"She has a spark. She is comfortable in her own skin, different from others. Not easy to work with because she has a mind of her own. She has style sense and has evolved as an actor in a short time. People look up to her as a fashion icon, people want to copy her hair colour and lip colour.”
N-Pro’s Tabish Khoja’s words pretty much sum up Sohai Ali Abro’s short and fast ascent to stardom. From dabbling in Minglish theatre not so long ago to the mini screen and then a handful of serials later, she has become one of the hottest and the most sought-after stars.
After taking the audiences by storm in Jawani Phir Nahin Ani (JPNA), Sohai ended up in hospital with exhaustion and decided to take a six-month hiatus. Rejuvenated, she is back with several projects in the pipeline (that she insists she can’t talk about). After a fairly daunting chase, Sohai finally found time to sit down for a chat with Images on Sunday.
Going up the flight of stairs to photographer Umair Bin Nisar’s studio where we were to meet, I heard 'Panda' playing by Desiigner. There she was doing the moves, cigarette in one hand and a pinkish apple, beetroot and carrot juice in a takeaway plastic container in the other. A big roller on top of her head holding a glossy bang in place, dressed in a t-shirt and capris, the rest of her hair framed her delicate features accentuated with Angel by MAC on her lips. The first thing that strikes you about her is her petite frame and the kind of looks that the camera loves to transform into a stunning knockout.
“I hope you don’t mind my smoking,” she says nonchalantly, settling her tiny self on a big, comfy leather couch.
How does it feel to be a star? “I am overwhelmed. It is amazing because I have been through so much — rejections, a tough life — but now that I can call the shots, it feels great!”
Why was she rejected? “Oh people would say aisi hai, waisi hai, height chhoti hai, naak moti hai, kaali hai, heroine nahin lagti!” she says.
She pauses to light another cigarette and continues talking. “Things don’t just happen. Whatever has happened has made my belief stronger in the Supreme Power. My parents passed away when I was nine. Luckily, I found genuine people in friends such as Humayun Saeed and his family.”
Just blessings and luck, I ask, or do you attribute your success to hard work?
“I struggled a lot, obviously. In school I used to head dramatics. I was quite a tomboy and I played Edmund Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo. Every summer vacation I would pick a project such as doing theatre as summer holiday stuff. Another time I did voluntary work at the SOS Village, I even did Al-Huda. Since I was a child, I was very outgoing and an excessive talker. People would tell me ‘you need to shut up, you talk too much.’ I have always been stubborn to a point that abhi chahiye to abhi chahiye so if I make up my mind about something, I usually end up getting it.”
A difficult childhood
“I don’t have many pictures of my parents, just one or two. But I remember every moment of the time I spent with them. I found a picture of my dad on Google. I cherish my memories. My father is my biggest inspiration.”
I asked if she misses them.
“They are within me. My father was a self-made man. I was born in Larkana, I’m a Sindhi. My grandfather was an engineer. My dad graduated from Chandka Medical University. When I think about him ... a man born in Larkana, grew up in Pannu Aqil, worked for the UN when he passed away. He must have had a passion to make somebody out of himself and leave an impact. He has left an impact on me. When I’m low, I think of him. He was a fighter and I want to be like him.
“My mother suffered from renal failure but even through her days of dialysis she managed us. Taking us to and bringing us back from school. She was also a doctor and worked in a hospital. She would help us with homework, look after us. In the evening, we would go out for badminton or tennis. She was no less heroic for me. I have two siblings but we are all separated now.”
I ask the question on everyone’s mind: is Sohai a better actor or dancer?
“I express myself best through dance, if I am happy I want to dance and if I am sad I want to dance. I was the child who would be dancing right in front at shaadis. If you can call a couple of years of learning Kathak at the PACC training, then yes, I am trained. The rest comes naturally.
“People say dance is not a part of our culture, but at the same time enjoy watching Katrina Kaif doing 'Chikni Chameli' but don’t want to see Mehwish Hayat doing 'Billi.' That’s a bit twisted!"
"Dance is something I enjoy but I want substantive roles that must give me a margin to act. I want to play strong women-oriented roles. I am not here to be arm-candy. I am stubborn so I am choosy. When I choose my roles I always see if there is substance in my roles. I want to know what changes my role brings to the story. I do not want to be a sex object or an item girl. There is a fine line between sexy and vulgar, elegant and trashy.”
She twitches her nose. “I feel to each his own, everybody is responsible for what they do and for the image they want to carry. But I love what I do, it makes me happy and that is all that matters.”
Society’s double standards about dance bother her.
“People say dance is not a part of our culture, but at the same time enjoy watching Katrina Kaif doing 'Chikni Chameli' but don’t want to see Mehwish Hayat doing 'Billi.' That’s a bit twisted! At mehndis, people dance to Bollywood songs but when an actress wears lehnga-choli to perform, it is branded as an item number.
