Saba Qamar’s life has been racing away for the past few years. I know so, because she and I have been trying to coordinate for this interview for just as long.
Saba is a superstar and an acting powerhouse and, as her career shifts gears from one project to the other, I knew that an interview with her would be very, very interesting. But Saba has perpetually been busy.
Sometimes she would be ensconced in the picturesque Soon Valley, shooting for Sarmad Khoosat’s Kamli, and the next week, she’d be roaming the winding alleys of androon shehr Lahore for the filming of the upcoming web-series Mann Jogi.
In the midst of all this, she’d also find time to shoot an ad in a foreign locale or dance at a major awards show. Life was hurtling on, full throttle, and so, our quest to find time to sit down for an interview continued.
Until, suddenly, everything came to a halt and we were all locked down in our homes with the coronavirus pandemic upon us. At least, we could finally plan out our interview.
“I’m enjoying the peace,” Saba had told me in the initial days of the lockdown, “it had been a while since I had just sat down at home and relaxed.”
But Saba Qamar isn’t one to sit back and chill. A few days later, she started working on a YouTube channel of her own.
“I’m writing the content myself, figuring out how to film it, and I’m working with a team of young people. We’re all having virtual sessions and trying to figure out how to go about it,” she told me.
The first YouTube video came out a few days later and teasers of the next one followed soon afterwards.
You can’t just sit around and do nothing at home, can you, I ask her now. She laughs. “No, I can’t! I’m having so much fun working on this project and the response has been great so far. This is my latest project and I love projects — the more complicated, the better!”
Looking back at her career trajectory, her words ring true. Saba Qamar loves challenges, more so because she is extremely talented and is able to rise to them brilliantly. Last year, for instance, she danced in the grand finale at the Lux Style Awards. She was experiencing extreme back pain — a condition that she occasionally has to endure, ever since she picked up some very heavy weights on her back while shooting for a past project.
But as she danced with complete synchronisation in a tribute to veteran actress Shabnam, you couldn’t tell that she was in pain. It was a tough challenge to take on — but then, Saba’s never been one to give up.
Was she always like this, even when she first started out? “I always had the energy to learn new things and achieve more,” she says, “but I wasn’t as tough as I’m now.”
Then and now
She recalls past memories, experiences that may sound familiar to many young actresses who have had to weather the vicissitudes of an industry where power players can often be unfair. Back when she started out, she slogged hard as part of a prominent awards show, playing a part in several segments and coming to work even if she had a fever.
After the show, when she asked for her pay, however, the event organiser told her that it wasn’t their practice to pay a first-timer. Another time, she worked in a drama for 15 days but the director only paid her for two, telling her that he didn’t have more money.
“Back then, there weren’t any contracts, and since I had already shot the drama, there was nothing that I could do.”
Do payment issues still arise?
“No one would dare to trick me now!” she laughs. “I make sure that the contracts and legal issues are all sorted.”
She’s definitely wiser now. “There is a lot that I have learnt through experience,” Saba muses.
“I do a lot of yoga and it’s made me positive. I don’t get jealous or insecure. I barely pay attention to awards and nominations, and whether they are fair or unfair. If someone trolls me on social media, I’m not bothered. I don’t care if someone says something behind my back, or gets a role for which I was being considered. There will be other, better things that will come my way. Sometimes, I see memes made about a shoot that I’ve done and honestly, I usually find them very funny.”
Does she think that working in a major international project, 2017’s Bollywood movie Hindi Medium, opposite actor Irrfan Khan, helped make her more self-assured?
“It definitely did. I was suddenly working with new people, in a different world, away from all these small politics. I was acting with a major star, Irrfan Khan, and being appreciated for my work. It made a huge difference.”
Our discussion naturally diverts to her recollections from the Hindi Medium days, and of the recently deceased Irrfan Khan.
“You know, while I was shooting the movie, I didn’t even know that he was the one who had selected me for it. It was only when I returned home and saw an interview of his that I found out that he was the one who had seen some of my work on the internet and decided to cast me. I felt bad that I had never thanked him for the opportunity.
