I remember watching Reema at a press conference some 11-odd years ago. She and a few other actresses were there to endorse a brand but she was quite ostensibly the centre of attention. As the cameras flashed, she had smiled that famous megawatt smile of hers, her long golden hair falling perfectly down her back.
When I meet her now, she doesn’t seem to have aged much. The smile is still the same, so is the hair, and heads still swivel towards her wherever she goes. During the course of our interview, we are frequently interrupted by fans asking for selfies, chatting with her as if she is one of their own.
From ‘Reems the dreams’ star of more than 200 Pakistani films, she has progressed to ‘Reema jee’, the veteran actress, humanitarian, personality, managing to incite within her fans a sentiment that most other celebrities are unable to rouse: a sense of ownership.
THE KEY TO BEING REEMA
“There’s a difference between being a star and being a superstar,” she tells me. “Stars may enjoy momentary fame but to be a superstar and to win the enduring love of your fans, you have to first respect yourself. You have to realise that when you opt for this career, you become public property and that you have to conduct yourself in a certain way even in your private life. Throughout my career, I have played all sorts of roles; the girl next door, the glamorous siren, the girl who dances in the rain or boldly romances the hero. But in my personal life, you wouldn’t ever have had seen me behave inappropriately.
The actress says, “I am very careful. Sometimes, there will be a party and our friends will keep telling me to come and dance with them. Other women can dance without any qualms but I know that if I do so, people may judge me for it, they may make a video of me and float it out on to social media. I’d rather not expose myself to that sort of slander.”
“I have tried to stay true to my country and to myself with the way I dress and the way that I speak. I am thankful that my fans have elevated me to celebrity status but it has also burdened me with the responsibility of inspiring them with my work as well as with my personal life.”
In her journey from the lascivious dream girl of Punjabi movies to renowned personality, Reema has learnt a lot. Inevitably, the philosophies that define her form a major part of our conversation. She is quintessentially dressed in her usual outfit of choice: a kurta shalwar with a shawl draped across her shoulder. At other times, on red carpets and on the catwalk, she almost always opts for traditional embroidered apparel: saris, lehngas and sherwanis.
“These are clothes that are beautiful but also acceptable to the people of my country,” she explains. “I don’t follow any trends blindly. I dress in ways that I feel suit my age and my personality.
“It is said that for every rise there is a fall but I don’t agree,” she continues to philosophise. “There is a different kind of success that can be gained at every stage in life. I understand this. At this point in my career, I’m not dreaming of enacting the kind of roles that I took on when I was younger. I acted in my first movie, Bulandi, when I was 15. You can do the math and work out my age. I don’t mind looking and acting my age and accepting roles that suit me at this point in my life.”
This is my cue to broach tricky territory with her. I tell her that she doesn’t look like that she has aged much and whether this is due to the marvels of cosmetic surgery.
“Not yet,” she replies in the negative, gesturing towards her face. “Look, I don’t have any slight cuts on my face that indicate that the skin has been nipped and tucked. I still have my laugh lines. I hail from a Persian ancestry which is perhaps why I age more slowly. I am not against cosmetic surgery but I don’t know if I”ll ever opt for it.”
“During the initial years of my marriage, I personally opted to step back from the spotlight; it wasn’t easy. I had left behind a very glamorous, lucrative career. I had rejected some very major projects. But I needed to spend time with my in-laws and to make a place for myself in my husband’s circle,” adds Reema.
I tell her that many people liken her to Madhuri Dixit. The Bollywood top actress had also got married and moved to the US while she was still acting in movies. She had taken a sabbatical and then made a comeback, becoming more selective with the roles that she accepted and opting for wardrobe that suited her age. Reema has more or less trod a similar path, they feel.
“I feel honoured to be compared to Madhuri,” she smiles. “When I was young, I was a huge fan of both Madhuri and Sri Devi. When I auditioned for Bulandi, I was up against Madiha Shah, who had already acted in a few films, as well as Sahiba, who hailed from a film background and was very pretty. I was very sure that I wouldn’t be selected. But when they asked me what song I would dance to for my audition, I immediately chose Madhuri’s 'Ek Do Teen'. It was a song that I had danced to so many times and I knew all the steps. It ended up getting me my big break into cinema. Then, in Bulandi, there was a classical dance sequence created in the same format as a dance by Sri Devi in her movie Chandni.”
Reema bid adieu to commercial formula films back in 2001 and up till 2011, only acted in two movies that she had directed herself. It has now been seven years since she has been seen in a major role on the silver screen. In the meantime, her enduring elegance has made her a catwalk favourite. She frequently walks the ramp for her friend, designer HSY, and was also recently the celebrity showstopper in a bridal show by designer Mohsin Naveed Ranjha. Her star power also continues to win her major brand endorsements: soaps, mobile networks, soft drinks, et al. Time and again, she performs in awards ceremonies and yet, why don’t we see her acting?
“I had been very excited about a drama that I had been working on opposite Babar Ali,” she says. “It had an emotional, very interesting storyline, targeting the hypocrisies that prevail in our society. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the drama was discontinued midway during shooting. I hope that shooting resumes but, even if it doesn’t, I’m always very selective about the projects that I sign on to. I am in no rush to commit to multiple roles. If something interesting comes my way, I will consider it.”
