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“To me theatre is closest to reading a book”

Sania Saeed talks about Manto the film, her role in it, and the path her career has taken over the last few decades

“To me theatre is closest to reading a book”

There’s nothing starry or diva-like about this startlingly youthful megastar — her career spanning over three decades — who could be rightly credited with bringing about renaissance in theatre and television industry of Pakistan. Sania Saeed is an actor of extraordinary range and diversity. From her roles in Sitara Aur Mehrunnisa, Aahat, Jhumka Jaan, Kitni Girhain Baqi Hain and now Manto, she’s established herself as a character actor and set a separate league, distinct from the rest.

The News on Sunday (TNS): Manto is your first film. Why choose a supporting role as Manto’s wife for your debut?

Sania Saeed (SS): For me, it’s not about how big or small a role is, it’s about the impact it makes. So if I’m playing the lead in a film and my role fails to make an impact, to me it would mean failure. What also matters enormously is the project itself. I chose to play Manto’s wife because of the project – it’s Manto after all, and I felt it took the precedence over everything.

TNS: After your film debut in Manto, do you plan to take up more projects?

SS: Manto was initially meant for television, so when I signed up for it, I wasn’t really planning on making a debut in films. And then, medium isn’t really important to me. If I like the story, I’d do it — whatever the medium. By the way, (chuckles) I’ve never been asked to do a film. And I don’t think it should come across as a surprise. Really, where do you see me fit in there anyway — especially the sort of gallery films made in our industry. But, like any other artist, I’d love to do one if I’m offered one and, of course, if I like the story.

TNS: Have you ever thought of working ‘across the border’, since it has become a norm for everyone to head for Bollywood after their first hit?

SS: I feel happy for those who work for Bollywood and bring their learnings back home. Having said that, working in India is completely out of my comfort zone. I’ve done some street theatre with my uncle Safdar Hashmi who came to do street theatre here. That’s the kind of work I’d like to do but never wanted to do films there. Besides, you’re always considered an outsider in their industry, you always have limited roles and fairly so. I mean, why would they give you huge opportunities when they have swarming talent of their own.

TNS: How important a role do you think glamour plays for an actor in order for her to make a place in showbiz?

SS: It depends on how you define glamour. I believe audience appreciates those they can identify with better. And that comes with how honest you have been to the person you are playing. For example, if being Salman Khan is glamorous now, then so is being Nawazuddin. It’s not how you dress or how much makeup you wear, its about how you make the audience feel. So, to me, there are no set standards for glamour.

TNS: Any reason why you didn’t opt for more serials between 1992 and 1997?

Film is a commercial medium. It has to make money for the next one to follow. Films and serials made with pure commercial intent also come up with good, entertaining stuff. But to say that only one formula is going to sell would be completely wrong.

SS: I was a student at the Karachi University doing my masters in Psychology so had little time for serials. I was doing a lot of voiceovers, I was hosting shows on FM channels and did several tele-films that I still like. I basically don’t like the format of a serial. It stretches a 4 sec expression to 40 minutes, a two-hour-long play to 20 episodes. Thank God, we don’t have those awfully long soaps, where one actor completes, perhaps, a series or two in their entire career span. I did some of my best from 1992 to 1997 but yes, not many serials.

TNS: You did this amazing talkshow Maa. How was the experience?

SS: I loved it. I met the most amazing women. Travelled across Pakistan by road. It was life changing.

It was great hosting discussions, listening to new ideas on a public platform specially since we as society have no tolerance to engage in healthy discussions. Now our talkshows have become ratings games and yelling matches and, as a host, you are expected and sometimes pressured into doing this hullaballoo and onscreen fights. I cannot. So, I stopped hosting shows.

TNS: How do you think commercialism has impacted entertainment industry today?

SS: Film is a commercial medium. It has to make money for the next one to follow. Films and serials made with pure commercial intent also come up with good, entertaining stuff. But to say that only one formula is going to sell would be completely wrong. The fact that Moor or Manto are going houseful is proof enough that if different kinds of films are made people will appreciate them. The survival of any industry lies in its versatility. Our film industry died because it lacked variety and we will do the same all over again if we don’t rethink “commercialism”.

Also the multinationals are supporting films, which is great but the film should not become a two-hour commercial for their product. They should keep the dignity of the film and their product in mind when deciding whether they want to plug their product or hammer it. That kind of commercialism looks easy for now but may not be good in the long run.

TNS: How different was it being an artist back in 1990s than now?

SS: Different… (thinking) or I should say difficult. I think, then, freedom was a limitation and now commercialism has replaced it.

TNS: Any roles you’d still wish to play?

SS: A million. Can’t even name them.

TNS: How do you research and approach your roles?

