From starring in popular web-series Churails to prize-winning movie Joyland, actor Sarwat Gilani is not one to shy away from projects on provocative subjects and issues that society doesn’t talk enough about: women’s rights, trans rights and mental health.
“If it’s something you really feel close to and responsible for, then it can be presented in any narrative,” she told Dawn in an interview.
Ms Gilani is currently in London to attend an event hosted by charity British Asian Trust, which among other programmes is working in Pakistan to address and build the conversation around mental health. In the past, the charity has announced actors Mahira Khan and Sanam Saeed as their ambassadors in South Asia for their mental health campaign.
Ms Gilani praised the charity’s work as “admirable and pertinent” in a region where it is badly needed.
“They raise awareness on mental health which is an invisible health issue that is often stigmatised. Their aim is to fundamentally transform the mental health landscape by destigmatising it, making it accessible and affordable for the people who cannot get help.”
When asked if the TV and film industry in Pakistan does justice to the subject of mental health, Ms Gilani said, “We are not addressing this issue with a lot of responsibility when it comes to the media, but it is time we talk about it with seriousness. The media has a lot of responsibility to mirror what society is going through.”
Ms Gilani said, “It is a responsibility on us as entertainers to help promote causes like this as millions are watching us.”
On the popular but regressive tropes often seen in the media with regard to women and mental health issues, Ms Gilani said, “There is only so much you can show on the saas bahu or mazloom sisakti hui aurat storylines, though they too are suffering from mental health. We can do something different.”
Ms Gilani said that if “a subject like Joyland can do wonders, a subject like mental health can too”. But to resonate with the people Ms Gilani says the story has to be “more entertaining, more relatable”.
When asked how it felt to see the extreme praise and subsequent censorship of Joyland, Ms Gilani said, “Winning the jury prize at Cannes was amazing. Back home, people jumped the gum and hadn’t seen the film yet passed judgement on social media.”
In the controversy, which saw the film banned and then unbanned and screened in KP, Sindh and Islamabad, Ms Gilani saw a silver lining. “It was encouraging to see the government say there is nothing wrong with it. It felt good that there are people in the right places who understand how important the subject is.”
“For 20 years I played that mazloom sisakti hui aurat. Now as an advocate of women’s rights, I can’t go back to playing that…. It’s time we talk about things without thinking of pleasing people. If we don’t speak up now we will never be given a chance.”
She encouraged people to talk about mental health, but not just inside a doctor’s office. “The conversation about mental health should be happening at the dining table — in your house with your family and with your children.”
Originally published in Dawn, April 5rd, 2023