“I feel like I’m suffering as an actor,” Sara Loren tells me. “I have so much vibrancy within me, so much that I want to do in my field but it’s difficult. We don’t have the sort of budgets and confidence in ourselves to create crazy, artistic cinema for the Pakistani audience. What do I aim for? What project do I look at and how do I aspire for a similar role?”
“Yes, I’m suffering,” she reiterates later in our conversation, laughing slightly, almost as if to herself.
Once Mona Lisa, rechristened now as Sara Loren, she may be long-suffering, but she’s looking good while doing it. Some four years ago, the actress had suddenly disappeared, taking a break from work. Now, she has made a comeback as a martial arts-practising Chinese siren in Mohib Mirza’s recently released movie Ishrat Made in China.
The movie died a quick death at the box office but Sara’s mysterious Jia turned out to be one of the good things about it. Training the hapless Ishrat in martial arts and poised sultrily in front of a waterfall, she caught the eye, despite not having too many dialogues. Sara’s sabbatical was evidently over.
She was once Mona Lisa. Now she is Sara Loren. She was once riding high in Pakistan and in Bollywood. Then she disappeared for almost four years. Now she’s returned as a Chinese siren in Ishrat Made in China. What exactly is this actor about and why does she suffer so?
Where did you disappear off to, we start off with the most obvious question. “I was just taking a break, looking over some personal responsibilities,” she says. “I had made a few wrong decisions and got very depressed because of them. I got so disappointed with myself that I didn’t feel the motivation to work.”
Sara elaborates, “My career had been going well. I was working in a range of projects in Pakistan and I worked in a few movies in India, made friends there and was getting more offers for work. I got so busy and overworked that somehow I couldn’t figure out the difference between reality and fiction. I signed on to movies that I shouldn’t have signed. I couldn’t tell the difference between a good script and a bad one. I wasn’t even able to dress right. My friends would message me and ask me if I were okay.
“Taking a break from work was my way of punishing myself for having gotten so delusional. When the camera turns on, I feel a magic within me. It’s like new life has been breathed into me. I deprived myself of that when I decided not to work.”
A call from Mohib Mirza, however, changed her mind. “I was busy building a home for my mother in Lahore when Mohib called and said that he wanted to read out a story to me,” she says. “I told him that I wasn’t working but he insisted on coming over.”
Sara … made in China
She signed on. “The role was a challenge. I trained for three months in order to play Jia. There wasn’t much margin to emote through dialogues so I needed to be able to make my presence felt while staying silent. I think that this role has helped me grow as an actress that way — I have learnt how to play with silence.”
Sara continues, “I’m generally a very talkative person. I’m the life and soul of every set that I’m on! There have been times when people have placed bets on the set that I won’t stay silent for 15 minutes and I have ended up losing and treating everyone to pizza,” she laughs. “But for Jia, I had to be more composed and serious, and I actually became that way while shooting for Ishrat.”
I observe to her that it must have been a lot of hard work — but then, what did she think of the final movie when it was released? “I liked my role…” she demurs.
That’s a good reply, Sara, I quip to her. She laughs.
“Sometimes when actors also begin to make movies starring themselves, they miss out on major details. They are unable to edit out certain parts or look at the movie from the audience’s perspective,” she allows.
Taking a break from work was my way of punishing myself for having gotten so delusional. When the camera turns on, I feel a magic within me. It’s like new life has been breathed into me. I deprived myself of that when I decided not to work.”
Sara may have returned to her home-ground now but her stint in Bollywood, back when cross-border relations were more cordial, had lasted for quite some time. It had resulted in a range of movies that may have not been box office hits but were noticed for their bold storylines.
Sara’s Bollywood debut had been in the Pooja Bhatt-directed Kajraare, which had also starred playback singer Himesh Reshammiya, trying his luck at playing hero. Bhatt had complimented her by saying that she was an actress with a hundred faces.
