My interview with Sunita Marshall lasts for well over an hour. As she leaves, she grins and says to me, “If I’ve said something controversial without thinking, please don’t make it part of the interview.”
It’s a request that celebrities often make. Face-to-face interviews can be animated, garrulous sessions where a lot is said off-the-record, and only the more sedate bits are set aside for publishing. Sunita, however, needn’t have worried. The model and actress is innately, effortlessly, politically correct.
Even when she shares anecdotes or voices grievances, the discussion steers clear of salacious gossip. I mention this to her and she replies, “I’m just talking the way I always do.”
I find this entirely plausible, knowing that it’s this very demeanour that has helped her navigate her career. For two-odd decades now, Sunita has been consistently building her repertoire in the notoriously contentious fields of fashion and television, and somehow never becoming paparazzi-friendly. Her peers love her, the work offers have kept coming in, and she’s one of the very few young female Pakistani celebrities who never gets trolled on social media.
“I’ve always stayed away from negativity and gossip,” Sunita muses. “Sometimes, I only get to know the latest news from my friends from outside the industry. I’m just more concerned about my work and my life. Once I’m done with work, I head back home.”
For two-odd decades now, Sunita Marshall has been consistently building her repertoire in fashion and television without any of the controversies or scandals usually connected with people in her profession. Is she the quintessential perfect model in real life too?
It sounds like a very healthy way to live, but doesn’t she feel the need to occasionally network with power players from the fashion and TV industries? Many believe that it’s essential for spurring careers in both fields.
Not Sunita. “I’ve never relied on networking to build my career. If my work is good, people will notice it, and I’ll get more offers.”
In a world rife with one-upmanship and extreme competition, Sunita’s modus operandi seems to be so much more sane and refreshing. Building slowly and surely, her career has spiraled to a particular high right now with her role in 7th Sky Entertainment’s mega-hit drama Khuda Aur Mohabbat 3, currently airing on Geo TV.
Fully aware of this, she comments frequently during the course of our conversation, “I’ve mentioned all this before, but it’s just that right now everyone is taking more note of what I’m saying because the drama is such a hit!”
A bhabi with a difference
In Khuda Aur Mohabbat 3, Sunita plays bhabi (sister-in-law) to leading lady Iqra Aziz, but she’s not the usual bhabi, simpering in the background or plotting evil schemes. Her role is more pivotal, prompting changes in the storyline.
As the rich bahu (daughter-in-law) of an influential family, she also looks extremely glamorous, making a strong case for elaborate three-piece suits. The story may be centred around two star-crossed lovers but, very frequently, the camera zeroes in on the beautiful bhabi dishing out advice, or frowning in concern.
“Credit for this goes to the director Syed Wajahat Hussain,” says Sunita. “He’s concentrated so much on developing each and every character, how they look, what they say. I think that’s what makes the story so interesting.”
The drama has gained a massive fan following, hauling in YouTube views in millions within an hour of its airing. But the story is not a particularly new one and the actors are all familiar faces, seen in myriad dramas before. What does she think is the key to Khuda Aur Mohabbat 3’s colossal success?
“I think that it’s just been treated in an extremely grand way,” observes Sunita. “So much effort and financial investment has been placed in the details. The wedding scenes alone were shot about four times. There were drone cameras filming the landscape and the entire house was decked up in lights for the wedding.”
She continues, “And this was not an easy drama to shoot. We were midway through filming when the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed. Our shoots in Bahawalpur and Multan had to be cancelled several times. At one point, the entire cast and crew had landed in Lahore, and me and several others — including Rubina Ashraf — were supposed to fly in a few days later. Rubina apa suddenly told us that she had tested positive for Covid-19. Everything immediately came to a halt. The crew flew back in, and we waited while she recovered from a very bad spell of the coronavirus. Credit truly goes to 7th Sky Entertainment for persisting on with shooting the drama, despite suffering through so many losses.”
In real life, we move on from being young girls to becoming mothers, daughters-in-law and sisters-in-law. Similarly, on TV, we have to accept when our ‘screen age’ has exceeded a certain number of years. People have been seeing me in dramas for a very long time, and it’s time for me to move on to character roles instead of fixating on playing the lead.”
Was the grand scale of the project and the prestigious production team a factor when she decided to play the bhabi’s character? Earlier on, Sunita had always played lead roles but, with Khuda Aur Mohabbat 3 and Aulaad (airing on ARY Digital), she has veered towards character roles — namely that of a bhabi.
“Yes, I agreed to the role because I knew that the project itself was a good one. When a drama has a strong team behind it, the entire cast shines rather than just the main leads.
“I also understand that this is part of my career’s evolution. In real life, we move on from being young girls to becoming mothers, daughters-in-law and sisters-in-law. Similarly, on TV, we have to accept when our ‘screen age’ has exceeded a certain number of years. People have been seeing me in dramas for a very long time, and it’s time for me to move on to character roles instead of fixating on playing the lead.”
