that hers was a father-daughter story,” she said, softly remembering. “I don’t have a father, he passed away when I was 9. My mother also passed away when I was 9, so I’ve had a life without having either one. I did have a difficult childhood.
“Family took us (the three siblings) in for a while but I was 17 when I left my house. I had no money. I’ve worked at call centres. I gave tuitions in my building when I had no money and there were bills to pay. I couldn’t go to college because I had no money. I don’t mean to sound dramatic but I’ve seen those times when there’d be no food in the fridge. I’ve been through all of that and when I read Zenith’s story, I really connected. This was me and this would be my catharsis. This was my time to vent. And so I wanted to play this girl. I wanted to do this. That’s where I connected with her. There’s a scene in which she breaks down and says she wants her father. ‘Mujhay mere Abu chahiyen, main thak gaye hoon duniya sey larh larh kay (I want my father; I’m tired of fighting the world),’ she says. I’ve had those moments. I don’t have anyone who has my back.”
Sohai briefly touched upon her life, sharing moments of loneliness and helplessness that she felt when she was growing up. She explained how difficult it was for a girl to live alone; how boys in her building would cut her cable wires just to get a reaction out of her. She faced a lot of harassment in life. Did she ever feel it on set, I asked, bringing in sexual harassment and gender bias as issues that the world is addressing these days?
“Motorcycle Girl was one movie where there was no kind of harassment at all,” she wanted to clarify. “It was one of the most comfortable sets I have been on. All the men on set were on a mission to teach me how to ride a bike and I’m not just saying this to promote my film. Adnan is the biggest feminist I have met. Sometimes I think that even I’m not as much of a feminist as he is. So for me, this was a dream team.
“There is harassment on the set but we all learn to deal with it in our own way,” she continued. “Women seldom speak out because they know they wouldn’t even get the two roles that they do if they spoke out. Harassment on set does exist but I’ve never faced it because I’ve learnt how to look out for myself. Gender bias is another issue altogether,” she scoffed. “There is a gender bias and a lot of people in the industry have a chauvinist mind set. Can’t you tell by the way scripts are written? Female talent is wasted over a song or just as a glamour element. So many actors and directors objectify women. Nacho nacho chaar thumkay maro, ghar jao. I was so happy doing MG because I felt good about it; this is how my father would have wanted to see me. I would have wanted to see my parents proud of me, not as eye candy for young boys and men.”
What now? She couldn’t possibly afford to sit back and wait for the next big role to come by. Did she have a plan?
“There’s no roadmap. I’m just going with the flow. Obviously, there have been a few scripts for drama, television and I want to do television because I don’t think I’ve delivered enough there. Just yesterday this director called and said he was planning a film; I’ll be meeting him.
I’m also in talks with a producer and we’re scheduled to meet next week,” she said. “I don’t even know the genre yet. However, I’d love to do a commercial project now. Comedy, I think because I’m a joker. I love doing funny stuff and comedy. But I haven’t signed anything yet.”
It was evident that the Energizer Bunny had been recharged.