Through the course of her 25-year-long musical career, Hadiqa Kiani gave plenty of interviews in which she declared that she had no interest in taking on an acting gig.
But in the summer of 2020, Hadiqa stepped in front of a TV camera to become Sakina, a repressed and battered village woman with bruises all over her body and a deep gash across her lip. Her hair wound down in a braid, she covered her head and spoke in a thick Punjabi accent.
Having endured a life of misery with an abusive husband, before finally running away one night to her old lover’s home, there was a profound sadness to Sakina. She would sometimes cry and, at other times, harden herself to face the travails that had long been a part of her destiny.
Hadiqa Kiani may be a pop icon, extremely famous and instantly recognisable. But when she became Sakina, she became just her.
What brought about this change of heart? “I really think that this role was just something that the universe had meant for me,” Hadiqa muses. “It feels like there was something within me, waiting for a role that would inspire me, and it got manifested in this.”
Yo-yoing from ballads to qawwalis to a Turkish song dedicated to Pak-Turk friendship and the Dirilis: Ertugrul series, Hadiqa has suddenly switched gears and taken a detour into the world of acting. In Raqeeb Se, now airing on the Hum Network and directed by the ingenious Kashif Nisar, the singer holds her own against seasoned actors such as Naumaan Ijaz, Sania Saeed and Iqra Aziz.
Sakina is such a far cry from your own persona, I state the obvious to her. How did you slip away from the mould of a seasoned musician and metamorphose into this wounded village woman?
“Before we started shooting, I spent days thinking about Sakina,” Hadiqa tells me. “What must her childhood have been like? What did she like and dislike? I built up her character in my mind. I started wearing shalwar kameez, braided my hair and observed women that I would randomly see around me. How did they walk and talk? Would Sakina move the way they did? How did she behave in her own home and with her own daughter? How was this different from the way she talked with everyone else? As a musician, I have an understanding of sound and I really worked on developing a particular tone for Sakina.”
The trick worked. As acting debuts go, Hadiqa Kiani has just made a spectacular one.
The acting detour
There have, of course, been many acting offers that have come her way throughout her career, one of the very first being Shoaib Mansoor’s Alpha Bravo Charlie all the way back in 1998.
“There was a time when I had felt that I didn’t want to act but, for a while now, I have been open to the possibility,” explains Hadiqa. “Some years ago, I was at an event, sitting with Sultana Siddiqui, Hum Network’s founder, and producer Momina Duraid and they randomly commented that I should act. I told them that I would like to, if something intriguing came my way. I did not know that, sometime later, Momina would call me and offer me a significant role in such an illustrious project. I couldn’t say no.”
In a segue to nearly 14 years ago, she recalls a video created in collaboration with Aamir Zaki, titledIss Baar Milo. “I played a madwoman in it and, for a week, I didn’t shower or even wash my face because I wanted to bring authenticity to the role that I was playing.
“Humayun Saeed was acting with me in the video and there was a point where he pulls at my hair. An entire tuft actually came off and the camera kept recording, because we wanted to capture the pain that the woman was feeling.”
But despite enacting this disturbing role many years ago — and perpetually living in the spotlight — she still felt intimidated by Raqeeb Se. It was a Catch-22. It’s unlikely that a new actress could have landed such a key project and it had come her way primarily because she was Hadiqa Kiani. On the flipside, if she messed it up, she would be criticised far more than any fledgling debutant.
Hadiqa adds, “I was going to be working with a seasoned director such as Kashif Nisar and was cast against industry giants such as Naumaan Ijaz and Sania Saeed. Even the younger actors in the ensemble — Iqra Aziz, Faryal Mehmood and Saqib Sameer — are all so experienced. I felt that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to my role.
“But then, Kashif Nisar helped me out. He asked me to come to his home and he read out the first episode to me. Then, the next day, he read out the second episode. Whenever Sakina’s part would come, he would give expressions to go with the dialogues and then, he would ask me to do the same.
“Once I became better acquainted with Sakina, Kashif asked me to meet Naumaan. I had been particularly nervous of acting with Naumaan but we sat, had a cup of tea and he talked me out of a lot of my anxiety.
“And then, my nephew Noah, who also handles my social media, rehearsed with me constantly for three days. I had qualms, but he didn’t have any. He told me that I just had to take the role.
“It has just been something so new for me,” says Hadiqa. “In the past many, many years, I have called the shots in my career. I am the pilot when I am performing live on stage and the musicians take their cues from me. But on the set of Raqeeb Se I was a complete amateur, taking baby steps. There was no pilot and I learnt how actors work as a team, taking cues from each other.
