The room itself looks quite unassuming: a wide open space with a few couches here and there, and a makeshift mirror set up against a wall for hair and make-up by Ikram Gohar. Its occupants, however, are far from inconsequential.
I sit on one couch, simply absorbing my surroundings. My interviewees for the day are busy preparing for the photo shoot that has to accompany this story. They are major stars and I’m meeting some of them for the very first time — and yet, I feel an affinity towards these women.
I have, over the years, sympathised with them, hated them, seen them scheme endlessly or, at the other end of the spectrum, love unconditionally. It’s all in a day’s work for these actresses who are some of TV’s most popular ‘moms’.
I feel that an interview with this motley crew of veterans is an apt ode to International Women’s Day on March 8. They have all carved niches for themselves by building extensive repertoires over the years. They have forged their way through highs and lows, encountered generic roles and the occasional exciting script, and they continue to be very much in demand, with their schedules packed with back-to-back days of work.
Veterans Bushra Ansari, Saba Faisal, Shaheen Khan, Laila Wasti and Gul-i-Rana have all carved niches for themselves by building extensive repertoires over the years, most often now as TV drama’s maternal figures. Icon brings them together as an apt ode to International Women’s Day
In fact, even on the day that I meet them, Bushra Ansari, Saba Faisal, Shaheen Khan, Laila Wasti and Gul-i-Rana are all in a rush.
“Its lunch break on the set right now,” Gul-i-Rana says at one point. “But once all my co-actors in the drama have arrived on set, I will have to be back to shoot my scenes with them.”
Gul-i-Rana — my favourite, particularly when she plays domineering, sarcastic matriarchs — is wearing a simple white cotton sari and sneakers, a quirky statement, but also a comfortable one. Her hair, as seen on TV, is a peppery grey and white.
“Women who don’t dye their hair are lazy,” quips a perfectly coiffed Bushra Ansari from across the room, eating a rudimentary lunch comprising fresh fruits and vegetables.
Gul-i-Rana laughs. “Or, they’re just poor!” she jokes back.
The repartee in the room offers me an insider’s look into the conversations that flow freely amongst actors. These women may often be vying for the same roles in top-tier dramas, but their experience in the field has lent them an air of confidence and security. They discuss each other’s roles in different dramas — evidently, when they are not playing predominantly maternal roles on TV, they are watching their peers play similar characters.
The discussion moves to a particularly controversial drama, prompting Saba Faisal to comment from the make-up chair: “Of course, producers knew that the story was controversial. It guaranteed them ratings. They don’t care if a drama is getting bashed, as long as people are watching it.”
“The actor getting bashed in the drama doesn’t mind either,” Bushra Ansari observes wisely, “as long as it makes him famous.”
They are all wearing white and they are shot individually and, then, gather for group photographs. The photographer, Yasser Sadiq, shows them the image that he has clicked on a small digital screen on his camera, to which Gul-i-Rana comments, “We don’t know how it looks — we don’t have our reading glasses!”
I jot down notes during my initial spurts of conversation with the actors — additional questions will be answered individually via phone. Over the next few days, my sporadic interviews with all five of them are eye-openers.
Saba Faisal and Shaheen Khan talk to me after 10pm, once they have wrapped up day-long shooting schedules. My conversations with Gul-i-Rana take place well after midnight because, according to her, “meri tau raat bhi din hai [even my night is like day]!” Laila Wasti is working nonstop — even on a Sunday — and we talk while she is getting her make-up done and in between shoots. Bushra Ansari has a busy itinerary, ricocheting between Karachi, Islamabad and an impending trip to the US. We talk whenever she gets time in between meet-ups, event appearances and quick shopping trips.
“I feel blessed that I’m still getting work,” Bushra Ansari says to me. “Even at this point in my career, people are offering me scripts and I’m asked to perform at events.”
She continues, “There are still times when I have no choice but to stay at home when none of the roles that I’m getting offered are exciting me.”
TV’s maternal dilemma
“It’s just that most TV channels and producers are unwilling to take risks,” says Bushra. “They just want to keep retelling the same story: mazloom larrki, stupid larrkay aur zaalim maa baap [a tortured girl, stupid boys and their cruel parents]. It gets boring. At this point in my life, I fortunately don’t have financial burdens and I can refuse roles if I don’t like them. Still, I do feel the need to work. I enjoy what I do. It’s a way of life for me.”
