Syra Yousuf likes to mull over what she says. She breaks off mid-sentence, moving her hands in order to emphasise what she means. She speaks candidly, carefully, being very politically correct but, at the same time, very sincere.
Sitting across from the actress, I find it refreshing. The present day celebrity brigade tends to be far too proficient at giving glib answers, answering questions almost mechanically, sitting through multiple interviews and even second-guessing questions before you ask them.
Unlike most of them, Syra is someone who doesn’t pander to the urge of constantly being in the spotlight. She rarely gives interviews, which is why whatever she says sound so much more genuine, and I feel very happy to be able to have a conversation with her.
She isn’t always happy, though. Shortly after we meet, Syra wants to add more to her answers and to revisit her repertoire of work in more detail. It means that I may have to rewrite certain parts of this story, but even this inconvenience, to my mind, is a stimulating one. She and I both know that her general reticence from the spotlight makes this interview one that will be — hopefully — widely read. I want it to be the sort of story that both she and I — the interviewee and the interviewer, respectively — are excited about.
She hardly gives interviews, has made only a few appearances on television and refuses to play the social media game. Yet she’s fanatically loved by millions, who go out of their way to defend her without her ever saying anything. Where does Syra Yousuf’s confidence come from?
Even before we meet, as we begin coordinating timings over the phone, I tell Syra that I want to delve more into her career rather than her personal life. The actress has an interesting selection of work to her credit and, yet, she has lately been in the news far more frequently for her association with actor Shahroz Sabzwari, who she divorced last year. There is, however, so much more to Syra Yousuf than just the controversies that are associated with her ex.
For one, her way of conversing is enigmatic. There is a definite raw youthfulness to Syra, a bit of hesitancy to her words. But then, she switches gears to speak with the voice of experience and wisdom, gained from balancing between being a young single mother and an actress who is very careful about choosing what she wants to do.
She is, at this moment, excited because she is at the precipice of being seen on TV in a star-studded upcoming project, Sinf-e-Aahan, directed by Nadeem Baig, written by Umera Ahmed and produced jointly by Six Sigma Plus and Next Level Entertainment.
Picking and choosing
“You know, sometimes in life, everything just starts happening all at once? That’s what happened when I got offered Sinf-e-Aahan. Other roles were offered to me simultaneously,” says Syra.
“But when Sana Shahnawaz reached out to me with the Sinf-e-Aahan script, the story really caught my attention. It is so well-written, with even the side characters and guest appearances integrated so well into the narrative. It’s very inspirational, telling the story of five girls from completely different backgrounds that join the army. I feel it’s time writers and content creators consciously work on the lessons that are to be learnt from the kind of stories that are generally put out, rather than normalise toxic behaviours, relationships and family dynamics.”
She continues: “I also really wanted to work with Nadeem Baig. I have worked with him before, on a telefilm, but that was a long time ago. So, even though there were other scripts that I was considering at the time, I opted for this one. I consciously work on one project at a time, as steamrollering through multiple projects can be overwhelming for me. Multiple simultaneous projects would also mean that I wouldn’t be able to fulfill my other duties and responsibilities, which are equally important to me.”
Syra makes motions with her hands as she says this, indicating a balancing act. I ask if she is referring to tweaking her own work schedule so that it fits with her seven-year-old daughter Nooreh’s routine. “Yes,” she smiles. “I have to make sure that I manage her life in a healthy way, where she isn’t left behind and doesn’t end up waiting for me while I am busy with work.”
The coronavirus pandemic and the consequent online schooling format has helped her. Sinf-e-Aahan has already had one shooting spell in Gujranwala, where Nooreh gamely accompanied her mother. Soon, both mother and daughter will be flying off to stay at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) in Abbottabad, where the cast will receive training as cadets and, then, shoot a large chunk of the drama.
