January issue 2009
Interview: Nadia Jamil
“If I have dreams, they are not about going to Hollywood or Bollywood or becoming the next Kareena Kapoor” — Nadia Jamil
Nadia Jamil and I had been trying to catch up with each other for the past two years — but with little success. Whenever she flew down to Karachi, conflicting schedules or diametrically opposite travel plans would keep us from meeting. It was a chance meeting with Babar Javed, currently the hottest director of the Pakistani television industry, which set in motion a flurry of phone calls and, finally, when Nadia arrived in Karachi for a five-day shoot of Javed’s serial, The Ghost, we were able to meet up. My last interview with her was nearly six years ago. Our lives had followed similar patterns in the interim — that being mainly marriage and kids. But marriage has not changed Nadia’s effervescent nature. She is always raring to go. She takes life head-on and has a blast along the way — rather contrary to her poised, young, married woman-in-dire straits image on television of late. A stimulating conversation about the life of a thirty-something Pakistani woman ensues as we finally meet up.
Q: Presently, what projects are you working on?
A: Work is a broad spectrum for me. I am a trustee of Sunjan Nagar, which is Raza Kazim’s school for financially-challenged girls. It is an inspirational institution and last year I did a theatre project with them at Al-Hamra, which was fabulous.
I teach drama and theatre and have a few projects lined up with various institutes like Aitchison, Oxford University Press, Kids Campus for younger children, as well as two stage plays. I am also trying to do a children’s project with adult celebrity actors. Additionally, there are some workshops lined up for which directors will be coming in from England and/or America.
Most of the work in the pipeline is predominantly theatre-related but there are two television serials as well. I am very excited about a story I am working on with Momina Duraid which will be shot next year. It is about three sisters, most probably to be played by Sania Saeed, Sarwat Gillani and myself. The story is about Lahore and the little earthquakes that occur in life and shake you up. Sameera Fazal will probably be writing it. I am working really hard on the characterisation because I feel a lot of times actors on TV in Pakistan are not given characters to work with. They have to build their characters somehow and find out what they are through self-interpretation. The writer doesn’t usually flesh them out for you. But I am very sure about these characters and what happens in their lives. So I am working really hard on trying to convey that.
Other actors in the serial will probably include Samina Peerzada, Humayun Saeed, Faisal Rehman, Faisal Qureshi and Asif Raza Mir, but the star in all of this is Lahore. And, of course, there is Mujhe Sochta Koi Aur Haidirected by Babar Javed with Humayun Saeed, Faisal Qureshi and Adnan Siddiqui. I have decided to give talk shows a shot and there are some that I am working on, finally.
Q: Why do you say finally?
A: Because for the last 15 years that I have been approached to do talk shows, I wasn’t interested enough in them. I just found them very boring. Maybe because I didn’t have anything to say or maybe because I wasn’t interested enough in a topic and was focusing on theatre and television. The commitment of a morning show is like a second marriage. In fact, it’s worse than a second marriage because even in a marriage you have more flexibility. This is like a prison sentence. I can’t do it because it’s like a one-to-two-year contract. I am thinking of doing recorded talk shows and if I do live shows then maybe for just two days in a week.
Q: Will this be with Hum TV? Lately most of your television work has been only with them …
A: I trust them the most. Sultana [Siddiqui] is one of my dearest friends. She is like a mother, aunt, friend — I just love both, her and Momina Duraid, dearly. Momina is an incredibly passionate producer and I have grown very fond of her. I have not seen a producer invest that amount of time in the nitty gritty of the script and characterisation; she is very driven. I feel my ideas and performances are safe with them. There is no foolishness on the set — it is all very professional. Hum and Moomal Productions are my comfort zone and they have an excellent team.
Q: What about your own production company, Savant?
A: My production company focuses mainly on theatre. Mehreen Jabbar was responsible for the television aspect of it and the last thing Mehreen did under the Savant banner was the New York Stories.
Q: You and Mehreen have not done any work together lately?
