It is difficult to describe Sajal Ali.
The world sees her as a pint-size performer with emotive eyes that can seemingly shed tears on command; her contemporaries see her as a serious threat; her family sees her as its anchor; and she still finds it difficult to see herself as a star.
When I contacted her for this interview, she was reluctant, telling me she was “afraid of interviews,” that her “first interview was only a few months ago,” wondering what she “could possibly say this time that was new.” Eventually, my persistence paid off, however, and she agreed to meet.
But managing to find a time convenient for both of us was not easy. Like many busy actors, often the only time she’d find for herself was in the middle of the night, once she’d wrapped shooting for ongoing TV productions. She once offered to meet me at 2.30 am.
After repeated attempts to coordinate times and multiple apologies on both sides, I finally sat down with the doe-eyed beauty at the time of her choice: 8.30am. Not the ideal time, but we both managed to wake up early despite night shifts.
As she sits across me in her TV lounge at her home in a pair of grey pajamas, slightly sleepy but in a pleasant mood, she looks like the quintessential girl next door. From starting off as a brand promotions’ girl at a mall to financially supporting her family to signing up for an audition (and getting rejected because of her ‘screechy’ voice) to becoming one of the most in-demand actresses in recent times, the trajectory of Sajal’s career has been an interesting one.
Her first major TV role was in a soap in 2011’s Mehmoodabad Ki Malkaain, in which she shared screen space with four other newcomers, including her sister Saboor Ali. The soap had well over 300 episodes but the only two notable performances were those of Anita Camphor and Sajal. And from then on there was no looking back.
“It was a hit with people. I didn’t have any idea of what fame was. Anita Camphor, who played my mother in that soap, told me ‘Channels tum par makhiyoon ki tarha ayein ge [Channels will swarm to you like flies]’,” she remembers. “I did not understand what she meant by that,” adding, “but overnight I was recognised wherever I went.”
"The problem is that we are afraid of women who challenge norms no matter how regressive those norms are. We easily judge these women as buri auratein [fallen women] to justify our egos."
A few serials down, she landed the role of Neeli, a street-smart, flirty girl from a lower-middle class neighbourhood, opposite film star Resham’s Shagufta in Mohabbat Jaey Bhar Mein. Though the play boasted an ensemble cast including Hina Dilpazeer and Adnan Siddiqui, it was Sajal’s Neeli that outshone everyone, including Resham. Then there was another great performance in Nanhi opposite Javed Sheikh. But it was Sajal’s role of a rape survivor in Chup Raho that really consolidated her position as an actor.
“There was a time when no one knew me and then my face was all over. [But] I haven’t let fame get to my head. My mother made sure to keep me grounded,” she says. “All these things seem very fickle sometimes.”
When I ask her why she finds fame so fickle, she immediately replies that the death of her mother earlier this year taught her how temporary everything is.
“I lost my mother within 17 days. I took my family for Umrah. It was a trip I had planned for them. When we came back, all of us suffered from a slight fever which we thought was due to exhaustion, except that her temperature didn’t come down to normal.”
Back then, Sajal was wrapping up her Bollywood debut Mom alongside Sri Devi. “Hospital tests confirmed her cancer and the end just happened so suddenly. I had a shoot scheduled for a song in Bangkok and when I came back, I barely got to spend seven days with her,” she says.
“My mother had a difficult time when my father left. I worked hard and became financially stable and told him we didn’t need his money. I was angry ‘kaisay doosri shaadi kar li!’ After my mother’s death, I eventually learnt to let go. My father speaks regularly with us now and is very proud of me."
“One day she was with us, the next day she was gone. Whatever happened next is still a blur. The day my mother died, this very lounge was filled with people. I have no clue how I found the strength to get through it all, but I did.
“After what I have been through in life, I find it difficult to take stardom seriously. My first photo shoot was done by Nighat Apa at Depilex who also styled me for the Icon shoot. I met her after all these years. She told me years ago not to change and the day of the shoot I told her I still remember her advice. It surprises me though when seniors praise me. I met Khushbakht Shujaat at the Hum Awards and she met me like a fan. She saw me and said, ‘Sajal, I can’t believe I am sitting next to you.’ I felt a tad overwhelmed.”
Although Sajal appears modest, she cannot deny that she is a star performer. She is one of the many young faces to grace television screens — Maya Ali, Urwa and Mawra Hocane, Sanam Jang, Sanam Saeed, Ainy Jafri, to name a few others — who started out around the same time, but Sajal’s portfolio far exceeds any other actress’ work. Even Saba Qamar, one of the most acclaimed Pakistani performers, calls her a ‘fine actress’.
So what is it that Sajal has that her contemporaries don’t?
“I guess I have been lucky to have all these roles. Very early in my career, I faced a situation with a senior actor that upset me. I was fairly new in the business but I gave the role my best shot. However, my face was removed from all the promotional materials [at her behest] and I cried for a while wondering why I wasn’t part of the promotional campaign. I am well past that point now and my work speaks for itself. People here don’t appreciate others. When you accept the talent of the person working opposite you, it not only makes you a bigger actor but an even bigger person. Appreciating someone new is a big thing,” she says.