Sara smiles. “I made a lot of friends in the Indian film industry and they were all very encouraging, complimenting me on my acting. Mahesh Bhatt called me a born star and Indian author Chetan Bhagat has reached out to me, wanting to know my story. Working in India, playing an Indian girl, wasn’t initially easy. Their mindsets are different, they find nothing wrong with partying, wearing bikinis, depicting a certain image.”
If the risqué scenes in her movie Murder 3 and later roles, as a bar dancer and a supermodel, are anything to go by, she caught on to the mindset quickly enough.
“You know, the set was turned off for three hours while we were shooting for Murder 3, because I needed them to explain to me why that particular scene was necessary,” Sara recalls. “Pooja Bhatt, at one point, told me that these scenes just weren’t a big deal for them. I understood. But being a Pakistani, I had to think it over 10 times. I wanted to work in India but I didn’t want the scene to look sleazy.”
Regardless, Sara’s repertoire of bold, revealing scenes, courtesy her Bollywood days, have led to her perpetually getting offered item numbers and bold characters in Pakistan as well. “I have enacted some very serious, heavy-duty characters in Pakistan but, somehow, so many people now want to slot me as an item girl,” she grins.
Does that make her regret working in Murder 3? “Actually, at that time, I was just so excited. It was so exciting to work in Bollywood that I didn’t mind,” she confesses. “I don’t consider the Bollywood movie Barkha as my own but otherwise, as a human, I still miss it — those cameras, those sets, the scale of work and budgets available to the film industry there.”
Pakistan’s fluctuating film fraternity is, of course, a far cry from Bollywood’s longstanding, money-minting industry. It mainly boils down to budgets, points out Sara.
“We don’t have investors stepping in to support our movies,” she says. “And when we do make movies, we get discouraged because the box office doesn’t do well. Also, why do we even try to make all-out commercial movies when we have limited budgets? We can make story-based movies instead.”
She continues: “The problem is, we are too obsessed with borrowing storylines from Hollywood and Bollywood. We need to start getting inspired by our own culture. Our art, music and history is so rich. So many stories can emerge from them and play out on the cinema screen. We just don’t know how to sell our art and talent properly.”
But she is talking about Pakistani films here, I argue, while the drama industry is far more developed. Has she considered working in dramas while cinema continues its uphill struggle to survive?
“I have experienced so much, learnt dance and martial arts and it’s brought a certain vibrancy to me. Fitting into a shalwar kameez and talking to an aunty in a drama just won’t work for me now. That’s just not me. I also don’t like some of the drama storylines where brother-in-laws and sisters are pitted together. But yes, if a good script comes my way I’m open to working in dramas.”
Post-Ishrat, what kind of scripts are coming her way? “I don’t think people are able to make out what to do with me at this point,” she says, “and I don’t want to do a role that doesn’t excite me. Maybe I’ll develop a story of my own and collaborate with writers and directors to make a movie.”
Sara is also very intent on networking, now that she’s stepped back into the acting game. “I think audiences here like to make a personal connection with the actors,” she observes. “They want to see us at industry events and in morning shows. So I’m focusing on that.”
Does she have many industry friends? “I have some, although I have also weathered tough times in the past when people have been rude,” she admits. “These things don’t matter to me anymore. Back when I started out, I was once nominated in an awards ceremony in the Best Actress category. But when the awards were televised, the part showing my name in the nominations announcement was edited out completely! Then again, there have been other times, when I have been able to convince directors to change the name of a drama or develop my character in a certain way.
“Regardless of networking, every role that I have played has come my way on its own. I don’t regret the projects that I have taken on. And wherever there is good energy, I’ll work there.
“[The writer] Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar recently said to me, ‘Why do you run away from the name Mona Lisa? If Mona Lisa had been real, she would have been just like you’. I think that he was referring to the mystery that surrounds me. At this point, there’s a lot that’s working out for me.”
Sara is certainly clear in her head that if the mystery works for her, she will use it.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, May 22nd, 2022