Sania Saeed — the reluctant protagonist

Updated 07 Jun, 2021 10:38am

Maliha Rehman

The veteran star discusses Raqeeb Se, impactful dramas and telling stories.

Photography: Shahbaz Shazi
Photography: Shahbaz Shazi

Sania Saeed is notorious for her reluctance in giving interviews. I consider it quite a coup that I manage to convince her to meet me for one. I believe one of the main reasons why she agrees is that she is about to travel for work, and our meeting would have got inordinately delayed had she spent time contemplating over the pros and cons.

“I don’t like interviews because I don’t have anything to say,” she says disarmingly, “and it’s all just so boring.” Then, she adds: “Why would people want to read about me?”

She says all this without irony or any false humility, despite the fact that Sania is considered the darling of thinking directors, despite her legions of fans and despite her strong cultural heritage. After all, she was acting in Aslam Azhar’s famous Dastak stage troupe since she was a kid and her father, the late Mansoor Saeed, was a well-known progressive writer and playwright.

And she says this sitting across from me, wearing a beautiful white net sari. After our meeting, she is going to get photographed for this cover story and she’s aimed for a glamorous look.

Sania Saeed has been associated with some of TV’s most impactful dramas over the years, with Hajra in Raqeeb Se being her recent, most powerful portrayal. But why does she feel nobody is interested in her as a person?

I admit that, talking to her, I feel a bit dazzled. I associate her face with so many memorable stories that have riveted television viewers over the years, her voice is utterly familiar and she is an indisputable acting powerhouse, adding life to every character that she takes on. And yet, Sania Saeed, actress par extraordinaire, a name that is reason enough to tune into a drama, somehow believes that people don’t want to read about her!

Sania Saeed with her co-stars from Raqeeb Se, Hadiqa Kiani and Iqra Aziz
Sania Saeed with her co-stars from Raqeeb Se, Hadiqa Kiani and Iqra Aziz

I say this out loud but she remains incredulous. “I’m flattered,” she allows, “and I’m lucky to be very well-loved in the industry that I belong to. But no one cares if I take a break from TV for four years. Opportunities don’t stay waiting around if I choose not to act for some time.”

This may be true, but every time Sania Saeed comes on screen, she draws the eye. Her voice undulates and her face moves through myriad subtle expressions. In the fast-paced competitive world of TV productions, projects don’t hover around for anyone, but any project starring Sania Saeed gets elevated by her presence. It is one such acting project that is the other, very significant, reason Sania has agreed to this interview.

Raqeeb Se, a layered, beautifully created serial has just wrapped up on the Hum TV Network, making a mark for itself as one of the most artistic dramas to air on TV in recent times. Knitted together with a script by Bee Gul and direction by Kashif Nisar, the drama’s ensemble cast included Nauman Ijaz, Hadiqa Kiani, Faryal Mahmood, Iqra Aziz and Sania. Sania is meeting me because she knows that a drama so beautiful, and the deeply nuanced role she performed, need to be celebrated.

In the drama, Sania plays Hajra, the uncannily patient wife of Maqsood Sahib (Nauman Ijaz) who allows his ex-flame (Hadiqa Kiani) and her feisty daughter (Iqra Aziz) to come live in her home, when they flee an abusive home. Despite the misgivings of her own daughter (Faryal Mahmood) about this tricky domestic situation, Hajra seems other-worldly in her tolerance. Until she snaps.

Commerce and creativity

A behind-the-scenes moment from Raqeeb Se
A behind-the-scenes moment from Raqeeb Se

“A drama such as Raqeeb Se comes along maybe every 20 years,” she says. “While shooting it, we used to joke that it may not end up getting us high ratings, but that there would be a certain audience that will love watching it. And it’s true. Raqeeb Se has gotten a lot of critical acclaim but not extremely high TRPs [television rating points].

“What this drama has also managed to highlight is the polarisation within the Pakistani TV-watching audience,” Sania continues. “The TRPs come from a different kind of audience, which is in the majority, and then there is a fraction which will appreciate the storytelling of a Raqeeb Se. This fraction may be smaller but it’s there and producers and channels also need to create content for it.”

But why would channels want to invest in a drama that may have artistic integrity but doesn’t yield them high profits? “That’s the problem,” she agrees. “It all boils down to the age-old struggle between creativity and commerce. Commerce will always be prioritised, but at least the occasional different or experimental story can be told. I give credit to drama-makers and channels who, amidst all the havoc of hauling in big business, place their faith in a single artistic play.”

And where does that place Sania Saeed, who has built her repertoire with the kind of impactful storytelling that is slowly disappearing from Pakistani TV? It means that, sometimes, she feels like taking a sabbatical from acting, despite getting deluged with offers.

“There was a time when, if I was offered five scripts, I would definitely gravitate towards at least one. That doesn’t happen anymore. Times have changed. But when you have been working for 30 years, you see the industry’s ups and downs and realise that there is no point in playing critic while observing from the outside. This is my fraternity, these are my people and I want to continue working and, maybe, bring about some small change with the roles that I do.”

I’m reminded of Meher Posh, a highly rated but extremely stereotypical drama which aired on Geo Entertainment last year. Sania’s role as the female protagonist’s mother could have been entirely mundane, except for the slight extra dimensions she added to it.

