Published in Nov-Dec 2023
If for nothing else, 2023 will go down as the year when Baby Baji became a runaway success. No stranger to the limelight, Samina Ahmed found herself playing the eponymous role of the matriarch and basking in stardom – again. Revolving around the complexities of family dynamics and societal expectations, this daily soap opera became that rare phenomenon that production houses and channels wait for – a drama series that resonated with both the masses and the classes. A fusion of broad appeal and nuanced storytelling.
Remarkably low-key for a celebrity, Ahmed is that exceptional public figure who is uncomfortable with praise and quick to credit others. Yet, within that petite frame, there resides a multitude of real life roles – a resilient single parent, a seasoned actor and a versatile professional who has seamlessly transitioned from acting into the realm of production and direction.
Characteristically, she started her journey in the world of entertainment quite unexpectedly over half a century ago. “I went with my family to visit a friend who worked at the PTV station in Lahore, and the friend asked if I wanted to act on TV.” Little did the 17-year-old Ahmed know that her simple “yes” would become the turning point of her life.
Her family had only recently moved into her grandmother’s house in Lahore after the early loss of her father. “In those days, television was a novelty. There were perhaps only 400 TV sets in all of Lahore. Dramas were aired live, which presented a unique set of challenges, as we could not afford to make mistakes.” Intimidated by the prospect of performing live, yet embracing it with unwavering courage, live acting becomes an apt metaphor for how she has lived her life.
Yet, despite having caught the acting bug, she continued to study for a Master’s in Home Economics. “I was that child who wanted to try everything,” she says. In school, she tried her hand at various extracurricular activities. “I discovered that I could act but that I couldn’t debate.”
Despite the initial uncertainties, her passion for acting grew. She continued to get work, and the roles grew and she secured her first lead role in Bano Qudsia’s Lagan Apni Apni, which she did while waiting for the result of her thesis.
She then decided to venture into theatre, a move that was initially met with resistance from her mother. Nevertheless, Ahmed’s determination prevailed, and delving into the world of theatre, she found the rehearsal process more enriching than television. “I like the rehearsal process in theatre; you learn a lot when you rehearse for a month,” she reflects.
Acting in front of a live audience presented a different set of challenges, including the fear of forgetting her lines. In many ways, theatre helped hone the resilience that would see her through the trials of real life. She recalls an incident when a dog bit her foot, yet she still showed up on stage after a brief detour at the hospital. “It is not just about you. The entire team is counting on you and you cannot back out at the last minute,” she says emphatically.
As her career progressed, so did her desire to understand the entertainment industry beyond acting. Her transition to production and direction marked a significant phase in her professional life. “I have always been very interested in other aspects of production and this is what made me decide to learn more about the business.” And here there is a gleam in her eyes as she becomes engrossed in talking about the intricacies of creating sets. You just know she can talk about this for hours.
Her production, Family Front, was a situational comedy and it made waves when it first aired. It had a four-year-long successful run, showcasing her versatility and her production know-how. Another iconic classic, Jutt and Bond, was also aired under her Lahore-based banner. However, the shift of the entertainment industry to Karachi marked the end of her production endeavours – for the time being, as she continued to dream about directing and producing.
Talking about the success of Baby Baji, Ahmed recalls that she didn’t think there was anything remarkable about the script. “You can’t predict how the audience will react to a project.” Once on the set, though, she recalls that the cast ‘gelled’ more than usual. “Our director, Tahseen Khan, was extremely supportive. He was responsible for toning down the script – yes the script had to be toned down! – and getting it right for TV.”
“I was travelling when the series started airing so I had no idea how popular it had become, even though a few overseas Pakistanis did tell me they were watching it. Then when I landed in Karachi, someone at the airport called out to me ‘Baby Baji, we love you!’. I was taken by surprise and thrilled by the attention.”
Her selection for the global project, Ms. Marvel, is another feather in her cap. It was a notable departure as she found herself acting in English after a lifetime of performing in Urdu. “When I auditioned for the role, I didn’t know it was Ms. Marvel. I was asked to send in my audition video and was selected a month later.” She recalls director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy making the cast do endless rehearsals, but that it was worth it. “I had the chance to work with Disney and was able to represent Pakistan at Ms. Marvel’s Hollywood premiere.”
She has also been the face of various brands, although she believes she is not an obvious choice for brand ambassador. “I am usually asked to do commercials that have a storyline where I have a chance to act.”
Beyond acting, Ahmed has been involved in several social and cultural endeavours. She has served as chairperson of the United Producers Association and was a founder member of the Actors’ Association. She has been involved with several non-profit organisations that work with women. However, her love for the theatre has turned into a genuine passion and at the moment she is researching and writing a book on the history of Pakistani theatre since Partition.
A devoted mother, she has raised her son and daughter single-handedly, albeit assisted by “good house help and supportive friends.” When she was working at the Alhamra Arts Council in Lahore, she would sometimes take her children to work. “I was fortunate to be able to take my children along with me and this helped with the daily juggle.” Her children now live in Canada. “My grandchildren say they are cousins with Ms. Marvel because I am their naani and also her naani,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. She has also famously found love again in her seventies, marrying acclaimed actor Manzar Sehbai, their union reflecting a shared passion for the arts.
As she continues to navigate the diverse facets of her family and her craft, in the corner of her living room there stands a table with a collection of trophies that stand as a quiet testament to her 52-year professional journey. The Pride of Performance Award is the crown jewel in her collection, although every trophy is a story of the dedication and resilience that define Samina Ahmed’s legacy. And a reminder that along with her own achievements, they are also a testament to her contribution to Pakistan’s cultural landscape.
Shahrezad Samiuddin works in communications and is an agony aunt.