Out on the lightless streets (courtesy K-Electric) in the early hours of the morning, the last phrase that should be on my mind is: how sweet.
In my nearly 20 years of journalistic career, ‘sweet’ is one word that I thought I’d never use — especially about an interview. Yet, here I am, recollecting my experience interviewing Yumna Zaidi three days later, and the word, in some weird way, fits. So yes, Yumna Zaidi is sweet.
Although I haven’t met her before, from the way she speaks, Yumna could very well be the personification of the word. She is non-confrontational, non-controversial, undramatic, kind, considerate and willing to accommodate. Her attitude may not be paparazzi-friendly, but that’s not to say that she won’t make headlines.
When we speak, it is 10 hours earlier in the day in Dallas, Texas. Like me, she is sitting outside her house.
Yumna Zaidi has played a diverse range of characters in dramas, from a school-going, smart-alecky, loud-mouth misfit to a scared young woman, sexually preyed on by an elder in the family. Some think she can pull off any role. But her aura is only one of sweetness
Originally from Lahore, she moved to the United States five years ago. Though we didn’t flesh out the specifics — she prefers it that way, being wary of social media creeps and trolls — Yumna does say that her younger brother and two elder sisters are spread out between the two countries, and that her mum travels with her to Karachi for work.
As I pace the dark streets in the middle of the night, Yumna suggests, in a genuinely concerned tone, to do the conversation via voice notes. The exchange wouldn’t be as organic or interesting, I insist. Besides, the interview has already been rescheduled thrice.
In retrospect, our prior delays may have been karma making sure I watched her work in detail before we speak.
Her career choices are… interesting. A few days before the call, I request a list of her best performances. She texts: Pyaar Ke Sadqay (running now on Hum), Raaz-e-Ulfat (also currently running on Geo Entertainment), Dar Si Jaati Hai Sila (2019), Inkaar (2019), Ishq Zahe Naseeb (2019), Zara Yaad Kar (2016 — all four titles broadcast on Hum).
Seeing the line-up, two questions reflexively spring to my mind. One: that’s a whole lotta Hum. And two: the roles, mostly of good but traumatised girls, are definitely meaty.
In Pyaar Ke Sadqay, Yumna plays Mahjabeen, who is the very definition of the word ingénue — a school-going, smart-alecky, loud-mouth misfit who has been failing in her studies. In Raaz-e-Ulfat, she is Mushk, a simple girl from a harshly conservative family. In the critically acclaimed, award-winning, Dar Si Jaati Hai Sila, she is the perpetually scared Sila who is sexually preyed on by an elder in the family (the brilliant Noman Ejaz, hamming it up, within constraints). In Inkaar, she is Hajra, a sombre university student who shuns the romantic interest of one man (Sami Khan), but falls in love with a deranged one (Imran Ashraf). In Ishq Zahe Naseeb, she is Sameera, the vengeful figment of Sameer’s (Zahid Ahmed) imagination — and the source that incites his split personality. In Zara Yaad Kar, she is Uzma, the unwaveringly dedicated woman in love with a good-natured man whose wife (Sana Javed) is a carefree spitfire.
“I actually never want to have any controversies. Never want to have any affairs. I don’t want my personal life to be highlighted that way. I just want to be known for my work. I deliberately keep myself under control.”
As we talk, I notice that Yumna refers to her characters by name — almost as if they are an extension of her.
“I always knew that I wanted to do something different, but I had no idea that I could act the way I do, or that the story would revolve round my characters.”
Making her debut in a small role in Ameen Iqbal’s serial Thakkan (2012), she knew even then that it would be a long, hard journey.
“My brother once told me that the path to glory is very long and difficult, so I knew I wouldn’t get fame just like that from my first or second serial. It’s been eight years since I started working,” she continues, “and I only got my first award in my seventh year as an actress [Dar Si Jaati Hai Sila, Hum Awards].
“I’ve always relied on myself, [but more than that] I have faith in Allah. He is the only one who gives me the power to perform in front of the camera. I’m not a very confident person,” she adds. Considering the sheer variance in performances, it’s hard for me to believe this — as is the fact that she’s not a trained actress.
