Sajal Aly is stronger than her onscreen persona would have you believe. This 23-year-old artiste is petite to the extent of looking fragile but when she talks, there’s thought and opinion and strength in her character; you immediately know that this is not some empty-headed young starlet you’re talking to. As with any talented actor, her passion is rooted in the craft, not the fame and fortune it can potentially lead to.
She’s also extremely evasive. It has taken a couple of weeks of maneuvering but we finally lock a date and time two days after the premiere of Mom; she confirms at the premiere.
“I didn’t want to say anything before people had watched the film,” she says when we sit down to talk. “What could I say; you had to watch it for yourself.”
We watched and were blown away by the narrative and its execution. We were also blown away by Sajal’s performance, who held her own alongside Sridevi and other experienced actors in the film. You’d be forgiven for thinking that she was cast for her physical similarities with Sridevi; those big eyes were an instant connection. But there’s more to it than meets the eye and we spoke about it all, sharing the intricacies of working in Pakistan, India and then more…
Were you expecting this response from Mom?
Sajal Aly: “I was. But I have this thing in me that before doing anything, I’m always very fearful. With regards to this project, it didn’t feel like I had to put in any effort. Performance wise I felt that I had a margin. With my scenes opposite Sridevi, especially the one in which I’m screaming, I felt that I’m doing something good. I thought that my acting might get appreciation.
When, during the filming of Mom, did you realize that you were on the right track?
SA: That happened many times. There’s a scene where we are at the dining table and that scene was (my first) with Sridevi. My director had told me to not talk to Sridevi. And I said how is that possible, it’s my first day here, I haven’t met her since I came to India. But he was persistent. Then I went on set, everyone stood up to meet her, and she came to me and hugged me. At the end of that scene, we just communicated through our eyes and gestures and I got a thumbs up from her so that relaxed me a little.
Then there was another scene where I’m screaming a lot and I make her leave my room. After the scene there was a lot of silence on set, she came up to me and she hugged me again. When we were in Georgia, we were talking about awards and I said I don’t believe in these awards and she agreed with me. Then she asked me who I thought could win the Filmfare award for best newcomer, and she said that I could. Sridevi’s reactions were telling me that I’m doing a good job.
Pakistani dramas train our actors very well, especially when it comes to emotional expressions. Do you think that’s why it was easy to portray an assault victim and maybe it would have been tougher to play the role of a happy-go-lucky and bubbly girl?
SA: Yes, that would have been difficult. Whatever I’ve learnt, I’ve learnt it here. I met Sridevi and the team for the first time in Dubai and was selected because they had seen my dramas; I hadn’t given any audition or anything. And yes, I feel that whatever I did in Mom, I’ve done much better things here in Pakistan. It wasn’t as if I did something very different and unusual.
You have played the rape victim so many times…
SA: Yes, and now I’m sick of it. I mean, how many times will I get assaulted on screen? So my next few drama serials are going to be different. I’m doing a lively and happy role in an upcoming play called O Rangreza by Kashif Nisar.
Do you think the characterization of women is being justified in our TV dramas? Aren’t we playing the ‘woman as victim’ card too much?
SA: Yes, it’s too much. Unfortunately, when I myself say it to channel owners, they don’t want to try anything new. New ideas don’t get ratings.
TV creates actors and film makes them stars, I feel. But our films haven’t been able to do justice to our actors so far. There are very few films being made in which one can say that justice has been done to the artistes. Do you agree with that?
SA: I agree with that because I’ve done a film (Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai) as well. I think it will take some time for us to get there. We have a lot of great actors but our production is a little weak. If I think of doing a film, I get very uneasy. I think it’s better to do dramas right now. I don’t want to waste myself on doing the wrong projects.
Have you signed any films yet?
SA: Not yet but there are two or three films I’m looking at, like Kashif Nisar is doing a film next year. I might think about that. I’ve gotten apprehensive after doing one film; it was the wrong choice. First of all, it didn’t look like I had a son. That was a mistake on my part. I shouldn’t have done that role. But we all make mistakes. I saw Mehrunisa (Mehrunisa V Lub U) and I asked Sana whether she had read the script before signing it. She said yes and I asked her why she did it? She barely had any dialogues. So she said that even the scenes she’s not in, everyone’s talking about her character. She’s okay with that. For me, there should be some scope of performance in my role. It can’t just have my name in the film and be happy.
