She’s three hours late and travels with her own personal make-up artist who doubles as her confidant and friend. When she finally walked into the studio, I was a bit shocked — on television Iqra Aziz dominates the screen, but in person, she’s so petite that I had to reach out touch her to see if she was real. Apparently, it’s a reaction she gets quite often.
Her fierce energy however, more than makes up for her somewhat diminutive presence — once she starts, Iqra can talk at about 100mph. In between the interview, I would occasionally ask her to stop and … breathe.
Although on screen she appears very mature and takes on somewhat sombre characters far beyond her years, in person she looks and behaves every bit as the 20-year-old (“Almost 21!” she informs me) that she is.
We meet just as she’s returned from the Hum Awards that were held in Toronto, Canada. A lot of the actors that went with her for the show decided to stay back. Their Instagram profiles are full of photos of their escapades around North America. Having returned to Pakistan earlier than anybody else, Iqra is experiencing a serious case of FOMO — Fear of Missing Out.
She comes across as far more assured in front of the camera than in real life. But at only 20 years of age, the hot young television actress constantly feels under pressure to look perfect. The question remains, where does she go from here?
“I could’ve stayed a couple of more days,” she sighs. “The Hum Awards is actually work but it’s a party as well because you’re all together — the directors, producers, actors, the fraternity. You don’t get to meet them every day. So, I was actually having fun.”
The 20-year-old who’s having a very successful year with hit television dramas such as Khaamoshi, Tabeer and the massively popular Suno Chanda, already has six years of experience, and almost 15 television dramas, under her belt. She started her career when she was just 14-years-old.
“My mother wasn’t too excited,” she relates adding that, as a single parent, her mother’s priority was making sure that her daughters received a good education. But Iqra had made up her mind: she wanted to act. She enlisted the help of her older sister. It took a bit of extra effort to convince their mother, but in the end, she relented — as long as Iqra continued her studies on the side.
“I was nervous, but I was also confident,” says Iqra. “I felt like this was the time in my life. I need to have guts. If I lose it, this opportunity will be gone forever.” She auditioned as a television commercial (TVC) model and was signed with the talent agency Citrus.
Her first TVC was a “stop motion, so there are lesser people,” she relates. “My sister was with me. When I looked down, from the stairs, I saw the set, people and the place I had to stand and act and … I started crying.” Nerves got the better of her. But with the support of her sister, she did the TVC. And she hasn’t looked back since.
A photo of Iqra when she was around that age surfaced on the internet recently. She looks different from how she is now — she had a slight tan, eyebrows are thinner etc. The photo went viral and the internet tore her apart accusing her of artificially enhancing her appearance. Iqra waves it all off to “bad lighting, bad mobile camera and a lack of grooming.”
“When I was 15-16 when I used to look at myself in the mirror I used to think: ‘No one’s as beautiful as you’,” she says. “That was the best time of my life. If I compare that to now.. we have a lot of issues with our appearance — do our accessories match? What about our eyebrows, mascara, tint, lipstick, etc.? When people see you outside, what will they think? Back then, I didn’t care what anyone thought. I just felt pretty.”
Is it because, as a relative unknown back then, she didn’t have that many people commenting on her appearance, as she does now? “It’s this thing you feel within yourself,” she confesses quietly. “Comments tau uss waqt bhi aatey thay [Comments were made at that time too].”
But that’s not the only time this social media-savvy millennial has gotten backlash online. Earlier this year, she posted photos of herself in a halter-neck top while on vacation abroad with her sister. The internet morality brigade wasted no time in attacking her. Iqra’s response: instead of backing down, she simply posted another photo of herself, this time in a pool, with her back to the camera (and, presumably, her haters).
“If I didn’t have my family with me, maybe I would have replied to a few comments in a bad way,” she says. “But I had my family with me, so I didn’t care. This is my personal thing [life]. You’re no one to judge. This is my right that I want to show you stuff. So, bear with it.”