SS: There’s no specific method or formula to it. Each character dictates itself differently. Also, it depends on the director and team you’re working with.

TNS: You’ve won many awards in the past — which one has made you feel most special and why?

SS: Honestly, I drag through award ceremonies. They don’t really make me feel special because of huge credibility and transparency issues. What although does make me feel special is when someone comes up to complement me, the appreciation you receive from your audience. Some women ask if they can hug me or tell me that I’m their mother’s favourite. I like that!

TNS: You’re a veteran when it comes to theatre industry in Pakistan. Why does theatre thrill you more than television?

SS: It’s the audience. Any artiste performing for live audience would tell you that its more thrilling than working on sets to produce a series or film in days or months. Even though, there’s so much more you could do in cinema in terms of the umpteenth options you have. Both television and film are dictating mediums. They dictate your senses. Theatre forces you to imagine. I can show you an entire war on theatre, with only music and sound maybe, and you will see it. To me theatre is the closest thing to reading a book.

TNS: How lucrative is running a theatre in Pakistan?

SS: Not lucrative at all. In Pakistan, anyone working for theatre is doing it purely out of passion. I feel overjoyed seeing so many great young people enrolling at National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) and committing to a medium that wouldn’t turn them into stars overnight.

TNS: You’ve worked in theatre for over two decades. How do you think the audience has changed over time?

SS: They have changed for sure. Back then, you had to struggle with an uninformed audience, now they’re suffering an information overload. Now, there are different classes of audience making way to theatre because there’s a whole different variety of work being done. We have a Nida Butt, a Napa, a Tehrik-e-Niswan and that’s why all sort of audience are taking the chance to come and see theatre.

TNS: There’s common allegation that our stage scripts are rarely original. How true is that?

SS: This is grossly untrue. I think people who say this say it because it makes them feel better for not writing one themselves. They need to inform themselves better. You can say they are not masterpieces but you cannot say there are no originals. Katha [her theatre group] for instance has produced almost all original scripts except for two or three adaptations — and that too to celebrate the world literature. One of Katha’s originals has been published in an anthology of plays in the US. Theatre group Ajoka has written several originals.

Besides, there’s no harm in translations or adaptations. They are done all over the world. Script writing has always been a weak tradition in our part of the world. If we can’t (for now) match Shakespeare, Chekhov, Moliere etc. it doesn’t mean we should be deprived of them. Translations and adaptations help our technique grow.

TNS: Katha staged a play in Karachi’s Korangi in a marriage hall. How was the response and how was it different from that you see at a proper urban theatre?

SS: My husband Shahid Shafaat and a few of his friends (that’s us) did a theatre workshop with the working children of Korangi. They improvised their own stories and he wrote a script. The only venue we had was a marriage hall. Looked impossible at first. There were no wings for entry and exit, no space to put up lights or other facilities, so we improvised that too, and things worked out just fine. We also did it at PACC later to packed houses.

The same group of children stayed with Katha, our theatre group, for almost a decade performing different plays.

TNS: What has kept you thriving in the industry for this long?

SS: My friends — because they are better than I am. They keep me energised and challenged. Also, the kind of confidence that my directors show in me truly keeps me going. Sarmad Khoosat, Shahid Shafaat, Sahira Kazmi, Baber Javaid, Ehteshamuddin have cast me several times against all advice and sometimes common sense. I mean, come on, who would cast me as a seductress in Kalmoohi or a dancer in Jhumka jaan or a mother of four in Aahat when I was 17 or a Barhi Sarkar in Aseerzadi. Shahid has perhaps given me the most difficult roles of my career (mainly theatre). I keep asking him what is he getting back at me for. But since he tells me I can do it, I’m able to deliver at the end of the day. Or when a Kanwal Khoosat brings me Aao Kahani Buntey Hain I have no choice but to push myself to the limit to come up to her expectation.

Also, my family plays a huge role in keeping me sane, grounded and going.

TNS: Your favourite directors?

SS: Sahira Kazmi, Mehreen Jabbar, Shahid Shafaat, Sarmad Khoosat, Kanwal Khoosat, and Ehteshamuddin.

TNS: Your favourite co-stars from the past?

SS: I don’t think it’s fair to call them from the past. I have never worked with them but I would want to be their co-star. Aarfa Siddiqui, Irsa Ghazal and Saba Hameed. I have worked with Samina Peerzada and loved it.

TNS: Your favourites from the present?

SS: You mean co-stars? Nadia Jameel, Farah Shah. And among men it would be Noman Ijaz and Faisal Rehman.

TNS: Actresses you feel are all set to make their name in the industry?

SS: They have already made their name and doing really well.  I look forward to watching

Sonia Hussain, Yumna Zaidi and Uzma Hassan.

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