After working in India, you’ve gotten an international outlook. What changes need to be made in the way we’re making films? What did you learn in India?
SA: I think technically we’re very weak. We don’t see our own vision in our films. I recently saw a song and it was very Bollywood inspired. I couldn’t see the director’s vision anywhere. Like sometimes people will tell me, ‘for this drama you should watch this film.’ I tell them I can’t do that. Let me create something myself. But I have to say that while they (the Indians) are very professional when it comes to filmmaking, they’re also human (laughs). People used to get late there as well, there would be squabbles happening on set there too. Yeh sab hota tha.
How do you feel now that the India chapter is over? Or do you think of it as a bonus for you?
SA: It was definitely an unexpected bonus for me. I know I can’t do a lot of things in India. Bonus, because if anyone does anything in India and comes back, then they become stars.
Sajal continued to talk about her life during and after the filming of Mom. She expressed how she didn’t want to be in the limelight constantly; she even avoided all interviews and promotions prior to the film’s release although this was a time she could have cashed in on a lot of coverage and publicity.
“My mom was with me throughout the shoot so I don’t know, I just felt that I didn’t want to share my success with anyone,” she shared. “My dad is also here in Karachi but I haven’t spoken to him in two days.”
SA: I just feel that all that happiness and all those words…I just wanted to share it with my mother, who passed away earlier this year. My mother and father were separated. So maybe in a few days I’ll share the stories with my father, just not now. I do this a lot. I shut myself off from the world for weeks and switch my phone off.
Then this role must have come naturally to you.
SA: In some ways it did.
You were very close to your mom.
SA: I don’t know how to read scripts. My mother used to read all the scripts that came my way. And she would advise me. The ones that I selected, they were just okay but the ones Mama selected, those would be exceptional. That’s why I find it so difficult to share this with anyone. I feel like it was a personal thing between me and my mom. I will always be close to her, no matter where I go. There’s a scene with Adnan bhai where I say “Beti ki zindagi mein maan dubara nai aati.” I felt it was very emotional. There’s another scene in which I’m screaming at Sridevi; that was also my favourite scene. I feel that the music really helped me as well. I liked my work actually (laughs, breaking the solemnity of the situation). I think I did a good job.
Moving on to happier subjects, Sajal continued talking about Mom and then about making friends and contacts in the industry.
“I’m very happy for Mahira,” she said. “I’ve never met her, but I really like her. I look up to her. I haven’t seen her film yet but of course I’m sure that performance margin must have been low in that character. But because she shared screen space with Shahrukh Khan… that’s a big thing. Because all the girls who’ve gone from Pakistan…like Mawra could have done much better had she waited a little. She could have done a better film, or even Humaima actually. I didn’t like their work much. But Mahira and Saba were exceptional.”
It’s brave of you to speak your mind. Our stars are usually afraid to give their opinion and prefer to be politically correct.
SA: I want people to know my honest opinion. I can’t praise everyone all the time. I want to be honest and genuine.
Have you made any friends in the industry?
SA: None. I have now started going out and meeting people now. But I don’t find any genuine people, especially girls. That’s why I am unable to make friends.
Do you think there is favouritism in the industry when it comes to films, projects and especially endorsements?
SA: I haven’t had too many offers (for endorsements). Maybe there is a lot of favouritism. I don’t want to force myself to be somebody’s favourite by giving gifts and perfumes, so that I become part of their circle and start getting ads. I am not in favour of that. I think my work is enough. If I can do a film in India based on my TV dramas, then I can do anything here.
I mean I’m a human. But you know, people around me give so many instructions all the time: ‘Don’t say this, don’t say that, be nice to that person’. I’m honestly so sick of it all! I just want to be myself.”
Finding a comfort zone in the conversation, Sajal continued to talk about her wardrobe choices and how she had stopped taking advice because she wanted to look her age; she wanted to look like herself. She also spoke about O Rangreza and another drama serial, directed by Sarmad Khoosat and co-starring Imran Abbas, that she had just signed up for. Lovely to speak to and surprisingly level headed for such a young girl who’s found so much fame, Sajal definitely verified the hype and hoopla around her. One just hopes that the films and television projects she signs up for now justify the huge talent that she is.