Iqra calls social media the ‘centre of criticism’. “With this busy schedule, and being the centre of criticism, you do feel depressed, you stress out, burn out, you have your breaking points,” she says candidly.
But you’re just 20! I tell her. “That’s the point,” she adds. “Everyone I work with is older than me, they’re more mature, they’ve lived their lives. Studies, education, books, university gives you exposure and I took a gap. I do feel the pressure sometimes. You have to grow up very quickly.”
When was the last time she felt that pressure? “Suno Chanda,” she says smiling while talking about her incredibly popular Ramazan drama serial. It is a romantic comedy, between two cousins with a bit of a Tom & Jerry dynamic, the other cousin was played by Farhan Saeed.
“We had only two months to shoot 32 episodes which had go on air every day,” she says. “We should shoot up to 19 scenes per day and work till three to four in the morning. It was [done in] a complete panic but in all of that you choose your comfort — your friends, family, good food. Good food is the best. For me it’s very important.”
What is good food? “Biryani!” she laughs.
She loved her work chemistry with Farhan. “After four or five days, we were so much into character, that there were a lot of lines that we improvised because hum loag asli mein itnay badtameez ho gaey thay [we had really become so irreverent],” she laughs. “I love the fact that Suno Chanda united families. For one hour every day during Ramazan, they all sat together in front of their TV sets and watched one episode. And they all loved it.”
This wouldn’t be the first time she’d be working with the former Jal band-member. Just before Suno Chanda, he’d contacted Iqra for a music video he was directing of a song by an upcoming singer, Hamza Malik. “I was star struck when he first messaged me,” laughs Iqra. “For five minutes I froze looking at my phone thinking, ‘Is this Farhan Saeed messaging me that he wants to take me?!’”
Not all of her characters were as endearing. In Khamoshi she plays an evil little sister who steals her sister’s fiancé and ruins her life. Iqra’s character, Naeema, also meets a dark end. “I had so much fun shooting that character,” she says. “After every scene, Ilyas Bhai [Ilyas Kashmiri, the director] used to say, ‘Tum se burra koi nahin hai [No one’s worse than you].’ I really loved the fact that people were saying that they hate me. I really wanted them to hate me. But I was doing Tabeer at the same time, so hopefully, it was balanced.”
In Tabeer, which is still currently running on television, Iqra plays a woman (Tabeer) who gets widowed and tragically, also loses her child. It is a very emotionally taxing role for the young actress.
“There was a scene that was very hard for me to get out of: when my husband dies, I’m pregnant and there’s only a few weeks till the delivery. That one, and the scene in which my baby dies. It took a few days to shoot each sequence. It was hard for me to get into it and triple hard for me to get out of it.”
“I don’t know how I did it, but I did it,” she says quietly, also crediting the director Ahson Talish and writer Imran Ashraf for helping her bring her character to life.
She dismisses rumours that she’s signed a film. Iqra is, however, working on a new drama serial she’s very excited about. “Kashif Nisar is directing it,” she says. “I was dying to work with him! I’d seen O Rangreza and everything.”
“It’s the journey of a slum girl jis ko izzat se paisay kamaney hain [who wants to earn with dignity],” she relates. “She loves books, everyone around her is against her because of that. It’s her journey, how she gets married and the place she ends up in.”
As she’s describing how her look has been completely stripped down, her make-up artist, Zain Zaidi, takes his phone out and shows me a photo of her in character from the set. This version of Iqra is without the straightened hair, dramatic eyebrows, contacts etc. and looks surprisingly similar to that photo of her teenage self that went viral earlier this year. It’s very different to the person in front of me right now. It almost makes one wonder which version is the ‘real’ Iqra Aziz? The toned-down girl-next-door or this glamazon who feels a constant pressure to look ‘perfect’ all the time.
What is she afraid of? “There are a lot of things that freak me out,” she confesses. “I’m 20 right now. I’m getting a lot of love and appreciation. Every day Allah ka karm [thanks to God], I am blessed more and more. But what’s more to it? That question freaks me out. What’s next?”
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, August 12th, 2018