Laila Wasti, similarly, talks about seeking characters that are impactful. “There are actors who want to have 300 scenes in a drama and only then they sign on to it. In my case, I don’t care if I even have a single line, as long as it gives me some margin to perform,” she says. “I’ll rehearse that line and make sure that I deliver my best.
These women may often be vying for the same roles in top-tier dramas, but their experience in the field has lent them an air of confidence and security. They discuss each other’s roles in different dramas — evidently, when they are not playing predominantly maternal roles on TV, they are watching their peers play similar characters.
“Still, ultimately this is a job, not a nine-to-five but a 10-to-10 one. The working hours are long and tedious. Some projects are picked because they are unique, while others are chosen to support your livelihood.
“The roles written are subject to the target audience to which the channels cater to. The masses get the ratings going. It’s all a business and sometimes we get a fabulous character in a great script, which makes it all worthwhile.”
Shaheen Khan talks about how she got stuck in a rut, where she kept getting typecast as the ‘sophisticated, modern mother’. “It got really monotonous,” she says. “I then got offered a role in a drama called Taxi Driver, where I had to play a modern mother and I asked the director, Haider Imam Rizvi, if there was any other character in the script for a woman my age.
“He said there was, but it was of a beggar woman who was the female lead’s mother. He thought that I wouldn’t be able to play the role because the beggar woman would be speaking in seraiki. I told him that I was from Multan and the language requirements would not be an issue.
“He still had his doubts and, later, he got the actor who would be enacting the beggar woman’s husband to call me. I spoke to him throughout in seraiki and, by the end of the call, I had convinced him,” Shaheen laughs.
“I can’t complain, though. I live comfortably and I enjoy what I do. Irfan Khoosat is a friend of mine and I once confided to him that I was refusing roles that I didn’t like. He asked me how many I could possibly refuse, and said I should just take the money and do my work!”
Adding twists to the typical
Saba Faisal recalls one of the very first roles that she enacted, 20 years ago. “Director Javed Fazil called me and offered me a role as Humayun Saeed’s mother. I was much younger then and I told him that I’d rather not risk getting typecast as a maternal figure.
“He asked me to think about it overnight. The next day, I refused again. He called me to his office and asked me what kind of roles I wanted to play. Perhaps not the female lead but maybe a sister or a sister-in-law, I conjectured.
“Yes, he said, but not every drama script had a well-developed arc for sisters. Meanwhile, there was always a motherly figure in TV dramas. Play a strong, nuanced role of a mother, he told me. I have been following his advice ever since.
“Maternal roles aren’t all the same,” Saba insists. “There are so many shades to a mother. In Qayamat, I play a very possessive mother, constantly puppeteering her family. In Ishq Tamasha, I’m the mother of three daughters and my personal journey moves along with that of my daughters. In Mohabbat Tujh Se Nafrat Hai, I play an 80-year-old matriarch, holding court over her extensive family. In Badzaat, which has just started airing, I’m a dancer who becomes the wife of a rich man and my son is plagued with memories of my past. There are so many directions that a mother’s character can take.”
Gul-i-Rana observes, “Every story is generic, every character is typical. It’s up to me to add variations to it in order to make it interesting.” For instance, her guest role in 2020’s Pyar Ke Sadqay was of a mother who taunted her son constantly.
“I suggested to my director, Farooq Rind, that perhaps we could make the woman handicapped and, luckily, he agreed. The woman keeps sitting throughout the drama and complaining about her legs and it made her more memorable,” she says.
For Laila Wasti, one of her most memorable recent roles was of a mother whose son gets falsely accused of being a harasser, in the drama Dunk. “All through the drama, she was a mother who absorbed everything around her and dealt with the pain of her family falling apart until, finally, when she was sure that a wrong had been done, she exploded.
“It was such a powerful character in a story which was very pertinent, addressing the Me Too! Movement and showing that while there may be good or bad people, there are no good or bad genders.”
Saba Faisal happily recalls a recent shooting stint abroad, where she and actress Ushna Shah acted in a commercial directed by famed Bollywood director Anurag Kashyap.
