Mohsin Abbas Haider calls Amna Ilyas upcoming movie Baaji’s “achanak heroine” as he refers to all the cast changes that went on for the part she eventually landed.
From Mawra Hocane to Humaima Malick, a number of Ilyas’ peers were approached to audition, the latter even having shot a few scenes before parting ways with acclaimed ad-filmmaker and the movie’s director and co-writer, Saqib Malik. But it all seems to have worked out for Amna Ilyas.
“Baaji was destined for me,” Amna clarifies, days before the release of her latest offering. “Everyone knows I wasn’t the first choice, but I really wanted to be a part of it. I was supposed to do 'Gangster Guriya' and so Saqib had initially approached me for that song only [which Mehwish Hayat went on to perform]. Humaima was on-board, but something happened and I got the part."
"It was all very sudden, so much so that I just shot the first spell like a robot; I hadn’t been part of any rehearsals and so it took a while for me to digest it all — it was very overwhelming to say the least.”
From model to actor
Donning a bold yellow jacket over a plain white-tee and straight grey pants to offset the color, Amna is every bit the style icon that she’s always been. Surviving on nothing but fruits to look the part and exhausted out of her mind, being on the nationwide promotional spree that she is for Baaji, a film that’s set to release this weekend, depicting the life and times of a fading superstar, played by veteran Meera, in the backdrop of the fall of Lollywood and the emergence of new-age Pakistani cinema.
Amna and I sit down in Islamabad an hour before she’s expected to shake a leg to the movie’s soundtrack at a mall visit; something she’s happy to oblige to.
"I’ve now decided to stick to acting over modelling. I want to put my foot down — not for mileage or money, but because now I want the artist in me to be satisfied. In another ten years, when I look back at my filmography, I want to be proud.”
Having had a career that now spans well over a decade, Ilyas’ choices have been intriguing to put it mildly. From talking about discrimination against her skin-color as a model to making a foray into cinema with Zinda Bhaag, and going on to doing a few dance numbers here and there, to starring in last year’s disappointing fantasy-comedy, Saat Din Mohabbat In; it’s been a rewardingly erratic journey.
One wonders, however, if there’s a direction she wants to take her career in, after finally having established a strong footing.
“It’s something I’ve started considering lately,” she says, with two feature-films releasing this summer. “I came into the movie business back when no films were being made and not knowing anything at all. But when I switched my career from a model to an actor, finally, after going back and forth when I wouldn’t be able to find the roles I wanted to do, I’ve now decided to stick to acting. I want to put my foot down — not for mileage or money, but because now I want the artist in me to be satisfied. In another ten years, when I look back at my filmography, I want to be proud.”
However, with the stereotypical and regressive expectations that filmmakers often have of actresses, is that what she’s getting, I inquire.
“As a model, I walked along with twenty other models; suddenly I shift my career where I become a brand, a ‘celebrity’ on my own. Unfortunately, models have no worth in this country; we’re no Gigi Hadids here. It’s a big business, but people don’t take them seriously."
“I’m being offered a lot of stuff; left, right and center,” she responds as a grin lights up her face. “Only recently I’ve refused three movies because I felt an actor like me would be wasted doing those. Of course I’m not going to place any demands of only doing leading parts, that doesn’t matter to me, I can do anything as long as it appeals to me. But having two back-to-back releases has suddenly made me very conscious of what I do next.”
Though Amna’s always had the reputation of speaking her mind and being unabashedly gutsy in the industry, her increasing inclination towards acting has come at the cost of her fleeting career as a top model, something she’s happily given up.
Amna is open to show-stopping, case-in-point: Fahad Hussayn’s showcase at PFDC L’Oreal Bridal Week 2019, or Shehla Chatoor and Élan’s solo-shows last year. Has that resulted in any bad blood between her colleagues from the fashion fraternity?
“As a model, I walked along with twenty other models; suddenly I shift my career where I become a brand, a ‘celebrity’ on my own. Unfortunately, models have no worth in this country; we’re no Gigi Hadids here. It’s a big business, but people don’t take them seriously,” she maintains with a sigh, yet a realistic perspective.
“Strategically, if I’m doing a film and then I’m going back to walking with the same models, is that the right move? Of course not, so if you want to hire me, hire me as a show-stopper. And I don’t force anyone either, designers get me on-board because they know that I’m going to set the ramp on fire. I don’t give a damn, I’m happy doing the roles I’m doing.”
Baaji's not the only film she's got lined up for release
That's the very same panache she brings onto the silver screen with her movies, her presence is undeniable and this seems to be her year. After playing a yesteryear film-star’s protégé-turned-competition in Baaji, Amna is also expecting another release next month, a situational comedy, Ready Steady No (RSN), which has been in the making for four years now.
Helmed by debutante, Hisham bin Munawar, RSN comprises mostly of a newcomer cast and revolves around a runaway bride.
“We’ve been talking about RSN for as long as I can remember,” Amna refers to when she first started shooting the film and we had spoken about it. “I wasn’t expecting anything from it to be honest. When you’ve shot something so long ago and it’s not coming out, your hopes aren’t very high. But since the trailer has released and the song Dekho Dekho’s come out, people love it and the response I’m getting is so very positive. I’m getting so many messages and I’m glad it’s turned out the way it has.”
“What’s funny is that Hisham’s made the film from his own experiences and that’s something I didn’t even know when I was filming it,” she continues, chuckling. “He was involved with someone and he eloped, but he couldn’t marry that girl, and if something that’s so close to you and you display that on celluloid, it’s very universal. It comes straight from the heart, which is why I feel people are finding it relatable and warm, and real. I don’t know how it will do at the box office but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for sure.”
For now, Amna wants to enjoy the moment and relish spending the summers in the cinemas. For the first time in her life, she tells me she’s “happy and content” with where she’s at and isn’t worrying about what her next move would be. Does that mean she’s taking a sabbatical? Nothing of that sort, in fact, she has a number of television assignments in the pipeline and she's planning on returning to the small-screen later this year.