“I’ve never prepared too much for my scenes,” she confides. “Thankfully, the roles I get have enough margin, so that I get to live their lives in their skin for the briefest time when I’m acting. In those moments, I tell myself that I’m Hajra or Mahjabeen, and not Yumna.”
Bouncing performances off veterans Noman Ejaz, Saba Hameed, Saba Qamar (“these actors are masters of their craft,” she says), or getting directed by the experienced Kashif Nisar and Farooq Rind, also helps I’m sure.
Even when we veer off topic, our conversation keeps returning to her career — as if that is what truly matters to her at this point. Knowing her producers, directors and co-actors, I haven’t heard anything tantalising about her. I remember, in one meeting, a director who often casts Yumna sang praises about how she could pull off anything, and is a gem to work with. Other than that, he had nothing to add. Her work ethics seem to be a conscious decision.
Pakistani cinema needs a lot of work, and not everyone is capable of doing movies, she points out. “Barray parday ka kaam barray parday jaisa hona chahiye [Big screen work should look the part],” she says.
“I actually never want to have any controversies. Never want to have any affairs. I don’t want my personal life to be highlighted that way. I just want to be known for my work. I deliberately keep myself under control,” she clarifies. “I’m not judging people. Everyone has their own way of projecting themselves,” she adds in the same train of thought.
“I hardly socialise or have any friends in the industry. I rarely attend any gatherings. I have a very small social circle. On my sets, I hardly talk to people or take pictures with them, or actively giggle or laugh with people.” Yet, for some strange reason, people tell her their inner-most secrets, she claims. She just has that approachable personality, she says.
“I feel that my pace [of getting noticed] has always been slower than others. But as slow as it is, it has always been strong — and I know how strong it will continue to be in the future. I’m sure that the path I’ve made for myself is so resilient that it will not break when I walk on it.”
Speaking of career paths, Yumna is a darling of the Hum Network. Is there any particular reason for choosing to work with one network over others?
“I started off with ARY, then Geo. Hum was the third channel I worked for,” she clarifies. Hum, however, gives her more variety in roles and off-beat topics, she says.
“They’ve always picked me to play characters that are different [than the norm]. That’s not to say that the dramas I’m doing for other networks are of any lesser quality,” she says, defending her body of work.
“Raaz-e-Ulfat, which is an aam larrki ki kahani [a typical girl’s story] with a strong message, is getting pretty high ratings. In comparison, my role in Pyaar Ke Sadqay is very experimental, but has also received much acclaim.”
Pyaar Ke Sadqay was initially set up somewhere else before getting picked up by Moomal Productions and Hum. Yumna, however, was attached with the serial from the time it was pitched. It was too good of a role to pass on, she says.
“School age, school age hoti hai [School age is school age after all],” she continues, meaning that playing a character of school-going age is very different from playing mature characters, the pitch of excitement in her voice escalating. “Wearing a uniform and braids, and pulling off the look, is very challenging.”
The role came to her immediately after her ominous turn in Ishq Zahe Naseeb.
“During Pyaar Ke Sadqay, I was not in a state where I would be happy doing comedy on set,” she says. It had only been a month-and-a-half since her father had passed away, when the show went into production.
“I used to move away from the set and cry, and then overcome my emotions and come back to play Mahjabeen,” she tells me. “The pain doesn’t go away, but playing such a lively character took me out of my moments of grief.”
Director Farooq Rind kept the atmosphere as light and witty as possible… until another tragedy struck the sets. His wife, who was suffering from cancer, passed away in the later stages of the production.
“Backstories, even from seemingly happy productions, are quite different,” Yumna sighs. Life is cruel, but Yumna’s not letting it get to her. There is just so much to accomplish — not that she’s in a hurry, mind you.
Being away from Pakistan helps her unwind. When not acting, she’s a thinker and a dreamer. She writes poetry, sometimes makes a video, and shares it with family.
Doing two to three serials per year, Yumna is happily sticking to television for the time being. Pakistani cinema needs a lot of work, and not everyone is capable of doing movies, she points out. “Barray parday ka kaam barray parday jaisa hona chahiye [Big screen work should look the part],” she says.
Although she has no preference, whenever she gets a film role, an “(achhi, pyaari, romantic si film [a good, sweet romantic film]” wouldn’t be a bad start, she says. As I was saying in the beginning, that would be… sweet.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, July 5th, 2020