"Why are we so confused? Maybe it is because of cultural and religious restrictions or because sometimes things are not executed here as well as in Bollywood. There are a host of reasons for it such as lack of resources, budgets, technology ... our film industry is still in the nascent stage.” She takes a sip of her juice. “But films are being produced and released now and I am very happy about that as are all creative people.”
Jhilmil from Barfi is Sohai’s dream role. It’s not glamorous, I point out. “I don’t want glamour, I want it all. In our film industry, there is a concept that we share with Bollywood — it is believed than only a male actor can sell a film. They say drama aurat ka hota hai, film aadmi ki hoti hai [drama belongs to a woman, film is a man’s domain]. I disagree. Films can be a hit with women protagonists too. What about films such as Queen? What about actors such as Jodie Foster, Priyanka Chopra, Vidya Balan, Julia Roberts, Emma Watson and Kangana Ranaut? These women have done extremely well and carried many films on their shoulders.”
She loved her role in the TV serial Pyaray Afzal, which she initially turned down but later accepted.
“It was one of my favourite projects even though I wasn’t the main lead. I refused the offer because, firstly, it wasn’t a lead role and, secondly, the play was already on air with two girls and a guy. It was jumping on a train which had already left the platform and people were already seated. The difficultly for me was to jump on that train and find myself a seat so, yes, I was scared as an actor. But when Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar sahib, who I respect very much, called me up and said ‘you will do this one for me’ I agreed to it.” She smiles.
Did she fear she would be sidelined with others in key roles?
“I didn’t want to do mediocre work. I love being an actor and cherish the glamour and attention that comes with it but I also strongly feel that there is a responsibility on every actor. There is no shortcut in life. You have to give your 200 per cent. In Pakistan, women have to work even harder because actresses have an expiry date on their screen life. I’m willing to work as hard as it takes. I’m a fighter. Jin fans ne mujhe banaya hai [the fans who have made me who I am today] I can’t cheat them by doing a sloppy job.”
But women are much more empowered now than they used to be, right? “Empowerment is nothing. It is just within you. As women we need to be focused, work hard and stick together.”
A natural born actor
For Sohai, the first take is the best take while the rest is contrived.
“In the first take ap ki natural instincts nikalti hain. Wo asli take hota hai. If I have to cry in a scene I think of all the grief in my life and my catharsis follows. Agar mein glycerine use karungi tau it will just sit there. Nadeem Baig and Yasir Nawaz are my mentors and they would give guidance on how to do a certain role but they would never tell me ke aise bolo ya repeat karo ya mujhe imitate karo. They would say these are your lines, this is your scene, this is what we want, now you can do it just the way you want. Retakes are mechanical or method acting. If I can’t convince myself, how can I convince the audience?”
She lives her roles. “When we were shooting JPNA, I would not be Sohai on the sets. I would be Zoya from the film,” and she begins to reel off her lines from the film. “Hi guys, what’s up MA MA ...” You have to become that person for the audience to believe it. You can’t just switch off, switch on. It doesn’t work for me. I’m an emotional person.”
"In Pakistan, women have to work even harder because actresses have an expiry date. I’m willing to work as hard as it takes. I’m a fighter. Jin fans ne mujhe banaya hai I can’t cheat them by doing a sloppy job."
How important is it for an actor to be emotional?
“It has its pros and cons. If you have 20 scenes in a day and you were supposed to be low in all of them and almost in tears, by the end of the day you will be exhausted because of the stress you felt all day. To snap out of that is difficult,” she says snapping her fingers.
If she had to, she would choose theatre over film and TV any day. “It is because theatre is an actor’s medium. On camera, it is a director’s medium, because he can cut my scene any time he wants but on stage that is not possible.”
Sohai believes that cinema shapes society.
“Entertainment has a huge impact. People remember films. Run-of-the-mill work is disappointing because it shows that the filmmaker didn’t fulfil his responsibility. Actors have a responsibility to fulfil too. Why does every girl fantasise about Fawad Khan? Because of the impact he has on them.
"You can’t produce content on the basis of TRPs. Bas chalado is not the attitude that I’m looking for. I want to do good films, good plays. I want to be a star here first and then go anywhere else to work. The day I find substance in a role offered to me, I’ll do it whether it is a Bollywood film or Iranian or French film. I won’t just accept anything and go there to work just so that when I come back, my worth will be more. Mein chhoti race ka ghora nahin hoon, mein lambi race ka ghora banna chahti hoon aur mein banoon gi [I am not a short-course race horse, I want to be a long-course race horse and I will become one]” she says with a resolute nod of her head, her little chin firming her delicate jaw line up. “That’s my motto in life,” she says, taking a deep puff of her cigarette.
Let’s talk about your archrivals. “I’m my own rival,” she counters. Boring, I say. “No, it’s clichéd,” she replies. You must have rivals. Actors have competition. “Par mujhe nahin dikhti. You can’t compare apples with oranges. Horses cannot do what elephants can do. Everyone has their own strengths which they bring to the table, which is why casting is so important. Miscasting nahin honi chahiye. Producers hire popular actors even though they don’t fit the role. I am my own competition and I want to be better every day.”
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine January 1st, 2017