January issue 2010
Coming into Her Own
Nimra Bucha says the word “really” a lot. Everything has an added emphasis, a passion and a zest. She likes to “ham it up,” she admits — her personality reflects her occupation. Her performance in The Dictator’s Wife earlier this year won her critical acclaim, packed theatres in Karachi and Lahore and led to a recognition that she is an equal match for her husband, wunderkind author Mohammed Hanif.
Yet Nimra is still new to acting. At Bard College in the USA, she studied drama only briefly. When choosing a career, she faced a conundrum: she “looked down on acting, as did everyone else in my family,” but she “hopelessly wanted” to pursue it and nothing else. So she channeled her talent into a profession almost as theatrical: journalism. This, too, was a form of acting — she was “pretending.” Then, five years ago, after exploits like running a London cafÃ©, she took the leap. Gutsy and resolute, she abandoned her “fear of rejection and immersed myself to see what would happen.” Living in a city where “everyone’s an actor — has been, wants to be, is deciding to become one after being an accountant” made this difficult. Still, her drive paid off. Small productions, radio work, including her big break (playing an actress living with a writer called Hanif, no less) in an adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and a 2006 play at Edinburgh’s famed Traverse Theatre had solidified her confidence. What helped her along the way was her “work is work” attitude. Nimra is no egoist. Even now that she’s made a name for herself, she deplores the lack of “respect for people doing small parts.” To a true actor, every role has value.
The year 2008 saw Nimra rising to a lead role in The Dictator’s Wife. Initially a suggestion she made to Hanif, it evolved as she cajoled him, finding it infinitely “convenient to have a writer I could threaten.” Success at London’s Hampstead Theatre and SOAS led the couple to Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. Since then, the 50-minute monologue has played to spellbound audiences in Pakistan. And each time Nimra performs it, “it’s different.” This is due to both her constant rehearsals, a process she “loves,” and the synergy she shares with her husband, perpetually changing lines and perfecting his work.
The pair decided to move back to Karachi from London after feeling “really, really homesick” and because Nimra “knew I wanted to work in Pakistan, where everyone loves the whole process of putting up a play.”
Of course, Hanif is the name on everyone’s lips. What’s interesting, though, is that the few negative reviews of the play have targeted his writing, always noting Nimra’s ability. She is a woman confident in her own talents, who sees “how easy it would be to get lost” in her husband’s shadow but continues to shine, considering his achievements a “treat for the family.”
Now navigating the “very territorial” world of Pakistani theatre, Nimra is building a new reputation. She praises NAPA and Zia Mohyeddin to the skies, speaking fondly of her involvement in their production of The Seagull and their “great ethos.” While she does have complaints about television, what she sees as a realm of “showing up, getting lines, being told to bring neutral-coloured outfits and a standard six or seven expressions,” she notes some better work, like Ihtishamuddin’s Perfume Chowk. Realism and humility are evident again, as she tells me, “Not all TV serials are bad, not all theatre is good.” A fan of names as diverse as Pedro AlmodÃ³var, the Coen brothers and Shahrukh Khan, Nimra has an impressive range, and she is ready to use it given a chance, valuing “fringe directors as much as Zia Mohyeddin.” She is no diva. After all, she concedes, contrary to popular belief, “no one is indispensable.”
This young actress is ready to take on any guise, from Richard III to a Tennessee Williams heroine to a housewife with hidden depth. She is currently engaged in Mehreen Jabbar’s latest project. Nimra plans to do 13 “huge productions” in the next decade. And experience has shown that she gets what she works for.
The rarefied world of Pakistani acting is in for a shock.
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Akbar Shahid Ahmed is a Washington-based reporter for the Huffington Post, writing on U.S. foreign policy. He has contributed to Newsline since 2008.