Sana Javed just acted in what she considers her ‘best role yet.’
It is also, undoubtedly, the most nerve-racking role of her career. In the currently airing TV drama Ruswai, Sana is playing the role of a gang rape survivor. She is unnervingly believable as the shell-shocked victim and also as the strong woman that emerges from the experience, who decides to avenge her aggressors.
She screams, cries and resorts to cold, gritty logic. And as her moods change, so do her audience’s.
“When I played Sameera, I became her,” she tells me, referring to her character in Ruswai. “I began to feel as if I was her when they started creating bruises on my face with make-up. I had goosebumps. I have never used glycerine to create tears when I’m acting. Every time that I have cried as Sameera, I have actually been crying.”
Playing Sameera took a toll on her
For several months — ever since Ruswai’s shooting wrapped up — Sana has been battling cervical pains and migraines, made worse by a muddled up physiotherapy session. “It’s because of stress, I think,” she muses. “Playing Sameera was very stressful.”
We are meeting at a time when the actress is riding the crest of critical and commercial acclaim. With every successive episode of Ruswai, the internet is showering her with praise. We both had agreed some time ago that there could be no better time to plan out an interview. But our plans have been considerably delayed because of her health.
“It’s been tough, especially since I have constantly been wanting to connect with fans,” she confesses. “Ever since Ruswai began airing, people have been messaging me from all over the world. I have had so many offers to attend different events, so many queries for interviews — even a request to be a celebrity showstopper at a recent fashion week — but for a long time I had no choice but to refuse everyone. I was completely bedridden.”
Fortunately, she is back on her feet now. Sana looks well, wearing a pristine white shalwar kameez. I tell her so and she smiles. “I’m comfortable like this,” she says and then goes on to roll her eyes as we remember an ill-fitting gown that she wore at a recent event. “It came to me at the very last minute and there was nothing that I could do. What a fashion faux pas!” she laughs.
This, I discover, is typically Sana. She doesn’t have airs and graces and is refreshingly honest. She similarly laughs self-deprecatingly when I question her about certain projects in her past. “Let’s not talk about that one!” she protests about a certain questionable acting tryst that I shall not name.
When she talks about Ruswai, however, her tone gets intense. “It’s the sort of role that actors are hungry for.” Nevertheless, it is hardly the first hard-hitting role that she has played. Why has Ruswai, in particular, affected her so much that it made her ill?
"There were times when the entire cast and crew were shaken. It’s that kind of a story. But it is also the sort of story that is inspirational. My character is very strong. She decides to take revenge against her aggressors. I hope, that in some small way, we have managed to give strength to actual survivors and made them aware about their rights.”
“It was a tough character to play,” she says. “Ruswai tackles a sensitive topic and I knew from the onset that it had to be treated carefully. The dialogues and expressions couldn’t be offensive in any way. Director Rubina Ashraf and I spent hours analysing Sameera’s character and how she needed to react in different situations.”
She continues, “I’m not wearing any make-up during a considerable duration of the drama. In the scenes that follow Sameera’s ordeal, I just tied up my hair and wore nondescript clothes. I wanted my character to be as realistic as possible. Rubina was very happy. In the past, I have always had arguments with directors who want me to be made up even during the most emotionally painful scenes. But Rubina understood my need to be true to my character. She hugged me and said that nothing could be better!”
She recalls a particularly harrowing scene in Ruswai which made her back “feel broken.”
“The scene where my character gets discovered after being raped was so difficult. I was lying in a pile of rubbish with ants and flies buzzing about me, my body rigid, for more than an hour. I kept thinking of all the emotional and physical pain that victims have to go through. I was completely exhausted by the time the scene wrapped up.”
Did it ever worry her that Ruswai, with its heavy duty story — even the drama’s opening sequence shows Sana’s stricken face, with blood trickling down from it — would turn out to be a difficult watch for audiences and wouldn’t attract viewership?
“No,” she confesses, “the only thing that nagged me was how I would go about certain scenes. I remember reading the story and, when I reached the part where Sameera’s body is found in the rubbish, I just set the script aside and made a call to the content developer. I told her that the story was so powerful that any actor would jump at the chance of enacting it.
“Nevertheless, there were certain scenes that I was dreading from the very onset. There were times when the entire cast and crew were shaken. It’s that kind of a story. But it is also the sort of story that is inspirational. My character is very strong. She decides to take revenge against her aggressors. I hope, that in some small way, we have managed to give strength to actual survivors and made them aware about their rights.”
Ruswai is, certainly, making an impact on the people that are watching it. Sana beams as she tells me about how a group of women approached her the previous day at a café, telling her that they were moved by her work.
“It surprised me because I hadn’t thought that those women watched TV dramas, or would be aware of my work. It made me so happy that this drama was reaching so many people and making them think.”
She continues, “After every episode, I go online to see what people are saying and there are so many genuine, heartfelt reviews on Twitter and Instagram. This is rare. It is only sometimes that an actor gets the role of a lifetime, that he or she gets such immediate responses from audiences.”
The ratings game
I comment that while it is obvious that Ruswai has a strong following, it is strange that the drama isn’t always topping the trends on Twitter or breaking records with ratings, also known as TRPs. Why does she think this is the case?
“I don’t know,” she frowns, “but I don’t really trust Twitter trends or TRPs. Certain statistics may be genuine, but so many more are created through paid commentators. I don’t give them so much importance. When my Inbox gets filled with enthusiastic messages, that’s when I know that the drama is an all-out success.”
There is, incidentally, another project that is currently on TV, where Sana stars opposite actor Imran Abbas. The drama Dar Khuda Say (DKS) is airing at the same time as Ruswai, on another channel, but hasn’t managed to create as many waves as the latter.
“I suppose DKS may have been more noticeable if it had aired at a different time from Ruswai,” Sana points out.
I let her comment pass, although I have my doubts that DKS, with its generic look, could have instigated any excitement even if it had been slotted for a different time. Like Ruswai, though, this drama also tackles a social issue: workplace harassment. Does Sana feel that, after this spell, she needs to take on a role that is completely different?
“I’d love to act in a light-hearted love story,” she says, “but I wouldn’t mind a serious role either, as long as there are shades to it. I used to get very frustrated when I would be offered roles of pretty, innocent girls. I started refusing all such offers and, fortunately, now I’m usually asked to play strong characters.”
"I don’t really trust Twitter trends or TRPs. Certain statistics may be genuine, but so many more are created through paid commentators. I don’t give them so much importance. When my Inbox gets filled with enthusiastic messages, that’s when I know that the drama is an all-out success."
Her acting prowess also enables her to do justice to these characters. Did it never worry her that she would be without work if she kept refusing scripts?
“Of course, no actor wants to sit at home, waiting for work,” she admits. “But I knew that I had to be resolute in order to eventually get the sort of work that I wanted.”
It’s all worked out. Sana’s last critically acclaimed performance was in Khaani, opposite Feroze Khan, where her acting was praised and she had got nominated in the Best Actress category at the Lux Style Awards. Now, a year later, she is making headlines with Ruswai. There have been other ‘speed bumps’ on the way — certain forgettable dramas and a cinematic debut that wasn’t quite at par — but Sana’s career is running strong.
“I’m going to be acting in a movie next year,” she tells me.
And knowing Sana Javed, it’s likely to be one where a powerhouse female protagonist takes over the screen. It’s something that she does well.
Published in Dawn, ICON, November 24, 2019