The sky has changed colour again; the heat is not as pugnacious and the air is not as suffocating (as it is now) as I head to Sanam Saeed’s house in Karachi for a sit-down interview.
Sanam greets me with a smile as I walk in. The street outside is both quiet and without suffering, a rarity for Karachi these days and so, we quickly get down to it.
Sitting in the garden, under a blue sky, Sanam articulates her point of view thoughtfully and carefully as we discuss her love for theatre, the world of television and cinema, item songs and much more.
“There’s a lot to learn,” she says as we discuss Sanam in cinema and the crop of films she’s starring in. The name Sanam Saeed is synonymous with characters she has essayed. To some she is the headstrong Kashaf from Zindagi Gulzar Hai; to others she’s the breathtaking Roxie Hart from Nida Butt’s musical, Chicago. Others remember her as Aiman in Firaaq. The quiet intensity she brings to every role is both unmistakable and difficult to find elsewhere. Most actors pass us by as blurs because the conviction is simply not there. Others lack subtlety. Not Sanam Saeed.
It’s also just as important to note what Sanam is not: a fame-obsessed star, a weeping willow or an actor who has condemnation for others.
As we discuss her work, Sanam is forthcoming in her answers; opinionated and surprisingly honest. She cuts an intelligent and self-assured figure but not one whose words or personality are steeped in arrogance. Most of all, Saeed is an accomplished actor, perhaps the most accomplished in her generation, this generation. Others may grace billboards more frequently and enjoy being the darling of several brands but it is Sanam whose work stands out on the basis of her craft alone. It’s not that the TV serials or films she’s starred in are flawless; it’s that her presence elevates them and lends authenticity. Her ability to both grow and evolve with time as an actor is palpable in every scene in every film and every TV serial she has worked in.
“I wonder how bored people must be when they read the same thing over again,” remarks Sanam honestly. “Apart from films that have come out this year, my theatre and Blackfish experiences, people have read about to death.”
Her passion began, she tells me, with theatre but the story didn’t end there. “My first love, my aspiration was to be a Broadway actor,” she says. “So for me the stage was always my point to achieve. TV happened when I was approached by Momina (Duraid); they approached me and that took off. I enjoyed the scripts that I was offered.”
You made the switch from English to Urdu. How difficult was that?
2016 is a significant year for Sanam as she’s entered the world of cinema with curious and diverse films like Bachana, Mah-e-Mir and the upcoming Dobara Phir Se.
“There are two other films under the radar as well. There’s Rahm, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Rehan Sheikh’s Azad. The latter was done a long time ago; it’s an easy, sweet, simple story. It was made before any of these other films….”
Was there any hesitation, anxiety before doing any of these films?
“Of course! You have to know how to act, you have to know the angles; acting for cinema is very different than acting onstage or acting on TV,” reflects Sanam. “Stage is obviously live, TV is all about close-ups and cinema is just everything, its how you fit into your background, how you use yourself and your awareness to merge into the scene, the props, the situation, the atmosphere, everything. That’s how I do it.”
What do you make of the cross-border connection we share with India and the comparisons between our films?
“We’re the same people so obviously our stories and our interests and our want to close the gap is constantly going to be there,” Sanam replies. “Aside from religion and politics, the want to interact with each other is there; they want to get to know us as much as we want to know them.”
Indian films elicit quite a response from people here including filmmakers who think Indian films should be banned to make room for local cinema. Do you agree that a ban should be imposed?
“I don’t agree,” says Sanam firmly, “because without competition you are nowhere. The only thing our cinema owners could do is maybe give us the Eid release dates, give our films preference over Bollywood films.
Banning films would be counter productive, ridiculous and sour. To keep people coming to cinemas, we need Bollywood films. You need Hollywood and Bollywood films.”
While mainstream Bollywood cinema is obviously glamourous and somewhat mindless, our cinema is currently in experimental mode. However, there is also a kind of nationalistic fervor to some of our films. The argument or the defense behind such films is that this is us trying to own the war on terror; we deal with war and death…
“Yeah, I don’t think people want to see this,” says Sanam.
You think audience fatigue has also set in…
“There is already so much tension, stress, war, destruction and crime in the world but when you go to the movies, you want to get lost in fantasy. That’s why love stories work so well because everyone wants to kind of get lost in that idea of love or humour, which is why Jawani Phir Nahi Ani did so well. We have no humour in our lives. So a good humourous movie with quick dialogues, easy one-liners – I think that’s what people are craving and starving for: good comedy and beautiful romance.”