Over the years, the memories of the experience with the diva have faded away. “Work keeps coming my way. I don’t even know how I ended up with Mom but it was a lovely experience,” she says modestly.
"Early in my career, I faced an upsetting situation with a senior actor. I was new in the business but gave the role my best shot. However, my face was removed from all the promotional materials [at her behest] and I cried for a while. People here don’t appreciate others."
It’s interesting to note that among Mahira Khan’s ‘hero ka love interest’ role with Shah Rukh Khan, Mawra Hocane’s atrocious B-grade flick and Sajal’s debut in Mom, it was only Sajal who garnered rave reviews for her performance with zero social media influencers and paid hashtags. The biggest compliment came from none other than Sri Devi who said Mom would have been incomplete without Sajal.
“When I started, I didn’t have a stylist or a PR team and learnt everything from scratch. I still haven’t mastered Instagram and social media but I have been lucky that I always received positive feedback,” she says.
She believes one excellent advice given to her by someone was, ‘If your work is not strong, billboards won’t matter much.’ “For me, having a greater social media following or covers doesn’t make you a star. What is your body of work? What work do you have in your profile? It’s easy to get hits and Facebook likes and awards, but you can’t get critical approval from the masses if you can’t act.”
On her evolution as an actress, Sajal says she is still learning and Sassi in Hum TV’s O Rangreza has set the bar higher. “But audiences are still uncomfortable with the idea of a strong, opinionated female character who goes against social norms. Hamare yahan baaghi larki kissay aachi lagti hai? Heroine ghar mein baithee ho, roti dhoti pasand hai [Who likes a rebellious girl in our society? They all want the heroine to be home-bound, crying her eyes out].
“In our society, independent women do exist. We don’t need to find them, they are in front of us — from the maids who work in our homes to the superstars on TV, to a policewoman and the female prime minister,” she says. “Read Manto and you will find such strong-headed characters. Watch Tanhaiyaan and Ankahi and you will see more of such women. The only problem is that, as a society, we are afraid of a woman who challenges the norms no matter how regressive or decadent those norms are. We easily judge these women as buri auratein [fallen women] to justify our egos.”
Sajal certainly has strong opinions she has obviously spent time thinking about. But she is also wary of TV dramas being asked to shoulder all of society’s responsibilities.
“People need to chill! Entertainment ko entertainment ki tarha lein, sab kuch dramoon se kyon seekhna hai? Kitabein khol ke baith jayein. People complain kya, kya dikha rahe hain TV par. Bhai, TV ka kaam aap key bachchay paalna nahi hai [Entertainment should be taken only as entertainment. Why do we have to learn all of life’s lessons through dramas? You should read books for that. People complain that TV channels show everything these days. But it’s not TV’s job to raise your children].”
On the many roles she has played, Sajal says, “From all these years, Sassi is my favourite character. I have often played street-smart girls, plain Janes and simpletons, but this was a different experience. As an actor I had to push my boundaries and open up emotionally. It has so many layers and shades, and people might be struck by Sassi’s brashness but they can’t hate her.”
So where does she see herself in the next five years?
“There is so much to do. I just don’t want to be an actress for the rest of my life. I want to finish my studies at some point soon. I have never travelled much and now I want to explore Pakistan and the world. And I want to learn singing and music and, if I meet a good person, I might settle down as well.”
And what sort of a life partner is she looking for?
“Decent!” she says. “To be honest I am scared of marriage and the whole rishta parade. Kisi ki mohabbat mein aap apna aap bhool jaein that is wrong [Losing your own identity in your love for someone is wrong]. I learnt it with time, seeing relationships around me break. Trust takes time,” she says, referring to her parents’ relationship and the upheaval that followed.
“My mother had a difficult time when my father left her. We moved from Lahore to Karachi and went through a very difficult period,” she says, adding that she is reconnecting with her father. “I am a practical person but I was very angry with my father then. I worked hard and became financially stable and I told him we didn’t need the money. I was angry ‘kaisay doosri shaadi kar li!’ [How could he get married again!]. My mother loved him all these years, the way she did earlier on, but somewhere in her heart and mind she was hurt and I could feel it. After my mother’s death, I eventually learnt to let go. My father speaks regularly with us now and is very proud of me. Maybe things have their own way of settling down. I’m moving back to Lahore so that we are closer to him.”
Why leave Karachi, I ask. “The weather and humidity is a killer,” she shoots back. “I get sick here, maybe it’s the air and the water. Also I don’t have much fond memories here, maybe because I moved here at a very difficult time of my life.”
In the meantime the actress is enjoying her newfound success as a singer — she sang the title track of O Rangreza — working on some interesting projects and, incidentally, trying to ward off a stalker. “It’s some guy who knows a bit too much about me, my family, where I live. It is scary and I have tried to dissuade him… mohabbat-type cheez kehta hai [He says it’s love or something of the sort].”
Photography: Fayyaz Ahmed | Hair & makeup: Nighat Misbah @ Depilex | Coordination: Madeeha Syed
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, November 26th, 2017