“While shooting the movie, I would sometimes get irritated by him. Irrfan would never rehearse a scene beforehand. He would learn his lines and I would learn mine and then, we would just perform together, spontaneously. That’s just how he preferred to work and, after a few takes, we would be done. I have always been accustomed to rehearsing a scene, figuring out what pitch I should have, and I would feel anxious that, while we would spend so much time just chit-chatting, we would just never rehearse.”
Nevertheless, the scenes turned out very well, with Saba receiving accolades for her performance. I remind her that she shot the movie at a time when Indo-Pak political tensions were spiraling, and Pakistani artists working in Bollywood were quickly leaving India to return home.
During all this, Saba quietly continued to shoot Hindi Medium and only came back to Pakistan once work had wrapped up.
“In fact, even my visa expired while I was there and I still had to shoot the movie for 15 more days. So, I just went to the police station, had tea there and they gave me an extension,” she grinned.
Wasn’t she scared? “No, I don’t get scared easily,” she confesses.
No ‘pyari beti’ please!
Post Hindi Medium, it was this fearlessness that made her take on the role of Qandeel Baloch in the 2018 hit, award-winning drama Baaghi, one of her most memorable projects and also, one that pushed her through an emotional rollercoaster.
Ironically, it is because of this inherent fearlessness that she gives very few interviews. “I can’t lie,” she shrugs, “and I don’t want to hurt anyone. Also, I hate it when my comments get misconstrued.”
Unlike so many of her fellow actresses, who prefer to project typical Eastern personas of themselves to please a largely conservative audience, Saba’s Instagram feed is dictated by her moods.
At one point, she’ll post a picture of her silhouette against a backdrop of the Badshahi Mosque and, the next thing you know, she’ll be posing in a short dress, quipping in the caption, ‘Thorra chhota ho gaya’ [It got a bit too short]! And then, while having breakfast on the sets of Kamli with her director Sarmad Khoosat, she’ll pose with his cigarette in her hands — even though she doesn’t smoke herself.
“That was a good picture, so I posted it,” Saba shrugs. “I don’t smoke but, even if I did, I wouldn’t go to great lengths to hide it. I can’t pretend to be a ‘pyari beti’ [sweet daughter] just to please people. And I think people love the fact that I’m genuine. We are living in a time when people appreciate reality a lot more than pretence and glamour.”
Given that she doesn’t like to abide by conventions, does she also not feel the need to get married and settle down, like so many of her peers?
“I do want to get married one day, yes, but there is no desperation to rush into it,” she says. “I would want to be with someone who accepts me the way I am. And I don’t think I’d ever want to settle down and leave my career. I’ll always want to act, till my last breath!”
For all her positivity, is she now getting worried about her projects that have been left midway due to the coronavirus pandemic? Mann Jogi needs to be shot for two more weeks in order to wrap up, Kamli was tentatively scheduled to release this Eidul Fitr and, around this time — if life had proceeded normally — Saba would have had been shooting the upcoming movie Ghabrana Nahin Hai, opposite Zahid Ahmed.
With cinemas closed indefinitely, the future of Pakistan’s struggling film industry now hangs in the balance. Does this worry her?
“These are sad times,” she agrees, “but we will get through this. We just need to be careful right now and stay safe.”
And while the world outside her home may have come to a stop, life hurtles on for Saba Qamar as she bends over her laptop every day and makes more plans for her YouTube channel. “I have written a lot of scripts. This space [YouTube] can allow me to be candid, speak my mind, make jokes, talk about things that I care about. And now, some of my musician friends from across the border have reached out to me, telling me that they will provide me with any music that I may need. There’s so much to do.”
Ever busy, ever creative, Saba Qamar likes to live her life according to her own rules, paving her own way. It helps that she’s also very talented — the paths she carves out always do tend to be quite spectacular.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, May 17th, 2020