But you still look young enough to play the female lead, I point out. “But I’m not getting offers to play the main lead anymore, am I? I don’t mind this, as long as I play a significant character. I’m now waiting for a role that has different shades and excites me.”
Having worked with some of TV’s finest actors, has she ever felt intimidated by them?
“Of course! I was shivering in my first-ever scene with Naumaan Ijaz,” she recalls. “I could barely remember my lines when I acted alongside Uzma Gillani. Then, slowly, I warmed up.”
Now that she’s entering this new phase to her career, does she see the merit in awards ceremonies that recognise the entire cast rather than just the main leads? The recent ARY People’s Choice Awards gave out trophies to actors who enacted a range of characters — from Best Sister to Best (possibly conniving) Mother-in-Law.
“Yes, of course, everyone likes to be recognised for their work. Why don’t we have such categories at the Lux Style Awards as well?” she questions.
While it is highly unlikely that the LSAs will create categories for entire drama households, this brings us to the topic of awards. Sunita hasn’t won any, but she says that this has had no impact on her career.
“If I had won an award I would have been happy, but I’ve never obsessed over it,” she says. “Back when I was modelling full time, I was nominated three times in the Best Female Model category at the LSAs. The fourth time round, I just stopped sending in my portfolio.
“Back then, I think they were awarding models on the basis of seniority and, by the time I became a veteran name, I had already started focusing on drama acting. Behind the scenes we’ve always called the LSA a retirement awards for models!” she laughs.
Why? Sunita begins to recount. “Every model who got awarded would end up retiring — from Vinnie [Vaneeza Ahmed], to Iraj, Aaminah Haq, ZQ [Zainab Qayyum], Tanya Shafi, Neha and Tooba Siddiqui. Amongst the more recent names, Fouzia Aman won and now she’s reduced her workload, and Sadaf Kanwal has also gone into acting.”
What prompted Sunita to put greater focus on acting rather than modelling? “I’ve been modelling for a very long time,” she says, “and I’ve always loved it. I just thought that now I had done enough. [But] I do still take part in occasional campaigns and shows, such as this year’s Hum Bridal Couture Week.”
Far from the madding crowd of rollicking after-parties and behind-the-scenes spats, Sunita’s treaded ground in the modelling world with characteristic grace. Her ability to look great on the catwalk — even when carrying a heavy-duty lehnga — often makes her a popular choice for opening or closing a show. However, she’s just as happy walking out during the middle.
“I have never asked to open or close a show, or to wear a certain outfit, although the designer may select me for it,” she says. “I’m also averse to brands asking me to model for free. I always tell them that this is my bread and butter and, if they want me on board, they need to pay me.”
Has she observed her peers getting work on the basis of friendships or ‘favours’? And does Me Too! occur as frequently in the fashion world as people allege?
“It occurs freely everywhere. I’m just glad that people are beginning to speak out against abuse. And yes, some people may get work through shady networking and powerful ‘friends’, but it’s also possible to get work ethically, purely on merit.”
Age ain’t nothin’ but a number
Her own career is a case in point — inspirational in an industry that is often accused of nepotism. Also inspirational is the way she rang in 40 recently. Posing with her friends and family, Sunita uploaded a range of beautiful pictures from her 40th birthday celebration. “Why should I hide my age?” Sunita smiles. “I always wanted to celebrate my 40th birthday with a lot of fanfare.”
But didn’t she worry that, by declaring her true age, she would lose out on playing characters of younger women? “No,” she shrugs. “I love that I’m 40, and that I look great at my age.
“The thing is, I’m selective about the work that I do anyway. I work in two dramas per year. If I signed on to more scripts, I would end up ignoring my children. So I wrap up one drama before July, and one after July.”
Her husband, Hassan Ahmed, is also a busy actor and the two micro-manage each other’s career schedules, so that one parent remains in the city with the children when the other is away. “I also live with my in-laws and that helps,” she says. “As parents, we can get incredibly busy and grandparents play such a special role in guiding and nurturing children.”
This makes me quip, “You do sound like the perfect bhabi!”
“I’m not perfect!” she laughs. “People make all these assumptions about me. I like to party and have fun as well. And I have spoken at length about my children and my family. Yes, I don’t like to put out every little aspect of my life on social media. Perhaps that’s why I don’t get trolled and people like me.”
Turning serious, she adds, “People on social media also question me frequently about how I, a Christian, could be married to a Muslim. They ask point-blank if my nikah is legitimate, and what faith my children follow. I don’t mind their inquisitiveness, but I find it insulting when I’m told, ‘You’re so good, you should convert to Islam so that you can go to heaven?’ What do they mean by this — that I’m not good enough because of my religion?”
But if good girls go to heaven then Sunita is likely to breeze through the golden gates. During the interview, she says, “I want to maybe play a negative character now. I don’t know why I always get offered such positive roles.”
Possibly, it’s because she totally fits the bill.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, June 20th, 2021