A narrow alleyway from Karachi’s clustered Pakistan Chowk is hidden away, inside a house near Shahrah-e-Faisal.
There’s a fruit-stand, threadbare blankets hanging on a clothing line and the houses are crammed together, leading up to a mosque, at the very end of the street.
The rooftops of the homes in this street – particularly the homes of our hero and heroine – are in another part of the city altogether, atop an age-old building near Karachi’s Burns Road.
I scuttle from one part to the other, to get exclusive glimpses into the making of the upcoming drama Pehli Si Mohabbat (PSM). The building near Burns Road is an eye-opener, with crumbling stairs leading through dark, dank floors before finally winding up to a rooftop that looks out over Karachi’s busy skyline.
I discover that this unassuming, dilapidated location is actually a popular shooting spot. PSM’s leading man, actor Sheheryar Munawar, tells me that he’s been up on this rooftop through most of his career.
“Some parts of my movie Ho Mann Jahaan were shot here and then, this was part of my home in 7 Din Mohabbat In,” he grins.
From cinema screens to a TV drama that, according to producer Abdullah Seja, has a ‘cinematic feel’ to it, PSM marks the return of lead actors Sheheryar Munawar and Maya Ali to TV.
The drama will soon by airing on ARY Digital and is produced by iDream Entertainment, directed by Anjum Shahzad and a cast that also includes Rabia Butt, Uzma Khan, Nausheen Shah, Shabbir Jan and designer HSY, in his TV acting debut.
“I think that TV dramas are changing, especially now that web-series have started getting made,” observes Anjum Shahzad.
“There was a time when formulaic storylines would dominate on TV but then, film started getting attention and now, TV channel owners know that in the future, their main competitors will be web-series. To stay ahead in the game, TV content is now slowly evolving, stories are being treated in unique ways, new genres are getting explored. With this drama, for instance, our approach is cinematic, in the way we have constructed the script, the casting, the filming.”
Will PSM then be telling a different story?
“I wouldn’t want to work on a script that doesn’t connect with the masses,” says producer Abdullah Seja, “but we do feel that we have shot in a way that the drama will appeal to everyone, from the masses to the more niche audience that is more picky about what they watch. We’ve also tried to think out of the box with the casting, by placing HSY in a pivotal role. It’s made people curious.”
Abdullah shows me a clip featuring Shero, in a shalwar kameez and a prayer cap, ranting angrily. The look is in complete contrast to the way he’s always been seen, suited up and glamorous, taking a bow on the catwalk and his Urdu is completely lucid, having shaken off the accent that his always been part of the way he has spoken.
How is he managing to speak like that, I ask.
“Shero’s been working hard,” smiles Anjum. "He has been practicing with tutors for months and wants the role to be a success, just as much as we do.”
The entire cast, evidently, is quite committed.
“We have arguments all the time, about the script and certain scenes. It’s great because it shows that the actors care about what eventually comes out on screen,” says Abdullah.
Anjum adds, “It’s great, actually. If I am busy with something, Sheheryar volunteers that he will help out with some of the editing. Or he’ll just come in on a day when he doesn’t even have to shoot scenes, just to assist. Everyone’s very dedicated, there are no airs and graces, no demands for food deliveries from high-end cafes ...”
And this, I can vouch, is true based on the smell of biryani in the air. It’s lunch time and the cast and crew are all unwinding.
Later on, I move on to PSM’s enthusiastic lead cast. They are shooting a scene where the hero is trying to communicate with the heroine, across their adjacent balconies.
In between takes, they wave at the children, crowded on the adjoining rooftops, craning their necks to watch the filming. Sipping tea as the sun begins to set, with the daytime shoot having wrapped up and the night time scenes about to begin filming, we talk about PSM and so much more…
Me: Sheheryar, the last time I wrote about you, you were playing producer and actor simultaneously on the set of Parey Hut Love. Is it a relief to just be acting this time?