Doesn’t a child that young get bored while waiting for a long day of shooting to wrap up? “She’s just moving according to her own clock,” says Syra. “School starts at 8am and then she has her daily routine. In Gujranwala, she got along so well with all the other actors. Nooreh fit right in!”
The other actors in the drama include some very popular names: Sajal Aly, Yumna Zaidi, Kubra Khan and Ramsha Khan. There are also rumours that other major actors will be making guest appearances all through the serial. Despite her claim that the script is well-developed, does she worry that the audience may choose favourites with other characters getting sidelined?
If you look at my career graph, you’ll see some very varied roles, from debuting as a shy, sweet girl in Mera Naseeb, to playing a negative character in Darmiyaan, to other unique roles in dramas such as Bilqees Kaur and Mohabbat Rooth Jaye Tau. I like to sign on to roles that challenge me as an actor.”
“Not really,” she says. “I have done so many projects with ensemble casts. At the beginning of my career, I was lucky enough to work with legendary actors such as Samina Peerzada, Sakina Samo, Rubina Ashraf, Bushra Ansari and the late Durdana Butt, simply because I signed on to projects with extensive casts. Besides, I have always considered the success of a drama to be the result of teamwork. There’s also the advantage of not having to shoulder the project entirely on your own.
“And when I look at Sinf-e-Aahan, it’s a star-studded project, helmed by some of the finest in Pakistani entertainment. I’m already gaining so much from it, regardless of whether people end up liking one character more than the other. If one keeps an open mind, there is so much to learn from.”
Syra’s equanimity would sound made up if you weren’t sitting across from her and realising that she is being completely and utterly sincere.
Her last acting project was the ill-fated Project Ghazi, a movie that got shelved only a day after its premiere because of bad editing. It was rumoured that the movie was going to be reworked and released again, but the coronavirus pandemic subsequently put the business of cinema to a halt.
“I think that Project Ghazi was a good attempt at a new genre,” she says. “We haven’t really dabbled with sci-fi movies in Pakistan, and maybe they just rushed into its release. As an actor, it can get tricky, because what you read in the script doesn’t necessarily translate the way you thought it would on screen.”
She has also sporadically been shooting a movie by Omar Essa, co-starring ex-husband Shahroz Sabzwari. “I signed on to the movie about three, four years ago, and we have been shooting it in chunks,” she says. “We’re nearly done now, although there’s still a song left.”
Nonetheless, why is she seen on screen so rarely? “I’ve always wanted to act in roles that I’m excited about, which is why I have been selective about my work,” she says.
“If you look at my career graph, you’ll see some very varied roles, from debuting as a shy, sweet girl in Mera Naseeb, to playing a negative character in Darmiyaan, to other unique roles in dramas such as Bilqees Kaur and Mohabbat Rooth Jaye Tau. I like to sign on to roles that challenge me as an actor.”
I’m curious: does Syra get offered a lot of TV drama roles where she’s playing the good, steadfast bahu? She laughs. “Yes, but that can be quite monotonous. In how many different ways can you play the same kind of role?”
Did she also get choosy while selecting roles because her daughter was young and it would have been difficult to leave her while she shot for long working days?
“I’ve actually never taken a break from work,” Syra corrects me. “Nooreh was born in July and by October, I was at work. I signed all my films after the birth of my child. I honestly never set expectations from myself on the work front, which is why every project has felt like a blessing that I am grateful for.”
It’s understandable that she may have eschewed generic drama scripts, but didn’t it ever worry her that she may become less relevant — and forgettable — if she wasn’t seen on screen frequently? “I don’t worry like that,” she says. “I feel that whatever is meant for me will come to me. If someone feels that I fit well into a role, they will offer it to me, regardless of whether I have been maintaining a low profile.”
Does she feel hesitant towards taking on all-out villainous characters, for example the cheating wife or the scheming best friend, because it can result in a backlash from the audience? “For me, it’s just work. I wouldn’t mind enacting a negative character, as long as it is well-crafted and has a proper back-story,” says Syra.
