It’s a sunny Saturday morning and as usual I am a little early. I ring the bell expecting to be told to wait, only to be surprised as Aamina Sheikh opens the gate herself, bright-eyed and bushytailed as the saying goes.
She has breakfast ready for me, parathas and omelettes that have been quartered precisely (for ease of consumption), a bowl of fresh fruit salad, and a pot of chai. I am floored, not only by the feast, but by her punctuality, a rarity among celebrities.
Eloquent and soft spoken and equally well-versed in Urdu and English, she is personable and warms up during the course of the interview. Conversation naturally veers towards her work; she has been in the news lately, mainly for bringing some positive international press to Pakistan (another rarity if there ever was one) by winning the best actress award for the yet to be released film Lamha (Seedlings) at the New York City International Film Festival. (The film also won the People’s Choice Award for Best Film, and was nominated as a finalist in five other categories.)
The film centres on a couple who loses a child; I ask Aamina what challenges she faced when playing the role, given that although she is married to fellow actor Mohib Mirza (who was nominated for best actor), they do not have any children yet.
She admits that the role was emotionally draining, not only because she doesn’t have any children, but also because in the film, the child in question only features in few brief scenes, making it all the more difficult to emote the complex nuances that the role required. But it’s something she must have done well, given that she won the Award. She says that she spent a fair amount of time watching women with their children; she obviously does her research.
But this is not surprising. After all, despite the fact that she has only been acting in earnest for about six years, Aamina is perhaps one of the few actors who can boast of such a diverse oeuvre: she has played a feisty rickshaw driver in Aasman choo le, a submissive and docile elder sister in Maat, a rape victim who loses her childhood sweetheart in Morey piya , a 16-year-old Naseem Hameed, the Pakistani athlete, in Bhaag Aamna bhaag, a Thari woman in Wilco, a class conscious ‘grey character’ in Daam, a hallucinating scientist in Waapsi and an urbane talk show host in Uraan.
Aamina did not plan on being an actor. Born in New York, her childhood was divided between the city of her birth, Saudi Arabia and Karachi, where she did her O and A levels. Her choice of college was Amherst College “the hippiest of the lot”, where she initially pursued painting and sculpture.
“It was such an organic school; they wanted you to explore everything and then figure out your focus. So I studied fine arts, photography and then filmmaking.”
After graduating, she worked at a production house in New York and then decided to “take the plunge” and move back to Pakistan.
“I felt that it would take a long time to do anything in New York, so I came to Pakistan.”
As it turned out, she worked at Geo as a producer, directed a few documentaries and TV shows (including some for other channels), and became involved in a few theatre productions. Appearing in advertisements, acting (she started with a role in the telefilm Gurkmukh Singh ki waseehat), and modelling for the ramp followed.
Surprisingly, Aamina prefers modelling for advertisements and acting to walking on the ramp.
“You need a certain height to pull things off and make that your forte. If you don’t have the height, why waste your energy? You should recognise your strengths and weaknesses, and I felt I could either spend half my life perfecting this or focus on something else.”
Clearly, being good at what she does is important to her, and what is also important to her is quality, dedication and giving all she does an equal amount of effort and energy. She feels that both drama and advertising requires an equal amount of work, because “you put on an act for both… You are still in character; you are embodying a certain personality for a brand.”
She admits that it takes her a long time (“to process the script”) before agreeing to a project.
“When people call and the first thing they ask is ‘aap available hain inn dates par?’ I say no; if this is their approach to work, I would rather not do such a project.”
Being good at what she does is important to Aamina, and what is also important to her is quality, dedication and giving all she does an equal amount of effort and energy.
Also on her no list is that band of producers who believe that unless a drama has a “Thapar, talaaq ya affair woh hit nahi ho ga.”
“It makes you want to slap them!” she says breaking into peals of laughter.
“For them, it’s a sure shot way of recovering money. They are averse to taking risks.”
On the other hand Sheikh has taken a few risks. She took on Lamha, unsure of whether or not it would be released; the same can be said to a lesser extent about Josh, another film that she has worked in, which premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival in October.
“Mohib and I feel strongly about reviving (ek tho ye revival word bohot use hota hai!) the film industry and when you get an offer you gauge it; you have to take risks sometimes.”
She is also able to laugh at herself. She says that because she wants to do a wide variety of roles, she agreed to play the character of a docile elder sister in Maat.
“Every time I was supposed to shoot a scene I would ask the director whether I was supposed to serve tea or cry!”
As for what her dream role would be, she replies she would like to eventually play every role that Cate Blanchett has done, be it in Elizabeth, Notes *on a scandal or Lord of the rings, betraying an ambition to further diversify her acting portfolio and taking it to new, global heights.
Although she loves acting Sheikh admits that the profession has its share of frustrations. This is something I witness firsthand at a shoot for a drama she is supposed to be on the set for; after an hour she is told that it has been delayed for another two hours. She doesn’t bat an eyelid and tells me that these things happen.
“There is no point in wasting your energy getting worked up about delays; it’s best to conserve it for the role.”
It is this patience that contributes to her calm demeanour. However, one shouldn’t mistake that for being complacent, because Sheikh is clearly ambitious; she eventually wants to work in films abroad, based on “global concepts”. In the meantime, though, she is happy doing what she does best: playing challenging roles that allow her to “experience a hundred lifetimes in one.”
Mamun M. Adil is Assistant Manager BD&R, The Dawn Media Group. Mamun.firstname.lastname@example.org