Sheheryar: Honestly, it’s like a vacation. Anjum and I spend a lot of time discussing things and I feel that I have made a friend. I have complete trust in him and I think that it’s a very important part of our working relationship. There have been times when I have just followed his guidance unquestioningly and it’s all just looked great on screen, when I’ve seen it later.
Me: And Maya, you’ve just returned to TV. Do you find it more limiting compared to working in the movies?
Maya: To the contrary, I think TV dramas allow an actor a wider scope to perform. In a movie, we only have about 40 to 50 scenes but a drama is much longer and there are so many emotions that have to be portrayed.
I have always wanted to work simultaneously in the movies as well as TV and had just been waiting for a good script to come my way. I was excited because I hadn’t worked with Anjum before and once I had signed on, I found that I would be acting opposite Sheheryar.
Me: Maya, this will be your second project with Sheheryar, the first being last year’s Parey Hut Love. The two of you have also been seen together quite often at events and in fashion shoots and this has inevitably leading to media linking you with him, romantically. Does that bother you?
Maya: It makes me anxious because if the two of us look good together, it basically means that we’re doing our jobs well. A long time back, when people had linked me with one of my co-stars, Osman Khalid Butt, I hadn’t really been bothered because I hadn’t been very connected to social media at the time.
Now, though, I don’t like it. Sheheryar and I are good friends which is probably why we click so well on screen. We actually don’t have that many scenes together in PSM. There are all these segments where you’ll feel like we’re acting together, like when we’re talking on the phone, but actually they have been filmed entirely separately.
Me: Sheheryar, you last played boy next door in 7 Din Mohabbat In but I do remember that that character was quite a geek! PSM’s Aslam seems very different…
Sheheryar: He is. Aslam is volatile, street-smart, wears his heart on his sleeve and he knows that he is cute and likes to use it in order to get what he wants. He has a strong belief in his faith but he refuses to get tied up in stereotypical beliefs. Would I want to make him my friend? Yes, that would be fun but it would also be exhausting!
Me: Sheheryar, you’ve lately been making headlines for reasons other than PSM. For instance, recently you uploaded an Instagram post where you revealed your travails through the year, fighting Covid, depression and weight gain three months ago to now, when you’re leaner and have an exciting project coming soon. Was it difficult to open up to the world about your personal struggles?
Sheheryar: To be honest, a year ago I would have never put out a shirtless image of myself with a sagging stomach. But I have gone through a lot and learnt a lot and perhaps, a post like this was a long time coming.
In these past many years, I had been pushing myself, constantly working and not taking care of my physical and mental health. My friends used to complain that all I ever talked about was work. It took a toll on me and then, with the coronavirus lockdown halting life, I went through a dark phase.
I couldn’t work out because of my injury and was gaining weight and there were times when I just couldn’t see the light.
It took me a while to figure things out and now that I am better, I realize that a lot of people go through similar experiences. I wanted to give them courage which is why I sat with my manager and told her that I wanted to post these before and after images of myself on Instagram and wrote a caption to go with them.
Me: How did you manage to get yourself out of this dark phase?
Sheheryar: I think a lot of things helped me get back on my feet. I spent a lot of time with my family and close friends and that made me stronger. I started eating healthy. I am in a great place now, applying all the many years that I have slaved behind the camera to do better in front of the camera.
I believe in the power of prayer and it has helped me get rid of the negativity in my life. I studied finance in university and I really do believe that doing something good every single day is a great investment. The more good I do, Allah sends even better things my way. I have stopped worrying about my career and what others are doing and the work has just kept on coming!
Me: Did prayer also help you get rid of the insecurities that tend to be an inevitable by-product of the acting profession?
Sheheryar: I think that everyone, and not just actors, gets insecure. And yes, no matter how much work you are doing, sometimes it does happen that you see someone else’s work or the shoot of another actor and it pricks you.
