‘Secure’ is the word that comes to mind when you think of Amna Ilyas. Introduced primarily as a fashion model several years ago, she emerged fearless because of the risqué image she’d be unafraid of putting out. There’s been many a fatwa on her bold pictures. She says she brushed off the judgment calls, discarding them as an occupational hazard. Amna was just as confident when, accepting a Lux Style Award trophy for Best Model in 2015, she spoke about being dark-skinned in an industry where fairness was considered the gateway to success and where she had been sidelined for not being ‘pretty’ enough for certain bridal and textile campaigns. In 2013, Amna made a film debut with a lead role in Zinda Bhaag, and then continued making appearances on the big screen, sometimes for a lead role and just as many times in a cameo for an item song. She loves to dance, and looks good on camera, so didn’t see the problem, she says. It didn’t stop the trolls but the trolling didn’t stop her either.
Amna will now be appearing in the Eid release, 7 Din Mohabbat In, which incidentally is directed by Meenu and Farjad, directors she worked with on her first film – Zinda Bhaag. It’s a role that, once again, is prone to extreme reactions.
“I think it is a very, very interesting character because you haven’t seen someone like Ghazala on screen before, at least not in Pakistan,” she shared when we sat down to chat about the trajectory of her career. “This is a person who hates men,” she continued. “My friends and I have a gang, which is called ‘Auratzaat Ki Laat’ and we believe in man-hating feminism. I’m the chota in that group, the handler, kind of like Circuit was to Munna Bhai. So while I’m hoping that people will like the character, women will for sure, I also think some – especially men – may take offense to it.”
The trajectory of Amna’s career has been rather haphazard, almost random, I point out. She did Zinda Bhaag in 2013 and then Sabiha Sumar’s Good Morning Karachi, a film that tanked at the box office but a role that established her as an actor. While someone wanting to build a career with serious roles would have been discerning, Amna just as readily agreed to do two item songs, one for Asad ul Haq’s Dekh Magar Pyar Se and the other for Yasir Nawaz’s Mehrunisa V Lub U. Now she’s tried her hand at comedy in 7DMI. Was there any thought or planning going into her career or was she just flowing with the tide?
“Well, I definitely want to become a good actor and that’s why I did the kind of roles that I did,” she replied. “I did item numbers because I like dancing and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I feel dancing is also a form of entertainment and I like dancing so I did those. As far as roles are concerned, I try to pick and choose roles according to my understanding; I usually pick what I like. I was comfortable with Meenu and Farjad and I liked the character I was offered in 7DMI. It was a fun character that was comic by default.”
There’s just as much versatility in your characters as there is conflict in your career. On one hand you’re an extremely glamorous fashion model and on the other hand you’re happy portraying unglamorous and dowdy characters on screen. Doesn’t one image impact the other?
“I don’t want to label myself as an actor who only does glamorous roles,” she replies. “If my director instructs me to have a clean face then I will not put on makeup and I wouldn’t care what people say. If you see my performance in Zinda Bhaag and you see my performance in Good Morning Karachi…people actually told me I’m good at it. I’m very natural and believable on screen so if that is my strength then I’m going to use it and I don’t believe looking glamorous all the time can get you anywhere. So I think I’m very versatile and whatever I do, I do it with full conviction. Also I don’t mind doing glamorous roles but I would rather do roles that people can connect with.”
Out of all your projects, film and television, which are the dearest to you? Which would you call your favourite work so far?
“Good Morning Karachi is dearest to me and you know why? It’s because apparently that film didn’t do very well and it became like a child that was less successful than the other; I became very protective of it. This was my first ever experience of being in front of the camera and Sabiha taught me a lot. She’s a brilliant person…other than a director, she’s like family to me, which is why Good Morning Karachi is definitely more close to my heart and I stand by it because I love the film.”
Anything from television?
“Uh no,” she replies, with refreshing honesty.
Amna has, however, done a fair amount of work on TV as well. One often wonders what happens when a model suddenly gets up and decides that she wants to act. It happens all the time and there is barely a high profile model in Pakistan that hasn’t ventured into acting; only a handful of exceptions can be found. And yet it is just as difficult to find a model that has excelled in acting. One can think of Aaminah Haq, who had acted on stage even before she set foot into modelling, and therefore she was a terrific performer.