How do you decide on a film?
“I’m a very stereotyped actor because of my television roles,” notes Sanam.
“ I like to do any kind of script if it appeals to me and if I feel like it will allow me to show my versatility or if it’s good for me because I’ll enjoy it or because the audience will enjoy it, then I will do it. Right now, I’m trying to steer away from the image that people associate me with because I don’t think Kashaf will ever let me go.”
I call it the Zindagi Gulzar Hai effect…
“And its great. They’re great stories and great role models and I’m amazed and very proud and all kudos to the writer; its her story. It has been used in schools as part of their Sociology curriculum. She’s been a role model to people and it’s great but I am not Kashaf. She’s a character and I’m an actor who plays all kinds of characters.”
You come across as a private person. How do you deal with the nexus of social media, lack of privacy and this age of selfies, tweets and all that jazz?
“I had to open up a Twitter and Instagram account because there were fake accounts and that’s fine but they were doing it in first-person, impersonating basically, so I thought it was my responsibility to let people know that it wasn’t me. It’s tough. I see pictures leaked of my colleagues and obviously they’re not doing anything wrong. But it’s unnecessary negative attention and I admire their nonchalance and how they don’t allow people’s judgments to interfere with how they live. I do get caught up in it, sometimes, and I remind myself that I’m me, I’m not that character.
Television serials in Pakistan almost always generate a debate. I read a Fawad Khan interview in which he spoke about how cinema is allowing him to experiment. Mohib Mirza also echoed a similar sentiment in one interview and noted how male actors are stereotyped on TV while a crop of female TV actors revealed in a recent story with Instep how their ability to cry is appreciated by fans.
“I didn’t cry so much in my drama roles; I did play the angry young woman a lot. So I felt limited there. It’s easy to be angry, it’s easy to be stern, its not easy to be vulnerable,” says Sanam thoughtfully. “I do agree with Fawad and Mohib. Cinema is better for men because TV is a female-dominant medium.”
Discussing television further, I ask Sanam about television’s bad repute that it can be one-dimensional and the stories feel regressive.
“Channels are making what people are watching,” says Sanam. “There are focus groups and we are not a part of the focus group neither is the woman who works at your house because she’s still exposed. It’s people who have barely any exposure but they do watch TV. They make up most of our population. And it’s based on them and you ask them what they would like to see, they want to see their own lives. We think that they want to see a fantasy. So it’s two things: either they want to see Indian soap operas with all the jewels and make-up cause that to them is fantasy or they want to see another woman’s suffering like they are suffering and they feel for it.
But to show solutions and positive effects, that’s where you have a handful of dramas like Daam or Zindagi Gulzar Hai that try to show ‘okay, this is happening and this is the solution’. Those do well but you can’t always do that. It’s good to show positivity for a little while but it is a bit ridiculous for them (the audience) to buy it. Channels make what people want to watch and they do focus groups but us actors who have done TV for a longtime and did the good dramas, there’s no way we’re going to do anything less than what’ve already done. Does it get better than the best that we’ve done? It doesn’t get better yet but we’re hoping that it gets better.”
Movies have this song-and-dance routine. Is that something you see yourself doing? How comfortable are you with this aspect of cinema?
“It depends on the role and the scene and how it is shot. I don’t agree with item numbers,” replies Sanam. “I don’t agree when it is said that women are exploited, it’s their choice. But yes, that one dance and the 20 men, that gets boring and tedious. Song and dance is always appreciated; you don’t have to have a mujra style solo with 20 men. That can be jarring. A choreographed dance with a group of people or the film leads together is fine. Kids watch this stuff and people can take it a step too far with their clothes or choreography and the camera angles and shots. It should be done more tastefully. Song and dance can be shot differently also. We are still only doing either item numbers or shaadi dances. But we’ll get there.”
What do you make of excessive corporate branding in films? The argument is that films need money. But I wonder if there is a balance that can be found.
“Of course, Moor, Manto, Bachana, Mah-e-Mir made it without money. It just depends on the directors and producers and how much they’re willing to put their foot down,” answers Sanam sharply. “It’s a horrible feeling to be selling out. It’s painful when there is interference with the script and you are forced to re-write and incorporate things. Hollywood does it just fine. Subtlety is something we need to learn. Product placement is an art also and I think we should hire people or get into the science of it.”
_Photos by Fayyaz Ahmed