Ushna Shah is on a roll.
After popular performances in TV dramas like Bashar Momin, Lashkara and Alif Allah Insaan, her portrayal of Nigaar in Balaa is the one that got her noticed by the Lux Style Awards. The actor has received a Best TV Actress nomination this year.
In Balaa, Ushna plays Nigaar, a spoiled, self-centered young woman whose personality has been stunted less by her actual disability than by others' reactions to it. She may have a congenital defect that makes her walk with a limp but it's her father's coddling that has warped her personality.
There is nothing outrageous about Nigaar, she isn’t rude nor is she loud but she understands human psychology just a little too well and has no qualms about manipulating others or pushing anyone out of her way.
We ask Ushna what it was like to play this complex character and how it feels to finally be recognised for her work.
Images: This is your first LSA nomination. Given your character was hotly discussed when Balaa was airing, were you expecting that this will be your year?
Ushna Shah: This is my first LSA nomination and I am very grateful for it. While I was working on Balaa, I hadn’t really given it much thought as I was completely focused on the character that I was playing.
I left the country soon after and couldn’t really live through the hype and love that the serial had received. I thoroughly appreciate all the love and response I have received from the public and it makes me so happy to see people love our work.
Images: Nigaar isn't the first of your characters to have provoked a response - people appreciated you in Bashar Momin, Lashkara, Alif Allah Aur Insaan, etc. Why do you think it took so long for critics to notice your acting prowess?
Ushna: I wouldn’t say that it took them long because when I did Bashar Momin, I won the best newcomer award for it. Likewise, I received a HUM TV award for Alif Allah Aur Insaan.
Lashkara was very successful critically rather than commercially and to me it has been one of my most favorite characters. The story was relatively dark and analytically it picked up; however, award shows pick an all-rounder that is both commercially and critically successful.
I do believe acting wise there are platforms that recognise artists properly.
Images: Coming to your character, why did you sign up to play Nigaar? Why did it appeal to you?
Ushna: I always like to challenge myself and as an actor I try to set a bar for myself with the character choices that I make.
After the character I did for Alif Allah Aur Insaan and Lashkara, I further wanted to play women who evolve and go through a journey. There were so many shades to my character in Alif Allah Aur Insaan and Lashkara and that was the same with Nigaar in Balaa.
She had so much more to her; you could say she was a textbook narcissist and a sociopath and having seen a few people like that, this complex character drew me towards her.
The writer and the production team were so encouraging and had full faith in me that I would be able to play Nigaar. It was absolutely flattering and though I was nervous about it, I am glad I got to play this character.
Images: What was the most challenging aspect of playing Nigaar?
Ushna: It was really difficult as we were shooting in May-June during Ramazan and I had just got a dental surgery done and couldn’t take painkillers while working as I was fasting.
Being away from family, carrying a hot heavy wig in sweltering heat and being in physical pain was all kinds of challenging and I channelled that physical pain into the character. It helped me play Nigaar.
Other than that, playing Nigaar was a great experience. I got to have so much fun with her and it gave me a chance to tap into my creativity and work with these incredible actors that gave me so much.
Images: How did you prepare for this role? How did you ensure that your portrayal of a person with a disability was authentic?
Ushna: As far as authenticity is concerned, I am always concerned about the reality of my character. I always want there to be absolute truth in all my characters. If I am not nervous, I am nervous! So that is how it works.
For every scene unless and until I can perform to the best of my ability and bring truth to the set and convince myself that this was real, I can’t be satisfied.
That is the evolution I have had as an actor over the years. I was very nervous about the authenticity and some changes had to be made to the character to make it more genuine. That is where the creative collaboration between the writer, actor and director comes into play.
Apart from that, I prepared for the role by studying narcissism as much as I could and bringing myself into that zone.
This is quite funny but my portrayal of Nigaar and her obsession with Taimoor is partly inspired by my dog. I have a rescue dog that was abused and was very aggressive towards other dogs. When we rescued her, there was this look she would give us because she had been loved for the first time. I actually brought that in the way Nigaar would look at Taimoor.
She was horrible to everyone else but she would look at him starry eyed. So I gathered my inspiration from a lot of things like toxic people I have met before, from people who exhibited narcissist or sociopathic behaviour and even my dog.
Images: What do you make of the current controversy surrounding the Lux Style Awards? Do you think there should be greater transparency about the composition of the juries?
Ushna: I do not like to focus solely on the reliability of awards because I have had work that has been appreciated but I have also had work that I was expecting to be appreciated for but it wasn’t liked by the people.
This is not something that I rather give too much thought to because I feel it deters my creativity and that is something that I don’t want to compromise on at all.
As much as I appreciate and like awards I try not to be validated by them. I have won awards when I wasn’t expecting anything so I just want to focus on my work and see where the road leads me to.
Images: Could you tell us about your future projects?
Ushna: I am working on a couple of nice projects that I don’t want to give away right now. I like to surprise my fans and I promise you whatever it is will be entertaining.