Pakistan’s most loved
The quiet confidence that she has in herself is rare — and possibly quite healthy for her mental peace. At a time when many of her peers vie to become Insta-stars, creating social media headlines week after week, Syra is comfortable with “mostly staying off Twitter”, “only posting on social media about work” and waiting long spans for roles that interest her. She is paving her career path slowly and surely, and I observe out loud that some of her confidence possibly stems from the fact that she is irrefutably very well-loved.
Masses of followers on social media support her as if she’s their best friend, without her having made a single comment. Even a few glimpses of her, floated out on Instagram, tend to get shared and re-shared extensively. Has she been able to define what propels the nation to love her so wholeheartedly?
Syra grins. “I sometimes wonder that myself. I seriously think that God has been very kind to me, and this is His way of telling me that I’m loved. He’s just put love for me in people’s hearts.”
Could it possibly be because people connect with her being a single mother who is obviously very devoted to her daughter?
She mulls the question. “I think that when you’re a public figure, you can’t avoid having your personal journey out in the spotlight. And, yes, if something about that journey resonates with people, they develop a fondness for you.
“Personally, I struggle frequently with feelings of not being able to balance my career with my duties as a mother. I’m extremely blessed to have two wonderful sisters and very supportive parents. It means that my daughter is never alone and is surrounded by people who love her.”
Does she worry, though, that some of the controversies that have lately gone viral, in connection with Nooreh’s father, may get back to her daughter and hurt her?
“It’s a parent’s job to always worry,” Syra points out, “and I’m the sort of parent who is constantly worried about every little thing. The way I deal with it is that I’m responsible for my actions, and I can try and do the best for her and for myself. She and I have long conversations, and I try to prepare her for what it can be like out there while, at the same time, letting her know that she can be safe and secure as long as she has a strong moral compass within herself.”
Social media fine lines
There have been a few times, though, when desi moralists have raised disapproving eyebrows at Syra — one of them being after a recent sizzling shoot for a magazine with actor Sheheryar Munawar. The actors weren’t touching, but the photographs, shot by Rizwan-ul-Haq, were laced with innuendo. What was her personal take on the shoot?
“I think that it was a beautiful photo shoot,” she observes. “As actors, we tell stories, and this may be through the medium of film, TV or even photography. We were excited about bringing a certain concept to life but it is, ultimately, [just] work for us. It doesn’t mean that something is actually happening in reality but, of course, people will have their opinions.”
Even though she very evidently maintains a distance from social media, does she ever feel the urge to speak out and set the record straight on the many, many opinions voiced out in connection to her?
“I have been thinking about this over the past few months, and I have concluded that our audiences and fans are very smart and are able to see through social media ploys,” she says. “People notice it when a celebrity has an untoward objective in mind. Media sometimes picks up content that gets labeled as a ‘controversy’, discussing it at length, without pausing to think that an actual person’s life is being placed under scrutiny.
“In my case, it was my divorce. It was something that happened to me personally and I felt no need to speak up about it. I really don’t see the point in trying to change a narrative on social media when I, personally, know my truth. That is enough for me.”
In an age when actresses are also getting lambasted viciously for dressing risqué, is Syra careful about what she wears in order to avoid the ire of trolls? Apparently, no. “I just wear whatever I’m comfortable with. Looking back at my sartorial choices in the past, I have experimented a lot with my clothes. I have never let people dictate what I’m going to wear or what I choose to do.”
She is, nonetheless, doing just fine. Somewhere in the midst of our conversation, she shows me a picture of herself from the Sinf-e-Aahan shoot in Gujranwala. She’s in uniform, smiling, the street behind her decorated with multi-coloured streamers. It’s an intriguing picture, hinting at a story that’s going to be interesting, full of promise.
I hope that the journey from here onwards is also a promising one for Syra Yousuf. She’s certainly confident it will always be.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, August 22nd, 2021