“We would be enacting a very emotional scene but then, as soon as the camera stopped rolling, suddenly everyone would be joking around. Naumaan, Sania and Iqra are such pros that they can switch off from their characters within seconds. I would just be staring at them, wondering how they could do it,” Hadiqa laughs.
“I even mentioned this to Naumaan and he told me that if actors allowed themselves to get lost in their roles, they would all end up in asylums. I haven’t mastered this magic wand yet. I would be feeling deeply emotional long after the shoot would be over.”
Did Hadiqa the star connect at all with the subjugated unfortunate Sakina? “I think that she’s proven to be an emotional outlet for me. Personally, I like to keep my emotions under control. I hardly ever cry in front of anyone. But Sakina is going to have plenty of emotional outbursts.”
The artistic route
Somewhere in the midst of personifying Sakina and grasping the nuances of acting, the melody for Raqeeb Se’s title track began drifting into Hadiqa’s mind. Applying her mother’s poetry to the tune, she created a haunting song, tinged with sadness.
Kashif Nisar loved it and it became the title track for the drama. “I sing for so many drama OSTs [Original Sound Tracks] and I had hoped that I would be selected for Raqeeb Se. When Kashif approved the tune I called up Ustaad Baqir Abbas and told him about the drama and its characters. He created the music accordingly.”
Her last musical endeavour had been, in complete contrast, a qawwali called Jaanay Iss Dil, which released last month with a video set in Yousuf Salahuddin’s picturesque haveli in Lahore. The qawwali was well received, but also made social media commentators ponder over this new genre that Hadiqa was tapping into.
“But why shouldn’t I explore?” she asks. “I have always loved experimenting and exploring diversity. Tomorrow, if I feel like singing a pop song, I will do so.”
In the near future, she will also be turning music producer with Hayat, a compilation of five to six new songs that she has created in collaboration with different musicians. “After that, I may make a return to Sufi pop — I like changes,” she says, “whether they are to my music or my looks.”
Her looks, truly, have always been mercurial, flitting from avant-garde hair and make-up to a very eclectic wardrobe. “I worked with designers frequently in my early career and even do so now sometimes, but I always make an effort to style myself in a certain way. The overall look needs to be unique to me.”
A particular image that she recently posted on her Instagram comes to my mind: she is standing wearing a deep red cloak in the historic Hazuri Bagh within Lahore’s walled city, clutching a mike, with minarets illuminated behind her under a dark night sky. Unforgettable and artistic, it is the sort of imagery that Hadiqa has always been a pro at creating.
A quick scroll down her Instagram feed reveals so many similarly evocative images, but I also notice how they all have a certain sense of decorum in common: there’s barely any skin on show or pictures of wild partying or even props that the Pakistani audience find unacceptable such as (surprise, surprise) cigarettes.
“I’m careful about the way I dress, especially in the pictures that I post on my personal social media platforms,” Hadiqa admits. “I think that, at this point in my career, a lot of young people look up to me as a role model, and it is important that I project myself in a certain way. Of course, I also don’t want to get trolled!” she laughs.
New roads, new challenges
I observe out loud that compared to the bashing directed towards many other Pakistani female stars, the trolls barely come after Hadiqa. Over the past few years, in fact, her personal life has hardly ever been dissected and the pictures that occasionally surface of her with her young son are hugely popular.
“It’s because, in the last 15 years, my life has had a complete turnaround. It revolves completely around my son. Nothing else really matters,” she smiles.
The one time that Hadiqa did face negative publicity in recent times is when the Faisalabad branch of her network of salons — the eponymous Hadiqa Kiani salons extend from Lahore to Faisalabad, Sialkot and Sargodha — encountered a very disgruntled client. The woman had ended up going completely bald while undergoing a hair treatment in her salon. How did that happen?
“It was all quite confusing and shady,” muses Hadiqa. “The woman created a lot of noise on social media, but didn’t turn up later. The Faisalabad salon was a franchise and, ever since, I have been very careful about selecting franchisees.”
Her salon business played a major role in ensuring a regular cash flow all through last year when concerts were halted due to the coronavirus and musicians endured massive financial crunches as a result. “A lot of musicians have barely been making ends meet,” she says. “I have been lucky.”
She’s also constantly been evolving, chameleon-like, from musician to businesswoman to actress. Luck may have something to do with Hadiqa’s high-flying career trajectory, but she certainly helps things along by never allowing herself to stagnate. “I just love challenges,” she stresses. “It’s part of my nature. I enjoy trying out new avenues, exploring new dimensions.”
Acting may be the latest feather in her cap. But knowing Hadiqa — and knowing her quarter-century-long stellar career — there are likely to be many more.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, February 14th, 2021