A: What I discovered when Mimi left [for New York] was that I don’t find it easy to just pack my bags and go abroad to work because of my children and family commitments. That is why I had turned down Manay Na Yeh Dil and Khamoshiyan, which were shot in Australia and Scotland, respectively. However, now the routine with the children is such that maybe I can go abroad for about two weeks. I don’t feel comfortable leaving them for longer spells. Even recently, I have been offered a serial with Mimi, but I don’t feel like doing it because I don’t feel like going abroad. Then, when Mimi was here, there weren’t any telefilms happening. When she was shooting for her serial here, I was doing The Ghost. But, we are talking and planning. Mashallah, Mimi is now in the big league. She is doing films. I think it is incredible that she has made Ramchand Pakistani and it is out there.
Q: Both of you had spoken, off and on, about doing a film together.
A: When Ramchand Pakistani came up, I didn’t fit any of the characters in it and she didn’t want to use me in a minor role. Nandita Das was definitely a far better choice, marketing and looks-wise, so it was a professional choice. Also, Mehreen and I had a phase when we were doing a lot of telefilms together, but you can’t stick like a leech to one person. You need to grow and meet other people.
I was very fortunate to have met Misbah Khalid and done three projects with her. Babar Javed has also been great fun to work with and I also had a nice time working with Raana Sheikh on Dua. I hope to meet new directors. So I am sure when the right project comes along at the right time, Mehreen and I will do something together. As her friend, I keep hoping and praying, she gets to work on her next film soon.
Q: How long have you been married now?
A: I have been married, mashallah, for eight years now and have known my husband for 22 years. Ali is an extremely good friend and an incredible support. He is also my roommate, my housemate, the father of my children, so I need to give the family and Ali time, and all of that has to be negotiated very carefully. I don’t take my marriage for granted. Marriages can break up within days.
Q: Is marriage treating you well?
A: That’s very cliched — I don’t think much about marriage. Life is treating me well. I try to maintain a certain degree of positivity and good energy. Other people might be critical of whatever is happening in someone’s life, but as long as you can see the glass as half-full and can pump positive energy into it, it will look good. I am incredibly blessed. I have an incredible circle of friends, I am enjoying my work, the work has expanded — so it is all well.
Q: Do you feel you have grown as an actor in this period?
A: I haven’t. That’s one thing that hasn’t happened because I am doing so much. That is one place I feel I am [lacking], which is why I feel I have to cut down on my television work.
Q: But you are already doing very little work for television.
A: I am doing two serials a year. Television, as such, is not going to help me grow as an actor. What is going to help me grow as an actor is theatre and the workshops that I do. When the kids had their holidays, I was thinking of coming over to Arshad [Mehmood] sahib and Zia [Mohyeddin] bhai and doing a course with them and refreshing at NAPA a little. The great thing about Arshad sahib is that he gives me these monologues to work on. Now I think I am ready to make him hear them. I need to train a bit more. Zia [Mohyeddin] bhai gave me two great exercises: a Shakespearean monologue and Necessary Targets, which was the stage play I did in Karachi with Atiqa Odho and Ayesha Alam some time back. That was great.
Q: That was a reading …
A: No, it was a performance — it wasn’t that I had picked up an article and was reading it out aloud. It was a performance and I had to go into certain scary places inside myself to bring out that character and be true to her. I had to be controlled, my body had to be contained within a chair and yet I had to act. It was a brilliant exercise in acting and I really felt that I grew as an actor in that piece. Zia bhai gave me a small tutorial on a Shakespearean monologue recently, which was also great.
Q: During the time you did The Vagina Monologues, you were very vocal about female sexuality and contributed to raising awareness about the issue. Was that just a passing phase in your life?
A: It was just a phase. I was very lucky that Nighat Rizvi brought the Monologues into my life. It was important for me at that time to share with women what I had read about female sexuality in The Vagina Monologues. Eve Enslers’s message is a strong one and what it basically said was that you should not be ashamed of being a woman. It is something you should feel proud, sexy and good about. When you start feeling good about your body and feel a sense of empowerment about yourself, then other people will be able to respect you even more.
I still believe that women who cannot enjoy their own bodies and themselves are equally boring to other people. But I am no preacher nor a missionary or good at spreading a message. I am a performer, and when I perform, I like to bring energy and excitement into people’s lives and awaken certain feelings. When you have a dead, boring person in the audience who suddenly comes alive after watching your performance, then I think I have done my good deed for the day.
Q: Is there any particular feeling that you would like to raise in your audiences — anger, hope, happiness?