Always the diplomat, always the enigma.
“Simultaneously, I have my hands full endorsing a number of brands and working on various welfare projects,” she continues as if sensing that I may not be fully satisfied with her answer. “I have been blessed with a huge fan following and I feel that it is necessary for me to give back to society. I have been associated with the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital for the past 14 years and work regularly with them in their breast cancer awareness campaign. I also frequently visit the SOS Children’s Village and the old people’s home in Fountain House in Lahore.”
But that is not the end of her philanthropy, I find out.
“Recently, I have been visiting the jails in Kot Lakhpat and Multan, spending time with the prisoners, eating with them, visiting the prison kitchens and bathrooms and distributing books among the inmates. Sewing machines have been given out to the women in both prisons so that once they are released, they are able to sustain themselves with their sewing skills. We often don’t even remember these people, locked away for years in prison. They also have psychological needs and, once they have been punished for their crimes, they also deserve a chance at happiness. I’m now planning to visit the jail one day with some of my celebrity friends and we will spend an evening with the prisoners.”
THE PERSONAL FRONT
She continues to recount her hectic schedule. On the day that we meet, she has come directly from the Governor House, Lahore, attending a press conference related to the philanthropic work that she does. Later this year, she will be performing at a major awards ceremony. Confused, I ask her, if she has moved back to Pakistan. As far as I knew, Reema had shifted base to the US where she lived with her husband and a four-year-old son.
“My son goes with me wherever I go and, yes, I still live in the US. But I schedule my work in Pakistan so that I can fly in for a certain time and fulfill all my commitments here.”
“I feel proud that sometimes people over there [in the US] come and tell me that they wouldn’t mind if their daughters chose acting careers. Sometimes, they tell me that they want their daughters to be like me,” she smiles.
Is her husband comfortable with her work commitments? After all, for some time following her marriage, Reema had receded from the limelight completely.
“During the initial years of my marriage, I was busy settling into my new life and winning the trust of my new family. I personally opted to step back from the spotlight even though it wasn’t easy. I had left behind a very glamorous, lucrative career. I had rejected some very major projects for married life. But I needed to spend time with my in-laws and to make a place for myself in my husband’s circle. Now, though, I feel that I am able to balance my work with my personal life easily and I have my husband’s complete support.”
Is she now popular amongst her community in the US as Reema, the superstar? “I feel proud that sometimes people over there come to me and tell me that they wouldn’t mind if their daughters chose acting careers. Sometimes, they tell me that they want their daughters to be like me. That’s such a huge compliment,” she smiles.
“But I haven’t really put myself forward as an actress. In fact, I am very careful. Sometimes, there will be a party and everyone will be dancing and our friends will keep telling me to come and dance with them. I quip that I have already danced in 200 films and now they should do the dancing. Other women can dance without any qualms but I know that if I do so, people may judge me for it, they may make a video of me and float it out on to social media. I’d rather not expose myself to that sort of slander.”
Reema obviously wants to protect her new image. Regardless, scandal and gossip is an inescapable consequence of a life in show business and there was a time when Reema would often be in the news for her romantic liaisons. Older and wiser now, does she regret her past? “I don’t have regrets. There is nothing wrong with liking someone but having said this, most of the rumours about me were merely rumours, products of salacious yellow journalism. One day they would link me with Babar Ali, at other times I would hear that I was romantically involved with Shaan and, then, I would be shooting in a studio in Lahore and I would hear that I am vacationing with a politician in Switzerland. There is nothing that I can do about senseless gossip but people forget about it within days while the truth always stands strong.”
Speaking about this makes her add an addendum. “Please be true to me in this interview,” she asks me. “Write about who I am, my achievements, what defines me.”
As we wrap up our talk, I really do want to be true to the enigma that is Reema, even if it has left me with more questions. Beneath the sophisticated veneer, she’s still the actress, cocking an eyebrow at industry politics and not averse to drawing comparisons with her contemporaries and the way that they are conducting their careers. And yet, she’s perfected the air of the veteran, smiling disdainfully and choosing to rise above the wheeling and dealing.
She is unabashedly proud of her acting repertoire; the bold Punjabi dances, the love songs, the glossier roles; all the many stepping stones that have managed to win respect and accolades for her today.
On the personal front, she has worked hard enough to ensure that her three younger sisters studied in top schools and got comfortably settled in their lives. She is the face of umpteen brands, having dabbled as frequently with advertisements as she has with cinema. And she still knows how to wield magic every time she twirls on stage.
“I am now completing my studies, semester by semester,” she says. “When I am in the US and my schedule is free for a few months, I take on a semester. It’s something that I just want to do. I couldn’t complete my education but there are so many literate people around me who behave terribly. It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between being ‘taleem-yaafta’ and being ‘parrha likha’. The latter is merely educated while the former possesses knowledge and understanding.”
Reema seems to have a lot of philosophies. The lessons that she has learnt in life have helped her evolve and become an internationally recognised face for Pakistan. But with her political correctness, one can’t help wondering if she’s ever considered a career in politics. But even if she has, I hope it doesn’t preclude her making a long overdue smash-hit return to cinema.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, January 13th, 2019