“I have been playing an evil mother so frequently, but this commercial was so beautifully shot that it just eliminated all those negative shades. Every time I see it, it makes me teary-eyed. There’s something about its storytelling that tugs at the heart.”
Shaheen Khan enjoyed playing a role that was far from maternal — a politician’s girlfriend in the drama Thorra Sa Aasman. “It allowed me to be someone that I’m not,” she says. “I don’t mind playing a mother as long as there are distinctive shades to her.
“I don’t want to play the same role again and again. In Chup Raho, I enacted a subdued mother and, as soon as it ended, I got offered another role where the casting director told me that it was just like my earlier role. I refused.”
All in a day’s work
However, even these cookie-cutter roles common to local dramas are coveted, especially when produced by a major channel with a star cast. Younger actors playing lead roles in dramas frequently talk about industry politics and having their roles snatched away — do older actors face similar dilemmas and insecurities?
“There are insecure people everywhere, in every profession,” says Laila. “It did happen to me once that someone else was suddenly signed on to a role that had been offered to me. I didn’t let it bother me. If it had been meant for me, it would have come my way.
“Both my parents, Tahira and Rizvan Wasti, were legendary thespians and I remember once asking my mother why so many people seemed to be jealous of us when we were never inclined towards similar comparisons. She told me that it was a blessing to even have a nature which did not dwell over jealousy. I go about doing my own work but, yes, there is politics.”
Gul-i-Rana adds: “There have been times when I have been on set and a senior actress has lamented over how a young girl has been cast in a leading role with just a few years’ experience to her credit whereas, in earlier times, actors had to prove their mettle over long spans before being cast as leads.
“My response to her was that perhaps that young girl had done something right and we, as seniors, may be doing something wrong, which is why so many hurdles had come in our way. There’s no point in getting intimidated by others.”
That’s very healthy, I comment to her. “Yes, they call me Gul-Angel on set!” she laughs.
The actresses are also well aware of social media’s wily ways and the perpetual risk of getting trolled. “Kindness needs to be the call of the times,” says Laila. “The easy access to an actor and social media trolling by keyboard warriors has started the negative trend of running people down, and this trickles down into many facets of our work as well.”
Bushra observes: “It’s just that we come from a time when fans would shower us with love. It comes as a shock when someone attacks us viciously on social media. Sometimes I can’t help myself and I just respond in anger. This, unfortunately, allows the trolls to lash out even more. It just isn’t something that actors from my era are accustomed to. After a career that spans more than 40 years, it also isn’t what we deserve. Our fans used to respect us, idolise us and send duas [prayers] our way.”
Notwithstanding social media vitriol, the efforts and achievements of all five actresses are impressive. They may be living the high life now, but their journeys have been replete with inevitable obstacles. Laila Wasti struggled with cancer and only managed to return to work once she had regained her strength. “I have to continue to watch my weight while eating enough so that I have the energy to be on set,” she says.
As a single mother, Gul-i-Rana merged life at work and at home, raising her son, singer Asim Azhar, while making ends meet. Saba Faisal has the support of her family but she spends long stretches of time away from them, working in Karachi while they are in Lahore, and micromanages via phone calls. “Every morning, I’m on the phone, talking to my husband, my children, and ensuring that my home in Lahore is fully functional,” she tells me.
Shaheen Khan recalls expecting her third child and wondering if she should continue with the pregnancy or quit her job, which was then with Saudi Airlines. Eventually, she quit, moved to Pakistan, and soon her acting career took off.
Bushra Ansari conducted a tricky balancing act while her daughters were young. She didn’t have much extended family in Karachi and so she would be taking them along with her wherever she went. “From set locations to school to tuitions, I would be driving them about and somehow I managed,” she recalls.
These are, of course, small milestones that are part of many women’s lives — juggling work and home, daily responsibilities and dreams, family and career. It’s gruelling and sometimes thankless and, yet, it’s all in a day’s work for a woman.
Icon’s poster women for Women’s Day this year, Saba Faisal, Bushra Ansari, Laila Wasti, Gul-i-Rana and Shaheen Khan, are all heroes in their own ways. Time and again, they have proven their mettle, beaten the odds, inspired others and become some of Pakistani TV’s most popular moms.
Not all heroes wear capes, after all — some of them just soldier on in a professional manner. And sometimes they even indulge in designer-wear in white instead!
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 6th, 2022