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The Quiet Intelligence Behind a Charming Exterior

Published in Nov-Dec 2020

In Profile: Shameem Hilaly, media personality.

The first Pakistani drama I watched featuring Shameem Hilaly was Parosi. Written by Haseena Moin, many drama enthusiasts looked forward to as it had an impressive cast which included Khalida Riyasat, Marina Khan and Badar Khalil. Although Parosi was not as well-received as Moin’s other plays, such as Ankahi, Dhoop Kinare and Tanhaiyan, Hilaly stood out even if she did not have as much screen time as the better known Riyasat and Khan (whose eldest sister she played). Dressed immaculately in elegant saris, her polished dialogue delivery and diction stood out – in sharp contrast to Riyasat’s on-screen hysterics and Khan’s apparent boredom with her role.

A few years later, another drama featuring Hilaly began to air – Maigh Malhar – in which she played the second wife of a man who had left the love of his life behind in Bangladesh. Although Hilaly played a negative role (she is constantly at loggerheads with her husband, telling him to forget his life in Bangladesh) she shone in the play.

Surprisingly, for me at least, Parosi and Maigh Malhar were not Hilaly’s first plays. She started working on television in the sixties, shortly after PTV was established in Lahore, where she was living (she had moved there from Mumbai, where she was born). Her first stint in television was as the host of “a university magazine show which rounded up weekly events” and the first time she was featured in a drama was in an episode of Alif Noon.

“I played a college student who went to a bicycle shop to have a punctured tyre repaired,” she remembers, as we settle down in conversation in her garden (we are still in the age of Covid-19 and are wearing masks).

What interests me more than this comment is the one that follows. “Vo bhi ek zamana tha jab larkiya aise dikhlai jaathi thee” “Those were the days when women were shown in such a manner.” She points out that this was a time when dramas showcased independent women, betraying her impatience with the current dramas that focus on mazloom women – but more on that later.

Hilaly’s love affair with acting began well before her stints on television. During her student days at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Kinnaird College and Government College, she played an active part in dramatics.

“At the Convent of Jesus and Mary, we had a very inspiring teacher called Mother Andrew and she used to make us practise choral speaking.”

Aslam Azhar (the first Chairman and MD of PTV) encouraged her to act in several dramas in lead roles (unfortunately, she doesn’t remember their names).

While working for television she continued to take part in theatre plays while at Government College (where she pursued a Master’s degree in English), and played the lead role of Nina in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Later, she played a lead role in Javed Jabbar’s Beyond the Last Mountain, which was Pakistan’s first English-language film.

“I played the role of a single parent bringing up a small child; it was an unusual concept for the seventies and it had a very different script for the time. I had never contemplated doing a film, but Javed said, ‘we will do something different and groundbreaking’ so I gave it a shot.”

Following her marriage to Zafar Hilaly, who was in the Foreign Service, she travelled to several countries, which is the reason why most of the body of her work was produced when she was older as she was unable to accept many roles in her younger days.

“Sometimes I look at a character and think I would have loved to have done that when I was younger; but it is a fleeting thought.”

After her husband retired in 2004, she moved to Karachi and since then, has played a diverse range of roles, albeit those of an ‘older woman’ many of which have been ‘negative’ ones, be it the psychotic mother in Uraan who goes wife hunting for her unstable son. By the time the drama is over, three of his wives have left him either because he abused them, or they went against him, which nevertheless does not stop her dreaming of another bahu and Uraan ends with her looking for yet another suitable girl.

In Talkhiyaan, an adaptation of The God of Small Things, Hilaly played a difficult woman (which she enjoyed thoroughly) who is unsympathetic to her daughter who has left her husband and comes to stay with her with her children; instead, she continues to favour her son who is “an absolute rotter.” In Maat, in sharp contrast, she plays a middle-income widow who belos rotis and sits with her son on a motorbike. Hilaly is clearly equally at home in this role as when she is playing an ‘upper class’ women, although when one looks at the many roles she has played, it is clear that she has rarely, if not ever, portrayed a downtrodden, weepy woman – a staple in most dramas and this is not a coincidence she says.

She rues the fact that there are not enough roles for women of a certain age. When I ask her if she finds such roles limiting, she replies: “I think I should give an intelligent answer to this, except that I can’t think of anything bright or clever to say... ”and breaks into laughter, betraying a sense of humour and a tendency of not taking herself too seriously. But she does add, “Other roles need to be portrayed; who will tell the stories of older women?”

She does, however, rationalise the thought by saying that audiences now want more glamour, which is why shows focus on this aspect rather than on the script. When I ask why she doesn’t make an active effort to change this, perhaps by donning a director’s hat, her reply is that she doesn’t have “the vision”, adding however that she goes through her scripts in minute detail, looking out for “negative messaging” that may be derogatory. She has refused several prominent roles because she did not agree with the messages they were giving out. “I refused a play which portrayed minorities in a negative light; as it is, our plays do not focus on them enough...” Similarly, she has turned down several TVCs on the grounds that she did not agree with the storylines or the products advertised, such as cold drinks and pan masalas because they are unhealthy.

Hilaly’s career trajectory has not been limited to acting; she has taught English at various colleges and universities in Pakistan as well as in Yemen, where her husband was posted. When I ask her if she missed acting while living abroad, she says that raising two children and being a diplomat’s wife were enough to keep her busy.

A music buff, Hilaly laments the fact that “the current generations have been denied the privilege of listening to some of the finest musicians of Pakistan. Our generation had access to classical music through Radio Pakistan and PTV, and we listened to the legends of our time such as Ustad Nazakat Ali, Ustad Salamat Ali, Ustad Sharif Poonchwala, Ustad Allah Rakha and Roshanara Begum.”

Hilaly also loves to cook. In fact, she reveals that the delicious salmon and pickle sandwiches she served earlier were made by her, earning my admiration for her culinary skills. (I noticed that she poured the milk into the cup before the tea.) “I enjoy cooking... be it desi, angrezi, Chinese or Italian; I love to bake bread and make the most fabulous sourdough bread.”

It is difficult to sum up Hilaly’s onscreen persona and perhaps this is the reason why I think Javed Jabbar did it in the best way possible way when we recently discussed her work in Beyond the Last Mountain: “Although she was good looking, Shameem was not concerned about how she looked and she exuded a certain mental capacity; her enunciation and voice captured the cadences and nuances I wanted, in addition to her intelligence, sensitivity and charm.” Needless to say, she has not lost these traits and continues to charm audiences even today.