You feel angry that it didn’t come your way instead. Instagram can particularly build up these insecurities but there’s no point to such feelings. I have now made a decision that whenever I see someone else’s work, I will pray for them and it helps immensely.
Me: So you’ll even pray for someone who has hurt you in the past?
Sheheryar: I’ll particularly pray for them because that will mean that I have forgiven them and can now move on! It’s all pretty selfish of me. I am doing all this just so I do better, I feel better. I do still get angry at times but I think that I have managed to control it.
Me: Maya, you also recently admitted to experiencing anxiety and depression in an interview with Mira Sethi. What triggered off these admissions?
Maya: I honestly hadn’t planned it. Mira had told me that we would just laugh and chat and somehow, suddenly, I was talking about the tough times that I have endured in life.
But then I realized that it was alright to discuss anxiety and depression because I was reaching out to so many others who have been battling similar demons. People perceive that actors have happy, glamorous lives but just like everyone else, we also go through painful times. We break down too.
And I think that once you are in a certain position, with fans looking up to you, you have a responsibility to tell them that they shouldn’t give up, just like you haven’t.
Me: Was your depression triggered by the coronavirus lockdown?
Maya: It wasn’t the lockdown itself but some very hurtful things that happened to me during lockdown that taught me a lot. I was in pain but then, I decided that I had to move ahead, be strong. It was tough. Sometimes I ask Allah why I am just so sensitive about everything.
Me: Good things have been happening to you, though, like this drama and signing on to Shoaib Mansoor’s latest movie. How did the movie, ‘ABG’, come your way?
Maya: It just happened, out of the blue! I was at a shoot and Emmad Irfani, who is acting in the movie with me, texted me and told me that Shoaib sahab wanted to meet me. I initially didn’t take the text seriously until I realised, later, that Emmad really did want to schedule a meeting!
Two days later, I was sitting with both of them and Shoaib sahab told me that he was planning a new movie and Emmad had already signed on and asked me if I wanted to be part of it. Of course I did!
Me: Shoaib Mansoor is an infamous perfectionist. Is he difficult to work with?
Maya: Not at all. He is very focused and has certain priorities, as should everyone, but he’s actually always laughing on set and having a good time.
I have even gone so far as to ask him why he isn’t telling me to do things differently and if this means that he thinks that I cannot perform better. He told me that if the need arose, he would be sure to tell me.
Shoaib Sahab doesn’t even get perturbed when there are hitches, like the usual lighting issues and production delays. And if I am on set at 5 a.m., he’ll be there an hour before me and then he’ll be there till 11 in the night, without complaining!
Me: Going back to Rakshi, the heroine of PSM, has it been fun playing a simple, middle-class girl after having enacted w slew of glamorous film roles?
Maya: Yes, and there is a glamour to Rakshi as well. She’ll wear her shalwar kameez, put flowers in her hair and jhumkas. It’s a great role, a great project and it gives me hope for all that may come my way in the next year.
Me: With the coronavirus yet to come under control, and the fate of cinema still hanging in the balance, do you think that TV will become even more powerful in the coming year?
Maya: TV always has been powerful. There has never been any comparison between the reach of TV and cinema. I am optimistic, though, for cinema. So many people, including myself, have begun working on new films, in the hope that cinemas will have fully reopened by Eid-ul-Fitr next year.
Sheheryar: It’s going to be a year for good, strong content, whether on TV, cinema or the web!
With the sun setting and the crew getting ready for their night shoot, I leave the PSM set, a drama hoping to stand out with the ‘good content’ that Sheheryar has referred to and stay ahead in the very competitive TV ratings race.
In these dark times, somehow most interviews end up leading to talks of hope and loss, of battling depression and becoming stronger, as has this one.
But based on my sneak peeks and on the illustrious cast and crew working on this drama, what's ahead is looking good for Sheheryar Munawar, Maya Ali and also, for Pehli Si Mohabbat.