A: Anything. I think the worst thing for me and my kids would be if I stopped being affected by violence, sadness, poverty, disease, love, nature, beauty — by life itself. It is wonderful to be able to feel, and to be able to share those feelings with people through your performances. I know people who don’t feel a lot. They are sort of damp squibs.
Q: How has motherhood changed you?
A: It has anchored me. I was scattered all over the place, like a self-combustible engine. Motherhood has given me an incredible amount of peace of mind and it is extremely fulfilling to be loved and to love so unconditionally. You learn to preserve your energy for your kids because children need a lot of energy.
I was doing a lot of things at one time. I was far less focused. I had no sense of myself. I gave a lot more of myself in my 20s. I was more trusting, more giving of my personality, time, love. Everybody cannot be my best friend anymore. I used to welcome everyone in my life but it is not like that anymore.
I have a few close friends, my family, my kids, my work associates and they don’t need to be my best friends. We can get along perfectly well without it getting sticky and emotional. I don’t think my sons are going to love me or need me forever as they do now. My six-year-old is already very independent and breaking away.
Q: Does that make you uncomfortable?
A: It makes me very excited — to see him coming into his own and moving away from me. It gives me a pang occasionally but it is exciting to see him become this independent and self-contained young man. I feel relieved that he will be able to tackle the whole world if I am not there. I have seen him do it and he is remarkable. My kids have made me a lot more patient. I have really enjoyed them and being a mother to them.
Q: Has being a wife been equally enjoyable?
A: I don’t know — I never feel like a wife. What does wife mean? The word ‘wife,’ comes with a lot of baggage in our society. There is a lot of stereotyping of the role of the wife which I don’t see myself fitting into. We love each other dearly, take care of each other’s families as well as each other.
Q: In a recent television interview you spoke about missing the opportunity of a lifetime when you were pregnant with your second child.
A: Yash Chopra was interested in meeting me for the Rani Mukherjee role in Veer Zara. It didn’t work out — I was pregnant, but I ended up becoming very close to his family and he is a very good friend now.
Q: Do you regret not being able to take it up?
A: Not at all. What are you talking about? I produced this incredible child.
Q: I meant work-wise.
A: Obviously. Doing a film with Yash Chopra would have been a great opportunity and a lot of fun. But remember that film and screen are not my great passion — theatre is my passion. If I have dreams, they are not about going to Hollywood or Bollywood or becoming the next Kareena Kapoor. My dreams always have to do with theatre. Where I have failed myself as an actor is by not doing enough on stage or not coming up with a team who could do more on stage.
Q: Have you seen any good work on television in the last couple of years?
A: Misbah Khalid’s Meray Paas Paas was fabulous. It was revolutionary and changed the way relationships and marriages are looked at on television, though I thought the sequel was okay and only picked up in the second half. It lacked the magic of the first. Even I, as an actor, was not as focused in the sequel. It could have been better. Basically, I had a problem with the story of the second one. It was not as simple. Sarwat Gillani by the way, is a fabulous actor.
Other than that, director Babar Javed is an extremely interesting find; his Mann-o-Salwa, Manay Na Yeh Diland Khamoshiyan have all been consecutive hits. I have worked with him on The Ghost and Mujhe Sochta Koi Aur Hai and both are fabulous serials. Even Mujhe Apna Bana Lo is quality TV. I also find Roomi Insha’s work like Najia and Tahir-e-Lahooti on Hum TV very interesting.
Q: Why is there such a dearth of actors of your calibre on television now?
A: I don’t know. But I do believe that good actors are coming up. Amna Khan is absolutely brilliant. Ayesha Khan, Sarwat Gillani and Beenish Chauhan have a lot of potential. But unlike myself and Sania, whose relationship with theatre has altered our perspective on acting, the priorities for young girls are very different now. They are using TV as a stepping stone to get into films — and Bollywood at that! I am involved in research and other small-time work for production companies in India.
Some production companies in India have asked me to assist them in various projects in which they want to use Pakistani cities and actors. After Meera, there is Mona Lisa doing Indian films and, Mehreen Raheel as well as Juggan Kazim, are both going to get offers very soon. I know for sure because I am working with them. All these young girls — their dream is to be there [in Bollywood]. We were not like that at all.