Sania elaborates: “I tend to take my time before signing on to a project. I’ll want to discuss my role and the story at length with the director and the scriptwriter, and I’ll nitpick at the details. There are still times when a script may appeal on paper but turn out to be entirely regressive when filmed, or vice versa. Whatever happens, once I have signed on and I’m at the shoot, I’ll never create a problem. It will then be my drama.

It all boils down to the age-old struggle between creativity and commerce. Commerce will always be prioritised, but at least the occasional different or experimental story can be told. I give credit to drama-makers and channels who, amidst all the havoc of hauling in big business, place their faith in a single artistic play.”

“As it is, sometimes because of my seniority or because I’m playing the role of an older maternal figure, other younger members of the cast may feel intimidated by me. I would never want to make them uncomfortable by pointing out flaws. Once I’m on board, I’m on board.”

Would she, after wrapping up a drama that didn’t quite turn out as she expected, ever voice her regrets on a public platform? “Never, because, however it turns out, it would also be my drama,” she says.

“Ultimately, I think that everyone really wants to do good work, despite the obsession with TRPs,” she continues. “I don’t know of a single actor who isn’t on the lookout for a unique script. I know directors who are trying to do things differently, even though they may not eventually be able to do so because of commercial concerns.”

What draws her, particularly, towards a drama? “The script,” she answers promptly, “and then the team, which includes the director and my co-actors.”

Raqeeb Se

But our discussion has obviously set Sania’s mind racing about her latest drama. “The thing is, we have gotten so accustomed to predictability,” she says. “One of the earliest criticisms levelled against Raqeeb Se was that characters such as these cannot exist in real life. It was just that the audience couldn’t predict what these characters were going to do, or where they were headed. What these critics didn’t realise is that the story was special, especially because the characters were so different from general stereotypes.

“The drama told the story of passengers on a bus route. Some passengers were already on board when some new people came in. The story is of what happened on the bus after that, until it reached its next stop and the passengers went about their different directions. When the story unravels, it does indicate that characters such as Hajra should not exist in real life. People were far too quick to criticise, not waiting for the next episodes to unfold.”

The drama marked singer Hadiqa Kiani’s debut in acting. Was Sania surprised by how well Hadiqa acted? “I was actually quite sure that Hadiqa would be great at her role. She was extremely well-prepared and she completely immersed herself in the role of Sakina.”

In an earlier interview with Icon, Hadiqa had revealed how playing the repressed, disoriented Sakina took a toll on her, and that she would remain shaken even after the camera would stop rolling. Sania’s Hajra was also a character laden with emotional baggage. Did Sania similarly continue to carry the weight of Hajra’s troubles after the shoot?

“I understood Hajra very well,” she says. “I don’t know if I carried her with me after the shoot, but I enjoyed being her, saying those lines. Bee Gul’s script was so beautifully written that I don’t think I changed even a single word in my dialogues. I would just add my tone to it.

“There are often times when I end up getting impacted by a character. It varies from drama to drama. After my role in Maa, I was so emotionally drained that I couldn’t act for some time. Similarly, after Meri Gurriya, I didn’t act for a good one-and-a-half years. It’s just that the drama may be navigating a fictitious story but, in the course of my daily life, I have met women who have been abused, or read stories about children being harassed. It takes a toll.”

Telling Stories

Post-Raqeeb Se, Sania has a slew of projects lined up for release, including Daurr on Geo Entertainment. A teaser released by scriptwriter Saji Gul shows Sania, grinning ominously, puppeteering the two main leads.

Also coming up is a theatrical reading by her, which will be part of the Yaar Julahay series, released on the streaming platform Zee5. The series will additionally be featuring readings by other prominent actors, such as Mahira Khan, Yasra Rizvi, Sarwat Gilani, Nimra Bucha, Irfan Khoosat, Samiya Mumtaz, Sarmad Khoosat and Faysal Quraishi.

“A lot of us frequently do dramatic readings on stage, but the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to theatrical performances,” says Sania. “The idea of creating a series of theatrical readings for the TV screen sprang from this. The stories we are reading out are part of India and Pakistan’s shared literary heritage, and it’s exciting because it spotlights Urdu literature for the present-day audience, which may not be very well-acquainted with it.”

With the ongoing ban on payment through local credit cards for Zee5’s ‘over-the-top’ (OTT) services still in place, there is a chance that only audiences outside of Pakistan will see the series. “This is a pity,” says Sania. “So much thought has been placed in the series. The setting of the story being read out has been created as a backdrop for each episode. Art transcends borders and both India and Pakistan need to understand this.”

I’m curious to see glimpses of the series, but in a world rife with Insta-stars, Sania Saaed isn’t inclined towards clicking photos and videos with her cell phone while at work. “I forget to take pictures,” she says, “and actually, I find it invasive. I’m in the midst of a process and I can’t get distracted by taking pictures of it.”

She may be associated with some of TV’s most impactful dramas over the years, but what does she watch in her free time? Sania frowns. “I don’t watch much TV, or anything on the internet,” she says. “I’m against the 24-hour airing of TV. It eats up time and takes away the capacity to think. I’d rather play with my animals, or tell stories to the children in my neighbourhood.”

Telling stories, in some way or the other, is just something that Sania Saeed has always done. She excels at it. But as I’ve discovered, she’s a very poor judge of herself. She obviously thinks about things a lot and has a lot to say, even if she won’t admit it.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, June 6th, 2021