Faiza Saleem gets away with being very, very rude.
She refers to actress Hania Aamir’s dimples as ‘khadday’ and asks Abbas Ali Jafri if he has hair lice. She sits across Yasir Hussain and Bilal Abbas Khan and recounts their bad career choices. She’s offensive, inappropriate and quite proud of it too. And she manages to do it all because she’s delivering her wisecracks while ‘in character’ as a rotund, sarcastic, obnoxious ‘Dadi’.
Dadi is quite the YouTube star. Bespectacled, her head covered and with a silver pandaan by her side, she’s prone to wiggling her eyebrows lasciviously and switching from flirt to a bad-mouthed thug in a matter of seconds. The famous guests that she invites for short snippet interviews are in for a tough time in her hot seat.
“She’s my favourite amongst all the characters that I have played so far,” Faiza tells me. “If I were to say all the things that Dadi says, people would stop talking to me. But Dadi is my alter-ego. I can be completely rude and it just gets laughed off.”
The hilarious Dadi is merely one side to the multi-faceted Faiza. Over a career that spans seven years — “I have been well-known for four,” she says — Faiza’s taken on multiple personas, acting out small skits that she writes herself: aunty on the phone, the bored socialite, the English-obsessed show-off, the materialistic girlfriend, et al.
“I am very observant,” she explains. “I’m perpetually jotting down small notes on things that I see around me that I may want to write about later. For instance, how people feel that it’s imperative to speak in English, even if they don’t know the language, just to appear superior to others. Or how we tend to start off conversations with ‘I don’t like to gossip but...’ and then gossip endlessly. Or how, at a funeral, there is always this one person, usually very distantly connected to the deceased, who finds it necessary to put up a show by crying profusely but then forgets all misery when dinner is served!”
Her very perceptive powers of observation have culminated in a large number of skits, uploaded on to Facebook and YouTube. The fact that Faiza, today, is a well-recognised popular face provides testament to the strength wielded by social media.
“As a woman I do know that I have to push harder for work opportunities. Audiences are unfortunately more accepting towards a male cracking a certain kind of joke. There is a lot of self-censorship when I write down jokes,” she accepts.
It was only well into her career that she diversified towards other entertainment platforms, performing an opening act on the Lux Style Awards 2017 stage, playing an extended cameo role in the movie Parchi and taking on a hosting tryst on a TV show that continues to be aired on the fledgling Hum News channel.
Her repertoire of work continues to expand. She’s currently working on a web-series in collaboration with social media impresario Taimur Salahuddin aka Mooroo, titled Mian, Biwi aur Therapy. “I have worked quite frequently with Mooroo,” she says. “He understands how to visualise what I write on paper and we’re just on the same wavelength.”
She’s also the founder of Pakistan’s first-ever all-female improv comic troupe, The Khawatoons. In fact, on the day that I meet Faiza, she’s busy planning out her next tour with the troupe. “We begin travelling tomorrow,” she tells me.
“I am getting married in two months and all I am doing right now is travelling with the troupe while simultaneously working on several other projects. My mother asked me today if I planned to make an appearance at my wedding!” she laughs.
Faiza laughs a lot. “I live a good life and I’m doing what I love,” she explains to me. Her climb to internet stardom — and beyond — hasn’t been without its obstacles, but she’s been enjoying the journey.
Faiza says: “The Khawatoons troupe travels across the country all alone and it makes other women realise that they don’t need a man to accompany them wherever they go.”
“I don’t understand why so many celebrities find it necessary to put on airs and graces,” she mulls. “Why not be approachable and give love to your fans? I feel so lucky when people come up to me and tell me that they enjoyed a certain skit. I have even had people lovingly pinch my cheeks!”
A career as a female comedienne is an unconventional choice for Pakistan. What have been some of the biggest difficulties that she has faced?
“As a woman I do know that I have to push harder for work opportunities,” she accepts. “Audiences are unfortunately more accepting towards a male cracking a certain kind of joke. There is a lot of self-censorship when I write down jokes and particularly when we’re improvising on stage as The Khawatoons. Sexual innuendos, political and religious jokes are absolute taboos.
“And then there are my own boundaries. I am an overweight person but I refuse to be stereotyped into characters where I appear to be desperate. I have been offered roles in major projects with a good cast where I play the fat girl who forlornly daydreams about the boy she can never get. I refuse to put out that image. Similarly, in my own skits as well, as when improvising on stage, I steer clear of body shaming.”
She continues, “For some convoluted reason, people sometimes misconstrue this to mean that I am promoting being overweight. Why would I ever want to do that? I go on diets all the time and take part in exercise programmes. But just because someone is overweight doesn’t mean that s/he is depressed and leads an unhappy life. I certainly don’t promote that perception.”
“We usually don’t see entire scripts written round a female protagonist who is overweight. The fat girl is always the humorous side character, but sometimes I don’t want to be the funny one,” she adds.
Social media has proved to be a handy tool for Faiza to push her own boundaries, her way. “I realised very early that I may not get offered the kind of roles that I want to enact. We usually don’t see entire scripts written round a female protagonist who is overweight. We’re yet to create content like Drop Dead Diva where a vibrant, unconventional looking woman is the central character.
“The fat girl is always the humorous side character, but sometimes I don’t want to be the funny one. On my forum on the internet, I can make my own content and be whoever I want to be. I can steer clear of typical, boring roles. It really works.”
Faiza’s success has also inspired many others to realise that they too can break away from societal boundaries and create their own opportunities.
“I have had overweight women come up to me and tell me that I have inspired them to follow their dreams. The Khawatoons troupe travels across the country all alone and it makes other women realise that they don’t need a man to accompany them wherever they go. Once, when we were in Rahim Yar Khan, a little girl came up to us and told us that she wanted to grow up and be a comedian like us. When was that ever an option for Pakistani women earlier? My troupe members may be hilarious women but even they had never thought that they would be comedians when they were growing up. I feel happy that, in some ways, I have shown women the many avenues that they can explore.”
She has also, through various intelligently structured skits, shown the various vices that exist in present-day society. And she does it all in a funny way — that’s a rare talent. “The challenge is to continue maintaining a certain standard while aspiring to rise above it,” she tells me.
And how does she intend to raise standards when she’s flitting from one project to the other, from web-series to TV show to sponsored web ads to a country-wide improve tour to, ultimately, her own impending wedding? Apparently, Faiza’s quite the multi-tasker. “I have never been able to sit in one place at a time,” she shrugs. “This is what I do. I enjoy it.”
Based on the ‘hits’ she manages to generate on YouTube and her constantly growing fanbase, audiences are enjoying it too.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, November 4th, 2018