But not many other names come to mind. Rarely has a model made it big as an actor so then what is it that attracts them to such a competitive field that is often beyond their comfort zone? Is it more money, more fame or the kind of fan following and mass popularity that actors get?
“Well, I think it’s a mix of everything that you want to achieve,” Amna responds. “You want to achieve fame, you want to get more money, and you want to prove yourself. So it’s a combination of everything. For me, I wanted to diversify and I started acting when I got an opportunity. It was not like I wanted to become an actor, you understand. I was offered Good Morning Karachi and I just went and auditioned for it and Sabiha. I think she’s a brilliant director, thought I was good at it. I also auditioned for Zinda Bhaag. I got the roles on merit. So then I just continued. It was not like I was running after movies, after television, it was not like that. I auditioned, got the part and I did it. It was not a conscious decision to become an actor.”
There are several models who have retired from the fashion world after becoming actors; they say that their image as a model and an actor in Pakistan is contradictive and cannot be maintained at the same time. Many models have said that they need to tone down the glamour and the kind of clothes they wear as models, for example, when they appear on TV and films and start catering to the masses. You, on the other hand, have been doing both acting and modeling simultaneously, and just as effectively.
“Yes, why not. Mein modelling karti hoon aur apni marzi se kaam karti hoon and whatever I like doing I do, and what I don’t like, I don’t do. But I will be focusing more on acting this year because I have a few serials in the pipeline; so this year will be more about acting than modelling, for sure!”
You’re in the unique position of having worked in fashion, film and on television. And the rhetoric these days is rife about sexual harassment, gender discrimination and inequality in the workplace. What has your experience been…have you been subjected to any kind of ethical or moral corruption; have you ever witnessed the casting couch?
“You know me very well so you know what kind of person I am,” Amna begins explaining. “I’m a very hardworking person and I believe in earning legitimate money. I don’t believe in sugar daddies and ‘investors’. I believe in hard work. The casting couch does exist but I am nobody to comment on it because to be very honest, it did not happen with me. I have worked with Sabiha Sumar on one film and with Meenu and Farjad on another. They are good friends.”
“If you ask me, I think the casting couch does exist but at the end of the day, it’s your choice. If you’re that ambitious and greedy for work that you want to be somewhere and would do anything to get there…it entirely depends on you. I believe the casting couch exists when the other person allows it to happen. We’re not talking about harassment here; we are particularly talking about the casting couch. If someone is ready to sleep around for projects and work, then that’s a choice. No one can force you to do anything.”
“On the other hand there is harassment, or you can say a situation in which a male co-star hits on you. That has honestly never happened with me, maybe because I look that tough; people know I’m no-nonsense. I keep people at a distance.”
“Look at the poster of our film. Mahira has gotten more prominence. Yes, there is only one Mahira Khan but other girls can get there with the right attitude. I think girls should also realise that instead of crying and whining, they should make their own way, set their own rules and follow them and, eventually, they will get somewhere.”
Mahira just returned from Cannes and spoke very highly of the support system women have there; they have each others’ backs. Are female actors and models supportive of each other in our industry? Because backstage catfights are infamous…
“I think one needs to be very supportive to other women,” she agrees. “I am very supportive and an example is Sohai’s Motorcyle Girl. Sohai and I don’t hang out or anything but when she called and asked me to post a picture on a bike with a message to MG I was like, of course I’ll do it. I was in Malaysia and got a picture taken on a traffic policeman’s bike. I would have done the same for a male actor but I’d make ten times the effort for a woman just to show that we don’t hate each other.”
Amna Ilyas comes across as a very simple person; a simple and yet confident person who’s comfortable in her skin and understands the clear line between black and white and is unafraid to implement it. She effortlessly transitions between fashion, film and television and swears by a hard work and no-nonsense policy. It’s a good policy to have.”
– Photography: Ashna Khan
Hair and makeup: Qasim Liaqat